More colour in a black and white world
by Leslie Furlong
For the comic book reader in Toronto, The Beguiling is a different world, a two-storey building of black and white around the corner from Bloor Street’s glittering monstrosity, Honest Ed’s.
Walking in the front door you’re hit by bands like Pavement or Matthew Sweet over the sound-system. This is the first sign that this isn’t your father’s comic shop.
The first floor looks like a regular bookstore, stocked with books and magazines, but on second glance the truth becomes more apparent. Poetry by Charles Bukowski and novels by William S. Burroughs share the shelf with noir novelist Jim Thompson and cartoonist Hergé’s Tintin. The magazine rack is littered with ‘zines and mini-comics along with more professional magazines like Wired and Adbusters. In a glass display case, among the signed artwork and figurines, are the industry awards The Beguiling has won for being on of the best stores of its kind in North America.
Upstairs you find comics as most people know them, but looks still deceive. Mainstream super-hero comics are there, but only make up about twenty-five percent of the shelf space. The other seventy-five percent is taken up by what The Beguiling is best known for; independent and alternative comics with titles like Hate, Palookaville, and Bone.
It’s the kind of store Sean Scoffield is proud to co-own. The store’s existence has paralleled the emergence of the independent comic industry, growing in tandem with Scoffield’s and his partner Steve Solomos’ knowledge of the alternative.
The label “alternative” in comics, like in music and movies, is excruciatingly vague, leading to arguments about whether the publisher or the content decides if a book is alternative or not. Whatever the distinction, Canada’s role in this niche market, from publisher to creator to retailer, is a remarkable one.
Within the industry, Canada has a reputation for producing some of the most important creators of independent comics. Toronto resident Chester Brown, with his title Yummy Fur and his new, experimental comic Underwater, is regarded as the pre-eminent alternative artist in the world. Kitchener’s Dave Sim, the outspoken creator of Cerebus, has been self-publishing his title since 1977 and is known industry wide as a defender of creators’ rights. Drawn and Quarterly, in Montreal, is recognized as an important publisher of alternative comics rivalling Seattle’s Fantagraphics.
Though these examples boast Canada’s successes, the majority of Canadians working in this cottage industry labour away in obscurity: publishing, drawing, and writing comics out of an enthusiasm for the medium rather than a dream to be Richie Rich.
“When the store first opened,” The Beguiling’s Scoffield, says, “there were only a handful of independent comics.” Underground comics, an offshoot of Sixties counterculture, had run their course, so the two men focused on what was then the best of the mainstream publishers and collections of old newspaper strips like Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates.
Over time, as titles like Love and Rockets and Neat Stuff came into being, Scoffield and Solomos devoted more space on their order forms for these books, encouraging their customers to take a chance on something different.
In some cases, even the creators were taking that chance. Jay Stephens didn’t plan on becoming a comic artist until he went to the Ontario College of Art. There he saw his classmates making mini-comics, pamphlet-sized, photocopied comics, and was inspired to create his own mini-comics. After seeing people’s reactions to his work he began to see possibilities in the field.
Stephens’ new comic, Atomic City Tales, is a post-modern throwback to Sixties super-hero books, published by Black Eye Productions in Montreal. In the book, Stephens lives among the heroes and villains he writes about and draws. The book allows Stephens to indulge himself in his past while trying to tell stories to a more mature audience, and while he has no fantasies about making a fortune with this book, his love for comics keep him devoted to his work.
Besides Atomic City, Stephens will soon be working with Cosmic Comics, created by Roger Corman, king of the B movies. While the work he does for Cosmic Comics will be work for hire, Stephen’s doesn’t see it as selling out.
“I’m not as vehemently opposed to doing mainstream work as other alternative creators,” Stephens says. “I find artists who complain about super-hero books just as bad as super-hero creators who ignore alternative comics. It’s so narrow-minded. There can be good work in any situation.”
Michel Vrana, when he isn’t working at a sign shop or doing freelance design work, is the publisher of Black Eye Productions. Vrana looks at the books he publishes as multi-media, a combination of words and pictures requiring more from the reader than a book or a movie.
“People have been conditioned by the newspaper funny pages to read the text of a strip and get the punch line,” Vrana says, “What I say is that you should look at the panel for a good three heartbeats after reading the caption, then move on to the next panel, and so on. You should really try to absorb what you are looking at. Don’t read it like you’re cramming for a test. Savour it.”
In Vrana’s messy office two computers, a PC and a Macintosh, hum in the background. On his desk an assortment of papers and artwork make up his “slush pile”, submissions of varying levels of talent that he hasn’t bolstered the nerve to write rejections for yet. Vrana gets about two submissions a week. Some are single page outlines, others three full issues of story and art, complete with colour copies of the cover artwork. All this for a publisher who’s best-sellers have print runs of 3,000 copies per quarterly issue, compared to the tens to hundreds of thousands of issues a mainstream comic sells every month.
“It’s a rough market,” Vrana says, “It’s like starting your own TV show, and when you have your TV show you have it buried in TV Guide, and then you have to convince people to watch it.” When a catalogue from a distributor like Diamond or Capitol City can be two inches thick, it’s impossible to stand out from what the retailer must wade through.
The current comic market-place condition traces back to the mid-eighties, when a little comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles signalled the beginning of what is referred to as the black and white explosion. Soon after the book took off, there were hundreds of new, independent comic books, the majority of which were juvenile and crudely drawn, all riding the Turtles’ wave.
Eventually, the explosion became a bust, and a lot of people lost a lot of money. Retailers and publishers folded as the market constricted dramatically in the early nineties, causing remaining readers and collectors to be more selective.
Demographics have also taken their toll on the marketplace. According to Scoffield, a low-to-mid-selling mainstream comic twenty years ago would have a print run of over half a million, while today the best selling comic book, X-Men, sells around 400,000. “Traditionally, young males, eight, nine, ten years old, get into comics, and by sixteen they get out of comics. That group has been slowly shrinking over time.” Those books still outsell anything else on the shelves, but Scoffield says it is the independent, alternative comics that push the industry forward by encouraging readers to stay and new readers, especially females, to buy comics. He recalls an occasion having middle-aged men who have not read a comic since their childhood, being intrigued by graphic novels like Alan Moore’s From Hell enough to buy and read them. “The only way for this industry to grow,” says Scoffield, “is to not rely on young males to buy comics.”
Alternative publishers, also need to understand who their retail friends are. According to Scoffield, out of the several thousand shops across North America, “alternative publishers sell ninety percent of their books to a hundred stores in North America, and ten percent to all the others.”
While The Beguiling sells ninety percent of a new issue of a mainstream comic in the first week, the demand for the remaining ten percent drops off dramatically after that. Conversely, the store might only sell fifty percent of an alternative comic in its first week on the shelves, but the store is more likely to sell out of the issue and make a re-order over the next two months.
Who reads these things? The alternative reader is a hard person to describe, but Scoffield says he or she is usually over twenty years old, and are more interested in all aspects of alternative media, from magazines to movies to music. “An alternative reader isn’t likely to go home and watch Home Alone or Stallone movies, except maybe as a joke with some of their friends.”
Tim, a customer, tends to agree. TIm is a student at the University of Toronto, and, like most readers of alternative comics, has had to defend his choice of reading material on occasion to people who have been conditioned to think of comics as a lesser art form. His word for them is “snob.”
“You have snobs who think a Harlequin Romance is a better read than any comic because it doesn’t use pictures,” he says. Tim believes you should judge a work of art by the message and not the medium the artist uses. “Comics aren’t any worse or better than any other art. They’re just different.”
And it is in comics themselves where those differences are becoming more apparent, at least according to Stephens. As the gulf between mainstream and the alternative camps grows larger, Stephens is beginning to see a place for this work. One of the problems with keeping lifetime readers, he says, is that most people start with juvenile titles, and when they outgrow them, the more mature titles seem too strange or bizarre to be appreciated.
“Super-heroes are more homogenized, while alternative books are more gross-out, more masturbatory. There is very little to encourage an adolescent [to keep reading comics] and lead them forward.” He sees Atomic City Tales and some other books as being a bridge between the two camps. The book signals readers that comics have more potential than those they have grown up on, without being too shocking. “It’s a pretty big jump from Spider-Man to Eightball,” he says, “and not many people are making it.