after living in my new neighbourhood for almost a full year, and in spite of the tablet-revolution that has become the preferred method for distributing and consuming digital comics, this weekend i signed up for a comic book file at my local comic book store. the store is Pendragon Comics, a whimsical if somewhat ramshackle store at the western end of Lakeshore Boulevard here in west Toronto. the experience reinforced many of the beliefs that i already held about why some traditional models of retail and communication are better, and some are not.
i’d been walking past Pendragon on my daily commute to the office almost every day and every day I would, I would think that I should sign up for a subscription and keep the store in business. part of my reasoning was that comics have been a big part of my childhood and fostering my appreciation for art and literature (i.e. not just comic art and comic literature). having a comic book store within walking distance is the kind of inclusion in my community that makes living where i do so very pleasing – if all I had in my neighbourhood were chain restaurants and coffee shops, convenience stores and gas stations, then my neighbourhood would be a cookie-cutter-substitute for any other typical neighbourhood in Canada. It’s the independent retailers, restaurants and businesses that are the defining traits of a neighbourhood’s personality, and every day that i didn’t support my local comic book store was like a day where i was ignoring the health of my community. like taking one’s health or one’s looks for granted. and of course, egoist that i am, i felt that if i didn’t personally sign up for a subscription, then i personally would be responsible for the failing of the business – if it ever occurred – and i was not going to be solely responsible (ridiculousness for sure, considering the store has been around since the 1980s).
so i went into the store and greeted the owner, telling him that i was new in the neighbourhood and felt that i had to keep him in business and asked for a lifetime membership. Darcy was very affable and we chatted for a long while. he explained to me the way his “binders” worked – the way i would pre-order special issues and sign up for upcoming issues. he quizzed me on my awareness and familiarity and tastes in comics, the way that a tailor or outfitter would ask a customer about their tastes and sensibilities before sizing him or her up for a new suit. in fact, recognizing in me that i hadn’t been collecting comics for about 20 years (which was a total shock to me), he did his best to bring me up to speed on the major developments in the comic universes in a 10 minutes summation. in the end, he sent me off with about $100 worth of stuff and I had done my part for society and the community… making sure that this invaluable component of my neighbourhood’s identity would continue to thrive.
but as soon as i got home and started to read, i recognized one of the big problems with print comics. i didn’t want to read them. not that i didn’t want to look at the pictures or get caught up with the stories, but there was still enough of a collector wrapped up inside me that i didn’t want to remove the comics from their plastic bags and crack spines and get fingerprints on my pristine books. this was an unexpected challenge. i had prepared myself mentally for the space that would be needed to store comics but I hadn’t considered that i might actually be reluctant to use the printed versions of the comics for the very purpose that they had been created.so i immediately looked for ways that i could get a digital version of the printed materials i had legitimately purchased. after all, it has been common for years to get a digital version of a movie if you buy the DVD or Blu-ray version of a video… so why should it be different for comics that clearly had developed a digital and online marketplace so successfully in the past five or so years. Marvel has a great system of offering a download code on some comics so that you can do exactly that! I was immediately able to read the “Death of Wolverine” series i had just purchased in paper form from a bricks-and-mortar store and convert it to a dowloadable electronic version that i could read online or on my iPad. seamless brilliance!
my DC comics were not so sophisticated. i am left with the prospect of buying the same title twice (once physically and once digitally) or downloading the digital version by some less legitimate means. and this forces the debate to me of physical versus digital media.
there is no question that the digital model is appealing. i can buy any title in a digital format at any day or time… in fact, i discovered that i had done this years ago… my comixology account remembers that I bought the Uncanny X-Men Dark Phoenix saga three years ago and they were sitting in my digital bookshelf, looking as fresh as the day that they were published (34 years ago)! I could spill a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil on my iPad and do nothing to diminish the value of the comic i was reading. i don’t need to worry about fingerprints, creasing of pages, cracking of spines, peeling of adhesives, fading of colours or smudging of inks. there is nothing volatile at all in the digital experience to worry about.
so why go back to bricks and mortar and the pain of physical media? while i was at the store talking with Darcy, another long time customer came in and started chatting with Darcy about insurance premiums relating to comic collections, and that got to a conversation about storing comics, and then high-value collection pieces, and then convention culture… and that’s when it dawned on me that this is the part of the comic book experience that had always been with me as a collector… the social aspect.
From my very first comic book stores in Edmonton, Dark Star comics and Hobbits Fantasy Shop, the personalities who ran the stores were like wizards or mentors, helping shape the tastes and attitudes of its junior patrons. these were the people who helped me to discover great writers and artists in the comic field, and to find the great stories… 25 years before Hollywood would find them. In my University days, Mike at Amazing Stories, conspicuously co-located with an adult magazine store, would help me to discover the darker, edgier, counter-culture content that helped comics become the more serious source of creative material that it has. And now, rediscovering the social aspect of the comic book store, I recognize it to be much more personal and rewarding than an activity feed on a Facebook wall or a discussion thread, overrun as those are with “trolls”.
It hasn’t even been a week, so we’ll see how i feel after the first few comic boxes are full and pressuring me for a permanent storage solution. but in the short term, i’m enjoying this second (third? fourth?) childhood with the comics. the art is unbelievably good – so much more sophisticated than it was back in my day. the stories are clever and well constructed (if somewhat more brief and sparse than they used to be). comics aren’t under a buck anymore – most of the titles i bought were about $3 – $5. but it’s a benign indulgence i can live with.