Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Hibbs Commandments!

If you're interested in what it's like for comics retailers in the trenches, or the business of comics in general, you need to be reading Brian Hibbs.  He's the owner of Comix Experience in San Francisco, and has a web site called Savage Critics devoted to comic book reviews and commentary.  He also writes "Tilting at Windmills", a monthly column on, and it's must reading.

His latest column details the retail hazards of trying to squeeze profit out of a market where "hits" are in short supply.  If you start hitting profit selling 80% of your order, and your total order is five books, that doesn't leave much margin for error, does it?  So when you see that Diamond data come out (I'm talking to all seven of you now that look at the Diamond charts) and notice that the top book is Green Lantern at 70,000 or so units, you say to yourself "Yechh, that's interesting."  And the comic book retailer sees that and says "How am I going to keep the lights on this month?"

Hibbs is rarely mired in complete "doom and gloom", although the financial reality of comic books doesn't leave much to cheer about lately, and Brian Hibbs, bless his soul, is not one to duck reality.  So in the comments portion of the latest Tilting column, an exasperated fan asked:

What can we do?

Hibbs than outlined four items, which I am now dubbing "The Hibbs Commandments."  The commandments are targeted at four different factions of the comics food chain: the consumer, the publisher, the retailer, and the creators.  I've also embellished the commandments to sound a little more like Charlton Heston is shouting them at you while holding stone tablets, which is important.

The Hibbs Commandments

  • Creators shall create only the exceptional
  • Thou shalt not buy comics for completion's sake, but only what thou doth truly enjoy
  • Publishers shalt not flood the market, but practice restraint and prudence
  • Retailers shall curate racks and support only that which thine customers doth truly enjoy, and send the rest to the Lake of Fire

Commandment # 1:  Create Only The Exceptional

Obviously we can't demand that every comic be the next Watchmen.  Sturgeon's law maintains that most everything is simply bound to be rubbish.  Fine.

What we're avoiding here are "paycheck comics" and "fan service rubbish".  I can't climb into anybody's head and say that this creator or that creator is just there to hack out a paycheck.  I have my suspicions, of course.  Surely it happens, though.  Don't do it. Do something you like, or get out.

I think a lot of creative problems are born from the misconception that creators should give fans what they want.  It's especially easy to cave to that creative black hole in a market that makes risk-taking seem even more treacherous, and conservatism attractive.

In fact, the opposite is true on both counts.  Fans do not know what the fuck they want until an inspired creator gives it to them, and that's a scientific fact.  It's also true that necessity is the mother of invention.  Frank Miller got to elevate Daredevil because the book was in the tank.  When things are bottoming out, and to be frank the whole medium is bottoming out, that isn't the time to cling to the vestiges of what obviously isn't working.  It's the time when you should feel free to turn the savants loose, because there's nothing left to lose.

Joe Casey and Grant Morrison are the poster boys for this concept.  Maybe they don't succeed in  re-defining comics with each project, and maybe they're not for you.  But if more people adopted their approach, the industry would be better off.  What's interesting to me as a creator?  What haven't I tried yet, what has nobody tried yet?  That's the Joe Casey way.  And it takes an editor to say "yes", of course, but it starts with the creators.

Commandment # 2:  Buy Only What You Enjoy

So many people screw this up, and it's so very simple.  Listen, I run into this trap all the time.  You've got your pile of comics.  Some of them you literally cannot wait to get home and read them.  The light turns red, you reach over for the bag of comics, pull the book out and start reading it at the stoplight.  People are now honking at you.  You flip them off, because don't they understand that you're trying to finish that page of Morning Glories?  THAT is a book you enjoy.

Then there's that other book, or should I say books.  You know you actually love it, and if somebody asks you what's on your pull, it's the second or third title you list because you've been collecting it for four years.  The problem is that you don't love it, and in fact you're five months behind on your reading because it actually feels like work to crack the damn and absorb its contents.


Don't buy thirty three Green Hornet books just because Dynamite has them available.  Don't buy seventeen variant covers of the same book just because Avatar offers them.  Don't buy every Avengers book or every Batman book because you're loyal to the cause.  Don't slavishly buy titles regardless of quality just because a certain creator is involved.  Following creators is often a fruitful thing to do, but I've recently discovered that I don't need absolutely everything that Nick Spencer writes.  Morning Glories is sublime. Iron Man 2.0 is very much not.  That's fine.  Keep the one, drop the other.

And nobody is suggesting that you kick a book to the curb because it has an "off" issue.  You know exactly what I mean about pruning the dead wood, and you know what needs to be done.  When you buy things that aren't good, you reward the undeserving, and let other desirables flounder.  It poisons the well.  Buy what's good.  Buy what you really enjoy, and nothing else.

Commandment # 3: Don't Flood The Market

Marvel, I'm looking at you.  Seriously.

Once upon a time Jim Shooter did something crazy and handed the editorial reins of the Spider-Man titles over to an impossibly young but brilliant kid on roller skates, then named Jim Owsley.  (He's Priest now.  Sometimes Christopher Priest, but mostly just Priest.  Don't ask.)  Owsley took a look at the stable and wondered why the world needed an Amazing, a Web of, and a Spectacular Spider-Man.

"Jim what's our publishing rationale on these?", he asked.

"Money!", grinned a grinning Shooter.

The more things change, man.  That's not enough.  Owsley had it right.  What's the rationale?  What is Book X offering that makes it special, relevant, urgent?  If there is no forthcoming answer, then there is no reason to glut an already exceptionally glutted comics rack.

The examples here are legion.  What is going on in Alpha Flight that demanded a relaunch?  Can anybody explain to me what niche that actually fills, what justifies the investment?  Yup, they're Canadian.  Yeah, a few people liked them in the past.  That's not a reason to tell rote stories with them now.  Why do we need a Green Arrow book?  What's the point of continuously trying to foist five GI Joe books on an audience that can't get even one consistently over the 20,000 mark?  What's going on in Gotham City Sirens that isn't being done, and done better in Birds of Prey?  Cut it.

Also, not everything needs to be collected, OK?  There's enough stuff to buy.  If there wasn't any demand for Dark Star and the Winter Guard in floppy format, I'm not sure why anybody thought they'd be flocking to the trade.  It's bad for everybody.  It can't be very profitable for the publishers, it strains the limited capital available for the ordering retailer, and it makes things confusing and frustrating for the consumer.

Stop glutting and confusing the issue with an endless and ever-increasing supply of dreck that nobody is buying.  Ask Robert Kirkman if simple works.  I'll ruin the surprise and reveal that he does quite well for himself with a good, undiluted product packaged simply.  Quite well.

Commandment # 4  Retailers Curate and Support Only What Customers Love

Everything that goes for the consumer in # 2 goes for the retailer here.  You're using cycle sheets or inventory software, yes?  If they aren't buying it, you can stop ordering it.

Here the danger, I suppose, is a desire to be a "full service" store.  When you started the dream, the idea was to carry everything, not just the X-Men.  Fine.  Some of that takes work, though.  I see comic shops in my area that are committed to knowing their customer, communicating, adjusting to needs.  If you've never walked into Twin City Comics, I suggest you try it sometime just to find out what you've been missing in terms of service.

But I also see a lot of comic shops operating on the Field of Dreams philosophy.  "If you rack it, they will come."  Except they don't.  The racks are a jumbled mess, there's a lot to choose from, and people need help.  Right now I think Detective Comics is an exceptionally strong book, and I think if a retailer ordered heavy on that and pushed it, maybe even offered a discount or a "money back" to try it, many new subscriptions are possible there.  (or are they, now that the whole thing is changing in September?)

But who's pushing it?  Who's pushing anything?  I know what I know because I'm one of the 1% freaks that read Previews, listen to podcasts, chase down news sites, do my own comic book show.  I've never picked up a book because of information I've gotten from a physical retailer, because there really isn't any to be had.  I guess at Hot Comics they feature a couple of "employee pick" books, but that tells you nothing at all about the contents, only that the guy with the blue hair and nose ring liked it.

If there's something good, something laudable, support.  Let the rest burn.

It seems pretty simple, right?  Essentially it just comes to down to everybody in the chain migrating to things that don't suck.  It might be just crazy enough to work!

- Ryan


Stephen said...


I really appreciate the insight that you have to offer here and would like to think that somehow the comic consumer (along with publishers and retailers) could indeed in some way act like a super organism, cleansing the comics market landscape, however when you get something like post DC Flashpoint coming along it kind of makes me think that any collective action will just get pushed back by a 'wait and see' attitude which - while although it might not necessarily be a bad thing depending on the quality we are given in the new line up of DC titles, is just handing consumers an excuse to keep overbuying on some stuff just in case they are going to like it - and gives the publisher (this time DC) an excuse to avoid pruning for now because they are supposedly giving us readers something 'fresh' and 'new' - and of course what retailers are going to want to be the ones who possibly cut their own throats by being the ones that didnt order the first few new DC books for their customers just in case they turn out to be the 'it' books in this masive line wide relaunch?

Damn, I think that there was a sentence in there somewhere that gave many other run on sentences penis envy.

Stephen said...

Wow, I have to give DC credit: if the claims made in this new letter to retailers comes to fruition, then maybe DC is doing something right by retailers (at least). Here is the link to he newest communication from DC: