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Wednesday, July 21, 2004
Comics: Kids and Comics

Conventional wisdom seems to be that comic books are for kids, or adult men whose development arrested sometime around age 14, but as I rarely ever see kids in the comic shop, or if they're there it's because their dad dragged them along with him, I often doubt the veracity of this argument. Of course, not spending much time around kids, what do I know about what kids like or don't like?

So it was that I found myself perusing the comics at Half Price Books last night while the missus was shopping for house decorations when this kid, probably 8 years old, comes over and starts asking me if they have any Spider-Man comics. Not having been looking for Spider-Man comics, I told him I wasn't sure, but I didn't think I'd seen any. Nonetheless, he dove into the disorganized jumble of comics to see what he could find.

I normally keep to myself when I'm out, rarely talking or making eye contact with anyone who doesn't work at whatever store I'm in, so my social skills have deteriorated to the point that I'm even uncomfortable holding a conversation with an 8-year old. But this kid was of the chatty sort, and he was determined to talk to me. About comics, no less. Over the course of our conversation, I learned a few interesting things about kids and what they think about comics, and I wanted to share some of them here on this blog.

1. Spider-Man is pretty much the be-all and end-all of this kid's interest in comic books. When he found no Spidey comics, he was at a loss for what else might be "cool" to buy.

2. Though he claimed to watch the cartoons, Dexter's Laboratory and Ren & Stimpy (do kids watch Ren and Stimpy?) held no interest for him. Likewise, he thought Batman Beyond, and the animated-style Superman and Justice League comics, had "dumb" covers, and he was having none of them. 3. He liked to get comics that were in "cases" (bags and boards). I couldn't ever figure out why, but he wouldn't even consider anything not in a "case," which at HPB was around half their selection (I wonder if he would have bought an unbagged Spidey comic?) . He did tell me that if they were in a case he didn't read them very much, only "once a month or so." I guess that's a good thing?

4. Outside of Spidey, he said he was interested in the X-Men, Superman or the Hulk, but he didn't really like the covers of very many comics featuring those heroes.

5. What comics did he like? He was really interested in Lobo and constantly asked my opinion of Lobo comics, which I did my best to dissuade him from buying since they all had "mature readers" labels on them and really, who likes Lobo comics?. Likewise, he pulled out anything that said "collectors item" on the cover. He was convinced that any "collector's item" comics had to be cool, despite my assertions to the contrary (okay, I didn't really push that very far).

6. Comics with art that I thought was cool when I was a kid (e.g. an Art Adams illustrated X-Men annual) held no interest for him. Then again, neither did Spawn or Rob Liefeld drawn X-Force issues.

7. Black costume Spidey isn't very cool. Besides, that's Venom's costume, and Venom has big fangs. This, after I finally found a Spider-Man comic, albeit one during the black costume era. I felt okay that he didn't want it, though, as it was part of the Kraven's Last Hunt story, and my memory is that story might be a little scary to a kid.

8. If Spider-Man or the Hulk are on the back of a comic, even if it's a "Got Milk?", it's possible that they might be in the comic as well. I didn't try to convince him otherwise.

9. A $3 price meant very little to him. His father, however, was not fooled by his "only three dollars each!" exclamation, and said that he could have two if they were actually half the cover price (that's how they price comics at HPB around these parts), but only one if they were selling for cover price.

So, what did he walk away with? Marvel's polybagged "collector's item" Nightstalkers #1 and an Ed McGuiness drawn Superman issue featuring a close up on Superman and Aquaman's faces as they glared angrily at one another. Why do I think he'll be disappointed with his purchases?

After he left, another kid, this one around 13 or 14 I'd guess, came up and tried to talk comics with me. More than anything else, I found his questions to be pretty interesting, though I was somewhat baffled by a few of them.

The first thing he asked was how many comics I had. When asked the same question, he responded that he had "around 53." Then he asked me who I thought the "best" X-Man was. I replied that I'd always been partial to Nightcrawler. Of course, he thought Wolverine was the best, explaining to me that "Wolverine was tight in the movie." After some silence, he then asked me who the "best" superhero was. Not knowing really how to answer this, and doubting that he knew who Hawkeye was, I suggested Nightcrawler again. I didn't realize that I wasn't really answering his question, but he tried again.

"Don't you think Superman's probably the best?"

"Well, I guess he was the first."

"But could anyone beat him in a fight?"

". . . Maybe Captain Marvel, er Shazam?"

"Who's that?"

"He's like Superman, only he's not vulnerable to magic and he wears a red . . . Nevermind."

"Doesn't Professor X have a kid who's like, really tight?"

". . . "

"I heard his kid was like the most powerful guy. Do you think he could beat Superman?"

This was something I had never considered before. I mean, Superman versus Legion, who would win? Doesn't Superman get mind-controlled a lot? Maybe Legion could win?

". . . "

"What's his name? Professor X's kid?"

"His name is Legion, but he's insane, so Superman could probably outsmart him."

"Yeah, Superman isn't very smart, though. He could probably wail on him though. Superman's strong. Is the kid strong?"

"Uh, not really. He's got more mental powers than physical powers, so he couldn't physically defend himself."

"Huh. Do you know who this is?"

Lobo again. Honestly, I just don't see the appeal.

"um, that's Lobo. He's kind of dumb."

"oh. Do you think he could beat Superman?"

". . ."

This kid also told me that he buys comics based "mostly on the cover" and that he "doesn't really read them." He ended up walking away with a couple of random issues of the most recent Legion series.

So, what did we learn today? I honestly don't know, except that kids like Lobo, think Superman and Spider-Man are the coolest, marketing gimmicks work, and I don't have a clue how to talk comics on a kid's level.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Comics: To discount or not to discount

In digging through my files, I've come across several blog mini-essays that I never got around to finishing, so for the next few days I may be bringing up some older issues that I wanted to weigh in on. Sorry in advance to my non-comics reading friends, but most of these essays are comics-related because 1) it's summer, so I'm not watching TV much; 2) I'm too busy doing stuff around the house to make my normal weekly trip to the movies, and 3) the reason these essays never got finished is because I tried to avoid posting about comics more than once or twice a week, so these got back-burnered in favor of other non-comics posts.

As a kid, I bought my comics from a second-hand book store, which doubled as a (mostly Marvel & DC) comics shop. They didn't sell bags, boards or boxes (at least, not that I was aware of), and all the comics were kept behind the counter, with one copy of each of the newest issues hanging on the wall. I had to ask for the specific comic I wanted, and they were a little grouchy if I changed my mind and didn't want a comic that they had gone through the trouble of riffling through the stack and handing to me. Their "deal" was that for every $5 you spent, you'd get a coupon for $0.50 off your next purchase. Interestingly, and perhaps most annoying for me at the time, the discount only applied in $5 increments, so you'd get a $0.50 coupon if you spent anywhere from $5-$9.99, and a $1 coupon if you spent $10-$14.99 (keep in mind, comics were $0.65-$0.75 each in those days, so even getting a $1 coupon was something of a struggle if you bought your comics weekly). This discount system was in place for several years, but at some point between high school and college they quietly did away with it, and I was back to always paying full price.

When I moved to DC, I discovered the "pull list," first at a shop about a 30 minute walk from where I worked, but far from where I lived, and later at a shop which was a five minute walk from my apartment. While both shops would pull the comics I wanted for me, the first one gave no discount while the second offered 10% off the purchase price if you had a sub file. Upon discovering the second store, and both their discount system and their proximity to my house, I tried to end my pull list with the first shop so that I could start shopping at the second shop, only to find out that they required an 8-week notice to end a pull list, since theoretically they had been ordering comics for me two months in advance. While I understood their reasoning, and pretty much every shop I've bought from since then has had a similar stipulation to their sub file, it didn't make me particularly happy as a consumer that I had to "give notice" to my comics shop (especially as I'd only been going there about eight weeks to begin with!). Needless to say, I was prepared and gave the second shop ample notice before I moved away.

In LA, again, I quickly found a shop willing to establish a pull list for me. This shop offered 20% off all purchases with a sub list, 35% off if I ordered from Previews and paid two months in advance, and they offered free bags and boards with each comic. This seemed like a heck of a deal, even if I was hesitant to pay in advance, so even when I moved a little further west, I still kept my pull list at that shop.

Upon arriving in Dallas, like any true fanboy, I went in search of a comic shop. The first one I went to was on the small side, but they had a decent selection and the clerk was friendly. When I asked about a sub file, he said they'd be happy to set one up for me, but they didn't offer any discounts (I believe his exact wording was "We believe that our service is good enough that we can make our customers happy without discounts"). I was a little taken aback, especially when I found out that I'd also have to pay for Previews unless I ordered more than $100? $150? a month, so I politely thanked him and proceeded to the next closest shop from the yellow pages. I believe that they offered something like a 10% discount without free bags and boards. I thought I could do better, so I called one more shop. This one, finally, offered (I believe) 15% off with free bags and boards. Now that was more like it.

After a year, though, I again moved to a new city (Milwaukee) and again had to find a new shop. I ended up with one which was really pretty good: they were close to my apartment, and they offered an escalating discount system based on the number of titles on my pull list. I qualified for a 15% discount which I thought was reasonable, even without free bags and boards, so I signed up. However, about six months into my stay in Milwaukee, I discovered Mail Order Comics through the magic of reading John Jakala's blog. They offered 35% off most titles from the big four and monthly specials of 40%, 50%, even 75% off selected titles. From a pricing standpoint, this couldn't be beat! I decided to keep my pull list at the local shop to the minimum number of titles to qualify for the 15% discount, that way I could theoretically have a few new comics each week, but once a month I'd get a big old box of comics that I bought for a substantive discount. The plan was to move to mail order only when I moved back to Dallas; this seemed to make the most sense financially (ordering all my comics at once helped me see how much I was spending and develop a comics budget), it helped me continue to afford some titles which were "on the bubble," and it was convenient not to *have* to go to the shop on Wednesdays (I've said before, I'm a little obsessive about some things).

The thing is, though, I feel guilty. I read blogs by retailers, comments on sites like ICV2, columns like Brian Hibbs' excellent Tilting at Windmills, and I realize what kind of love and care goes into running a comic shop. These guys aren't in it for the money and, as Hibbs pointed out in his column last week, offering discounts cuts into their bottom line and may mean the difference between making their mortgage or not. I sympathize. I don't want anyone to go out of business or lose their job just because I want to get cheap comics! I remember being wracked with guilt upon learning that Disc Traders, the local indy CD store in Kansas City North, had gone out of business; I just knew it was because I would go there to listen to new CDs, and then I'd go to Best Buy to make my purchase at $3-4 less than Disc Traders charged.

All of that to preface an honest question for the comics folks and maybe the business-minded out there: why, as a consumer, should I NOT buy my comics and graphic novels from wherever I can get the best deal? If that means getting my comics through mail order, buying exclusive Ultimate Spider-Man hardcovers or paperback Marvel Masterworks from Barnes & Noble, or shopping around for the shop that offers the best discount and (hopefully) free bags and boards, then so be it, right? Do I as a consumer have a responsibility to the small business owners of America, and if so, what is it and why? Do they have more of a right to my money than another retailer, from whom I can get more for my money, without going over my budget? I could certainly understand if the products were different, but the products are exactly the same, so why should I spend more of my hard-earned money on a product which I know I can buy elsewhere for cheaper?
So, dear patron of the Shoppe, I turn to you for help. Do you get a regular discount at your shop? Do you look for the best price for comics or graphic novels that you want to read, buying some off Amazon or from Barnes & Noble in order to save a few sheckles, or does your local comics retailer deserve for you to pay full price? Is this bargain-hunting detrimental to our chosen hobby, or am I being overly sensitive?

I hate the idea that I'm becoming a part of the Wal-martization of America, but I can't think of any good reason for me not to get the best prices on comics that I can. So why, then, do I feel so guilty doing so?

Monday, July 19, 2004
Movies: Quick takes

I haven't done any reviews around here lately, which is kind of odd since I spent the Spring writing almost solely reviews, mainly because I haven't been watching much TV and since I haven't been blogging from home, I've sort of missed the opportunity to get my immediate thoughts down on movies. That said, I've seen a few movies recently, so here's my quick takes on some summer movies.

*Dodgeball - I have to say that I love the informal comedy group of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell and Luke & Owen Wilson. On their own or with anyone else, all of these guys (except Will Ferrell) are hit or miss with me, but add any two or more of these guys to the mix, stir in a few celeb or washed-up celeb cameos, and I can almost guarantee I'll like the movie. That said, Dodgeball is a perfectly entertaining movie, more consistently funny than Starsky & Hutch, but not quite as funny as Old School. Like Zoolander, Dodgeball puts a dopey twist to an old theme: with Zoolander, it's the Evil Mastermind tries to take over X industry, and only the discredited former star performer can stop him; with Dodgeball, it's the underdog sports movie. Vince Vaughn and his team of misfits (including the always enjoyable Stephen Root) play the underdogs to a tee, but Ben Stiller with his over the top evil fitness guru really steals the movie. If you haven't seen this yet, stay through to the end of the credits to see Stiller in a fat suit rapping. That alone is almost worth the price of admission.

*The Terminal - Eh. Not bad for what it is. It's kind of like watching Castaway in an airport, and I'm not sure that anyone other than Tom Hanks could have pulled off the "everyman" necessary to keep my attention all the way through. Props for not going the way you expect with Catharine Zeta-Jones' character, but negative marks for making the usually quite good Stanley Tucci into more of a caricature than a character. How much you enjoy the movie really depends on how much you like Tom Hanks, but it's 85 year-old Kumar Pallana who steals the movie (much like he did The Royal Tennenbaums. Not an easy feat stealing the show from the likes of Gene Hackman and Tom Hanks).

*Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - I'm not really a Harry Potter fan; I haven't read any of the books, but I have enjoyed the previous two movies. By now, though, the movies are starting to get a little formulaic: Harry is treated poorly by his guardians whom he uses magic on to "teach them a lesson." He goes back to Hogwarts via increasingly strange means, and a mystery unravels that takes he and his friends the whole year to figure out. There's usually a new Defender against the Dark Arts teacher, played by a well-known British actor, who may or may not be a baddie. And there's the mandatory Quiddich game. The devil, in these movies, is in the details, the creatures and the innovative uses of magic. I'd say The Prisoner of Azkaban is pretty entertaining on all three counts. It kept me guessing, more or less (though I figured out Professor Lupin's secret pretty early on), and I didn't really feel the two and a half hours of the film, always a test for any movie over 105 minutes.

I think I only had two complaints about the film: I could be wrong, but they seem to be using an entirely new set for the exterior of Hogwarts. The topography seemed more like Scotland and less like Northern England, and wasn't Haggred's hut across a meadow from the school? Now it's out back, down a hill. I also felt like the other films did a better job showing time passing. This one felt like the story was too small, or the film too short, and it didn't seem like an entire year had passed. It looked like the filmmakers really tried, though, using that whole fast forward to leaves falling off and growing back on the whomping willow thing that I see too often, for some reason it just didn't feel like it worked.

Also, it's always good to see Gary Oldman, who seemed to be in every other movie from 1997-2001 or so but is now conspicuously absent, and David Thewlis, who portrayed one of the most unlikable characters I've ever seen on film in "Naked."

*Spartan - Was this David Mamet-written and directed thriller straight to video? I'd never heard of it before seeing it at the video store a few weeks ago. Anyway, my guess is that most folks have decided by now if they like Mamet's style or not. I'm firmly in the "like Mamet" camp, and this definitely not-by-the numbers thriller is pretty much what I expect from Mamet: very talky with lots of twists and turns, and some changing allegiances thrown in to boot. This may be the first time since The Doors that I've actually liked Val Kilmer, who seems to have gotten bogged down in his own ego throughout the nineties. One question, if anyone has seen this one (SPOILER WARNING): how did Scott (Kilmer) ensure that Lt. Black (Tia Texada) was the other agent assigned to Stoddard on the pick-up mission? Previously, it appeared as if no one was willing to bring Black into the Secret Service, so how did the strings get pulled in their favor? Did I miss something? (END SPOILER). Anyway, this one was solid entertainment, if not groundbreaking.

*Along Came Polly - Um, Ben Stiller had a few funny bits, I think. We rented his one a few weeks ago when my sister-in-law was in town. With three people offering opinions, this seemed like the movie least likely to offend anyone, even if it wasn't anyone's first choice, which explains why I have very little memory of it, positive or negative. Hank Azaria was funny, too. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, not so much.

Whew! I think I'm caught up on movie reviews now, even if I still haven't seen Spider-Man 2, Anchorman, The Chronicles of Riddick, Fahrenheit 911, or half a dozen other movies that are on my list.

How I spent my summer vacation

Things Mrs. Coffee Shop and I did this weekend:

-Painted the living room and kitchen (this was one of those things where the missus woke up at 3:00 Saturday morning and announced she wanted to do it before the new living room furniture arrived. I was still up, sorting comics so Saturday could be spent on other chores, but I hated the yellow wash-style paint that the previous owners had used, so it didn't take much convincing to get me on board.)

-Sorted my comics (yes, after Friday's geeky post, I actually did the first sort of my comics in two-plus years, including "cataloging" my collection into an Excel spreadsheet containing only publisher, title and issue numbers (I'm anal and obsessive, but only a little bit). The only thing left to do is to shorthand a spreadsheet of the six boxes worth that I'm getting ride of so that Bruce Sato, J. and T. can tell me if they want any of them - I'll get to it before the end of the week, fellas, I promise).

-Assembled two more bookshelves, bringing the total to four five-shelf bookshelves and five three shelfers, and unpacked 90% of the books. (I think there's still one or two boxes left to be unpacked, but it got to be late, and the argument about how to organize the books on the shelf took too much out of either of us to finish the task yesterday. For the record, I'm in favor of separating fiction, non-fiction and "reference" books (reference books being anything without a narrative) and then alphabetizing them by author within each section. Just to prove how anal I am, I also think that all books by the same author should be arranged chronologically in order of publication. Mrs. Coffee Shop believes that any attempt to "organize" the bookshelf is futile and a waste of time, although she agrees that all books by a certain author should be together. Oh, and my books on poker, crime novels and the odd "airport book" that I have are relegated to their own ghetto so as not to infect the "good" books. We have the same argument about DVDs, so the living room has a DVD case which is in no discernable order, while my office has it's own DVD case (with DVDs the missus doesn't want to admit to owning) sorted into two sections: movies and TV-to-DVD box sets, each of which is in alphabetical order by title.)

-Unpacked and organized my graphic novels/comic collected editions on the bookshelves in my office. (These I could be as anal with as I liked, though I admit that she was right, it does take 3-4 times as long to organize one's bookshelf than to just throw them on a shelf. In completing this task, I realized that 1) I have entirely too many spined comics/collections and 2) it's much harder for me to decide which of these to get rid of. Do I really need 19 volumes of GTO, a series that I enjoy reading, but I doubt I'll ever re-read? I was only able to come up with about one boxful to get rid of.)

-Set up my computer, which I've owned for just under a year but never set up, only to find out that the phone jacks in my office aren't live for some reason, so I don't even have dial-up access from home yet. (The computer was a birthday present last year which, after years of whining that I wanted one, I never set it up because I had a work laptop at home that I could use. It never made sense to me to have two computers in our small apartment.)

-Watched far too much South Park, including pretty much all of the 25 most offensive episodes (which Comedy Central was airing in three and a half hour blocks Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights) and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (twice - possibly the funniest feature-length cartoon of all time. I love finding marathons that I can keep on in the background while doing other things so I don't have to change the channel.)

-Got a haircut which was too expensive and not very good.

Things we didn't do:

-Call J. or Indy back (sorry guys! I was in work mode, I'll call you this week.)

-Watch "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (exhibit A why I'm usually the one who goes to the video store. When the missus goes, this is what she comes back with!)

-Eat a meal. We were so in the zone that we pretty much just snacked instead of having anything resembling a meal.

-Sleep more than 3 hours in a row. I think I slept from 5-8 am Saturday morning and 2-5 that afternoon, then on Sunday from 4-7 am and 11-2 pm. Needless to say, I slept like a rock from about 1-6 am this morning. (I'm used to getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, so please pity me. No, pity my wife, who will have to put up with me this week as I try to catch up on sleep.)


Hopefully, next weekend won't be quite so intense and I'll have some time to relax.

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