Words of Questionable Wisdom: Have Comic Book Stores Become Grindhouses?
By Paul Sebert
For those who haven’t seen it Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Grindhouse is a loving tribute to a raucous, vulgar and ultimately doomed period of American cinema when seedy independent movie theaters and drive-ins were home to low budget exploitation fair. Lacking the big stars and fancy production values of their Hollywood counterpart, these low budget B-movies relied on lurid subject material to draw an audience. It wasn’t just sex and violence that drew moviegoers to these out of the way cinemas sometimes it was an imaginative title like â€œFaster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!â€ or â€œHell Up In Harlemâ€ that attracted viewers.
Alas the golden age of exploitation movies wasn’t meant to last. The drive-in and grindhouse theaters would gradually die off as family friendly multiplexes popped up all around the country. These new theaters wouldn’t carry X-rated fare, and when the MPAA changed the rating’s name to â€œNC-17â€ that did nothing to change matters. Exploitation films would continue to thrive on home video for a few years, but mom & pop video stores would gradually lose out to big chains like Blockbuster which also withheld extreme cinema from their shelves. Since the heyday of the Grindhouses mainstream American cinema has become more tame, while independent films have become a breading ground for sophisticated fare like â€œLittle Childrenâ€œ and â€œBabel.â€ Still there certainly are a number of retro-hipsters who nostalgically over the likes of â€œSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Songâ€ (Rated X by an all white jury!)
But even as I jubilantly walked out of the theater after the final credits for â€œDeath Proofâ€ rolled, I couldn’t help but notice some parallels between the ill-fated grind houses of yore and one of the comic shops I frequent today. The comic shop isn’t in one of the worst parts of town, but it has less than an ideal location next to a closed pornography shop. (Which I suppose is slightly preferable to an open pornography shop.) It has a dark cave like interior where stacks of Spawn action figures and unboxed, unbagged back-issues impede the simple act of walking from one end of the store to another. Posters and displays from the mid 90s litter the store. Plus there’s no central heating and air conditioning system meaning every winter an electric heater lays plugged in the center of the store precariously close to flammable paper . It’s a mess, but at least the store’s owner is friendly and knowledgeable.
I’ve heard of far worse experiences in comic shops. Stores where copies of copies of â€œDemon Beast Invasionâ€ greet the customer where they first walk in. Shops whose owners are rude and sometimes even sexist to customers. I even have a friend who goes to two shops run by the same guy, who demands his customers have to drive to his store on the other side of town to pick up reserved titles.
Step into any shopping mall today and there’s a chain store for just about every niche except comics, although each year it seems the graphic novel section of conventional bookstores has expanded. But just because no one’s been able to do for comics what Gamestop did for video games doesn’t mean it’s bound to happen one day.
But what exactly would a chain of neatly run store corporate comic book stores mean for the industry? If a wider variety of comics were suddenly made more easily available to the public would mean more room for independent publishers, or would Marvel & DC be able to muscle in even more influence? Would manga’s proven popularity in chains like Borders and Walden books carry over?
Alas we too often pay a price for the conveniences of the everyday world. We enjoy the wide selection and low prices of chain stores like Wal-Mart and Target, but we miss the friendliness of local stores that can’t compete with them. We enjoy the near-limitless inventory a service like Amazon.com provides, but still prefer touching the merchandise with out hands before actually buying it. With the coming of multiplexes movie goers gained a greater variety of choices and family friendly theater environments, but lost a certain kind of manic energy in film making.
Now I know that Joe Quesda and Dan Didio would love to see a sudden surge of casual readers buying comics on a monthly basis, but I not sure if Marvel or DC are actually ready produce the books that audience might buy. Keep in mind that outside of the direct market lies a bizzaro world where Shonen Jump and Archie comics sit at the top of the charts. Remember that at today’s drugstore or newsstand you’re more likely to see an issue of The Batman Strikes than a copy of Civil War. This isn’t just the traditional â€œcomics are for kidsâ€ mindset at play. The question is would people walking out of the latest Batman movie really want to see a storyline about a 16 year old girl being tortured with a power drill? Or would what would happen if a major chain of comic shops decided to not to carry â€œmature readers titles?â€ Sure parents leaving kids unattended at shopping malls wouldn’t have to worry about young adolescents getting their hands on the latest issue of Tarot, but what would this mean for lovers of books like Transmetropolitain?
Plus would I really want to buy my comics from some minimum wage earning teenager at the mall rather than a local fan boy with more love of the medium than business sense? I have no idea.