Saturday, 18 August 2007

Comic Shop Semiotics 101

I've been wanting to speak for a while about the furore
recently about the Mary Jane statue, the Heroes For Hire cover and other such tasteful and mature expressions of an adult sexuality, but was waiting for the discussion to calm down enough that reason, as opposed to snarling, might have a chance to be heard. I suspect that may not yet be the case, but I had a perfect personal illustration the other day of why this issue matters.

There are two comic shops in my town, within walking distance of each other, both branches of national chains. One, let us call it Friendly Neighbourhood Comic Shop, is quite a small shop, but brightly lit with natural light, with (for the most part) helpful staff. They don't have a huge stock, and in fact have an air of genial incompetence, but the staff will chat to you, some will smile, and one is even an actual woman. This is the shop I have my pull list with, and the one I visit on a weekly basis, where I know the names of the staff and they know mine.

There is another shop across the road from it, which we shall call The Android's Dungeon. This is a branch of a larger, better known chain, and it has a much larger stock, of greater variety. However, it's in a cellar, with no decoration (no posters or fliers for conventions or anything), staffed by a famously surly man with no interest in the stock or customers, lit by harsh fluorescent lights. This is a shop I go into maybe every couple of months, if Friendly Neighbourhood Comic Shop have sold out of something, or if they have a sale on, or to browse through trades that FNCS don't have.

Now, I'm perfectly happy to shop there, but my wife won't. If we go into town together and I want to pop into there, she'll complain that she doesn't like it, and if I insist will be looking restless and anxious from the moment we're in there. I've also heard from a few other female friends that they don't feel welcome in that shop. But I've never really understood this on other than an intellectual level. My gut reaction has always been 'well, you don't go there to feel welcome. You go there to buy comics. If I want to feel welcomed I'll go round to see my grandma, if I want to buy comics I go to the comic shop'.

However, last Thursday, we not only went into Android's Dungeon, but we immediately afterwards went into a mobile phone shop. And within a fairly short time I was feeling a mild panic that didn't fully abate until maybe half an hour after getting out of the shop. At the time I felt foolish, but in retrospect it makes sense.

Advertising companies and marketers are paid ludicrously huge sums of money to find symbols that people will respond to on a visceral level. The idea, thankfully not yet perfected, is to come up with symbols that will affect people on such a deep, automatic level, that they will buy whatever the product is without even thinking. The amount paid to these people, and the amount of effort put in, suggests that they have at least some effect.

Unfortunately, a certain number of people, myself included, are conditioned to react in the opposite way, but to an equal degree. Put me into a room full of pictures of David Beckham, AOL logos, Virgin logos, and pictures of Disney characters, and fill that room full of people with hairstyles, and it has much the same effect on my hindbrain as pointing a gun at me, as I discovered on Thursday. I go into 'fight or flight' mode.

Now, if a lifesize cardboard cutout of a metrosexual footballer can have that effect on me, what effect could images of women being tortured or bound have on some women, and with far more justification?

I'm not talking here about an effect that can be argued with, which was the problem I had until recently. I have always argued that the sexist and degrading imagery we take as the norm in comics was pernicious, but I was thinking of it as something that could be laughed out of existence. I was essentially thinking in terms of the 'marketplace of ideas' - if enough people ridicule that kind of material loudly enough it will go away.

The problem (and I am almost certainly the last person in the world to realise this) is, if people have a visceral gut reaction that says "Bad! Run away!" they're not going to stick around to debate ideas.

On a purely intellectual level, a comic shop that displayed Reads by Sim & Gerhard should be infinitely more threatening to women than one that displays, say, Lady Death with the same prominence. Reads attempts to justify relegating women to the status of subhuman, whereas Lady Death is just (as far as I can tell from covers and solicits, having never read it) soft-core porn and mild violence for horny teenagers who are too scared to look at real women. However, Reads looks relatively (for want of a better word) classy, and totally unthreatening. You can argue with and ridicule the ideas in Reads - Lady Death is a whole different animal.

I am not suggesting that comic shops should refuse to stock, say, Madame Mirage or Heroes For Hire - censorship of any kind is anathema to me. But what I am suggesting is that if the cover of a comic is something that looks a bit dodgy to you, me, or anyone who is experienced with superhero comics, to Jane Q Newbie it may well be something that could give her an actual physiological 'gut reaction' - these kind of things can change the atmosphere of a shop in a
way that is almost imperceptible to those who are used to that kind of thing. Put them behind the counter, or even just don't put them on display at the front of the shop.

I'm not arguing that the content of any comic needs to change at all - once you can get people to actually look at the content, then the 'marketplace of ideas' has some validity. But in a hobby that has slightly fewer adherents than model train collecting, I suspect it might be worthwhile trying not to scare off any potential new fans before they even see a page of sequential art. The window display, the posters on the wall, what's shelved on the rack front and centre, what the person behind the counter is wearing - these aspects of your local shop, all visible in the first few seconds, can make more of a difference to the continued survival of the direct market than a dozen Watchmen or Mauses.

31 comments:

No Radio said...

I'm lucky enough to live in a small town with a kindly comics shop, but most of the lulls in my comics collecting can be easily mapped onto living near Android's Dungeon-style shops where I felt no more comfortable than I would at a frat party. The nasty thing about anti-feminist sentiments in an environment that doesn't tend to include women at all (the boy's clubhouse mentality of a number of old guard comic shops) is that they assume everyone is on the same page, silence indicating agreement or complicity. The only valid way to express disappointment/disgust is to boycott. These folks need to be put on notice: a whole lot of the comics reading public (even males!) are forward-thinking and have no patience for this crap.

Nice post Andrew.

Anonymous said...

Good post - very articulate and very dispassionate (and I mean that in a good way).

I don't have the patience to explain myself and my revulsion towards the whole "Mary Jane (or Mary Marvel - take your pick at this point) does hentai" routine that Marvel and DC are using to keep a lock on their 30something base and - with a little luck and a lot of hormones - expand their audience to include teen-aged and 20something guys who have never seen a real live boobie that wasn't attached to Janet Jackson.

People who don't get that S&M imagery is all about dehumanizing and objectifying someone just isn't paying attention. Now, there are people who are into that and God bless them if that's their bag, baby; the men in all the Abu Ghraib who were stripped, tied up, bound, gagged, and stacked - not so much.

So when I see The Black Cat coated in some viscous mystery substance, or Mary Marvel wearing a laytex cheerleader outfit that doesn't expose her hands and comes complete with black, tightly-laced combat boots, I know damned good and well what Marvel and DC are trying to do.

"Mainstream" hentai at Marvel and the "corruption of the innocent" storyline in Countdown are no more an attempt to develop the characters or tell a compelling story than getting an eighteen year-old girl to explain how her name is Debbie and she wants to be a cheerleader right before the extreme close-up of full penetration is.

In another ten years - maybe less - people are going to look at these comics and shake their heads the same way they do today when they look at Ebony White or Fu Man Chu from the Golden Age of comics and the pulp trades.

Ado Neilson Hall said...

Andrew, I love your blog. I discovered it last night and have just finished reading the entire run, including comments. I share your enthusiasm for 'The All New Atom' and your distaste for the seedier sexual elements that crop up here an there in the comic world. It may be the case that clothing in the superhero world is already a little out there, with its profusion of spandex and tights, but the exposed thighs and buttocks and breasts (especially of Power Girl, Ms Marvel and Phantom Lady dimensions) unsettle and embarrass me. I have to hide those for-fanboy excesses from my wife and teenage daughters. Which is a shame - because my fond memory of silver-age comics as a boy, was of a joyful, exuberant more innocent world. Anyway, what I wanted to ask you about was Geoff Johns. I've only been back in comic for a couple of years and it was largely the work of Johns - Green lantern and JSA that enticed me. But you're not so keen (with a few exceptions - I noted). Was there a particular comic that put you offside. A strain or bent though his comics, or a philosophy you didn't like?

Andrew Hickey said...

Ado - first, thank you for your comments (incidentally, looking at your profile, I'll have to point my wife towards your blogs - she's both a language geek who loves middle English and a lapsed Linux geek who's thinking of putting Ubuntu onto the new desktop when we get one).

My opinion of Geoff Johns is based on a fairly small amount of data. I picked up about two issues of his Flash run, a few of his JSA, a handful of Green Lantern issues, Infinite Crisis and his JLA run with Heinberg, maybe 20 comics in all, in 2004-2005. The impression I got from those (which may well be wrong, but it's one that other people have mentioned) is that Johns is a Roy Thomas style fan-as-writer.

What I mean by that is (to put it far more harshly than I actually think) Johns (like Brad Meltzer and a few other current writers) is less interested in telling a good story than in putting the DC Universe into the shape he wants it to be (a shape which in Johns' case seems to be something approximating the mid-80s, especially Marv Wolfman's comics, but with a touch of the early 90s crossover excess thrown in).

He seems more interested in 'fixing' continuity, and retconning, and making sure everything in the DCU is the way he thinks it should be, than in telling a good story.

He also appears to have at least a touch of the 'violent = mature = better' approach - his work contains far more on-panel, bloody violence than is to my personal taste.

I suspect my opinion of him was hardened, as well, by Infinite Crisis, which I thought was a truly *bad* series and is the only complete story I've read written by him solo. I found it incoherent, rather nasty at times, and it killed off a large number of characters without adding more toys for other writers to play with.

Having said that, the work of his I've read since Infinite Crisis has been much better. While the Steel and Black Adam sections of 52 were the least interesting to me (and the Black Adam story again showed many of Johns' less admirable traits) he was also responsible for a couple of nice moments in there, and apparently did a lot of the heavy lifting at various points. His Up, Up And Away story in the Supertitles was wonderful, and now Booster Gold is looking to be rather good.

I've given most of the credit for these good comics to his co-authors (Busiek, Waid, Rucka and especially Morrison are all much better writers than Johns) but given that Katz has no track record, maybe Johns is capable of more than I would normally credit him with.

I suspect I'll still not buy many of Johns' comics - he appears not to have very much to say, so would still be of limited interest to me - but I'll at least give Booster Gold a few more issues, and may not let Johns' name put me off as much if the concept of a future project of his sounds interesting.

JOHNNY ZITO said...

As a kid I worked at a terrible comic shop that was exactly like your Robot's Dungeon. I think you're pretty spot on with everything you're saying.

My current shop is great. Out of Time, in Center City Philly. They bill themselves as a hip t-shirt and accessories store. If you're walking by that's what's in the windows. Maybe some trades, too.

The place is right between student housing and classes for an art college around there. People who wouldn't be there otherwise, come in for a T and get distracted by the comics between the shirt racks.

Chill music, nice staff. More trades than back issues. No toys.

It's very welcoming.

badartdog said...

Great post, Andrew. I think I live in the same city as you. (Big funeral today? Key derby football match yesterday? Probably raining?) If so - yr damn right. My wife will happily browse the smaller shop whilst I'm buying, but can't abide 'The Android's Dungeon'.
I'm beginning to feel the same. Whilst I don't much care for smalltalk - I've shopped at the larger chain for over the best part of 20 years - never once have I felt they were interested in me or what I bought. The smaller, newer store has given me vouchers, loyalty cards, discussed what I'm buying, made further recommendations, smile, say hello etc.
Now, I know that both are after my hard earned, but because of their effort and attitude, you can bet that the smaller shop gets far more than the dungeon.
I know this doesn't tie in with the semiotics theme of your blog, but I wanted to get it off my chest anyway :)

Andrew Hickey said...

Yeah, that's the one, badartdog. You've quite possibly seen me in there - fat, big beard, glasses, small American wife.
I'm not one for smalltalk either, but what finally made me start going there full-time was something quite simple - I'd been into 'Android's Dungeon' to ask about getting Following Cerebus #1 and the bloke just looked at me like I was a piece of crap for asking for anything not from Marvel.
FNCS, on the other hand, not only stocked copies of Following Cerebus on the shelves, but when I'd been shopping there a while, one of the staff gave me, for free, a Christmas card one of the other branches of the chain had received - the Aardvark-Vanaheim one for that year with a Cerebus 301 cover mock-up, signed by Dave Sim & Gerhard - because he'd rather see it go to someone who'd appreciate it...

Anonymous said...

While I can see how semiotics can play a role in whether women feel "good" or "bad" when they enter particular comic shops, or what their "gut reaction" may be to a particular cover - frankly, I think everybody, not only women, ought to develop a thicker skin when it comes to these things.

After all, you got uncomfortable in a different shop, but you didn't (as far as I know) go around for days afterwards bitching about how the phone company was out to get you and how you were entitled to a more peaceful, less ad-saturated environment. You'll do business there or not as you see fit, and (I'd hope) leave everyone else to do the same.

Those who would use their gut reactions as an excuse to light the torches and wave the pitchforks, however, get no sympathy from me.

Andrew Hickey said...

Anonymous - the difference is that those women you complain about? They're *the ones who stayed*.

You can argue with people about if a particular image is degrading or not, or if something makes sense in context, or whatever. Whilst I tend to take the feminist side in these arguments, there are specific cases where I disagree (for example the Stephanie Brown Batcave Memorial campaign I think is silly and on some level shows a misunderstanding of the difference between fiction and reality).

But you can't have that conversation in the first place if you've scared off all the women with things that could be changed without any damage to anyone...

Jaime said...

I'm in that particular city (probably crossed paths in friendly shop) and, rather oddly, bandana guy has been nice to me on occasion and I'm an actual woman! Still, if I do go there I have to give my confidence a kick up the arse to go down and tend to go into a single minded do-not-make-eye-contact mode before getting out. (I find upstairs to be the opposite though which is a shame)

I can't really come up with anything intelligient regarding the comics industry and it's treatment of women, it seems that the more women try to make themselves understood the more the industry feigns ignorance as an excuse or acts like a petulant child, throwing a tantrum and blaming it on everyone but themselves.

Andrew Hickey said...

Jaime, yeah, I've heard that upstairs is much more pleasant (a friend of mine who moved to London from here a year or two ago just started buying comics, and she goes to that chain almost exclusively because she was a regular there for SF merchandise etc when she lived here).
Not being in the action figure/DVD market, I've never really spent much time upstairs there...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - the difference is that those women you complain about? They're *the ones who stayed*.

I think you may have some sort of misapprehension regarding which women I was complaining about - or even that I was complaining.

If they stay, and continue to shop at the Android's Dungeon regardless of their feelings, then they're the ones with the thicker skins and I have no problem with them.

Let me put it this way: There's a few pizza places in my area. Two or three are part of a chain. One of these chain eateries caters to a young, party-loving crowd - the inside is generally filled with teenagers, a jukebox with very loud music, some video game machines, the decor is colorful and garish.

Across town is a home-grown pizzeria staffed by an Italian immigrant. Though pizza is their primary dish, they also serve many other Italian style foods. The place is decorated in a rustic fashion, there's a fireplace which is lit in the winter, the ambiance is soft and quiet - not quite fine dining, but not too far off.

My mom (in her 60s) loves the latter restaurant, hates the former. Only rarely have we been in the chain pizzeria, and she complains about the music and the rowdy teenagers. She said once, "well, they must not want my money if they operate like this."

And to some extent they don't. They have their clientele, as does the more sophisticated pizzeria, and both places get along just fine. To make either shop alter themselves to achieve a wider appeal would rob them of the things that bring in their respective customer bases. (And make them more like the blander, inoffensive but unremarkable pizza chains elsewhere.)

Now - comic shops are a little problematic, since in my experience it takes a larger population base to support them - a city that has five pizza shops may only have one comic shop, if any at all. If you're the only game in town, it may make more business sense to have a store with a wider appeal to all - however, in my opinion it should not be mandatory. My mother is not entitled to have the chain pizza restaurant shape up and turn down the music and settle the teenagers down.

Some talk about "Android's Dungeon" style comics shops (see no radio's comments) seems to imply that through some means or another these shops should be tamed or shut down. I think that regardless of the wisdom of operating one's business in a particular way, in the end it is the owner of the shop who sets his standards, and customers have to decide for themselves whether their offense outweighs their need for comics. There are alternatives, nobody is entitled to an unease-free shopping experience, you can always get a phone at some other shop, or even online.

If the Android's Dungeon was made less offensive to women, isn't it possible it would become less appealing to the fanboy crowd who buys comics there now? Or does that group not deserve a store that appeals to them because they're sexist and evil?

(Before you say "but it wouldn't make it less appealing" - you mentioned putting "Lady Death" behind the counter. It might be a fairly small imposition to have to go up and ask the clerk to drag the issue out so it could be looked at or purchased, but then, how one views a store often turns on little conveniences like that.)

Andrew Hickey said...

Here's the thing, I'm not talking about 'deserve' or not, I'm not talking about 'entitlement', I'm talking basic sense.

If you make 50% or close of the population uneasy, then you're turning potential customers away. That's an incredibly stupid thing to do. And while I think any business owner has a right to do incredibly stupid things, I also have a right to point out how stupid they are.

More to the point, we're not just talking about individual businesses. So long as Diamond have a de facto monopoly on comics distribution, and so long as the big two (especially Marvel by virtue of their greater sales) have a huge influence over every comics shop, I think they have an obligation, if not to discourage, at least not to *encourage* stupid business practices.

My concern here is not to prevent offence, but rather to prevent comics as we know them from dying out altogether. They're a very small medium catering to an ageing and shrinking fanbase, and I would like to see that change, because it would make it more likely that I will be able to continue to buy the comics that I want (and, indeed, that the sexist fanboys can continue to buy their comics).

We don't *have* a comics equivalent of the bland, inoffensive pizza chains. If we did, I possibly wouldn't shop there - I don't eat at Pizza Hut or Domino's, either - but plenty of people *do* eat at Domino's, and it is my strong suspicion that a *lot* of people who would never be seen dead in a comics shop at the moment would buy them if they had the option of buying from such a place.

I'm saying "Hey, there's a big pot of money over there, but you have to pull your pants up if you want it!" while you're saying "comic shop owners shouldn't have to pull their pants up if they don't want to." I don't see that either statement invalidates the other.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, but:

If you make 50% or close of the population uneasy, then you're turning potential customers away.

I have yet to see anything that backs that kind of statement up (and you're not the first to say it).

"50% or close" assumes a couple things: That all women would be uneasy about shopping at the Android's Dungeon, or that there's an equivalent measure of female to male fans in the first place.

That all may or may not be true; I've never seen anything (beyond anecdotal evidence) to actually prove it to be more than an assumption, however (and there's anecdotal evidence to show a significant number of women wouldn't be bothered by the Android's Dungeon, as well)...

Andrew Hickey said...

""50% or close" assumes a couple things: That all women would be uneasy about shopping at the Android's Dungeon,"

Every woman I know who buys comics or has had occasion to go into a comic shop on a regular basis has complained at least once about feeling uncomfortable there. Given that they're the ones who are *still going in to those shops*, and presumably at least somewhat sensitised to it, I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that the women who *aren't* going in to the shops would dislike it more.

"or that there's an equivalent measure of female to male fans in the first place."

Well, no. There aren't. In large part *because they're made to feel unwelcome*. I don't, however, see anything in the comics medium that is intrinsically off-putting to women. There is nothing at all in the idea of putting pictures next to other pictures, to tell a story, with or without the use of words, that says the medium's effect is dependent on the shape of the reader's genitals.

Still, I'm sure the negroes don't *want* to come into the country club, anyway. They'd only feel unwelcome here. Better they stay with their own kind.

Anonymous said...

Still, I'm sure the negroes don't *want* to come into the country club, anyway. They'd only feel unwelcome here. Better they stay with their own kind.

Funny. But women aren't being excluded from the Android's Dungeon by anything but their own unease.

I find it difficult to feel sorry for anyone kept out of any establishment, not by rules, not by physical means, but by bad vibes.

(Which is not aimed just at women - I'm not particularly sympathetic to your own ad-related panic, either. That isn't a statement of malice, just the opinion that (again) people should suck it up more and just deal with things.)

Andrew Hickey said...

See, once again, you are missing my really rather simple point.

I am not asking you, or anyone else, to feel sympathetic towards anyone. I'm not saying it is *right* for anyone to feel offended in a comic shop, or a mobile phone shop, or anywhere else. I'm saying it is *happening*.

I am further saying that it is *not good business* to make potential customers uneasy. In the case of my mobile-phone-shop anecdote, I'm willing to bet I'm the only person who has been made uneasy by that shop in the past however many months, and the things that made me uneasy are precisely the things that attract many, *many* people into that shop. It would make no sense for Carphone Warehouse to change its business practices for the sake of one person, and makes far more sense for me to just stay away - that works for both me and them.

However, if every one of the men in there had felt the same way I did, if despite offering a supposedly gender-neutral product like mobile phones 90% of its customers were female, and if that 10% of male customers included a huge contingent of people who set up blogs called things like "When Phoneboys Attack!" dedicated solely to explaining how, despite their love of mobile phones, many things about the phone companies and shops annoyed, angered and upset them, then I would suggest that maybe they might want to look at getting rid of the topless cardboard David Beckham figure.

Comic shops are meant to be businesses, and as such should be *run* as businesses. You do not get customers by putting people off before they've had a chance to try the product you're selling. It makes sense for women to 'suck it up' *if they know they like the product*. If not, why on earth would they stick around long enough to find out?

The vast majority of women - the vast majority of *people* - do not know if they like comics or not. If the medium is not going to carry on shrinking into irrelevance as it has been, we have to actually get people reading comics. Once they know if they like them or not, then there is a level of unpleasantness up with which it makes sense to put in order to get those comics. Before that, it's just unpleasantness with no payoff.

"I find it difficult to feel sorry for anyone kept out of any establishment, not by rules, not by physical means, but by bad vibes."

I don't know why that coloured family left in such a hurry. The cross-burning was just our way, we weren't gonna hurt 'em or nothin'

Lisa said...

Let me ask - what were the national comic book stores? Because as an owner of one I am 99% sure that there is NOT a national comic book chain. There are some regional chains, and some stores with famous owners so everyone knows them, but there is not, to my knowledge, a national comic book chain.

As far as the troublesome covers go, I agree that they can be disturbing. But, unfortunately sex on the cover does sell. Sure, it bothers me and you - but it seems that not nearly enough people are bothered about them to make a difference. And comic book stores typically have to, or want to, display comics with the covers facing out in order to get them to sell. At my store we do our best to avoid objectionable comics alltogether, however sometimes as much as we try it can't be helped.

Andrew Hickey said...

Lisa, I don't want to sound offensive but... you *are* aware that there are nations other than the US, right?
Many people outside the US get *extremely* annoyed when USians make the mistake of assuming everyone else is in the US. I'm not one of them, but it's something you should be aware of.
I'm in the UK, and we *do* have at least one national comic chain, plus several smaller ones that cover a large chunk of the country...

Cliffy said...

Andrew, I'm not sure that invoking the spectre of racial harassment is the best way to go here on an issue which, let's face it, is ultimately pretty trivial to everyone who doesn't own a comics shop.

Andrew Hickey said...

Fair enough, Cliffy. I do have a tendency towards hyperbole, as I'm sure you've noticed by now ;)

I do think the 'racial harassment' comparison is a valid one - the problem is of the same *type*, if not of anything like the same *degree* - but the last thing I want to do is cause offence and distract from the actual point.

I brought it up as a comparison because Mr Anonymous' posts seemed to have a subtext to them that I found rather disturbing - essentially that people have no right to be upset by anything less than physical violence against them. I don't think Mr Anonymous actually thinks that - or at least I hope he doesn't - because it's a very unpleasant way to think, and I was trying to show that using exaggeration. I probably would not have done so had my own argument not been persistently misinterpreted by our anonymous friend.

I don't actually think the issue is one that only applies to comic shop owners - I think that the points I've made can equally be applied to the comic *companies*, and to the fans themselves.

But again, I don't want anyone to think I was making light of what is a very serious issue...

Lisa said...

Andrew - oh. That's interesting actually. I wonder why/how a national chain exists there and not in the US. But, that has nothing to do with your post. Sorry for the confusion.

But do remember that those that make the decisions on objectionable covers are the publishers - not the comic book stores. Ultimately the market needs to send the message to THEM about objectionable cover images.

Andrew Hickey said...

Lisa - thank you for not taking offence at what was actually a fairly rude response from myself. I apologise if I did cause offence and you're just too polite to say it.

I suspect the reason we can have a national chain over here is because of simple geography. Great Britain is roughly the size of, say, Minnesota geographically, but has a population of 65 million. If you imagine the whole Midwest of the US, but in an area you can drive across in a day, you can see how the scales suddenly change.

And yes, I am fully aware that the publishers (and for that matter creators) are the people who need to change, even more than the comic shops. But I somehow doubt that in an industry where the head of the largest company says he wants Spider-Man single so he can 'have sex and download porn', I doubt there's much chance of getting rid of the boys' club atmosphere that pervades the industry by appealing to the publishers' better natures...

Anonymous said...

I had actually read the comments with the racist comparisons many hours earlier, just before I had to step away from the computer for a time. I had thought about replying, but upon reading the first one my enthusiasm was greatly dimmed, and on the second one I was ready to simply dismiss the whole affair: "well, I don't think THAT guy wants to have a reasoned discussion anymore." I'm glad I returned to find I wasn't the only one taken aback by it, or that AH can see how it might be offensive.

As for me and my subtext: to clarify, no indeed, I don't think people have no right to be upset or take offense. They can take offense at anything and everything for all I care.

What troubles me is when some people (not necessarily the original poster) seem to think that the very fact of their being upset or offended has an inherent right to have their feelings appeased.

Which is why the semiotics portion of the post has drawn my attention. Aside from that, the idea that a slovenly comics shop with surly staff should clean up its act as good business sense is hardly anything new, it's been brought up time and again for nearly as long as the Direct Market has existed. The semiotics is an interesting way to look at an age-old phenomenon: many women find some comic shops off-putting.

And, yes, it would be extremely good business sense, I think, for the Android's Dungeon to widen its appeal. I think the tavern down the highway a few miles that caters to a rough biker crowd might do better if it cleaned up and provided a friendlier atmosphere and served more food and less liquor. But that isn't likely, and short of some morality-based legislation being put into play, the owner isn't obliged to have a wider appeal. Maybe he likes his customers and his atmosphere just the way it is; maybe he doesn't feel a duty to the tavern industry to operate by someone else's standards.

I'm uneasy at the suggestion that Marvel, DC, and/or Diamond should be mucking about with how shops run their respective businesses. Marvel's foray into distributing, for example, seems to indicate that these companies wouldn't necessarily have the best interests of the industry as a whole in mind.

Surely it sounds reasonable that these companies could/should encourage better retail establishments, but I'm skeptical about how that would work out in actual practice.

In any case, I think your argument was beginning to twist around backwards a little:

"The vast majority of women - the vast majority of *people* - do not know if they like comics or not. If the medium is not going to carry on shrinking into irrelevance as it has been, we have to actually get people reading comics. Once they know if they like them or not, then there is a level of unpleasantness up with which it makes sense to put in order to get those comics."

The problem (as I see it) is that if that's the case, cleaning up the Android's Dungeon isn't likely to make that much difference. The store isn't likely to put anyone off if they aren't going to walk into the store in the first place.

Comics occupy a small but specific niche. I think most people, even non-comics-readers, know in general what a comic book is, and they probably have some preconceptions regarding what the content is like. What's going to get them into the Android's Dungeon in the first place? Just passing by, impulse shopping? Possible but unlikely. If you already "know" what comics are, and "know" whether or not they appeal to you, only something that challenges that knowledge is likely to get you to cross the threshold. (Such as suggestions from friends, reading a review, and so on.) Once you become open to that suggestion, you're kind of at the point you describe where you may be able to put up with some unpleasantness to get those comics. (Or should be, in my opinion.)

All that blather aside, I find myself curious about one thing that, as far as I can see from this one post, wasn't clearly addressed:

Has anyone actually spoken to this shop owner or written to him and attempted to encourage him to "mend his ways"? Or has everyone just assumed he's a bad-tempered old sot who's going to brush any suggestions aside?

Jaime said...

Do men feel comfortable in the androids dungeon or is it just that women are happier to admit to feeling uncomfortable in certain situations than men are?

I think if you wrote this as an observational piece and left gender out of it a lot of men would lose the bravado and agree to feeling exactly the same way.

Lexi said...

As the sole female employee (and until I see otherwise, customer) of an Android's Dungeon, this is a subject very close to my heart. I was hired with the impression that they were looking to attract more female customers, and that they would be asking for my opinion on how to improve. They never did, so I just started telling them.

I got laughed at. Suggestions like "Maybe we shouldn't use the storefront for storage", or "It really doesn't make sense for back issues to take up two-thirds of the floor space", or even "Has this place been dusted in 20 years?" got laughed at. The one co-worker who was at all sympathetic to what I was saying was very patronizing, saying that he understood where I was coming from, because his wife refused to enter the store, but really you can't fight city hall. Now the only reason I shop there is because I get a discount. If I didn't work there, I would gladly drive the 45 minutes into Boston each week to the stores that get it right.

When I first started shopping there when I was 16, I was absolutely terrified each time I walked in. I stayed close to the walls, made no eye-contact with anybody, kept my eyes on the exits, and wouldn't even breathe until I was concealed in the Vertigo corner. I did this for two and a half years. I did this until they hired me. Looking back, I wonder why I did it. I can only assume it was because, for whatever reason, I was determined to read comics. Looking back, I would never do it again. Even if it meant never knowing the works of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Brian K. Vaughn, Terry Moore, Gail Simone, or any of the other people whose works now fill up a good chunk of my room. Because nobody should be on the brink of an anxiety attack when they go shopping. Nobody should fear for their personal safety when they want to be entertained.

The market is expanding. More people are interested in what comics have to say than have been in a long time (just ask the parade of people--many of whom I don't know--who come by my dorm saying, "I hear you read comics. I've heard about such-and-such. Can I borrow it?"). But there's a reason trades are outselling floppies, and why most sales are coming from outside of the direct market. Because outside comics fandom, people have a pretty consistent idea what a proper store should look like. If the direct market truly wants to expand with the interest, they should focus on making themselves into proper stores.

Anonymous said...

Lexi, I salute your fortitude in overcoming your discomfort in order to get your comics, and working there in spite of their resistance to change and improving their image.

I am curious, though:

"Nobody should fear for their personal safety when they want to be entertained."

You feared for your actual safety in this place? Can you articulate why? (Was it semiotics?)

Evidently you got over it to a point, working there and all. What changed? What signal screaming "DEN OF RAPISTS" faded away and allowed you to work there despite your distaste?

plok said...

"When Phoneboys Attack"...

Lexi said...

You feared for your actual safety in this place? Can you articulate why? (Was it semiotics?)

Evidently you got over it to a point, working there and all. What changed? What signal screaming "DEN OF RAPISTS" faded away and allowed you to work there despite your distaste?


It was all semiotics: This store has no windows in the retail space, the floor is uneven concrete, the lights are harsh fluorescents hanging from bare rafters, one exit is down a narrow hallway, the other is usually blocked by boxes and opens into a back alley (and, as I mentioned, it hasn't been dusted in 20 years). "Dungeon" is a very appropriate label for this place. Also, any all-male environment is going to raise red flags.

I didn't start to get over this until the manager started to come down and talk to me during my (then) monthly visits (and I jumped about a foot in the air the first time he approached me). I learned to trust him, and so when he offered me the job, I began to talk to the other employees, and learned to trust them.

Also, in the meantime, I had gone off to school in Boston, and found a comic shop staffed almost exclusively by women. So having that place to go to for nine months out of the year made the other three months seem like a mere minor annoyance, rather than a test of courage.

Also, the fact that I believed that they would listen to my suggestions and make improvements made me feel like I was going to serve an important purpose rather than the token girl employee I turned out to be.

Don't get me wrong, it's still a decent shop, but it could be a great shop with a wider clientele if they would just update their look. It's a lot of fun to just browse and hang out there, but it shouldn't have taken me two and a half years to learn that.

Andrew Hickey said...

Lexi, that's *exactly* the kind of thing I was talking about. I wouldn't even notice those kind of things in a comic shop, and would shop there oblivious to them, but they obviously made you *deeply* uncomfortable, and could mostly be changed with little to no effort. Any shop that wouldn't change something like that isn't a business in any real sense of the word - they're deliberately driving away customers with no advantage to themselves.

Ado Neilson Hall said...

We have an Android's dungeon in Sydney (NSW) as well as chain of 3 or 4 Android's boudoirs (a little more comfortable - you don't have to step around boxes to get to the shelves). But I have to say, if it wasn't for a much more recent competitor - a bright, open, organised, attractively laid out comic store, I don't think I or my son would be reading comics now. I remember the dungeon from my youth, with trepidation. I remember how uneasy it made me feel - the tattiness, the gloom, the general chaos, the sullen stares etc. About two years ago, my son - 11 at the time, came home from school with a concise DC Universe encyclopedia, found out I'd been a fan of Flash and Green lantern at his age and asked if we could go to get some of their comics. (I'd long since tossed mine away - fool!) I hesitated at first, but when I found the site of the new store online, I agreed to take him. It was a wonderful day, by the way. I wandered around the shelves as awe-struck as my son. And we're still reading, and discussing comics - together. But it may never have panned out this way, if the Android's dungeon was our only choice.