Digital Comics and Comic Shops Not A Zero Sum Game

I don’t believe the proliferation of digital comics sold on tablets will destroy brick and mortar comic shops. I didn’t used to, but I’ve changed my belief on the subject of the demise of the comic shops. Comic shops are not record shops, which they’ve been compared to and may not suffer the same fate. Many experts and fans have predicted that as MP3s decimated the CD retail market, so too the comic shops will fall because of comic apps. While there are similarities in their shared participation in the digital revolution, they are also very different markets. For one, comics are a much smaller industry. CDs had become wildly overpriced and many consumers grew to despise the record industry, feeling no guilt in stealing music from greedy corporations. Here’s a few reasons why I feel comic shops won’t be wiped out by apps:

1. Use: Relatively few people own the tablets to read comics on apps. Up until just recently, a tablet cost a minimum of $500. With the introduction of the Kindle Fire, the price drops down to $200, but they’re not for everyone. They’re buggy, awkward, and only 7 inches, which is too small to comfortably read a comic compared to the iPad. It will be several years until the devices are ubiquitous and as elegant (if ever) as the iPad.

2. Price: comics on tablets are not cheap. Unlike, MP3s, they are not perceived as being fairly price. Unlike ebooks, they’re not cheaper than their physical version.

3. Portability and Ownership: Digital comics can’t be moved from one app to another. They can’t be shared, and we don’t really get to own them, again, unlike their cousins the ebook.

4. The Artifact: So much of the activity at comic conventions has to do with signings. Many comic shops also have signings. Physical books are required for these signings to create a documented interaction between the fan and the book’s creator. The artifact, in this case a comic book, becomes a cherished item, a memento of a moment shared between the fan and the artist. There is a bond with the creator that many fans experience, which never fades. It is a connection with someone they admire, and they will remember it and speak fondly of it over decades. They can reach for the artifact, and show it to friends or simply look upon it in a quiet moment by themselves and recall the events that led to them attaining the prized signature. There is no such interaction with an app based comic.

So what’s wrong with so many of America’s comic shops? For one, they’re not in the comics business, they’re in the super hero business. The super hero business is strangling the comics business. Most comic shops (not all) in America are focused disproportionately on super heroes. Believe it or not, there are many people who don’t give a rat’s ass about anything that Marvel and DC are publishing. There are a lot of people out there who’d rather read about history, humor, fantasy, crime, mystery, sci-fi, young adult, horror, romance etc. While Marvel and DC may touch upon those categories, their primary thrust is super powered, costumed characters.That leaves the vast majority of potential comic readers with little to no reason to ever enter a comic shop.

Bergen Street Comics's inviting interior is devoid of clutter and dorkyness.
Bergen Street Comics's inviting interior is devoid of clutter and dorkyness.

Recently, I visited two comic shops that had a very small percentage of comics about super heroes — and the shops were busy, packed, thriving. The owners were friendly, enthusiastic, talkative, helpful. They carried graphic novels, trade paperbacks, obscure comics, weird comics, funny comics, comics for kids, comics not suitable for kids, arty comics, mini comics, indie comics, hardcover collections, comics by local artists, comics from abroad… Wow! I’m speaking of course of Brooklyn’s Desert Island Comics and Bergen Street Comics — two very different stores in appearance, presentation, and offerings, but similar that they both operate under the assumption that super heroes are only a tiny portion of what the public wants when it comes to comics.

Desert Island Comics's light-hearted interior.
Desert Island Comics's light-hearted interior.
Surprising exterior of Desert Island Comics retains the sign of previous inhabitants.
Exterior of Desert Island Comics retains the sign of previous inhabitants.

While there are many innovative comic retailers around the country, these are the creative ones I’ve recently seen firsthand. I’ve been in many of the old model: dirty, sloppy, poorly lit, with their narrow-intrest inventory, and the sweatpants-wearing retailers who believe showering is optional. These shops are the sad temples of the all-boy’s club of nerd world. The artform of comics has been monopolized and ghettoized by the dorks for the past 30 years. It’s exciting to see pro-active shopkeepers re-inventing comic retailing for a new era of expanded customer base. One where females feel welcomed in by an attentiveness to detail and variety of genres. Where nerds and normals can shop under the same roof. Where comics are treated as literature rather than collectables.

It is the Bergen Street’s and Desert Island’s who are cultivating a clientele for the comic shop of the future, where super heroes are only one category in a wide variety of comic book offerings. Along with a customer friendly environment, special events, and ever changing displays and stock, these places become much more than comic shops. They are a part of a community, dare I say a scene. Super hero comic book sales in shops will diminish, and the smart retailers won’t try to make up for it with T-shirts and toys, they will make up for it by selling more comics to more different types of shoppers.

Has It Been 20 Years Since Nevermind, Already?


Almost 20 years ago I made the above T-shirt as a humorous response to the rise of two alt-rock juggernauts: Nirvana and Matt Pinfield. While Nirvana was all over the radio and MTV, Pinfield’s star was just starting to rise. In New Jersey, Matt was a local hero; serving as programming director and afternoon record jock at the Jersey shore’s 106.3 WHTG and DJing at the Melody Bar in New Brunswick three nights a week. Matt and I had crossed paths several times, but when he was DJing at a wedding reception I attended around 1989, we got into a long discussion about new bands. He asked me if I liked The Wonder Stuff and we’ve been friends ever since. Years later I would take him to his audition in New York for MTV.

When I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” I thought it was a new Pixies tune. I later found out that was exactly what Kurt Cobain was going for. The song seemed like it was everywhere, yet I never grew tired of it. I never really appreciated the rest of the album, but I always felt Teen Spirit was one of the greatest rock songs I’d ever heard. Some months later, I received a frantic call from Pinfield, “…how fast can you get into the city? I’m at NBC studios! Nirvana is doing their soundcheck for Saturday Night Live  at Rockefeller Center!”

Since I was only 45 minutes out of Manhattan, I raced up the NJ Turnpike, bolted into NBC, found Matt and we were whisked through glass doors past a group of kids on a class trip. I’ll never forget how wide their eyes got as the doors opened and Teen Spirit blasted out into the hall. The doors closed behind us and the kids pressed themselves against the glass to here more. We entered the Saturday Night Live studio and there was G.E. Smith, the legendary bandleader and music director of SNL. We sat in the dark with a few people from CMJ magazine. There was Nirvana, bashing out Smells Like Teen Spirit for the five luckiest people in New York City at that moment in time.

What I’m Reading


Alphaville: 1988, Crime, Punishment, and the Battle for New York City’s Lower East Side by Michael Codella and Bruce Bennett is a wild ride of cops, drug dealers, junkies,  in lawless days of NYC. Brought me back to the days when Manhattan was fun, but dangerous.

Co-author Bruce Bennett was the co-host on The Hound show on New Jersey’s legendary WFMU FM. It was great radio show that was broadcast every Saturday afternoon from 3:00 to 6:00 PM from 1985 to ’97. Many a Saturday afternoon I would draw and listen to rare and bizarre rockabilly, soul, psychedelia,punk, r&b, and british invasion tunes. The banter between Bennett and The Hound, AKA Jim Marshall, was full of snide cracks, music trivia, horrible stories from the NY Daily News, oddities, you name it. It was like hanging out in the your favorite bar, with best jukebox and some of your most brutally amusing friends. Well, actually I had all that at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, NJ, but with the Hound’s show, I could listen to all the great music and wise cracks, but actually get some work done.

During these Saturday afternoon drawing sessions I was free to draw whatever I wanted. Even though I had my own art department at Talking Tops, I rarely had time to experiment — it was all business. But at home, listening to The Hound, it was all fun. I’d sit and scribble, and giggle, draw some more, and listen to more great music.

A third regular on the show was Eric “Roscoe” Amble. Roscoe was a founding member of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and was now touring in various bands throughout the years of the Hound’s show. While on the road, Roscoe would call in with a “Vibe Report” about what was going on where he was playing that weekend. He always had an amusing story or an observation about some strange venue he had just played.

All the time I was listening to The Hound and Bruce Bennett talk about Roscoe, I was working on the early version of Rat Bastard. Somewhere  around ’96 my character needed a name, and I knew that a “roscoe” was an old-time expression for a gun.  And that’s how Rat Bastard’s Roscoe Rodent got his name.

So thanks to Eric “Roscoe” Amble, The Hound, and Bruce Bennett, for all the Saturdays of great tunes and laughs, and inspiration for one of my favorite creations.

I’m Writing a Sci-Fi Story For This Guy

Ten year old Cliff Galbraith in front of the United Nations building in NYC, after parade for Apollo 11 Astronauts in 1969

While he had many interests including cartoons, pro sports, art, rock music and comic books, this guy loved anything to do with space travel. Astronauts, space ships, science fiction or fact. It didn’t matter whether it was Neil Armstong on the moon or Charlton Heston on the Planet of the Apes. He read everything from Issac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke to H.G. Wells. He was drawn to TV shows like The Outer Limits, Lost in Space, Star Trek, Space Angel, Astro Boy, Fireball XL-5, The Invaders, et al.

But the Apollo astronauts were his greatest passion. He’d cut out their pictures from newspapers and magazines and hang them on his bedroom walls. He’d draw them and their space crafts, and make little comic books of their journeys.

From time to time, I’d wonder what this little guy would say if he could meet the adult version of himself. What would be his reaction to the notion that he would one day be able to create animation or edit written stories on a personal computer? I think he’d ask me why I ever stopped drawing space ships, and when was I going start again?

This picture was taken by my mom, who took me to see my heroes in late summer 1969. She also taught me how to draw, and introduced me to Picasso, Dali, and Ruebens. Thanks Mom.