The Big Issue: Comic Book Retailers on Orson Scott Card and Superman, Part 2 [Interview]
When DC Comics issued its statement of no action in response to the outcry over its hiring of anti-gay-marriage crusader Orson Scott Card to write a story in its new Superman anthology, Adventures of Superman, the publisher essentially delegated the moral decision, not only to fans, but to retailers. Some of those retailers will sell the book normally. A few will sell the book, but donate their profits. Others, an ever-growing group, are choosing to keep the comic off their shelves altogether.
The choices retailers are making and the debate surrounding those choices seem to indicate that the intersection of comic retailers, fans, creators and publishers isn't what it used to be. It's more political, more vibrant and perhaps more acrimonious than it's ever been. In this second part of a series of interviews with retailers here at ComicsAlliance, we spoke with Jermaine Exum, manager of Acme Comics in Greensboro, N.C., the city where Card resides. The book will be on Acme's shelves come its release date of May 29.
ComicsAlliance: The reason you gave Wired for choosing to carry the issue is that there are other creators -- you refer to Jeff Parker and Chris Samnee by name -- who also have stories in the book and would be affected negatively if you didn't, when they have no real association with Card other than sharing print space with him. Do you think those stores that are choosing not to sell the comic with Card's story are being unfair to those creators?
Jermaine Exum: Ultimately, it is the prerogative of each store's manager or owner to decide what is on their shelves. Even in this day and age of information, there exists a very real idea that comic book stores are shipped random allotments from publishers to stock their shelves with. We decide what goes on our shelves. A mixture of what our paying customers expect to be able to buy from us and things that we, as retailers, are excited about in the hopes that we can extend that excitement to customers who then want to buy the product from us.
Conversely, when a situation like this comes up, comic book retailers can exercise options. They can stock Adventures of Superman #1 or not stock it. Choosing to not make the material present in Adventures of Superman #1 by Jeff Parker and Chris Samnee available to their fans or potential new fans at Acme Comics wasn't an option for me. Not supporting their moment when they were able to tell a story with one of the most iconic heroes there is never came into the conversation for us.
However, for any retailers who do feel strongly enough to not allow the #1 issue into their stores or otherwise not stock it on their shelves by carrying it to pre-orders only, I would hope that they would do what Jeff Parker himself suggested. Remind customers who do want to support Jeff and Chris that they can buy their individual story digitally when the time comes. I think the fact that Jeff made sure to mention this option speaks to his professionalism as a longstanding member of the comics creator community. So with that, there remains an option even for those who feel strongly that they cannot in good conscience support the printed Orson Card issue, no matter who is involved in other stories in the anthology issue or other creative capacities.
CA: If this comic was written by Card alone, or somehow he was the sole creator, would you have considered not selling it?
JE: To date we have not made a particular issue of a series unavailable because of a creative team. We have had trepidations about content being too mature or more aggressive than solicitations indicated, and we have passed on series that we do not have clientele for, but never a single issue due to creative team. Maybe this happens often and it is not reported upon, but this scenario hasn't come up for us in exactly this way. Unlike any other store in the country, Orson Scott Card lives within close proximity to our store, and he does have many fans in the area; some who know his politics and some who do not, even now. So we would have carried the first issue of Adventures of Superman, but without Jeff Parker and Chris Samnee, the question would have to be how many copies we would have carried.
CA: Is part of this not wanting to see comic shops, which I think we can safely say tend to stay apolitical, places where people vote with their dollar? I don't just mean for this comic, but in terms of people choosing where to shop based on what comics stores will and won't sell?
JE: No store wants to deal with a product failure. A case where something they had hopes to be able to sell to the public ends up not working out and it sits on the shelves unsold. Another false assumption about comic book stores is that we get to send back unsold product after a period of time for a refund. This is not true. Only in rare instances, usually a situation where the book that we ordered showed up in any way different than how it was solicited for us to order such as a different artist than listed, can we return that specific issue for credit. Otherwise, what the store purchased is what the store has and must live with the live capital tied up in it.
This story broke before orders went in, so there should not be a case where a retailer made an order and then customers decided to vote with their dollars and boycott something that is on the way to the retailers' shelves. To that end, to pull back more curtain, there is a small window in which a retailer can, with certainty, increase or reduce quantities. Past that point, what is ordered is what is arriving, and what must be paid for by the retailer. Customers absolutely have the right to vote with their dollars, but the key here is for retailers who are carrying the book to really get a sense for how many they will need to service their customers to whatever level they feel comfortable with.
CA: Is there any comic you wouldn't sell on the basis of its creator's beliefs or its content? In other words, do you think retailers bear some responsibility for the social messages, either explicit or implicit, of the comics they sell?
JE: We don't have a strong clientele for the series Crossed from Avatar here at Acme. Could we have a stronger clientele than we do if we got behind it and went to bat for it, like we go all the way to bat for books like Locke & Key and Saga? Sure. Yet I'm not doing that and don't currently have any staff for whom that is their series. It's one thing to carry an item, to stock it. And it is another thing to sell it with confidence and serve as the last spokesperson for that material you believe in, before it goes home with the end-line consumer.
We carry Walking Dead issues and paperbacks and, as is the case for most retailers, I would assume, sell a tremendous, often surprising, number of copies of the trade paperbacks. Only after aggressive and sustained interrogation will I reveal my true opinion of the series, in that I find it to be one of the harshest and unpleasant series available today. I think the only things stranger than the concept of dead people you know coming back to life, wanting to eat living people, and the only way to stop them is to destroy their brain, is the current pop culture obsession with the concept. Despite my personal feelings, I stock The Walking Dead and even arranged the display it is currently on personally.
I was personally offended in a way that I'm not sure I have ever been in my entire life by the language in Django Unchained #1. There were derogatory terms for black people that I had literally never seen before, but there they were, page after page. We are currently about to receive our third order of Django #1 reprints. We will carry the #2 reprints and inevitable hardcover.
We choose to have a mixture of what our clientele would like to be able to buy from us, as opposed to another venue, and the products we would like for them to find out about from us, so they can be excited too. Does that make me compromised in favor of whatever sale I can get? Or does that mean I can keep my personal feelings from affecting what customers can buy from me, that they were hoping to be able to buy from me, instead of somewhere else? That's the question I'll leave you with.
CA; Some folks have made a lot of hay over the fact that Card's Marvel work from a few years ago slid by with little controversy, arguing that people mad about him working for a major comics publisher now should have been mad about it then. I don't want to get into that debate, but I do think the whole scenario is indicative of a more vocal, perhaps more empowered base of comics fans and retailers. Certainly social media has given people a way to amplify their voices. Do you see your role as changing, or having changed in the past few years?
JE: Social media was not what it was when Dabel was publishing Red Prophet and even when Marvel was publishing the Ender's Game adaptations a few short years ago. Now, the smallest bits of comic book quote-unquote news are shared, reposted, retweeted, and otherwise distributed over a vast readership in minutes. When a story like Orson Card being hired by DC Comics to write Superman comes to light, it spreads further and faster than Superman's costume being turned into armor with a high collar.
But that is also where the problem began, in that, while the information spread, there was time and again no mention that this was a digital first release of individual stories, that these were out-of-New-52-continuity stories, and that the print edition would be an anthology collecting more than one story by different creative teams. The lead artwork was Superman as drawn by Chris Samnee, even though Chris Sprouse is the artist working with the adaptation of Card's script. These are all important details pertinent to deciding exactly what you, the fan and/or retailer, ultimately feel is the right decision for you.
CA: One thing I find particularly fascinating about this whole story is how little involvement DC has had in it. Whether intentionally or not (and I do doubt they expected it to become this much of an issue), DC has left some big moral questions at the feet of the people who buy and sell its comics. Do you think there'll be more cases like this in the near future?
JE: Just like in the worlds of entertainment and sports, the comics industry is not immune to creators who are divisive or are, in some cases, difficult to support. The moment where a fan must decide if they support the creation or the creator is never fun, nor is it anything you can prepare for until it happens. I myself recently purged my personal collection of the work of a creator I had previously enjoyed, due to his outlook on the industry we are both part of and my interaction with him at conventions. That creator's work is still on prominent display at Acme Comics, and we reorder it regularly as needed.
As someone from an age of comics, the '80s, where I seldom saw so much as a photograph of a creator to know what they looked like, I think that a few more such cases may pop up. But I think that so many of today's most successful comic creators are just as business-savvy as they are creative. So we may actually see even fewer instances like the issue before us today, because no creator wants to risk missing out on an opportunity for work or to have the audience that is exposed to their material limited, if it can be avoided.
CA: Certainly people have made decisions regarding where they eat their fast food or what charities they donate to based on social issues. Are political and social beliefs just a part of commerce now? Is that problematic?
JE: I think that we want to know that our money went to the right place. We are a big proponent of buying local at Acme Comics. A high-school-aged kid in the midst of trying to sell me bake sale goods asked me what the "buy local" sign on our door meant. I explained that buying local means that a person who lives here could buy anything we have in the store somewhere else, including online. And they could probably buy it cheaper. But a reason to choose to buy from the place you're standing in is that when you do, you know that your money went to keeping the lights above us on, it allows us to carry more comic books like those over there, it allows us to hire people who live here like that guy behind the counter, and it keeps me in reasonably nice clothes like these. He then asked if we were hiring and I told him to bring a resume. Doesn't get much purer than that.
It plugs back into people wanting to know that the money they worked overtime to earn is going to something remotely real that connects to real people somewhere down the line. And in a world where Amazon is automatically 30% off with free shipping, supporting your team no matter what the one athlete just did, loving that one song even though the performer just did something terrible, and Walmart is the only place open at this hour, it is tough for a person to always adhere to a code of commerce. That is where things get problematic. All you can do is follow your instincts and when or if that gives way to following other motives, like convenience or just wanting to enjoy a sandwich or a story, make sure you're OK with it.