The Big Issue: Comic Book Retailers on Orson Scott Card and Superman, Part 3 [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 third part of a series of interviews with retailers here at ComicsAlliance, we talked with Patrick Brower and W. Dal Bush, the owners of Challengers Comics + Conversation in Chicago, where they'll be selling the comic, but donating all their profits to LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
ComicsAlliance: In one of your two Tumblr posts about your decision to donate the profits from the Orson Scott Card Superman comic, you insinuate this is a matter of "acting according to [your] conscience." Other retailers have similarly been driven by their consciences to simply not sell the book. Why did you opt for this response instead?
Patrick Brower: It is never our intention to take the choice away from the people who shop with us. Just because we may not be fond of this particular creator's very public personal beliefs doesn't mean fans of Superman that choose to shop at Challengers should be denied the opportunity to get that issue of Adventures of Superman. That we don't want to profit from it is not a good enough reason to not let someone buy it if they want it. Also, that issue is an anthology and Chris Samnee has work in that book. Have you seen his Superman pin-up? It's gorgeous.
W. Dal Bush: We're retailers. We got into this business to sell more comics, not less. When we've donated to causes in the past -- animal shelters, Haiti disaster relief, etc. -- we've done so by selling comics and other items for a benefit. That's the first thing that occurs to us as retailers: What can we sell to do the most good? In this case, rather than decline to carry his comic, we wanted to sell Orson Scott Card's Superman comic and use the money to fund the Human Rights Campaign. That's just how we approached the problem of stocking a comic that stood to fund an organization, the National Organization for Marriage, with which we disagreed.
CA: You explained that your profits from each copy exceed Card's royalties, so you're going beyond just canceling out what he makes from your store. But when DC's looking at the order/sales numbers in the end, possibly deciding whether it's worth the controversy to hire Card or someone who shares his very public views again, your profits ultimately won't enter into that equation, I think one can safely say. Do you view this as putting a different kind of pressure on DC, beyond the bottom line?
PB: Because the issue in question is an anthology, DC can choose to look at whatever they want to justify the sales numbers. Maybe they'll think it's all Chris Sprouse fans; maybe it's due to Jeff Parker. Personally I think OSC is the least of the talents listed for that issue, and that is based off of previous comic sales, not personality or beliefs. We never thought of this as a "We'll show DC!" situation as some other shops seem to see it. This is just what we need to do to make ourselves feel like we're trying to even the playing field.
WDB: After reading any number of editorial and sales Q and As from DC, I'm pretty sure DC can interpret data whichever way best suits their current agenda. I don't know that we ever approached this issue in a "when DC's looking at the order/sales numbers" way so much as just taking an action that made us feel better about the situation. This book is a print edition of a digital-first DC superhero comic; it's not Saga. Based on our sales for other digital-first comics, such as Batman Beyond Unlimited or Arrow, we'd have been lucky to sell a dozen copies even if there'd been no controversy regarding the creators involved. While our donation of profits might not be apparent to DC, I don't know that a missing 12 copies would've either. All things being equal, we felt better making a donation and selling the book than boycotting the title.
CA: How have your customers been responding? While this offsets the guilt of buying the comic, it also adds some real complexity to a purchase, doesn't it? Whichever side of the fence a customer falls on, he or she is contributing to something they disagree with.
PB: It is our hope that this does not add any complexity to the purchase of the book. This is our choice and we are not asking anyone to take sides. The buying of a comic should always be for enjoyment. If we are adding guilt to the purchase, then we are not doing our job. You should not have to agree with our personal politics to buy the comics you want. And if you did feel guilty about wanting this book, hopefully knowing where your money is going will assuage that guilt. I want this book. Chris Samnee is drawing Superman! I totally want that. But to answer the question of customer response, it has been mainly positive. Obviously the Internet has been overwhelmingly positive, but to be honest, a large portion of that positivity comes from people who do not regularly shop with us, nor do many of them buy comics regularly. But there have been a few people who have requested that book specifically because of our posts, yes.
WDB: The response has been largely positive. We've been grateful that we've seemed to avoid losing any customers over this decision, which is always a risk when you advocate publicly. As far as adding an amount of complexity, the world's a complicated place, I guess. If you telescope out your decision-making process far enough, choice can be paralyzing. We look at it as, "This one book, this one situation, you can buy it or not buy it. If it makes you fell better to not buy it, do that. If it makes you feel better to buy it, do that." It's a $4 Superman comic. While we can all stand to take a look at the ethics of our actions, there's maybe a point at which we can just make one decision and leave it at that. It's not defining you as a human being if you buy or don't buy one Superman comic.
CA: You also talked about how "slippery slope" arguments don't apply here -- it's one decision based on a very specific set of circumstances. You say you may never do this kind of thing again. But you have to admit this isn't happening in a vacuum either. Chick-fil-A has been the most prominent case in the past year or so, but voting with one's dollar seems to be more prevalent now than it's ever been. Aren't there cultural forces that may drive you to make similar decisions in the future, not even necessarily on the issue of gay marriage?
PB: It is absolutely possible that political and cultural forces may cause us to consider this type of action in the future, but it isn't something we are planning on or looking out for. This very hot-button issue arose within our industry and we felt like we needed to take a stand for ourselves. Using Chick-fil-A as a reference works more if it was a franchise holder that had been outspoken, not the company President. And while I personally have never eaten at a Chick-fil-A restaurant, I can't really say if the public outcry actually hurt them. I'm not saying it didn't, but they're still in business. But the way other Chick-fil-A franchise holders made it a point to publicly disagree with the situation was a solid step in creating a discussion.
We want to use comics for good. In 2010, we used DC's Lantern Corps rings to raise money for the International Rescue Committee for Haitian Relief Efforts. In 2009, we had an art show where proceeds went to the Hero Initiative. We've been members of the CBLDF longer than Challengers has been around. We use the store to raise donations for the San Lucas United Church of Christ for their local homeless outreach programs. We have donated thousands of comics to Briggs 4 Kids, to Open-Books.org and to many local schools. And all of those are very little things compared to how much more we can and should do. So if something like this, our dissatisfaction with the very public statements of a comic book creator, something that is happening specifically in our industry, if it spurs us into action for a worthy cause? Yes, we will certainly consider this type of action in the future.
WDB: Sure. We specifically said, in response to the decision to make a donation of our profits to Card's comic, "We may make others like it in the future, we may not." There may absolutely be points in the future where our consciences compel us to make similar decisions. But! But! This does not mean that we will constantly be making similar decisions, nor will we be vetting every book for troubling creators or viewpoints.
CA: Retailers have taken books off the shelves before. Remember the guy who got mad about "GD" in Action Comics? But those really were isolated incidents. This seems like an issue (in several senses of the word) retailers and fans have to come down on, one way or another. Doesn't it set something of a precedent?
PB: Is this a precedent? I kind of hope not. Comic book retailers sure can be a reactionary bunch, and that includes us.
WDB: "Precedent" is a strong word to use. After working in comics retail for 20 years, I can assure you that the retail community and comic fans both have pretty short memories, never more so than with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Anger burns white-hot and flares out. Today's "Orson Scott Card on Superman!" is tomorrow's "I can't believe who's writing Green Lantern!" While the issues of marriage equality and LGBT rights are serious and important, I'd be surprised if Adventures of Superman #1 ended up being anything more than a 2013 footnote. It would be great if fans, companies, retailers, creators, people learned something from this situation, but I don't think it's likely.
CA: This whole story seems to have shined a light on how relationships between retailers, customers, creators and publishers seems to be shifting, doesn't it? With DC essentially removing itself from the debate here, fans, retailers and creators have exchanged a lot of dialogue on Twitter and elsewhere. I can't imagine a debate like that taking place even a few years ago. How do you think the landscape is changing? Will customers start making decisions about where to shop based on how retailers handle these sorts of things now? Is that a cause for worry?
PB: No, this isn't a cause for worry because I don't think it will change the landscape. People shop at some pretty crappy stores just because they are close. We are fortunate that we have several dedicated customers who come from longer distances because they believe in what we do, but more often we hear, "I wish you were closer to where I live." Chicago specifically has a lot of comic stores and that makes it harder for people to travel too far from home when the product is virtually the same. As for the social media aspect of it all, I love the immediacy of social media. I love seeing an instant reaction to things as it relates to our shop, but I also like surprises and not having things spoiled. More and more people just want to be the first to tell you whatever it is. It doesn't even matter the subject, just so they, or their site, is first. And a much bigger discussion is related to what I said above, how so many of the people that react to situations like this are not people who would buy the product in question in the first place. If they were, if all the people who comment so often online, actually bought the comics they comment on? The industry would be in much better shape.
WDB: The amount of people online who posted responses of solidarity who also don't live anywhere near us was pretty high. People may shift from stores they don't agree with morally or ethically, but there's a difference between not supporting a boycott or donation and advocating for the opposition. Like, I can't see someone who supports marriage equality abandoning a store just for carrying Adventures of Superman #1, but I can see someone abandoning a store who openly supports Card or the National Organization for Marriage. Also, if you want to buy comics at a local, brick-and-mortar comic shop, you may not have a choice about where you get them, unless you feel like driving a few hours. That's definitely a thing. I guess it speaks to a larger question of, "How much are you willing to be inconvenienced for your beliefs," which is the sort of internal calculation people have to do on a pretty regular basis.
CA: And to close out: What other comics are you excited to be selling in May?
WDB: Man, so many. Not counting monthly issues of fantastic series like Saga, Revival, Hawkeye, The Sixth Gun, Mind Mgmt, The Massive, Adventure Time, Avengers, and dozens of other ongoing series? There's Kevin Nowlan's Lobster Johnson one-shot, the new collection of Batgirl Year One and Robin Year One, the landscape-edition Promethea Omnibus, Snyder and Murphy's The Wake, Ryan Browne's first issue of Bedlam, a new G-Man collection, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard Volume 2, Marble Season, Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, Odd Duck, Red Handed, Lost Cat, Mere, Walrus, The From Hell Companion, and We Can Fix It. There is no shortage of good comics in May.