8.19.2008

Petrol Prices & Sequential Stories

How’s that for alliteration? What do rising gas prices have to do with my comic book buying habits, you ask? Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

The MBZ isn’t a gas guzzler by any means; for a non-hybrid vehicle it gets decent mileage, around 25mpg. In the US, unless you live in New York or San Francisco, most of the big cities really don’t have any substantial mass transit infrastructure. I have a pretty healthy commute from the northern part of San Diego to either my office in downtown San Diego or to another site in La Jolla. I consume about 14 gallons of gas per week on average, which generally equates to about $60 per week. Keep in mind that this isn’t really a precise scientific set of calculations, it’s largely from memory and includes rounded off figures that are easy on my noggin. At 14 gallons per week, for every .20 cents or so that gas prices fluctuate (typically up), that’s roughly $2.80 per week. Or, basically the average price of a single floppy comic.

I’ve never in my life paid attention to gas prices. This used to drive my parents crazy. It seemed that, to them, the cost of a gallon of gas was a standard unit that represented some sort of economic barometer used to generally gauge reality by. When I moved to the “big city” of San Jose, they’d constantly ask what I was paying “over there,” as if it were some foreign land, liquid nitrogen powering my way to the Moon of Deimos in the Outer Rim territories. My answer was always a flat, “I have no idea.” I roll into the gas station when I'm close to empty, fill it up, and drive away. It’s just a random commodity to me, something that I can’t possibly do without and don’t have the time or inclination to drive across town for in order to save a mythical nickel. My dismissive argument was always that the time it took me to investigate a better price and the money it would cost to actually make the drive to an alternate station would negate any meager savings realized. Not to mention the sheer inconvenience of it all. I had “my” gas stations already picked out based on convenience and their proximities to home, school, work, friend’s houses, etc. Having worked the majority of my adult life for the Federal Government, then a lucrative Fortune 100 company in Silicon Valley, I had always netted a healthy disposable income. The actual price of gas was inconsequential to me. I can’t tell you how much toiler paper costs either, how much I spend or consume in a week, month, or year. It’s not a single line item that’s called out in my household budget, yet it gets purchased ad infinitum without fail, a basic necessity, one that I never ponder because simple acknowledgment of the price would never cause me to stop buying it. Though, surely if the price rose to $5 per individual square sheet, I’d take notice. But, I digress.

Sure, I used to think it was cute, in an anecdotal way, that even during my lifetime I could remember much cheaper prices. I remember as a kid that gas was usually around $1 per gallon. At the risk of sounding like the proverbial old fuddy-duddy who rambles nostalgically about walking 6 miles to school, in the snow(!), with no shoes(!) all uphill(!), both ways(!), I remember taking trips across country with my parents. Sometimes in the Midwest you could still score a gallon for under a dollar, .89 and .92 cents not being outside the realm of possibility. Even in high school, I recall that a $5 bill could be fuel sustenance for what seemed like an eternity. In my old ’82 BMW, I could buy about 2 gallons for a crisp fiver. At 30-some mpg, that would last me all week. But, it was never something I actually spent time thinking about, that I actually worried about, until this year. The sting at the pump finally has me considering the shortest routes around town, combining multiple errands into single ventures, ways to avoid travelling altogether, different types of cars, and ways to cut all manner of discretionary spending to a degree never necessary previously.

The combination of ill-conceived wars, the weakening American dollar, now working for a small NPO, and the depleting fossil fuelishness of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth all coalesced to create the perfect storm. I’m suddenly very aware of the price of gas. I’m deeply concerned about the price of gas. It’s hitting home and affecting my lifestyle. And the price of a comic book is something that I can equate the number to, it means something to me personally (as does the cost of a gallon of milk for my daughter, but that’s not nearly as fun to write about!). Equating this to a comic allows me to be able to gauge the relative value of the price by considering it in different terms. So for every .20 cents, that’s roughly $2.80 per week for me, the price of a single issue. Every time gas rises, an easy way to make a balancing fiscal course correction is to look at what to cut from my pull list to keep overall expenses flat. If you follow this logic out further, I’ve noticed that it’s considerably changed my standard buying practices too. Here’s what’s changed…

“Failure is Not an Option:” I remember that for years my standard practice when I was somehow interested in a new series was to give it three issues to hook me. Usually not quite a full arc, but enough to give me a good sample of what the creators were going to offer and analyze whether it was speaking to me or not. Suddenly, I don’t have the means to lay out this much financial risk. Now, the term "risk" may sound like a strong word, but I come from an environment where risk management is essentially the game I play all day long in the business world. Weigh the inherent or likely risk in a given situation vs. the institutional tolerance for that risk vs. the degree to which the risk can be mitigated (usually by throwing money at it) = the expected reward or typical outcome. To review, that’s a floating scale of Risk x Tolerance x Mitigation = Outcome. If Risk goes up or Tolerance for it goes down, then Mitigation efforts must go up to achieve the same Outcome. In the case of comics, if Mitigation in the form of available funds goes down, then both my Tolerance level for poor quality and inherent Risk with trying more books must also go down in order to achieve the same level of satisfying entertainment Outcome. I simply can’t afford three issues of the same title to validate the hope that a new series will hook me. I’d like to be able to try three first issues of different titles with the same amount of funding, but in this little equation the basic tenet is that I have only the funding to try one issue total, regardless of title, not three. This puts books in the unenviable position of “doing it for me” in the very first issue. Sure, there are some exceptions. If we’re talking about an “established” creator (whatever that term means to you) like Warren Ellis or Brian Wood, I can muster a dash of consumer loyalty and feel that I owe them another issue or two to try and make it come correct. But for the average book that piques my interest, it’s right out of the gate – they get one issue and one issue only. New books get one chance and must deliver right then and there.

“The Phrase That Pays:” This is the dreaded “wait for the trade” section of this discussion. I believe in voting with my wallet. Even though with the modern distribution channels, this is not a “direct democracy” approach to supporting creators, but more of a “representative republic” style of consumer voting. But, in general I still believe that buying the titles you want to support creates, in small part, the cascading effect of demand, which helps ensure continued supply. That said, there are a couple of titles I buy that have been placed on the chopping block and will be moving into “wait for the trade” status. When the current arc of Fear Agent is over, for example, I plan to make the switch to trades only. I really enjoy Fear Agent, but it’s fairly well established. On the other hand, if the title is something I’m really passionate about and want to support, like Scalped for example, then I make a conscious decision to spend a portion of my finite dollars there. I’ll buy the single issues knowing full well that I’m going to pay for them all over again and upgrade to the trade. While I like both Fear Agent and Scalped, if I’m forced to choose only one for continued success, I would personally pick Jason Aaron’s Scalped. If the title is something that I just need my fix of, like All Star Superman for example, I also pay for it twice. I know that a book like All Star Superman, with a premiere property and creative team, will succeed or fail without my involvement, and it doesn’t really matter what I do, but hell, there are some books that I like so much all logic flies out the window and I may pay for three or four times just because I dig it. If you count single issues, softcover trades, hardcovers, then an Absolute Edition, sometimes I end up paying around $28 for the same single issue! Want to know how I got there? Let’s say a 6 issue mini-series runs about $3 per issue, or $18 for the whole shebang. You buy the trade for around $20, you upgrade to the hardcover for about $30, then you just have to have the Absolute Edition for around $100. Add it all up and you have $168 in this endeavor, or about $28 for the content of each of the single issues. That must be one fine comic! The poor cost effectiveness of this strategy is reserved for the irrational love of my personal top tier books and is quite rare actually. Honestly, if I love something that much, money is no longer an object. The second tier books though, things like Conan, those are things that chug forward and I can wait for the trade on.

“One Day You’re In, One Day You’re Out:” When I look at my permanent collection, there really isn’t a single anthology that I’ve kept long term. Anthologies are known for being largely uneven, I mean that’s sort of the point. If you don’t like one piece, you’ll surely like another. If you like one going in, you’ll get exposed to another one you might have otherwise overlooked. For me, it seems like the success rate is usually far outweighed by the failure rate though. Yet they continue to appeal to me at first glance. It seems like a good idea, like a lot of entertainment value for the dollar, crammed with different creators, styles, and content. There are a couple exceptions that I’ve kept because a friend has a piece in one or there’s a single artist I like to such an intense degree that I want all of their work (I’m looking at you, Paul Pope). But my old rule used to be if I liked, or thought I’d like, 50% of the content or more, I’d venture out and take a risk on the whole package. Not anymore. Anthologies as an entire category are essentially off the pull list. Anthologies are usually put out by smaller publishers. Small publishers usually do smaller print runs. Smaller print runs are usually more expensive from a per page perspective. Which makes anthologies expensive; anthologies I’m not really enjoying in the first place, regardless of their ostensible attractiveness. Therefore, as a rule, anthologies are out.

“If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It:” I like the idea of mini-series. They are usually self-contained stories, even if part of a larger mythos or property. It’s a chance to organically rotate creative teams. It’s a relatively low risk way for publishers to give a chance to new teams trying to break into the industry and gain exposure. Mini-series are usually collected if you’d ultimately like the upgrade. I find that I try a lot of them, and I’ll continue to. However, in the old days I would continue to buy the entire mini-series even if I didn’t like it. By issue two or three, I’d be thinking to myself that there’s no way in hell I’m going to keep this long term, it’s bleeding out, and I’d even start thinking about who I could give it to, mentally earmarking it for a cousin, friend, or coworker. Some bizarre sense of completion was compelling me to complete it so that I could give it away as a complete set. No more. I’ve stopped buying a four issue mini-series by issue 2 or 3 if it’s just not doing it for me. I’m still drawn by some embedded parental voice to the work ethic of finishing something I’ve started, but it’s just not a luxury I have anymore.

(Insert Pithy Quote Here): I couldn’t really find anything apropos off the top of my head, what I’m really getting at in this paragraph is: buying to keep vs. buying to review. This has been a phenomenon I noticed after a few months of running this site. When I buy something like 52 or Secret Invasion, I know damn well that the odds of me keeping it long term are really low. Yet, somehow I feel compelled out of a sense of obligation to the blogosphere to purchase and review an event book so that yet another blogger will have an opinion, as if the audience expects this. And rule number one of anything creative? Never do what you expect the audience wants – do what you want, and your audience will find you. Secret Invasion is such a good example. I grew up a DC kid, I could really care less about Skrulls. So, I try to force myself into the mindset of “buy it because you want it, not because you want to review it.” I try to only buy things that I “normally” would, regardless of 13 Minutes. Sure, I’m being comp’d on a few books that I wouldn’t typically buy and that certainly helps the financial situation, but you see my main point here.

The “Tim or Tom Rule:" Tim Tom is actually a really cool short film directed by Christel Pougeoise and Romain Segaud about existential angst and the reality of a higher power exerting influence over your choices, but good luck getting anyone to recognize that reference. Ahem. Moving right along… a new comic book series needs to have a hook or I’m really not that interested. Hooks can come in many forms and are largely personal and subjective. If I hear that a new writer named Writey McWriterson is going to be writing a new Speedball series for Marvel, there’s no hook there. I don’t know that writer. I don’t find the character compelling. If someone said that Alan Moore would be writing a new Speedball series for Marvel, well hell, that sounds like silly fun and I’d check it out along with everyone else. Not that this would ever happen, but if I heard that Writey McWriterson was going to pen a Flex Mentallo series, I would absolutely check that out because I have an interest in the property. If I hear that Paul Pope will be penciling the new Boring Man book, I would surely buy it. No idea what the property is, sounds droll, but I love his art enough to pick up anything he does. Whether it’s an established creator, or fondness or loyalty to a character, those things can serve as hooks. If you’re lucky, you sometimes get the uber-hook: a writer you like, an artist you dig, both on a property you have some attachment to. However, all that explanation aside, there’s a wide world of books out there that don’t fit neatly into any of that criteria and the number one hook for me is a recommendation from a credible source. It’s not enough for a prospective book to pass the casual flip test at the LCS anymore. I don’t pay attention to overblown press releases. Tim Goodyear (friend and artist on my first mini-comic, The Mercy Killing) is probably the only person I’ve met who completely gets my quirky personal taste in books. If Tim says to me “you should check out Mine Tonight by Trevor Alixopolous,” I pay attention. He’s never been wrong on a recommendation. If Tom Mattson over at .newseedcomics is hyping a book on his site, I’ll check it out. We generally park our cars in the same garage when it comes to comics and if I see him getting fired up about something, I know there’s a good chance I’ve missed out on it and need to investigate further. Personal recommendations trump everything. Word of mouth turns summer movies into blockbusters; comics can work the same way.

“So Be Good for Goodness Sake!” I can be a fairly impulsive guy. This is only aided and abetted by a freewheeling disposable income. My old practice was pretty simple; if I was interested in something, I’d buy it on sight. As you grow older, you tend to develop the ability to take the long view of things, maybe this is wisdom. I know that the Ex Machina Deluxe Edition, Starman Omnibus, or Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button will be there in December. If I don’t buy them today, the world won’t end. There’s really no sense of urgency to some things. I’ve put those books on my Christmas Wish List that gets circulated and exchanged with family and friends. These books all make nice compact packages, they’re at an affordable price point, and they’re relatively easy to find in stores or online. For the most part, I’ve already read most of the content, I’m not dying to read or review it. They’re things I want, but can also hold out for. Patience can pay off. Example: after reading an interview with Jonathan Lethem in Comic Foundry, Omega the Unknown suddenly sounded interesting to me. Despite really digging Pop Gun War and seeing that Farel Dalrymple (in color no less!) was on this book, I didn’t originally pick it up. I could have run right out and snapped up all the back issues. I could have waited for the trade. What I did instead was muster an ounce of patience, scour the dollar bins at the San Diego Con, and find it all; this puts me into it for $10 rather than the $30 cover price or eventual trade that will likely be somewhere in the 20’s.

“Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want:” In order for something to stay in my collection permanently, I can’t merely like it, I have to absolutely love it. This criteria seems to be getting more and more strenuous as time goes on and I use this wacky set of subjective inner illogic to validate it. The criteria is really difficult to articulate. It has to have a great creative team that just clicks, with an intriguing or well executed high concept, preferably both. Warren Ellis and John Cassaday on Planetary. Ellis and Stuart Immonen on Nextwave: Agents of HATE. Moore and O’Neill on the first two volumes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (hated the Black Dossier, more on that in a sec). Or, it could be a singular creator with a distinct vision. David Mack on Kabuki. Paul Pope on Batman: Year 100. I’ve found that industry meta-commentary will get you far in my permanent collection. Morrison and Quitely on Flex Mentallo. Casey and Wood on Automatic Kafka. Azzarello and Chiang on Dr. Thirteen: Architecture & Mortality. These are some of the perennial favorites. I find that I’m also a bit of a format whore. Having things in their best available format and how they sit on the shelf make them more desirable and ready to covet. The Alias Omnibus, The impossible-to-find Red Star Hardcovers, Absolute New Frontier, Absolute Planetary, Astonishing X-Men Oversized Hardcover, or Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Hardcovers from Drawn & Quarterly. If there’s more than one of these volumes to collect, all the better. Re-readability is a factor. I can read books like Queen & Country, The Escapists, All Star Superman, Desolation Jones, Billy Hazelnuts, or Battle Hymn over and over and pick something new up every time. Some books I buy, I like, I keep, but the desire to read them again never strikes. Those are getting culled from the collection. I’ve absorbed and considered the material, know how I feel, know what I’d say about it or who I’d recommend it to, be it fan or layman, and I really am done. Thank you, next please. Some comic book fans consider themselves completists. They have to have every appearance of a character or everything creator X has ever done. Paul Pope is probably the closest I come to this; he’s not terribly prolific, but even I don’t quite have everything he’s ever done. Completism is becoming less and less a desire for me. If I didn’t really like LOEG: The Black Dossier, I don’t have to have it just because I have the first two and the trinity forms a “complete set.” Another nice example is David Mack’s Kabuki. I began following David’s career in the early 90’s, long before he was close to being a household name. He’d just come out of Caliber Comics (shudder) and Kabuki was underway. I fell in love with this series and picked up all the single issues, eventually upgrading to the trades. After many repeated readings, I found that certain volumes of the work spoke to me stronger than others. While I appreciated Kabuki’s origin and the importance of the earlier stories to her character arc and the Kabuki universe, I only kept the hardcovers of Volume 4: Skin Deep, and Volume 5: Metamorphosis. I plan on picking up Volume 7: The Alchemy when it comes out. I like them all, but I love these.

In summary, a “successful” book in my little corner of the world must navigate this byzantine process and somehow make the cut. I find that I’m continually going through the collection deciding what I need to keep. The older I get, I find that I just don’t want to own things. At some point, they’re just physical possessions taking up space, cataloguing life, and I’m really not into that notion. I find I’ve become this way with not just comics, but movies, antiques, cars, any physical things that I used to collect. I still have a voracious appetite for “stuff” and want to read every comic, burn through magazine subscriptions (none being renewed thanks to gasoline prices), and knock down about two NetFlix movies per week, but precious few can be found sitting around my house taking up space. If they’re not living up to this admittedly tough set of factors, they’ll find their way to a garage sale, get sold, get gifted to friends, or traded in for store credit, thus financing even more comics.

It’s tough, but this is the world we live in.

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