Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Living in the Negative Zone

Loving comic books when you live on the arse end of the planet isn't easy, but it has its benefits.

The main difference is the most obvious one - the price of the damn things, with a new issue costing, on average, about three times as much as the price listed on the cover of most titles. Exchange rates rise and fall, but ultimately make very little difference.

In recent years, the New Zealand dollar almost doubled in value when compared to its American counterpart, but apart from a few small drops in price, that didn't really translate to cheaper comics. The sheer cost of getting the bloody things over here will always be there, so paying upwards of $75 for a hardback collection is just a fact of life.

Although when the hardbacks contain reprints of such thunderingly mediocre comics like Kitty Pryde and Wolverine, that isn't really a problem.

And now the NZ dollar has plummeted, and the prices have to go up. So it goes.

It's always been this way, and can be a source of amusement, remembering a column that somebody wrote in the late '80s. This poor cocksucker, incredulous that a decent sized graphic novel could cost $5.95, when I was paying half that for a regular issue of the Incredible Hulk. I felt his pain. Really. I did.

And things haven't got any better, with pricing methods often going completely mental. The Borders just down the road from my work offers a ton of new comics, but at remarkable prices. You can shell out fourteen bucks for a two-month old issue of New Avengers in which very little happens, or head downstairs to the Graphic Comics department, (unsurprisingly, hidden away in the deepest, darkest corner of the store), and grab a collected edition for $35. Or, better yet, get off your arse, walk up the road to a comic shop and pay six dollars for something that came out three days ago. Various people have tried to explain this remarkable discrepancy to me, with little success.

Still, the high prices make you appreciate an individual comic as its own precious object. They are still the sort of thing to be rolled up and stuck in a back pocket, and read until they fall to pieces. But when I was a whole lot younger, and had to scrape together the five bucks I needed for the latest issue of Excalibur, I would treasure each issue, taking great pains to preserve them. (Although, with the amount of times I poured over those pages, it was an exercise in futility. Many of my teenage efforts to protect the comics resulted in far more damage, usually due to a poor knowledge of what sellotape does to a comic spine.)

Another side-effect of the high price is that you tend to be more discriminating about the comics you buy. If four comics are going to set you back thirty dollars, you want to be sure every one of those objects has something worthwhile in it to justify the cost. It's easier to drop something that doesn't have the thrill any more, or stay away from the vast majority of comics in the first place. Unfortunately, a major problem with this is that you end up less willing to try new things, and can get in a rut of only bothering with favourite creators or characters. These days it takes a lot of positivity coming from people whose opinions I trust before I try something from a new creator.

(Mind you, the library is a good place to avoid all this, and remains the best place to try something new for the first time.)

But it's not all about the price. Another thing is the sheer isolation of living down this way, far from the majority of fellow fans. Growing up, it meant confusion over the simplest things, such as the pronunciation of character's and creator's names. (Thankfully, it didn't take me that long to figure out that Professor X's last name wasn't pronounced Echs-ver, but I am still ashamed to admit I don't know how to say Judge Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra's last name, despite holding him in the highest of regards.) It also means never attending a comic convention of any sort, but the idea that this is a bad thing is sure to fade when I finally do get to one.

These days, the internet has brought us all together into one big shiny whole, but the isolation is just as great. My ex-local store, Bag End Books in Dunedin, closed a few years back. As far as I know, the South Island only has one comic shop, and the days of finding a Justice League comic in the local dairy are long, long gone.

Before I lived in a city that actually had a shop in 1995, the main source for comics were dairies and bookshops, with each having their own random selection of titles. Over the years, as more bookshops morphed into chain stores and dairies found more profits in women's weeklies and pornography, they gradually vanished entirely.

Finding other fans or a much-desired an issue is no longer the great problem it was in the age of the internet, but they are still relatively scarce on the ground.

Personally, things have been a lot easier for me in the last year. After spending the previous three years in a town of 15,000, where 2000ad was the only comic I could get regularly, (and even then, there were more than a few missed issues), I've moved to the country's biggest city. It has three actual honest-to-God comic shops, several nice little second hand bookshops, and an awesome library, from which I've borrowed literally hundreds of different comics.

And it's the little oddities I uncover around the place that make it for me, finding plenty of those niggly little back issues that I've been after for years, and nice oddities, from Milligan and McCarthy's extraordinary Skin to the sublime Birth Caul.

All this choice has help to remind me of the one of the true benefits of comic collecting on the arse end of the world: you get to try a bit of everything. Although originally heavily influenced by British culture to an almost embarrassing degree, New Zealand has gradually picked up the best of other cultures. It all started with the United States of America, shortly after they came in and, frankly, saved our fucking arses during World War Two. It's most obvious on the regular television channels, which will quite happily sit a piece of gritty kitchen sink drama from the beloved BBC next to the latest police procedural franchise from the States.

But it could also be seen on the comic racks over the years, with copies of Buster and Commando comics sitting next to Captain America and Superman books, with cheap black and white reprints from across the Tasman filling out the spaces.

While the British influence has dulled in recent years to the point where comic shops have few, if any, contributions from the UK, other, more exotic cultures are finally getting a look in. Unsurprisingly, manga leads the way, and with more and more immigrants coming in from other Asian countries, the selection can only get richer. (Food is always at the forefront of cultural trends, and while pizza as about as exotic as it got when I was growing up, now there are Malaysian, Korean, Sri Lanken and a myriad of other choices all over the show. As somebody who never had a plate of pasta until he was 18 years old, I can honestly say thank Christ for that.)

Despite all this choice, local comics have never really progressed much further than the mini-comics phase, although there have certainly been plenty of variety in that form over the years. There have been several attempts to get comic collectives going, with the very occasional longer work, such as Ant Sang's charming Dharma Punks. With a tiny general population, far smaller than most of the world's major cities, finding an audience for any comic work is going to be extremely difficult. This has inevitably pushed some of the finest kiwi creators overseas. Colin Wilson's gloriously sketchy art found appreciative audiences in England (particularly on early Rogue Trooper stories for 2000ad) and Europe (where he faced the unenviable task of following the mighty Moebius on Blueberry). At the more cartoony end of the spectrum, Roger Landridge has carved out a nice little niche for himself with his clean line and unmistakable style turning up in everything from solo comics for Fantagraphics to work for hire efforts for Doctor Who magazine and Marvel, (often written by fellow kiwi Scott Gray).

But arguably the finest creator the country has produced in the last few years is Dylan Horrocks, whose Hicksville remains the greatest locally-produced comic I've ever run across. In a way, it is drenched in local culture, with Horrocks accurately capturing the basic friendliness and sheer oddness of everyday life in small town New Zealand. But it’s the idea of a collection of unpublished classics and a library featuring every comic ever created that is especially relevant for somebody who could never be entirely certain if the next issue of a beloved series would show up. Or if was going to get waylaid during the long trip across the ocean.

But it's also not surprising to see the book hit a pleasant nerve with international readers, because the ideas Horrocks brings up in the story, from social outsiders giving in to temptation in their search for fame, through to the dream that comics could still be so much better than they have been, are ones familiar to us all.

And isn't that what it's all about? New Zealand is a tiny figure on the international stage, with many people unaware it even existed before Lord of The Rings. This can leave us begging for attention, (with the cringing question “what do you think of the country” asked by news reporters of anybody remotely famous to pass through), but it also leaves us eager to join in with everybody else. And all these wonderful, crazy, confusing comics help us out, showing us slices of life far beyond our shores, reminding us that we're all a part of the same wonderful, crazy, confusing world.

That's got to be worth any price.



Ezquerra: ess-care-rah. Lovely bloke, used to smoke these pungent cheroots [may still do for all I know]. Back in the days when people sent computer art by disc [before email could cope with massive file sizes], Carlos's work would arrive on a CD that was somehow magically impregnated with the aroma of his smokes.

Ahh, memories.

Think I'll go have a madelaine.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the context, Bob.

You know, the availability of comics in NZ while you were growing up sounds just like how it was here. Very few comics shops outside London, Commando next to Batman at the local newsagents.

Dairies, though, what's that all about then?

Chad Nevett said...

While nowhere NEAR as bad as the pricing issues facing you, I've had similar laughs about Americans complaining about prices since I live in Canada where *GASP!* paying four dollars (if not more) for a comic has been standard for YEARS. We recently got a nice break from that when the Canadian dollar was briefly on par with the American dollar--but, otherwise, the price they're dreading having to pay is the standard here, and we get by just fine. I don't envy the price woes you have, though.

Bob Temuka said...

Thanks for that pronunciation, David. I figured it was something like that. Me and my best mate used to spend hours trying to figure out the names of our favourite creators. I'm too ashamed to admit how long it took me to work out that John Byrne's last name was pronounced "brine". And I have no idea what we were thinking when we would pronounce the title of the Doctor Who story 'The Aztecs' as 'The Arteecs.' We were very special boys.

You can smell Ezquerra's smoke on his printed pages too. Smells like... victory.

Dairies are local little convenience stores, usually owned by the operator. Like 'Open All Hours'. I don't know why they call them dairies here. They just do.

Chad: Four dollars? I used to dream of four dollars. Right after we worked 19 hours in a mine and walked barefoot for 13 hours back to our hovel, and just before our daily beating, we would head down to the local dairy and pay $9.80 for an issue of The Punisher, and we would like it!

Amadeo said...

I live in Argentina and I can absolutely relate with what you say.

A new issue of a comic book here costs something like 14 or 16 "pesos", since every price is tripled (1 dollar=3.50 pesos) and then multiplied again for something like 1.6 so the retailer gets some money. In my town there is only one comic book shop, an awfully tiny thing which sells more mugs and posters than comics. Many people read spanish editions, since they are cheaper (30-70 pesos a trade against, oh, I don't know 100 pesos or something an american trade) but I prefer the original thing.
And take into consideration that the average wage here is something like 1000-1200 pesos, so...not much money left to spend on comics.

We had our brief moment in the sun in the 90s, when 1 peso equated 1 dollar, and comic shops flourished and sold things at ridiculous prices, but I was too young to fully take advantage of it. One of the few worthwhile things I bought during that time was the entire run in trades of The Invisibles. Sigh...

Unknown said...

Hey, I had no idea Roger Langridge was from NZ! Learn something every day.

Also, I really need to read Hicksville one of these days.

Bob Temuka said...

Those are some good trades to get, Amadeo. I do remember comics being ridiculously cheap when I was a kid and had no money, and missed out entirely. Prices doubled in less than a couple of years, right about the time Jim Lee was finishing up on the X-Men.

Man, when I started buying 2000ad, it was thirty-three cents. Now it's seven-bucks fifty.

This is my blog. There will be much wallowing in bullshit nostalgia.

You do really need to read Hicksville, Matthew. It's odd and clever and a little sad.

I don't think Landridge has lived in NZ for a very long time. Some of the most notable kiwi comic dudes, like Colin Wilson and Scott Gray and even the esteemed Mr Bishop up there, have been overseas for ages.

Anonymous said...

Great post, sums up the NZ 'scene' pretty well, although I was in Dunedin a couple of weeks ago, and there are two comics stores there now.

Some of my fondest childhood memories involve comics. In the late 70s I loved going around all the (then) 40 or so dairies in Hastings with my father on his nightly bread delivery rounds and standing in half-light checking out all their comics racks while my father carried in the bread orders. If I found anything I wanted I'd bike back the next day with my 35 cents or so.

Even younger than that, about age 8, I would go down town on a Saturday morning and pick up all the refundable glass bottles (4 cents for small ones, eight cents for large ones) I could find then take them into a diary and cash them in. At that time one large bottle would buy a copy of The Beano.

When I was a teenager my parents owned a dairy themselves, so I made friends with the book distibutor/salesman who used to drive around all the dairies and he'd phone me when he got a bundle of new comics in...as I understand it, these comics were all UK or US returns, so were bundled up and shipped out cheaply to NZ, alhtough they were totally random as near as I could tell...the comics in a bundle could vary between 6 months to a couple of years old, and you could count yourself lucky if you got two issues in a row.

Discovering VMS (Graphic)in Wellington one summer holiday in 1982, and that they posted stuff out...fantastic.

So yeah, total comics addict here :-).

P.S. At age 10 2000AD #1 blew my tiny little mind...at least 3/4 of the boys in my Standard 4 class were buying it and the rest were borrowing it.

Bob Temuka said...

I am genuinely chuffed to hear Dunedin has got comic shops again. I haven't been back there for a year or so, and I made the dubious assumption that it was still without one. It was gutting to find out Bag End Books had closed down, they were my regular store for a good five years.

Come to think of it, Dunedin was the first place I ever saw an actual comic store. There was a place opposite the train station in the late eighties. I was gutted when that closed down too...