Media Mondays: Comic Book Men

Behold the original boys' club.

Though my interest has flagged a bit in recent years, I still consider myself a Kevin Smith fan. Chasing Amy, despite a few problems, remains one of my favorite films. Dogma gets gross in parts, but I still think it’s a great commentary on religion as opposed to faith. Clerks and Mallrats are of course pretty damn great. And while I admit one viewing of Clerks 2 was enough for a lifetime, and Red State wasn’t quite the movie I was hoping for, I still like Kevin. I like what he’s doing. I think he’s the kind of guy I’d like to hang with. And though, as a lifelong Bostonian, I consider New Jersey the Eighth Circle of Hell*, I admit I’d given some thought to heading down to Red Bank one of these days to hit up the Secret Stash.

Comic Book Men, which finished its first season last night, has pretty much destroyed that dream.

In retrospect, I probably should have known what I was getting into the moment I heard the title. The show is aptly named. In fact, if I were a Cosmo-sipping, condescending Carrie Bradshaw type, I would probably say it should have been titled Comic Book BOYS, because these immature louts can hardly call themselves men, but I like to think I’m above that kind of clichéd rhetoric. My criticism of this show begins and ends with the fact that there is a serious lack of any kind of female influence in the world of the Secret Stash. Women are never-seen wives and girlfriends, or the poor ladies who wander into the shop seeking gifts for significant others, or the folks who periodically come in to sell off old comics and paraphernalia, or (and I can literally count these on one hand) that vanishingly rare and oh-so-prized beast, the female comic book fan. If there is even one woman employed at the shop, we never see her. Women are not the target market of the Stash in any way, shape or form. It is no surprise, then, that actual female customers are so rarely seen. I can only imagine they’ve found other, more welcoming shops far more deserving of their custom.

But we’ll get back to that.

This is Bryan. His duties apparently include acting like a total asshole and looking a bit like Alan Moore. HE IS VERY GOOD AT HIS JOB.

I knew right away that something was wrong with this show. Actually, for the first few episodes, that something had a distinct name and face: Bryan Johnson. From the first episode, he acted like a sarcastic, obnoxious douche. He clearly thought he was funnier than he actually was, and his treatment of his fellow employees sometimes bordered on the abusive. When he and the rest of the guys were sent out to a flea market to sell excess merchandise, he actually went so far as to take collectible plates off of fellow employee Ming Chen’s table and smash them just because he could. He finally gave Ming cash for the plates after being told off by a really awesome older gentleman…but then, as soon as said gentleman left, he tried to get that money back.

The only thing that kept me from completely hating Bryan – and for a long time, I did – was his behavior in last night’s episode. See, it turns out Bryan has a five-year-old niece, whom he obviously loves very, very much. In last night’s episode, we not only saw him buying superhero Barbies for her (I’ll be getting back to the Barbies, too), but we also saw him get a tattoo in her honor: a zombified portrait of his niece on her bike, right on his forearm where the whole world could see it. When he showed the tattoo design to his co-workers, they obviously thought he was insane, that everyone would be extremely creeped out by the undead little girl on his arm and his niece would not like it at all. But it turns out that his niece LOVES zombies – that it’s something they bond over – and when she came into the shop at the end and he showed her his tattoo, it was hands down the most heartwarming scene I’ve seen on television all week. The man I’d seen as the outright villain (or at least assholish anti-hero) of the show turned out to be a human being. I still think he’s kind of an asshole, but I have a little more sympathy for him now.

That doesn’t really change the fact that the Stash seems to be a really, really awful place to work, particularly if your name is Ming. See, Ming is kind of the Meg Griffin of the shop, as near as I can tell. He’s there to take constant shit from his co-workers. And, okay, look. He’s kind of a dork. He’s a little awkward, he doesn’t know nearly as much about comics as his co-workers, and sometimes he has really awful ideas. But you know what? I used to be like that. I had my ugly duckling phase. And I’m still awkward and shy and kind of a dork at times. And that’s no excuse – NO excuse – to treat someone like crap. It’s hard to tell if Ming’s in on the joke. Sometimes I think, yeah, he totally is, but all too often I’m convinced they’re laughing at him, not with him. And I have to say, if I were in his shoes, I would be done with that shop by now. No job is worth that level of abuse.

And the fact of the matter is that Ming is one of the most dedicated employees the Stash has. He puts up with EVERYTHING. He seems to do a hell of a lot more work than, say, Bryan. And he’s a lot more on the ball than any of them. In one episode, for example, he came up with a zombie-themed ad campaign (and sale day) for the shop. It ended up flopping, and I think his ideas were a little flawed, but he got one thing absolutely right: on the day of the sale, he was busting his ass out on the sidewalk trying to get customers in the shop, and he was talking to EVERYONE. Men, women, older folks, younger folks, all of them. And time and again, his boss and his co-workers kept yelling at him to target more typical customers, but Ming kept plugging away.

You know what? Ming was right. Zombie fans – geeks in general – come in all shapes and sizes. Men, women, old, young, gay, straight, professional, blue-collar, mime. You can’t always judge a book by its cover. The fact that it’s still news that women like comics, sci-fi movies, fantasy, zombie flicks – the fact that this is a controversial assertion – confuses and infuriates me.

This is a recurring problem with the Secret Stash as portrayed on Comic Book Men. Women are ignored, dismissed, tolerated at best. The products made for women and girls are denigrated – such as the aforementioned superhero Barbies. In last night’s episode, a couple of women came into the shop to sell some Barbies dressed and packaged as various superheroines: Batgirl, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, etc. These were official Mattel products from a few years back, and honestly, they looked great. I have not been into Barbies since I was ten, but I would totally buy them, and I bet I’m not the only one. And Walt Flanagan, manager of the store, flat-out refused to buy them. He refused to believe that any of his customers would possibly be interested in them. Bryan, as I said, ended up buying a couple of them for his niece, but Walt made it very clear – on the show itself and in the podcast studio afterward – that he could not conceive of a world in which he would carry Barbie or Ken dolls, superhero-themed or otherwise, in his shop.

Okay. That’s his right. But this shop sells all kinds of action figures and toys. I’m willing to bet they’ve sold some premium figures that are fashion dolls in all but name. These Barbies were official products, they looked cool, they seemed like they were well made, and they were in excellent condition. I’m willing to bet they would have sold. But Walt rejected them because they were girl toys. That’s what it comes down to. They were dolls, and this shop is for comic book MEN.

To be fair…for certain values of fair…it really, really is. Actual female customers are a rare breed in the shop, and given the sheer amount of testosterone wafting out the door, I can’t say I’m surprised. Especially when you consider the incident that truly infuriated me, the event that once and for all destroyed any interest I might have had in visiting the Secret Stash.

In the fourth episode, a woman came into the shop with her significant other – I’m assuming that’s who the guy walking around with her was, anyway – and it was very clear from the outset that they were both comic book fans and she was shopping for herself. She ended up spending a pretty big chunk of cash on some valuable old comics. The transaction itself went fine – the guys were personable and polite, they rang her up and saw her out the door. But afterward, while discussing the sale on their podcast, they made a bunch of sexual jokes about how “she knew what she wanted” and Ming (who rang her up) “gave it to her”.

Guys, this is a line. It’s a pretty clear line. It’s bright and shiny and painted right in the middle of the road. We used reflective glow-in-the-dark Day-Glo orange. And you just JUMPED right on over it.

Let me be clear: if I were that woman, if I had spent a bunch of money only to find out on national television that the staff who helped me had gone on to make a bunch of sexual jokes about me behind my back, I would be done with that store forever. I would tell all my friends to steer clear. I would do my level best to ensure that they never got any new business. That is not okay. That is not acceptable behavior in polite society. You treat your customers with respect before, during and after the transaction. You treat women as people, not magical unicorns here for your pleasure, not aliens who only rarely deign to descend to Earth. Women don’t shop in the Stash, Walt? Women aren’t your target audience? Gee. I wonder why.

I wanted to like this show. I really did. And there are parts of it I have enjoyed. I actually do enjoy seeing the staff haggle with the people who come into the shop to sell stuff or buy rare items. I like seeing the amazing memorabilia that comes in and the cadre of experts they call upon to assess it. Seeing the staff in full zombie makeup for Ming’s campaign was pretty cool. Watching them film a TV commercial full of all kinds of crazy crap was fun. And, again, Bryan and his niece were the most adorable thing ever. But all things considered, I’m not sure I’ll be back for Season 2. They’d have to make some serious changes to the show and the store. They have some serious, heartfelt apologies to hand out. And I really don’t think any of that is going to happen.

All things considered, I’d rather watch a show about New England Comics. They actually employ women there. And, more importantly, I’ve always been treated with respect. Something tells me that wouldn’t happen at the Stash.

In case you’re wondering, New York is the Ninth Circle, with Satan himself dwelling in the frozen waste of Yankee Stadium, his three mouths forever gnawing on Harry Frazee, Jonathan Papelbon and Johnny Damon. I barely need to mention that Connecticut is the Seventh.


New and Used

Recently I talked a little bit about piracy. That post caused a little more controversy among my friends than I was expecting, but my friend Maverynthia had some particularly interesting thoughts on suggestion #5 on my list, and I thought the issue deserved its own post. In fact, it’s such a complicated issue that it deserves two posts, from two totally different people. (I’m a little bit country. She’s a little bit rock and roll. Or something.) I really didn’t want to try and speak for Maverynthia on this issue, so I asked her if she’d be willing to post about her own thoughts on the matter, and then we’d activate our Wonder Twin powers and link across the Internet.

She agreed, and her piece is here.

(Yes, I did just reference both Donny & Marie and the Wonder Twins, two things which no one under the age of 25 is probably aware of. Or most people under 30. Or 35. I am not cooler than you. I am a dork.)

So here’s the thing: I have bought a ton of used books. In fact, I regularly scour the used book shelves at my favorite bookstore, searching for out of print tomes (especially Changeling: The Dreaming sourcebooks). I’ve also bought plenty of used board games, video games, even a few DVDs and albums and so forth. And I don’t like it when anything is missing. Not pages, nor game pieces, nor poster maps. True story: I once bought a copy of the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer that was missing its poster map, a small fact the seller had failed to mention. That was the one and only time I left negative feedback for an online seller.

Further, as a writer, I don’t mind the idea of people buying used copies of my books, when or if said books are ever published. I would like to make a living off of my craft, but I would also like people to read what I wrote. To appreciate it. To enjoy it. To end up with well-loved copies scarred only by the years of reading and reading, of loaning the text out to good friends and getting it back, of taking the book on plane rides and subway rides and cloned T-Rex rides. (I don’t know why you’re reading on the back of a freaking Tyrannosaurus Rex, but bless your heart.) I have faith in any fans I manage to attract. I know plenty of them will buy my books hot off the presses. And, someday, they may sell those books off to others, or give them, or lend them and end up moving away before they can reclaim them, and all of that is fine.

That said…we do not live in the United Federation of Planets. Our society is based upon the pursuit, acquisition, and trade of some kind of resource. At this moment in time, we have a bunch of fiat currencies that honestly don’t make a whole lot of sense when you really look at them (unless you’re an economist, and I don’t know why you’re an economist while you’re riding on the back of a freaking Tyrannosaurus Rex, but bless your heart), but people tend to need that money to survive regardless.

And here is the problem with used books, games, DVDs, whatever: unless you’re somehow buying them from the original producer/seller, they don’t see one red cent of the money you’ve paid.

Now. I firmly believe that, once you buy something, you own it, and you should be able to do what you will with it. That includes selling it. A lot of corporations don’t like that. That’s why they’ve pushed to move from a system of absolute ownership to a system where somehow they’re just renting you some kind of limited-use license, and thank heavens they haven’t entirely succeeded on that front. That’s why music companies have historically tried to crack down on used record stores, and thankfully lost that battle as well. And that’s why you now see things like EA’s Project Ten Dollar. That’s why you see companies including one-time codes that cannot be used again by future owners of a given game or software product, codes that open up the full functionality of the program or unlock premium content or otherwise make new copies more desirable. That’s why you see all kinds of companies selling DLC: new missions, new characters, new ‘skins’ for existing characters, and so on.

There are bad ways to go about this (anything that restricts the full functionality of a basic game – including multiplayer options – to new copies, for example) and…not so bad ways to go about this, at least in my view. I actually think EA’s current system is a damn sight better than restrictive, intrusive DRM or planned obsolescence: with Mass Effect 2, you can buy the game used, and all the basic plot points and missions and characters are there, but you can only get bonus content by paying a small fee. Because new copies of Mass Effect 2 come with a single-use code that allows you access to the Cerberus Network, and it’s unlikely that you’ll find an unused code card in a used copy.

I don’t think this is a perfect method, of course – for example, the Cerberus Network is also the only way to buy (and, even more importantly, verify) paid DLC, so you’re basically paying a fee to get a few free items and go shopping for more stuff. It’s kind of like most theme parks. Also, you can’t use any of your lovely DLC, paid or otherwise, unless you have an Internet connection, allowing the game to check in with the Cerberus Network and confirm your membership. This is annoying. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I’m on a long series of flights (as I was during my trip to New Orleans last year), or on the back of a cloned Tyrannosaurus Rex, I like to bring my laptop with me, and sometimes I like to play a game. My access to the Internet may be restricted or nonexistent during that time. So I can play the basic version of Mass Effect, but I can’t play Lair of the Shadow Broker or Overlord or Arrival. I can’t have Kasumi or Zaeed around. I don’t really get why the DLC I’ve already downloaded can’t just…play, or why the game can’t give me, say, a seven-day grace period from the last Cerberus Network check-in before it goes, whoops, no DLC for you.

But I digress. The point is, something like Project Ten Dollar – which gives new customers free access to premium content, and gives those who buy used products the ability to buy in for a small fee – is a workable solution. An annoying solution, but better than some of the alternatives.

And I definitely don’t mind paid DLC. Alan Wake‘s DLC actually extends the story to an extent, for example, offering mini-sequels to keep the fans sated while the team considered a sequel. (Which is not, sadly, American Nightmare. But I have faith that a proper Alan Wake 2 is coming.) Mass Effect 2’s DLC consists mainly of cosmetic items or storylines that don’t have much to do with the main arc, with the exception of Arrival.

But oh…let’s talk about those exceptions, shall we? Because that’s another boundary that game companies just shouldn’t cross, in my view. Arrival actually sets up the plot for Mass Effect 3. Without going into spoiler territory, it is vital to understanding the backstory of the third game. And it is paid DLC. Cerberus Network members don’t get it for free. Non-members definitely don’t. The ending of Mass Effect 2 sans DLC is acceptable, but Arrival completes the arc.

Do not freaking sell me an incomplete product.

Even if you use premium content or DLC to make a buck off of people who are buying your games used, you should still give them the complete story. Holding something that vital back wrecks the experience. It’s like the novelizations of Red Riding Hood that withheld the conclusion and directed readers to a web page that only went up after the film was out. It’s obnoxious. It’s rude.

And to an extent, yes, the Alan Wake DLC also bridges the gap between the first game and its potential sequel, but without going into spoiler territory, I don’t think those episodes are vital to understanding Alan’s journey as a whole. They’re side treks. They both kind of begin and end the same way. I enjoyed them, much as I enjoy the odd standalone episode of Buffy, but felt like I would have gotten along fine without them. Arrival is a different animal.

Look. I personally believe that creators and producers should back off, accept that some people are going to buy used products, and just try to make products compelling enough that the fans will want to buy them used. The first nine or ten Dresden Files novels on my shelf? Used. I got them all from a friend. Every last subsequent novel was bought new. Used books created a loyal customer. Used games can have the same effect.

But I also want my favorite companies to have the resources to keep making games. I don’t really think used products stand in the way of that, but I can understand the need to keep making money off those products, one way or another. I don’t like it, but it’s going to happen. And if it’s going to happen, I would rather drive those companies in the direction of non-draconian measures. Don’t lock out multiplayer or key features of the game. Don’t hold back essential elements of the story. Do offer enhancements to the user experience. Carrot, people, not stick.

Of course, there’s another option as well: digital distribution. For the most part, when a customer buys something through Steam, iTunes, or any other digital download service, they accept that they will be unable to transfer that item to any other customers. (Though, interesting, there is a company called ReDigi that claims to be dealing legitimately in the resale of music files from services like iTunes – naturally they have already been challenged by the RIAA) There is little to no legitimate aftermarket for digital downloads. I can’t sell you the copy of Portal 2 I bought on Steam. Nor can I sell you the Taylor Swift album I bought on iTunes, the Leverage or Mad Men episodes I bought on the Zune Marketplace on XBox LIVE, or any books I might have bought through my Kindle app. Is that fair? Maybe not. Maybe it would be only right to offer transferable licenses on all of these items. But the corporations involved have no motivation to do so. And since digital distribution reduces or eliminates the costs involved in publishing, packaging and shipping, I think it’s fair to say it’s the way of the future…which means we may lose the aftermarket either way.

There are two principal facts in play here: first, from a corporate perspective, money is all-important. Corporations are going to tend toward practices that make them money. While they cannot afford to alienate their customer base completely, they’re going to do anything and everything they can to earn as much profit as possible. All we can hope to do is drive them toward compromises.

From a moral perspective, I think it’s vitally important to support the things I love, and encourage the creators to go on and make more things. That doesn’t mean I never buy used products, but it does mean I try to buy new when I can. If I want to save money, that may mean waiting until it goes on sale, or comes out in a cheaper format, but either way, I want to try and make sure something gets back to the original creators. To me, used products are more like samples of a given creator’s body of work. Once I’m sure I love it, I shift to new. And that’s a practice I’d encourage all around, really. But that’s me.

I should acknowledge that, yes, Jerry Holkins over at Penny Arcade recently posted on this subject as well, and Mike Krahulik talked about it on Twitter. I’d been planning something like this before I saw that, but given the timing, and the fact that one of the pieces I’ll be citing in this post was linked from that one, it’s only fair to point that out.