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The Fifth Column:
No Harm, No Fowl
By Dwayne McDuffie

03/07/02


For the first time in ages, last Thursday I went to the comic book store and I went there with purpose. Marvel Comics had just released a huge, black and white compilation of Steve Gerber’s brilliant 1970’s run on Howard The Duck. I intended to score me a copy, actually, two copies. My brother, who stopped reading comics shortly after discovering girls (he was six years old, if the babysitter was to be believed), used to love Howard and I knew he’d get a nostalgic kick out of seeing those stories again.

I see that the youngins are getting confused by my enthusiasm. "He’s excited about a Howard The Duck reprint?" I suppose I should explain. For the disturbingly small number of comic book readers under the age of 35, Howard The Duck brings to mind, if anything, a very bad 1980’s movie featuring a midget costumed in what might charitably be called a duck suit. For many years after its release, Howard The Duck shared the popular consciousness throne of truly awful big budget movies with Ishtar and Hudson Hawk, before being pushed out of cultural RAM by Showgirls and Battlefield Earth. At the risk of going off on a tangent from my original tangent, these movies aren’t nearly as bad as their reputations. Okay, I haven’t actually been able to sit through Battlefield Earth, maybe it is that bad. For the most part though, these are just regular, lousy movies with frighteningly large budgets. None of them quite reach the glorious heights of "What The Fuck Were They Thinking" of say, the inexplicably popular Charlie's Angels. This was a movie so stupefyingly bad that it couldn’t be saved by Cameron Diaz dancing around in her underpants. Downright chilling when you think about it. In any case, the bad movie is not how Howard The Duck should be remembered. The original run of comics was one of the funniest, smartest entertainments of that decade, no lie. Forget the movie, read the book. Which was my plan, before the direct market thwarted me.

I sauntered into the comic book store, money in hand, ready to drop 30 bucks for sure and probably more. I looked around but I couldn’t find the book. No biggie, comic store layouts never make sense, no reason to try and make things easier for customers, right? I asked at the counter.

"We sold out."

Let me put this into perspective, it was 11:00 in the morning the day after the book hit the stores and they didn’t have any copies.

Apparently by loafing around until the morning after the book came out, I missed the nine hour window for browsing. If I’d happened to wander in off the street, I would never have known the book existed. I can’t help but wonder what else I’ve missed that I would enjoy (and yes, that is an open invitation to e-mail me with your suggestions. I’ll do a column or three about them later).

This wouldn’t be a big deal if it were an unusual occurrence. You know, a rare surprise hit that no body saw coming. But this is standard operating procedure. Unless you shop in an unusually well-capitalized and managed comic book shop, if you only come in occasionally, you have no idea what’s in print. Most of the good stuff sold out Wednesday afternoon, while you were at work. Unless you make an obsessive habit of keeping track of what’s supposed to be coming in and make sure you’re there when the UPS guy arrives, you’re out of gas.

I’m very sympathetic to comic book retailers and the enormous financial pressures they’re under. I’m not blaming them, they’re getting screwed too, for instance this week they missed out on thirty extra bucks from me (they told me they were getting more copies "soon," but I’m dubious, so I ordered mine from Amazon.com). But there’s got to be a better way. We can’t grow an audience with no casual readers. Look, I like crime novels but I don’t read crime novel order forms or industry magazines. I don’t have to. There’s five or six guys I buy whenever I’m in a bookstore and they happen to have something out. Every so often, while I’m browsing for a Lawrence Block I haven’t read (it gets tougher and tougher), I’ll try something new that catches my eye. Sometimes one of those books will hook me and I’ll have to go out and buy everything I can find by, say, Dennis Lehane. This is never difficult, the stuff’s in print and in the stores. I’m a casual reader of crime fiction because it’s possible. Since I stopped going into comic book stores every Wednesday after work, I’ve almost stopped buying comics entirely. It’s too difficult to be a casual reader. No casual readers means no future fanatics. The death spiral begins...

So I’m throwing it out to you, my vast and somewhat attentive readership (especially the retailers out there on the front lines): how do we make it possible to find shelf copies of a wide variety of comics, without putting our stores out of business?


DWAYNE PLUGS HIMSELF

My first episode of Justice League airs this Sunday, March 10 at 7:00 PM, EST on Cartoon Network. It’s called "Brave and the Bold." I scripted it from a story by Paul Dini and Rich Fogel. It features a bickering Flash and Green Lantern joining forces to attempt to foil a plot to take over the world by Grodd, a superintelligent, talking gorilla. You can’t make this stuff up. Listen for guest voice actors Powers Booth, David Odgen Stiers and Virginia Madsen.

"Never Say Die," a Batman 8-pager I wrote and Denys Cowan drew appears in Batman: Gotham Knights #27, on sale March 20.


DWAYNE PLUGS GERBER

If your comic book store has any copies left, get The Essential Howard The Duck, you won’t be sorry. And for those of you who refuse to live in the past, Howard is back in an all-new Marvel Max series by Steve Gerber and Phil Winslade.


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