ComicsPRO '11: Bonfire

One of the last bigger observations I want to make is that, regardless of whether or not you think that the Direct Market, as currently constituted, is doing a good job or a lousy job at being the stewards, "geek culture" really is the Ground Zero for culture-at-large. And the DM environment is the incubator of that "geek culture". For decades, really, we've begged and pleaded to be taken seriously by the world at large. One of my go-to stories has always been that, 10-ish years ago, the quickest visual short-hand to show emotional or intellectual retardation in an adult was to show them with a rolled up comic in their backpocket. "Please please love us!" we geeks and nerds and losers called and cajoled, and a lot of us ended up growing up and taking over entertainment, and, you know what? They love us now.

Steve Rotterdam made the observation last weekend that something like 20% of global box office is now generated from, or informed by, comic book culture. I can't find any specific link or something to back that assertion up, but it certainly sounds right to me -- the Geek Shall Inherit The Earth.

The difference, as I've said many many times, between the Mass Market retailer and the DM is that we're just another category to "them", but that the DM actually both gives a fuck about, AND actually understands our customers -- we kind of have to, because we fold if we don't.

There's a crazy power in specialty markets, in what I call "tastemaker" environments. Rotterdam calls them "firestarters" instead, but that's pretty much six-of-one/half-dozen-of-the-other. The fact that we DON'T have a centralized buyer controlling our 2400-ish venues, that things sometimes are hard-to-impossible to do because we constantly have to "herd cats" of a whole lot of independently minded people, this is a strength, not a weakness. The "DM" will never declare bankruptcy and close 1/3 of its outlets in a monolithic block like how Border's has just announced. We may have 2400 problems, but we also have 2400 really smart people working their hearts out to try to solve those problems.

I've named checked Steve Rotterdam twice now, and that's because I think one of the smartest presentations I saw last week was on Steve (and Ed Catto's) new venture: Bonfire.

The basic idea of Bonfire is that major brands and major advertisers WANT to connect to "geek culture", but that these big companies don't really "get" us in any kind of a intuitive way. Taking a bottle of soda and throwing a cape on it doesn't actually "connect" to us in any kind of an authentic way. There's a tremendous amount of possibilities that can be had, but someone who "speaks the lingua franca" needs to working as an intermediary. I don't know how to talk to a soda company, they don't know how to talk to me. That's what something like Bonfire is for -- to connect the two.

As Tastemakers, I think of someone like Neil Gaiman. Neil is a very talented writer. But there are a lot of very talented writers out there. One of the reasons, beyond just pure talent, that Neil's career took the trajectory that it did was precisely because of stores like my own that got squarely behind his creative output and proselytized it to our customers. I have no doubt that Neil would still be a successful creator if there wasn't a Comix Experience, but I think that, at least, we (and scores of stores like mine!) helped strongly to move him up to the next chessboard.

WE are the Dreamers of the Dream; WE are the Makers of the Music, as Mr. Wonka said.

I don't really want to step on Steve's Elevator Pitch (because he's going to deliver it way better than I ever could), but there's immense possibilities in bringing in money from outside our market, and molding it so that it fits our market without us giving up anything whatsoever. The 3/4 formed notion would be something like strongly branded event that is sincere in connecting creators to stores and consumers and finding sponsors to underwrite those events, and for them to draft along our winds.

Picture 10-12 stores all across the country having a simultaneous signing with 10-12 upcoming creators one night. You create a catchy catch-phrase for the overall venture, and you line up a sponsor or three to, say, provide refreshments, cover all travel and promotional expenses, and to do NATIONAL ADVERTISING for the event as a whole. Trying to do something like this purely within comics would almost never happen because so few of us have the kinds of resources it would take to mount this in the right way -- but bring in like a high-end vodka company  or something like that that's looking to create authentic awareness of their product, and you can do something of real needle-moving significance on what is probably less than .01% of their annual marketing budget, and which will have better, more direct results.

That kind of thing is really the lowest of the low hanging fruit when we have this amazing network of passionate, independent stores. We just need someone to connect the dots.

Steve's left what I assume is a six-figure salary to try and  create this start-up, and while I never directly asked him the question, I strongly suspect it would have been a significantly harder decision to make if it hadn't been for the basic infrastructure that the very existence of ComicsPRO creates.

People ask a lot "yes, but what does ComicsPRO *do* for me?", and it's really hard to communicate that the basic overall professionalism of comics retail has been improved by the very existence of a retailer trade organization. ComicsPRO can't "take credit" for, say,  Street Dates, but I firmly believe that if there wasn't a ComicsPRO, we'd still be saying "Man, wouldn't it be nice if our partners trusted enough to ship us comics so we didn't have that Wednesday AM race?"

There are lots and lots of plans and programs and things coming -- things that I can't talk about because it is for our vendors to announce their own plans -- things that I think that ComicsPRO validates and facilitates because we retailers are finally getting our shit together and collectivizing our strengths. This is powerful stuff.

Steve and Ed may come along in a minute or two to tell me I'm nuts, but I don't think that will happen for the same reason that the ComicsPRO meeting was a significant phase of Bonfire's launch -- it is easier to identify opportunities with a group of like-minded people than it is to try and contact each individual participant individually.

I have one more ComicsPRO '11 post, but that's going to come tomorrow.