I’ve always hated Penn Station in New York City, but one of the few silver linings was a nameless magazine shop located on the LIRR level on the west side of the station. I’ve know this shop since the 80s so it’s fair to say that it is at least 25 years old, although I suspect that it’s much older than that. What made it unique was that it was the largest magazine shop in all of Penn Station. This made it a welcome oasis in the desert wasteland of commuting on the Long Island Rail Road.
The shop was about double the size of any other magazine venue in the station and they had every type of magazine that you could imagine from classy foreign titles like Paris Match to various academic journals and at least a dozen arty magazines that you couldn’t find every where else. And they also had the mundane too of course: Almost every hunting, fishing, guns and porn magazine published had a place in the shop. So the store really represented the publishing business: From newspapers to magazines, and yes comic books.
In terms of comic books their selection was amazing for a non-comic book shop. First the comic books has their own wall in the back from floor to ceiling. You had all of the expected Marvel and DC titles of course, but you also had a good variety of comics for kids like Archie. In fact not so long ago this store was my measuring stick that Japanese manga had gone mainstream once they started carrying titles like the American version of Shonen Jump.
Well sadly my old friend took a turn for the worst earlier this year! Upon venturng into the store I was shocked to see that the shop had been reduced in size to about 40% of what it was. The front of the store always had food and drinks which is the money maker, and those fixtures were still in place at the entrance — but the magazine backbone had been devistated in the process. What was left was a pathetic selection of titles that were only slightly more varied than the Hudson News chain stoes which had taken over Penn Station.
And of course the comic book section had suffered for it too. The wall in the back had been reduced to about four small shelves which supported less than twenty titles. They use to carry every Archie publication, now they just had a single issue of poor Veronica standing alone in a mess of typical boy titles. And the boy titles looked sad too, yes Spider-man and Batman were there — however they’d been reduced to single issues surrounded by licensed titles that were based on Star Wars and Pixar films. And what’s sad is that this meager selection is pretty lush when put next to the offerings at Hudson News.
To me this is bad news on a number of levels, firstly I’m watching the death of print. And by print I don’t mean newspapers — but every printed publication. My grandfather use to tell me that you could measure the health of a newspaper by the ads, which is a good way to also judge magazines: And with the backbone of car ads vanishing and the recession the surving publications that I’m seeing looked very ill. And on another level the loss of retail space means a thinning of the heard. Yes People magazine will still hold on, but that little ethnic magazine or cultural journal has been made homeless. Also on a geeky note this effects nerdy publications as well: Beloved magazines like Starlog are now extinct.
And the same pandemic applies to to comic books of course. Least we forget once upon a time all comic books featured ads, that’s always been a minor revenue stream but it’s safe to say that it looks endangered. With comic book the safety valve has always been comic book stores, but these have been vanishing over the last dozen years or so: Thus the natural habitat keeps shrinking. Even for the new brightspots like selling manga to girls in mega book stores is in danger if a major chain like Boarders goes under.
So will “print be dead” which will include comics as a curious creature from a vansihed ecosystem? My thinking is that that the answer is that won’t be the case — but that’s still not good news. That’s because in my view that they smaller industry that does survive won’t be better, but much blander. In much the way that Walmart has dilluted the music business, the same fate my await comics. Veronica and Japanese manga imports may give way to “The Adventures of Hannah Montana”. I’d say that there’s even a chance that Spider-man could give way to Star Wars: Looking at the small shelves of doom in Penn Station you can already see that Star Wars and Pixar titles are equal to superhero books.
Of course my next move would be to look for a smoking gun and ask “who is to blame” for this mess — and I don’t have to look any further than my own reflection in the soft drink asile to identify the murder suspect: For it’s me! You see going back at least 25 years I use to be a solid customer of that newsstand on steroids. The reason was that faced with an epic journey of an hour on a train that a natural tonic for my boredom was a magazine. As a causual reader my tastes would support an ocassional purchase which could be for anything from a tech mag to the Economist.
However back in the day those little gifts to myself were cheap, a publication might cost anywhere from $1.50 to $5 if I wanted to go crazy. The other day in a magazine shop I recently spoiled myself to an issue of I.D. magazine, but once I reached the counter I got the sticker shock of having to pay about $40 — granted it was their annual awards issue, but alas the content inside was not award winning and no more inspiring to my graphic design needs than any low brow publication. And in terms of coping with my travel time needs I find myself glued to my iPhone: Thanks to Steve Jobs I can now shove the better part of my music collection, books (which are now audio books) and reading (which are now websites) into my pocket.
So to a degree I’m guilty of killing print (and comic books too) — however this doesn’t mean that I’m reading any less, in fact ironically I actually find myself reading more and watching less TV than I did a few years ago. But my habits have shifted, now granted I’m an early adopter so we won’t see print and comics dissapear overnight, but we are seeing a fading of an industry that may not be bouncing back after this recession is over and folks go back to buying $5 cups of coffee at Starbucks (or Dunkin’ Donuts once they raise their prices and re-do the decor).
My own personal thinking is that like rock music what I’d call “editorial” won’t die, but will rather reinvent itself in a new form for a new generation. Like the garage musicians of the 60s I naturally accept without question the notion that what others see as “punk” will become the dominant genre over the course of about twenty years at the most. Established print folks tend to look down on bloggers, but as an old time science fiction fan I know that the fanzine writers of today are the Isaac Asimovs of tomorrow. In fact while looking through the bridal magazines I spotted an issue of the Knot, which started life as a website. I wouldn’t be surprised if sooner than later you see print editions of blogs replacing older established magazines off the few shelves that are left: After all Techcrunch is just as trusted of a brand as Wired.
I can also see the same thing happening to comics as well: While many folks look down upon the Amazon Kindle I see it as a first generation device — sort of like what the Newton would be to an iPhone. I think portable higher resolution screens are going to be a revolution. The barrier to most comic books is an interface issue, to see the quality of the art requires a bit more resolution. Yes you can cram that onto an phone screen if it’s a newspaper style comic strip, but if you’re trying to do a graphic novel that won’t cut it. However if folks start to carry around a cheaper tablet version of a MacBook Air that could change. I also think that people would be willing to pay something for a high quality experience as well as long as it was reasonable priced.
Granted I think there’s going to be a bit of pain in the publishing industry, but I see it as more of a shift than a decline — much the way that television impacted the film business in the 50s when it arrived on the scene. By the way I’m struck by the irony that as music shops like Tower and Virigin have died that movie theaters don’t seem to be going anywhere except for the fact that they’ve switched to digital projection. And while I’ll miss 70mm screenings I’m glad that the venue itself isn’t vanishing. So while the cast and crew may change, the stage will always be there in the bigger sense.