THE NAUGHTY BOOKS
My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.
So I think it was with that first issue of Faust, back in 1989, that I began to think that we were going to have a problem.
Let me backtrack a moment.
Now, most comic shops worth their salt had carried underground comics prior to that. Even back in the late '80s, the heyday of the underground comic had been several years in the past, but a number of the more popular titles were still in print, and a few (such as Freak Brothers, Cherry, and Zap) were still releasing the occasional new issue.
I'm sure some stores probably racked their new undergrounds on the racks, hopefully in a separate location in the store, but possibly right there on the shelves next to the new issues of Batman and Spider-Man. However, in our store, which at the time was pretty darn small, and was (and still is) located in a relatively conservative community, we kept the undergrounds in a box behind the counter. It wasn't a perfect solution, but in our experience people looking for undergrounds tended to ask for them if they didn't see any. I'm sure it cut down on any sales to new customers...as I said, it wasn't perfect.
In 1988, Vortex released Black Kiss, Howard Chaykin's explicitly-sexual horror comic. Given the contents of the comic, it could very well have been dumped into the underground box, but given that each copy of the comic came sealed in a clear polybag, and that (in at least one case that I can recall) any objectionable imagery on the cover would be covered by a paper insert, it was easy enough to put them on the rack.
And now we're back to '89's Faust. For those of you unfamiliar with the title, it's...well, a while back the topic of this comic came up, and someone asked just what Faust was about. My immediate response was "violence," and perhaps that's a bit unfair. It's about sex, too. Usually sex and violence mixed together, in a recipe destined for commercial success. The content, however, was perhaps a little too over the top, and I had second thoughts about putting it on the shelf between Fantastic Four and Green Lantern. And I didn't want to dump it in the underground box, since, well, it seemed a little out of place with the much gentler (but still adult) adventures of Mr. Natural, Cherry Poptart, and Fat Freddy (and his cat).
Thus, the decision was made. We would seal up one copy of Faust in a comic book storage bag, and put it on the rack with a sign reading that copies of this adults-only book were available at the counter.
This wasn't the first time this strategy was employed at our shop...in the time prior to my employment there, that one issue of Miracleman, containing "explicit scenes of childbirth," was posted on the wall with a similar note that copies were available behind the counter. However, Miracleman, at the time, was an enormously popular and (due to its erratic release schedule) an enormously anticipated comic book, and thus hiding all the copies in the underground box wasn't an option. Besides, there wasn't anything on the cover, at least, of this particular issue that any reasonable people would object to...there wouldn't be any problem displaying it.
That wasn't the case with the new wave of adult comics that were to follow.
The cover on that first issue of Faust was pretty bloody, but still...okay, I'm not going to say "within the realms of good taste," but it wasn't enough to put me off displaying it on the shelf. But later issues of Faust were a tad more explicit, and comics from other publishers that were released afterwards, such as those from Fantagraphics' Eros Comix imprint, were perhaps a but much to leave out in plain sight.
On the other hand, I didn't want to keep every available "adult comic" behind the counter and ask certain customers individually, "psssst...hey, want to see the new naughty books?" Okay, there are a couple customers of mine I can think of who wouldn't be offended by that, but they're the exception, certainly.
Ultimately, the solution was a magazine box at the end of one of our counters, covered with its lid, and with a small sign attached to the front reading "18 AND OVER ONLY." Inside we keep one bagged copy of each current adult comic on display, and if anyone wants one, they can ask us for a copy at the counter. So far, it's worked just fine.
No, it's not a perfect solution, and in a perfect world, everything could be displayed out on the shelves for all to see, but in a world where I actually had someone expressing their intense concern that the X-Men comics were x-rated (because of, you know, the big "X" in the title), and a world where something like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has to exist, well, it's a solution I can live with.
There have been other methods of dealing with adult books...one company manufactured plastic bags with a black coating over the bottom two-thirds, allowing the logo to poke through while obscuring any potentially offensive imagery. However, that may not work for comics with slightly more blunt titles (like Eros' classics Blowjob and Pee Soup) which don't exactly leave much to the imagination. Not to mention the fact that these bags stick out like sore thumbs on the rack...if you want a kid, or a parent who doesn't want to be in the shop in the first place and who's looking for a reason to be irritiated, to immediately gravitate towards a comic covered in one of these bags to see what it is, then they work perfectly, I guess.
I remember visiting comic shops in the Los Angeles area, and seeing adult comics, unbagged, on shelves just above eye level over the rest of the new comics (out of reach of kids, but right there more or less in plain view of everyone), and thinking two things. One, how potentially troublesome this could be, particularly if a parent (or a policeman) decides to make an issue of it. And two, how jealous I was that they could get away with this, without the elaborate system we had to put in place, simply because they were in an area that apparently would allow them to do so. I wonder if any of those stores did get complaints? I received enough complaints from some of our customers just about the standard issue superhero comics, with the buxom gals in the tight, tight clothing...being exposed to something like Wendy Whitebread, Undercover Slut would probably make those customers drop dead right there in the middle of our store.
So, no, I'm not unhappy with our system. It works out fine, our customers can deal with it, we still sell plenty of books out of that box, and it allows us to keep certain materials out of the hands of young folks.
A couple asides related to the selling of adult comics:
One of Eros Comix' most popular titles was the Japanese comic Bondage Faeries, which was about...well, I'm guessing the title of the comic is fairly self-explanatory. It sold very well for us, and I ended up having the following conversation with a sales rep from Fantagraphics (of which Eros Comix is a division):
Rep: "So, which of our titles do well for you?"
Me: "Oh, you know, Love and Rockets, Eightball, Bondage Faeries...."
Rep: "Bondage Faeries? Really?"
Me: "Yeah, it's great...we have lots of female customers for it."
Rep: "For Bondage Faeries?" [pause] "You're kidding."
And no, I wasn't kidding. The number of female customers I had for that comic far outstripped the male ones. I hesitate to speculate why.
The adult comic book Leather and Lace attempted a sales technique I don't think anyone tried before or since in the funnybook business. Cartoonist Barry Blair, who had acquired a following on his fantasy adventure comic Elflord, among other titles, published through Aircel both an adults-only version of Leather and Lace as well as a supposedly "all ages" version that had all the sex scenes stripped out. However, the costuming and the poses and so on were such that we kept the "all ages" version with the adult books as well. I mean, honestly, were they kidding about this?
If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at) progressiveruin.com.
-- Mike Sterling