Sharpening the Sword is a weekly column by retailer John Riley of Grasshopper's Comics, a 1,300 square foot comic and games store in Williston Park, New York.  This week, Riley looks at DC's relaunch and Jack White's insight.

I wanted to post this article last week, but like everyone I spent the entire week trying to politely remind customers that I do not own DC Comics, nor do I manage them or have any other input into their decision-making.  When they dropped this bombshell I spent a bit of time thinking about changing the column I intended to write but decided not to.  I'll tell you why in a second.

DC's decision to renumber has gotten the lions' share of customers' ire.  But the reason they're upset is because they believe this is just another marketing gimmick, another event, and that at the end of a year the numbering will revert back.  They're tired of being manipulated, of marketing driving storylines, which are constantly retconned.  The comment I've heard over and over again is "This type of event is exactly what's driving me out of comics.  Why can't they just concentrate on good stories?"

Those comments are all valid, and worthy of at least a few columns in the future.  But the thing that makes me think this is a permanent change, is the implementation of digital day and date.  Apparently DC's plan is to attract a large audience of "civilians," people who've never stepped into a comic shop before, by delivering digitally.  The incentive?  Get in on the ground floor of the entire DC Universe, not just a new title, not just a title reboot, but the beginning of the whole shebang.  It's an event big enough to get massive media coverage, while totally eliminating barriers to entry for the civilian.  

But this column was originally going to be about Jack White of the White Stripes and how he may hold the key to the future of comics retailing.  Sooooo… how can that possibly fit in?

For those of you who don't know, Jack White is in four successful bands, has sold millions of albums, and is an award-winning producer.  He's on the cutting edge of change in the recording industry and is something of a renaissance man.  So what is Jack getting involved in now?  What is his new venture that holds the future of music?

He opened a record store.  And by record store I mean just that.  Records.  Vinyl.  

Of course Jack's store is more than just a store, it's also a performance hall that is the only one in the country set up to record straight to analog tape.  As he says, "We provide the finest that mid-60's technology has to offer."  He records these performances and releases vinyl albums, which he sells both online and in his store.  In the age of the iPod, Jack has invested in vinyl.

Now it just so happens that vinyl sales rose 14% in 2010, and even more in 2009.  While it's never going to be the dominant format again, it’s on a roll and growing.  The reason?  As White puts it, a vinyl album presents a different experience than an iPod.  You don't skip songs.  You don't listen to it as background noise.  Vinyl is for people who want to actually listen to their music, who listen to the whole album, who want the tactile experience of flipping the record.  Vinyl is for people who want to actively experience their music.

My hope for DC is that they are massively successful.  I hope that they obtain a 1,000% increase in the number of comic book readers in the country.  Because in that scenario, even if digital becomes the new standard and only 15% of those readers want the experience of print, it still doubles our print customer base.  Because unlike music, which already appeals to close to 100% of the population, we're well under 1%.  We could grow 1,000% and still have 97% of Americans not reading comics.  

And since comics already have a perceived intrinsic collectible value (a unique strength in entertainment media), if there is only one or two print copies for every 10 people who read the book, then those copies by definition are scarce the day they're printed, creating a whole host of new sales and marketing possibilities for both publishers and retailers alike.

Jack White's a smart guy.  He recognizes that there are people who want different experiences even within the same hobby.  If that weren't true then board games and video games would be mutually exclusive, but both are booming.  Digital doesn't have to destroy print at all.  But we do have to be very careful to take care of those customers who prefer print and make sure that their experience is as good as it possibly can be.

If Jack can be successful selling vinyl decades after the demise of that format then I think we all can have a future if we're smart about it.

Coming Up:  An update on my novel, and why you should care even though right now you don't.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely  those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of