Welcome to the first installment of this new column for CBR named POP! The goal is that this feature will be a semi-weekly couch under the sun for us to chat about the interesting people, tall tales, important trivialities and unbelievable experiences that are a little bit of the culture that you and I share. Without a doubt talking about comics will be the centerpiece of our journey - but there's going to be so many other wonderful places and mediums that I hope you'll enjoy, too. Remember, it's us who define what "pop culture" is, not the other way around.
This first selection comes from my "Image Comics: The Road to Independence" from TwoMorrows Books. As I'm the middle of preparing new articles and other distractions, I thought it would be ideal to start with this article that centers on the evolution of the business of comics in the1990s.
(Or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Not Solely Blame Image for the Fall of Comics")
|Jim Hanley's Universe in New York City|
The direct market also allowed independent and alternative publishers a chance to gamble on a mechanism with which to keep their readers - books like "Cerebus," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Bone" would have never found success on newsstands. "What this created was an environment where small publishers could enter the market," said Steve Milo, the founder of American Entertainment (which during the early nineties was the biggest single retailer of comics) and the pioneer of comics retailing online. "They could enter a market on a non-returnable basis, which was a very low risk, and they could be a lot more risky in terms of their offerings. So they didn't have to worry about coming out with mainstream products. They could take more chances. So this really created kind of a creative revolution, and really opened up a lot more opportunities for upcoming talent who previously had really been restricted to just Marvel and DC."
When the media's anticipation of the "Batman" movie began in 1988, there were many prominent comic book distributors (key ones were Diamond, Comics Unlimited, Capital City, and Heroes World) when the boom in comics exploded wide open. In the years prior, major comics publishers had set their sights so strongly on the direct market that they practically allowed their product's presence on convenience, grocery and drug stores to disappear by turning a blind eye to the newsstand market - more than 70% of their revenue coming from just the direct market. Stores dedicated to selling comic books and related paraphernalia began emerging in malls and local neighborhoods all across the country. In the beginning, it was practically a license to print money from an audience of readers and speculators too eager to give it up.
|Jim Lee signs at Jim Hanley's|
Without a doubt the mass epidemic of speculation took off around this time. "Oh, yeah, there was the undercurrent of that," Steve Geppi, the Founder and President of Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. remembered. "You had what I call the baseball scabs coming over and perpetrating their fraud on the comic industry. The same thing they did with cards that they busted, that they came over here and decided to do with comics; you know, buy cases of them and have people believe that they were going to put their kids through college on cases of recent comics."
As new readers and fortune-hunters entered the marketplace, they gravitated heavily to the emerging art talent coming from Marvel. "Oh, absolutely," commented Chuck Rozanski, the owner of Mile High Comics and a prominent figure amongst comics retailers. "They had a huge fan base, and that's why they were able to step so successfully away from Marvel and to strike out on their own. See, part of that came from Marvel's philosophy, and Terry Stewart's philosophy, of making stars. And so Marvel in effect created the notoriety of these guys by really, really pushing their star power and using that to sell books, but then in the end it came back and really did bite them in the tail. I think to this day it's the philosophy of Marvel to downplay individual creators and to really emphasize the team effort and the editors and so on. Marvel to this day doesn't send people out that much on a promotional tour. You almost never see them set up at conventions in any real substantive way. They are trying to keep their creators very much under their thumb."
"They were good for the industry!" Geppi confirms. "Their timing was good. It was an innovative time. And I think they made their mark, and I think they learned a few lessons along the way, and guys like Todd and Jim Lee really maintained a good business sense and made some good moves for themselves when they saw that it wasn't sustainable... It was somewhat of a Renaissance. You might even, with due respect, compare it to Marvel in 1962. All of a sudden the market got shaken up. New things were happening. There could be an independent title that would sell huge quantities, and that was very, very... it was great exposure for the industry. Like I said, the downside was when it collapsed because it wasn't built on solid ground, but the quality titles stayed, and the quality creators stayed. And I think it expanded the market. I'm sure Marvel and DC weren't happy about it at the time. Particularly Marvel, because Todd had defected, and he was doing 'Spider-Man.' But he leveraged his popularity on 'Spider-Man,' and his newfound fame, into a platform for Image Comics. And Rob was doing his thing, and Marc, and all those guys... the cumulative value of their individual talent was very powerful. Individually some of them were very powerful, but it really took them all together to get the kind of attention that they got."
After the departure of the Image creators, Marvel continued to expand their line - but with all of their star writers and artists working at Image and other comic companies, the company saturated the market with sub-par talent and novelty gimmicks to pump up their stock, wallets and shareholders. To regain the consumerism spotlight of the era, DC left their conservative role and got aggressive by playing with stunts like breaking Batman's back and killing Superman in huge multi-issue storylines. Although both events succeeded in their objective in generating enormous sales, print runs and media coverage - the market was beginning to show signs that speculators were starting to get weary after so many events and books from the entire industry, that they stopped buying comics by the pallets. So when did it all finally come crashing down? Was there one book in particular that began the downfall for dealers everywhere?
|A line of fans wait outside Jim Hanley's to meet their favorite comic creator.|
"'93 was when things went really bad," Jim Hanley echoed. "April of '93 was when the 'Return of Superman' came out, the white-bagged issue. We knew that you can't get lighting in your bottle again and again. But we still got stuck with them. We just didn't get stuck with them the way a lot of other people did. But we had over-ordered so far across the board at that point that... In December of '92, we were rolling in money. In December of '92 we paid out $30,000 in Christmas bonuses to our staff. $30,000. And we still had a 30% pretax profit. These are numbers which don't register with you because you don't deal with this stuff, but these are numbers that, like, I tell this to other retailers. First of all, the idea of $30,000 out in Christmas bonuses is unfathomable, and the idea that after that you have a 30% pretax profit? I mean, these guys are lucky to get a 10%
pretax profit. But it was just so insane, it was like we were selling so many comics we couldn't ramp up expenses fast enough to make it unprofitable. Yeah, some customers left (by 1993), but it was mostly that customers stopped buying crazy amounts of stuff."
DC apparently began to understand the extent of damage the market was withstanding; it felt like they slowed down with publicity stunts and gimmick covers after Superman's resurrection. Meanwhile, Image tried to lessen their biggest problem: late books. "Right," Rozanski said, "because in those days we had no return privileges for books that were late shipping, and the Image books were what prompted that policy to change, where Diamond and Capital and the other distributors that were still around at that point, did start to enforce on the publishers that they were going to have to make books that were late after a certain amount of time returnable. I was at a couple of distributor meetings, the Diamond meeting I remember in particular, where there was a near-riot among the retailers because they were so angry because they were stuck with all these late-shipping books that they didn't want anymore. It killed them. It put them out of business."
|One of American Entertainment's full page ads, a regular sight inside Marvel comic books in the early '90s.|
"Nobody was happy about that, I guess," Steve Geppi recalled about the Marvel/Heroes World era, "Especially the way it was communicated, or it wasn't communicated. We found out kind of covertly. But that said, you could argue that in my particular case, although I would have not planned on it, it worked out, because their mistake led to a lot of other things happening that led to our position today... they had no capability. With due respect to Ivan Snyder (head of Heroes World), who was a friend of mine, there was a double mistake that Marvel made. Number one, if they were going to buy a distributor, they bought the wrong one. Mainly because, no disrespect to Ivan, he was a very good, small, regional distributor, but the capabilities you need to do it nationally, they didn't have that infrastructure. And then secondly, when they announced they were only going to carry their own product and nobody else's, it was a mistake, because even all of Marvel's volume isn't enough to justify a nationwide distributor."
In the midst of Heroes World, Steve Milo and various other retailers were approached by Marvel to buy excess inventory. He would win the lot and create Marvel Mart ads to sell these goods. He was able to see the extent of Marvel's disorganization. Steve related, "The unfortunate component was the fact that it really destroyed the distribution market. But we weren't a distributor, so it wasn't as big an issue. I mean, Marvel Mart was kind of silly. They just were never set up to do consumer retail sales, and they knew that. Marvel literally lost control of their inventory. They literally didn't know what they had or didn't have, and we bought, for pennies on the dollars, 300 trailer-loads sight unseen of Marvel inventory. We literally bought 300 tractor-trailer-loads of Marvel product. Heroes World was just a little distributor, and was never set up to do national distribution, and they lost control of their inventory, and they just had inventory everywhere. And basically, they literally sold us stuff sight unseen. They had no idea what was in it. No idea."
Not only was Heroes World a logistical nightmare, but in the heat of business other comic publishers chose their allegiances with a distributor for standing up to Marvel in the new marketplace. In doing so, they empowered Diamond Comics by making them the only major distributor of comics. "It was very important," Geppi stressed, "because once we got DC, it sent a message that we were the likely survivor, because arguably whoever lost Marvel and DC would really have trouble. And to Capital's credit, they stayed afloat for another year. But Image was another linchpin for us, because when we got Image, you could argue when we got DC and Image, it made it easy for Dark Horse and all these other people to come aboard for us, because they didn't want to be on a sinking ship whereas it was perceived. Whether that ship would have sunk or not, you don't know, but I do believe they thought, 'Diamond's now got all of DC, Diamond's now got all of Image. I'd better get with them or I'm going to be sailing on a ship that has no future.'"
Retailers like Jim Hanley saw the strengthening role of Diamond's position with great concern. "I thought at the time it was the biggest mistake that DC ever made," Hanley said, "essentially putting all the other distributors out of business in order to annoy Marvel. And the reason they did it was because they were so terrified of Marvel's, and especially [owner Ron] Perelman's, disruptive effect on the industry that they believed Marvel's buying Heroes World was going to put them at a terrible disadvantage. Capital wouldn't have gone out of business. All the other distributors would have gone out of business, but there would have been an alternative. Marvel only lasted a year-and-a-half or two years out of Diamond. And when they went back to Diamond, they went cap in hand and made a deal that was much worse than the deal they could have made because they just had to get back into Diamond because they had to shut down Heroes World."
|Todd McFarlane at his store.|
"We called that period the Period of the Suit," Chuck Rozanski uttered. "Because that's when all these jackass pieces of sh*t people came in, and they all started wearing suits and strutting around and acting like they knew their ass from a hole in the ground, when in point of fact they didn't know anything about comics at all, and they were basically just parasites. But they came in and, boy, did they know how to run these card companies, and they knew how to do speculative books and eighteen different variant covers and all that kind of crap, but these people didn't know... they had no care for what was going on whatsoever. If the industry came, went, or died, they didn't care. They were strictly in it for the money. And they were just scum. I mean, all up and down the equation. And you can start with Ron Perelman, (who) would have been the head jerk, and then follow the chain from there. But you could go to San Diego and you'd have all these guys walking around with their little locking briefcases and their three-piece suits. It all just made me want to gag. It was just a terrible period in the comics industry, because you had all these people thinking that they could ride this horse to riches. And they didn't care if they rode it to death as long as they got their money out of it."
In the end, everyone was to blame for fueling the greed that occurred in the nineties: the comic book companies, the speculators, the readers, the retailers, the talent, the editors and anyone who forgot that comics were meant to be read and enjoyed. There's plenty of blame to go around. Although the marketplace is no longer this enormous entity, everyone seemed to learn something from it. The few retailers in today's market are more knowledgeable about their consumers and their methods for ordering books. Later, creators and editors began to focus more on their stories and craft than gimmicks and events. Comic readers learned to use their financial voice by backing off books that weren't up to par as the speculators fled the marketplace. Today's new breeds of readers are discovering comics and graphic novels via bookstores and the Internet. Yet, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Alternative and variant covers have slowly started to enter the mainstream market again. There's also an abundance of late books from Marvel and DC over the last two years that are beginning to concern today's readers. Let's hope that none of us have forgotten our history lessons.
(Special thanks for Jim Hanley's Universe providing some atmosphere with the great photos of their store.)