Tilting at Windmills

Thu, September 17th, 2009 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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TEN CRAZY DAYS

Well, OK, that was an interesting ten days in comics – so interesting, in fact, that this here is my second column for the month! (You can read my Open Letter to Disney on the Marvel deal, from two weeks ago, right here)

The news has come out now that Paul Levitz, President and Publisher of DC comics, is stepping down from those roles, and that the new, incoming President Diane Nelson is leading a re-positioning of DC into “DC Entertainment”. This is big news – probably bigger than the Disney/Marvel deal – at least so far as the business end of comics works.

Over the decades Paul has gained a number of detractors – hard to do that job as long as he has without doing so, really – but my opinion is that Paul was one of the primary Guardian and Protectors of the Direct Market system, and that without Paul’s stewardship there probably wouldn’t be a comics industry as we understand it… or possibly even at all.

It isn’t so much that Paul invented key aspects, but that he, more than anyone else I can think of, created an environment in which those aspects could grow and thrive.

Let’s look at just one specific example: the signing of the exclusive distribution deal with Diamond in 1995. (For some background, I recommend this excellent article from The Comics Journal)

For some people, DC signing this deal was the worst thing that Paul ever did – ultimately locking the Direct Market into a monopoly-level distribution deal. All of these years later, that’s not the most unreasonable read of the situation. At the end of the day, I think the bigger crime was Diamond not taking their then dominant position and strongly growing their non-exclusive business – if they had started that process fourteen years ago, the market would have ended up even stronger and more diverse – but I think it is hard to blame Paul for the failure of Timonium to capitalize on their new position.

Anyway, the point I really want to make here is that by signing that exclusive, DC was in a position to compel Diamond to stock the material that DC wanted them to stock. I know it’s hard to see in 2009, but in 1995 it would be hard to call “graphic novels” as anything but a nascent format. Certainly, many people were trying to produce them, and stock them, and promote them, but the infrastructure and mode of thinking that it took to properly support the format was essentially non-existent. I still remember the pre-exclusive days where, even with multiple national comics distribution options, finding a distributor who actually had, say, "Watchmen" in stock, was often an exercise in spelunking. The distribution infrastructure was aimed, nearly purely, at moving periodical comics in and out, and there wasn’t the warehouse space, or the will-to-stock the perennial formats.

It isn’t that Paul invented graphic novels (far from it) – but that by being in a position where he could dictate that Diamond would stock (and warehouse!) DC’s inventory of graphic novels meant that GNs were (nearly) instantly a more viable format. No more would you order-and-pray that they’d send you those copies of "Watchmen" – now, if DC had inventory then so did Diamond. This was an extremely significant change!

See, institutionally, forcing Diamond to take stocking positions on GNs, to devote warehouse space to the things, inevitably meant that other publishers could and would take advantage of this new infrastructure. It is hard for a lot of you to get the history on this, but prior to exclusivity, Viz was primarily a periodical comic book publisher. It wasn’t really until DC forced the infrastructure issue that Viz made their major shift to skipping the serialization altogether. Tokyopop’s story isn’t much different – ultimately thanks to the efforts that Paul and DC made, these publishers were able to build a wide enough backlist so they could become attractive to the bookstore market.

Clearly, the manga publishers found a much larger level of success in the bookstore market, but I would argue that the reason this was possible in the first place was because of the changes in DM distribution.

That’s just one example.

At the end of the day, I put it to you that Paul either encouraged, or outright created systems that allowed the “hothouse flower” of GNs and the DM to really grow and thrive and thus to expand into other market segments in a truly significant fashion. And that more than makes up for any number of fussy little decisions he is commonly derided for (say, pulping comics, or nearly wrecking things like "The Authority")

I’ve been asked why exactly I think that Paul leaving his position at DC is more significant than Disney purchasing Marvel, and I think I can summarize it something like this: we’ve lived through regime after regime at Marvel where the interests of their corporate owners ran contrary to the best needs of the DM, or even comics in general. To a certain extent, Disney buying Marvel is, at worst, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” – we’ve lived through MarvelMart, and the Marvelcution, and Heroes World, and, gah, the Jemas era, so, to an extent, how much worse could it really get? We’ve had some two decades of pain already!

(Certainly the answer is “Potentially? A whole lot worse”, but there’s a certain amount of Battered Wife Syndrome going on here; and it’s also possible that maybe, just maybe, things could get a whole lot better with just a small amount of vision and commitment – see last column’s open letter!)

One thing we’ve always had going was that no matter how desperately insane Marvel would get, we always had a counter-balancing force in the market in the form of DC. DC wasn’t perfect (hahahaha, no!), but we could always count on DC to maintain at least a semblance of sanity and options for the creative and retailing communities.

A lot of that is on Paul, and the excellent teams he assembled.

It is my understanding that Paul shielded us from a lot of Warner’s worst impulses, and allowed us to be that “Hothouse Flower”, and I would argue that comics ended up in a better place because of it.

And there’s my fear, in a nutshell – we’re losing that shield, we’re losing that counter-balance, and now we’ve got two (let’s be blunt) rapacious corporate entities that basically have no limits or controls on what they might do.

That “might” is really important, because every doomsday scenario that can be spun may, in fact, just be pure paranoia and speculation. But, I think it is fair to say that the history of corporate control in the United States shows that one should be suspicious of both corporate action and inaction.

At the end of the day, I don’t trust Disney or Warner Brothers to naturally do the things that I believe they need to do. But I trusted Paul. Paul was, and very deeply could be, “a suit,”but he was also a suit that I trusted to care deeply about our marketplace, and to keep it (relatively) safe and protected. Paul was a person that I could call with a concern, and, if I was at all rational (maybe 50/50 chance, knowing me), that he could and would make changes based upon that input. Maybe the folks at Disney, and Ms. Nelson, will behave the same way – and there’s no direct evidence that they won’t – but we’re trading a sure thing for a bunch of question marks.

So, that’s why I’m concerned.

The big challenge going forward is likely to be just how Diamond reacts and positions themselves. There’s a chance now that Disney and Warner won’t re-up their contracts when they come around again in the next few years, and Diamond has spent the last 14 years putting virtually all of their eggs into the DC and Marvel baskets. What happens if those baskets then have holes in the bottom of them?

When you couple this general short-sightedness with recent moves like raising their benchmarks, and canceling out books they agreed to distribute, or not even distributing them in the first place (I’d point you at this excellent essay by Chris Butcher of Toronto’s The Beguiling for some of the practical on-the-ground ramifications), that basket looks to me to be even more limiting.

At the beginning of September, I would have never thought such a thought, but I now can see at least one string of potential dominoes looming that would lead to Diamond essentially becoming unviable by 2012; and without Diamond there’s a reasonable chance that half or more of the current retailers or publishers participating in the DM could collapse overnight.

Certainly that doesn’t have to happen, but it’s going to require a large amount of vision and leadership from the folks in Timonium, perhaps more than they are going to be capable of providing.

I don’t want to end this column on a down note. There’s also a potential future in which Disney and Warner recognize the golden goose that they have (how many other segments of publishing are virtually guaranteed to be profitable from the instant the press stops running? Basically none!), and they begin to compete to see which one can do the best job of stewardship and growth going forward into the 21st century. That potential future is really bright and exciting, and could lead to a place where nearly every community has a thriving specialty comics market, where comics are fully embraced in the way we’ve all been working towards.

That future is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of passion, and a lot of vision and commitment. Personally, I think we have it in us to make the better future come – we have the knowledge, we have the energy and the drive. We can preserve and protect our market, but it is going to take a lot of hard work.

(Honestly, the events of the last two weeks says to me that each and every retailer needs to join ComicsPRO right now this very second – the organization can’t represent your needs unless you’re a participating member, after all; and the more members we have, the greater an impact we can collectively make)

If we all bring our verve and expertise to the table, we can make this industry even better and stronger than it is today. I’m willing to make that effort. Are you?

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links).

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, marvel comics, dc comics, paul levitz, diamond distributors

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