A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part One

Posted by on February 15th, 2010 at 8:13 AM

 


Bud Plant’s Grass Valley, California warehouse in the 1970s. Photo from a Bud Plant catalog, ©1985 Bud Plant Inc.

 

Phil Seuling, who was 36 in 1970, knew there was a frustrated comics audience that was not being served, because the English teacher had successfully launched a second career as a comics dealer and director of a comics convention in New York. As a dealer, Seuling knew exactly what kinds of comics his customers wanted and how many, and more importantly, he knew what back-issues were coveted by collectors, but he could only acquire them through the blind apparatus of newsstand distribution, which did no more than drop bales of random titles off at various outlets each week.

“Phil Seuling’s brilliant idea,” said comics retailer and former distributor Frank Mangiaracina, “was to say to publishers: ‘I pretty much know how many comics I can sell each month. Why sell to the newsstand distributor who sells maybe two out of three [copies shipped]. That’s not such a great system.’ Phil said, ‘Give me 50 percent off and I’ll keep every comic that you give me. And if anything is left over, I will sell it as a back issue.'”

Seuling, in 1973, took this offer to Marvel, DC, Warren, Harvey and Archie — virtually everybody who was then publishing a comic book. Even to the most conservative, tradition-bound publisher, this was a no-brainer. The discount Seuling was asking for — it ultimately amounted to 60 percent — was no greater than the discount already granted to newsstand distributors. And for that same discount, every copy distributed was a guaranteed sale. No returns, either genuine or fake, would have to be reimbursed. At the other end of the pipeline, because it allowed retailers to get the comics their customers wanted on a timely and reliable basis and at a much greater discount, Seuling’s arrangement with publishers was beneficial to himself and others like him.

There weren’t that many like Seuling in the early 1970s. Rozanski estimated that when he opened his store in 1974, there were no more than 30 comics specialty shops throughout the United States and Canada, with another 100 stores that featured comics along with other wares such as books or records. Even Seuling didn’t have a store, just convention tables and mail-order. Comics shops represented a tiny number of outlets compared to all the grocery, drugstore and newsstand racks that traditional distributors serviced, but they had particular needs that Seuling was ideally situated to fill.

Because World Color Press printed everybody’s comics, Seuling was able to get the printer to ship packages containing a precise mix of titles from the different publishers directly to each store that he dealt with. Seuling’s store clients received exactly the titles they wanted sooner than they had received shipments from the more casual newsstand distributors and at a greater discount. Where newsstand distributors got a 60 percent discount from publishers and passed on a 30 percent discount to retailers, Seuling, who also got a 60 percent discount, granted shops a 40 percent discount.

The effect was to create a special link between comics publishers and comics shops that didn’t exist with the general-interest venues. There was an appropriateness to that because comics retailers, by and large, were not like other retailers. They were pioneers of a sort, and if there was any difference between them and their customers, it was that they loved their store’s products even more than their customers did.

Seuling can be thought of as the father of the Direct Market in more ways than one. Even as he was operating a successful comics convention and before he began re-shaping comics distribution, he had a day job teaching kids. He knew how to counsel and educate young people and he became a kind of father figure to a generation of young comics fans who went to him for advice, financial help and even shelter. (See sidebar.) “I met Phil in 1970,” said retailer and former distributor Bud Plant. “My friend and I were going to his show [as dealers]. We turned up at his apartment where he lived on Coney Island at 10 or 11 at night. It was raining and we didn’t have a place to stay, but we’d been referred to him by a mutual friend. He lived on the 13th floor of this big, old apartment building with his two girls and his wife. He came to the door in his underwear and said, ‘You guys must be the California boys.’ He was super-friendly and outgoing and gregarious. It was a small apartment, but we ended up bunking on the floor in his living room and when we left the show, we were flat broke and owed Phil $500. Unbelievably, he extended $500 in credit to a couple of kids.”

It’s shocking today to realize to what extent the Direct Market revolution led by Seuling in the early 1970s was actually the mobilization of a network of ambitious teenagers. Steve Schanes was 15 and his brother Bill was 13 when they began selling comics by mail-order and at conventions in 1970. By 1974, they had opened their first store. They would eventually operate one of the West Coast’s largest distributors, and challenge Marvel and DC with their own publishing company, Pacific Comics. “We didn’t have any childhood,” Steve Schanes told the Journal. “We just worked.”

Dealers like the Schaneses served a need created by the erratic distribution of comics to newsstands. When average readers missed an issue they particularly wanted, they had to turn to fan/dealers who were willing to go, literally, the extra mile to get it all. Even living in a city the size of San Diego was no guarantee of reliable access to comics. Describing his customers, Steve Schanes said, “It was guys that really dug comic books but couldn’t find the comic books they wanted. We lived in San Diego, but we had to drive to L.A. to get the comics. We knew what we liked and what other fans wanted, but we had to drive around to get them. We’d buy new comics off the newsstands in L.A. and sell them to fans who couldn’t get them, but we still couldn’t get the volume we wanted. Finally, we asked ourselves, ‘Where do comics stores get their comics?’

In 1974 — the year the Schanes brothers opened their first comics shop in Pacific Beach, Calif. — the answer to that question was Phil Seuling. The Schaneses, like everybody else, got their DCs through Seuling’s Sea Gate Distribution, but their gradual journey upstream toward the source of the comic-book Nile led them to Marvel where they became the first comics distributor to bypass Seuling’s operation. “I started talking with Marvel,” Steve Schanes told the Journal. “We made a deal with Ed Shukin at about the same time that Phil Seuling made a deal with Ed Shukin at Marvel Comics to buy Marvel comics direct.”

That deal combined with the unexpectedly strong demand their shop was meeting got their business off to a triumphant start. “I think it was the first comics store on the West Coast,” Schanes said. “I was a senior in high school and my brother was in the eighth grade when we opened it. There would be 40 or 50 kids lined up to get in the store in the morning. They would drive for miles, because there were no other stores like it.”

Frank Mangiaracina was 13 when his mother told him if he accumulated more comics than he could fit under his bed, she was going to throw them away. At the same time, he read where the value of Amazing Spider-Man #1 had hit $300. He decided the solution to his problem of limited space was to become more selective about the comics he bought and kept. He would focus on certain titles and sell the rest at conventions. The hitch to his plan was one that was encountered by a number of fan/dealers: “The first comics convention I went to I did get rid of a lot of my stuff,” he told the Journal, “but then a guy came up at the end of the show with a huge stack of books and said, ‘Hey, I’d like $50 for these,’ and I would’ve paid $50 just for the Barry Smith Conan that I needed. That got to be a pattern. I was always coming back with more than I started with because I couldn’t say no to a deal.”

Bud Plant, who would eventually own a chain of seven stores and his own distribution company, opened his first used-comics-and-paperbacks store in San José, Calif., in 1968 at the age of 16. He also sold comics through ads in Rocket’s Blast Comicollector and other comics fanzines. “I would go to flea markets, where, back then, comics were a nickel, and I would resell them for a quarter,” he told the Journal, “Basically, we were trying to sell comics so we could get more comics. I would compare being comics fans to being drug addicts. After a while, a lot become dealers to feed their own habit.”

 

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One Response to “A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part One”

  1. patford says:

    Great story, I’m looking forward to the rest.
    One thing I’d point out is there was no, “Marvel-led resurgence of the 1960s.”
    The fact is if you ignore total sales (Marvel was restricted because they were distributed by the DC owned Independent News), and focus only on the best selling individual titles, Marvel’s best selling comic book Spider-Man didn’t break the top ten until the last two years of the decade, and even then was far from the top.
    For almost the entire decade Spider-Man was being out sold not just by Superman, and Archie, but by Tarzan, Lois Lane, Superboy, even books like the Metal Men.
    Where Marvel stood apart from the other comic book companies in the 60’s was their sales were increasing year by year (until 1968) while the sales of DC, Dell/Gold Key, and Archie were in decline, but Marvel’s best selling books never reached the top, and only Spider-Man ever made the top ten. By the time Spider-Man cracked the top ten in 1968 it’s own sales had peaked, and begun to erode.