A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part One

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


As the Direct Market continued to grow, it caught the attention of the old-line newsstand distributors, some of whom let it be known that they were not happy about the idea of a bunch of kids invading their distribution turf. As Rozanski put it, “You didn’t get those ID [Independent Distribution] wholesaler regional monopolies by being Mr. Nice Guy.” Steve Schanes preferred not to talk on the record about his experiences with representatives of certain newsstand distribution interests, fearing even after all these years to endanger himself and his family, but according to Rozanski, “They told me that Bill came home one day and found his tires slashed.”

San Diego Comics shop proprietor Greg Pharis told the San Diego Reader (Aug. 19, 2004), “Steve was really worried about rumors that guys from the local [newsstand distribution organization], which was said to be Mafia controlled, were out to get him and Bill. He told me once that someone had knocked out his windows and he’d been personally threatened a few times… he was obviously anxious and scared, rightfully so, but you could tell he was also a little pleased and proud that he’d gotten the big guys’ attention in such a big way.”

Such stories tended to circulate more on the two coasts, especially the Eastern one. Inland distributors like Rozanski’s Colorado-based Mile High and John Davis and Milton Griepp’s Capital City apparently went unthreatened by mobsters and thugs. Rozanski told the Journal, “There was a lot of racketeering going on and I got close enough to realize I didn’t want anything to do with it.” In 1995, Rozanski said he had an opportunity to purchase several pallets of Marvel back issues from an East Coast warehouse. It was fairly obvious to him that the comics must have been left over from newsstand affidavit-return scams, meaning they had been reported to the publisher as destroyed. The price was extremely low and he was able to overcome his scruples and buy the comics, but not without reporting the incident to Marvel: “I went to Marvel and told them who the distributor was and they said, ‘We’re not going to them.'”

Marvel’s Shukin said in the November 1994 issue of Capital’s Internal Correspondence trade newsletter, “As the Direct Market grew and [ID wholesalers] took notice, they did express their dismay at someone other than themselves distributing periodicals in their service areas. Their complaints were unfair discounts — How could they compete? Frankly, I offered them identical terms if they bought under identical conditions. But of course, firm sale to the IDs was unthinkable.” Ultimately, even the most belligerent of the distributors chose to back off rather than, as Shukin said, “expose themselves to restraint-of-trade or monopoly charges.”

Rozanski speculated that the ID wholesalers would have been more aggressive in repelling the Direct Market invasion if it had gotten off the ground in earlier years. By the 1970s, he said, “they didn’t really care that much about comics anyway. The whole economies of the distribution business were changing and they were too focused on saving their core business to go after comics business.”

The early Direct Market, in which all nonreturnable orders were filtered through Seuling and Sea Gate had been a kind of tree with subdistributors branching off the trunk and feeding the comics-shop foliage at the end of the distribution chain. Rozanski compared Seuling’s operation to a monarchy, in which Seuling would bestow dukedoms to whomever would pay him appropriate fealty. But as publishers began opening up to other distributors in 1979, every branch had an opportunity to become its own tree and every duke could become a king. The result was increasingly favorable conditions for the growth of the comics-shop market, but also increasingly fierce competition.

The kind of cutthroat business practices seen in most industries were initially mitigated in the comics Direct Market by a kind of amateur camaraderie and mutual love of comics. But even the keenest of fans have always had a love/hate relationship with their fellow collectors as they compete for the best deals possible among a limited supply of desirable comics.

Little Frankie Mangiaracina had started dealing in comics with modest goals, which he wrote down in a notebook. “One of my main goals was to be able to order enough copies of the EC Library [boxed set] to get 50 percent off according to the ad that Russ Cochran was running,” he told the Journal. He was able to achieve that goal by finding enough buyers among his own customers and through ads in the Buyer’s Guide. Then one day he got a call from Cochran, who told Mangiaracina he had not only canceled Mangiaracina’s EC Library orders, but he had also canceled all Mangiaracina’s ads in TBG. It was Mangiaracina’s first encounter with hardcore competitive practices, and he was shocked to learn that simply being a bigger advertiser gave Cochran enough pull at TBG to block Mangiaracina’s small-time operation. (A little embarrassed to be reminded of the incident, Cochran told the Journal, “I was young and, I guess you’d say, shooting from the hip. I wouldn’t do that today.”)

Mangiaracina didn’t stay small-time for long, however. “That was a large part of my impetus to give up my paper route and go into comics full-time,” he said. As his distribution activities grew after he became a subdistributor for Glenwood, they began to claim increasing amounts of time and energy. “People would call asking where their books were and my mom would say, ‘I’ll ask Frank when he gets home from school.'” Finally, this same mother who had threatened to throw out every comic that wouldn’t fit under his bed, became his first employee, packaging his book orders for a quarter a box. As his business grew, he said, “I would have semis pulling up to my parents’ garage every week.”


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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.