A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part One

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


The distributors had two principal weapons in the struggle to gain market share: discounts and speed. Ultimately, they were all getting the same discounts from the publishers, so there was a limit to how much they could manipulate the discounts offered to retail accounts. But speed of delivery was a category that was capable of separating the strong from the weak — a fact that was manifested most clearly by the so-called “Air Freight Wars” of the mid 1980s. “The Direct Market initially had about a week over newsstand delivery,” Plant told the Journal. “The big step was going to air freight. I first fell out with Capital over that because they sneakily started with air freight even though they promised me they wouldn’t.”

Shipping comics by air generally got them to stores a day earlier, but, under normal rates, it added considerably to a distributor’s costs. According to Plant, several distributors had an unwritten agreement not to fly their goods. Glenwood was the first to break ranks, and Capital quickly followed. As the smaller distributors had feared, Mangiaracina said, “It became a system of one-upmanship. Capital got a good deal from an airline, saying, ‘Our competitors will have to do the same and you’ll be able to charge them more.'”

As Capital’s Griepp explained it, “Air freight became as cheap as ground if you had certain volumes. We were maybe a little earlier in figuring out how to bundle comics for the airlines to take advantage of air freight, but it was nothing they wouldn’t have done with anybody.”

Anybody who was moving enough volume, that is — such as Capital City, which was then the largest distributor in the country. “If you were a little guy,” said Plant, “you were probably getting screwed.”

Rozanski told the Journal, “It was an impossibility for the smaller distributors. Air freight very quickly created a world of haves and have-nots.” It also had the effect of putting everybody in potential competition with everyone else regardless of region.

Nevertheless, Rozanski doesn’t buy the story of the comics Direct Market as a gradual fall from comics-community grace into the dog-eat-dog world of big business. “I didn’t go into selling comics because I loved comics,” he said, “but because I loved freedom. Just like it does for comics creators on the creative side, the comics industry offered me the unlimited free expression of working for myself. I went into the business as my own boss at the age of 19, even though it meant sleeping in my mom’s car one summer. To this day, I’m fanatical about my independence. And that was the atmosphere of the 1970s. Everybody was looking for alternative lifestyles. The comics world became a micro-world, a little economy all to itself, and a lot of young people who didn’t want to go into mainstream employment became comics entrepreneurs.”

Doing business in this micro-world was a bonding experience of sorts, because — like comics creators — distributors and retailers knew that the way they made their living was utterly foreign to the average person on the street. But in the end, it was every man (and the occasional woman) for himself. Comics collectors started dealing comics to have a way of getting more comics for themselves. Comics retailers became comics wholesalers in order to have better access to comics for their shops. In some cases, comics wholesalers opened shops in order to have a greater volume of accounts to distribute to. Ultimately, comics distributors like Capital and Pacific began publishing comics in order to have more comics to sell. It was, in a way, all about self-sufficiency, and it’s probably no accident that Rozanski today operates a large organic-farming business.

In 1981, comics distributors took a step toward establishing common ground for cooperation by holding the first semi-official meeting of the International Association of Direct Distributors at the Westgate Hotel Dining Room across the street from the San Diego Comic-Con that summer. IADD included every distributor at the time, including Irjax/New Media; Glenwood; Bud Plant and Pacific Comics in California; Big Rapids in Detroit; Alternate Realities in Colorado; Comics Hawaii; Andromeda, Multi-Book and Styx in Canada, Comics Unlimited in Staten Island, Heroes World in New Jersey, Capital City in Wisconsin and Titan from England. Friendly Frank’s and Diamond joined in 1982.

The independent-mindedness of comics distributors was immediately evident. Griepp’s goal of establishing a system of credit ratings for comics shops to be shared among distributors made little progress because no company was willing to share proprietary information about its accounts. Shouting matches broke out between various attendees, the most violent of which was between Longhorn Distribution’s Jim Kavanaugh and Irjax’s Hal Schuster, who according to Rozanski, “threatened to punch each other out.” The furor was so great that the hotel manager had to be persuaded not to eject the entire Direct Market from his hotel.

The most immediate common concern among comics distributors at the time of that meeting was DC’s reticence in announcing its terms of trade to the Direct Market. As Rozanski put it, Marvel’s only requirement of a distributor was that it be able to write a $3,000 check that didn’t bounce, and it was consequently doing business with approximately 19 distributors, but DC was still maintaining a wait-and-see attitude and had only opened its doors to eight or nine of the wave of distributors that had recently entered the business. Not included in that number of DC distributors was Alternate Realities, the former Mile High distribution arm that was then operated by Rozanski’s wife. To avoid legal problems and an obvious conflict of interest, he had separated his Mile High shops from the distribution operation by selling the latter to his wife. Rozanski and Alternate Realities were naturally anxious to learn what it would take to do business with DC. That IADD goal also ended in disappointment, especially for Rozanski. “We [IADD distributors] were trying to get DC to get off their ass and give us their trade terms,” Rozanski said. “They didn’t respond at the con, but when they did a few months later, DC slid a shiv into the Direct Market before it was even completely born. DC decided it would anoint the distributors who could buy from them and who could not.”

In Rozanski’s view, the policy led distributors to become increasingly frenzied in grabbing for comics-shop market share in order to gain DC’s approval: “Some distributors were cannibalizing their own customers’ business by opening up stores in competition against their own successful accounts, just to gain a greater volume of business.”
At the close of the first IADD meeting, Seuling issued a warning: Now that publishers had a wide field of competing Direct Market distributors to choose from, they would use that competition against distributors. Seuling was then near the end of his influence on the Direct Market. The following IADD meeting would be his last, and by 1984 he had died of a rare liver disorder at the age of 50. When Friendly Frank’s joined IADD, Mangiaracina remembered Seuling as “the only one who shook my hand and welcomed me to distributing.”


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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.