A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part One

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


Panel from “Away Off There Amid the Softly Winking Lights” in Bruce Jones’ Alien Worlds 3-D Special, art by Art Adams, published by Pacific Comics; ©1984 Bruce Jones Associates, art ©1984 Arthur Adams..


Pacific’s wholesale accounts went to Bud Plant, but Plant, with both a retail business and a distribution company, had similar conflict-of-interest problems. The suspicion that he was giving himself preferential treatment, he said, “had some accounts pissed off at me. But the biggest conflict of interest was: How can you cut off your own store if it’s not paying its distribution bill? The store went through some huge cash-flow problems.” Faced with a number of accounts that were falling deeper into debt to the distributor, including his own store, he was feeling burnt out by 1988. “I’m not capable of being a mean, hard-nosed businessman,” he told the Journal. “I was not happy. The business was too much management, glad-handing and numbers. I just wanted to get cool books and sell them.” Although the company was then doing approximately $12 million a year in business, Plant decided to get out of the rat race.

The most likely candidates to buy Plant’s wholesale operation were Capital City and Diamond. Capital was the largest distributor in the Direct Market at the time, and, by reputation, more friendly to the kinds of underground and alternative comics on which Plant had built his core business. Nevertheless, he said, “I couldn’t get that air-freight thing out of my craw. I couldn’t forgive Capital for that and I trusted Bill Schanes [who was then at Diamond].”

As it happened, Alternate Realities, run by Rozanski’s wife, Nanette, was one of the accounts deep in debt to Plant. Because it had been shut out of distributing DC comics, the company had been forced to get its DC titles through Plant, an arrangement that had whittled its profit margin down to almost nothing. “Chuck called me,” Plant said, “and asked if I’d be interested in taking Alternate Realities over in lieu of what they owed me. I was in negotiations with Diamond, so I called Geppi and asked him, ‘Do you want a couple more warehouses.’ Geppi was happy to acquire the former Mile High warehouses in Denver and St. Louis, because they added greatly to his shipping efficiency.

There were at least two important repercussions to Plant’s sale to Diamond. One was that negotiations between the two opened Diamond up to a wider range of comics. “The big difference between Geppi and I,” Plant told the Journal, “was that Geppi wouldn’t deal in adult material and I did. They realized they had to offer that kind of material to keep my customers happy. My clients would have jumped ship to Capital.”

The second repercussion is that by absorbing both Plant and Alternate Realities, Diamond was able to outgrow Capital, a factor that was key in 1996 when publishers were trying to decide which distributor to sign exclusive contracts with. Plant’s choice is arguably at the end of a chain of events that would result in the complete domination of Direct Market distribution that Diamond enjoys today.

Though he urged Geppi to follow his practice of keeping backstock available in distribution warehouses, Plant said, “He didn’t even want to buy my inventory. He took it on consignment and he may have learned from that there was a demand.” It was a few years later that Diamond started its Star System, under which select backstock, usually graphic novels, are maintained in Diamond warehouses and periodically resolicited in Previews.

Backstock, of course, was crucial to how Direct Market comics shops functioned in the beginning. There was no need to return unsold comics, because their value only went up after their new-release shelf life was over and they were shifted to a store’s back-issue longboxes. In later years, the collector’s market for back issues dropped off so severely that few comics shops continue to carry substantial amounts of backstock, and both publishers and retailers try to come as close as possible to 100 percent sell-through of new comics. By contrast, Mangiaracina — who is still in retailing, having recently expanded his line of Kansas City-based stores to include the modernized, pop-culture-themed B-bop store — said, “at my first Friendly Frank’s store in 1982, most of the sales were old comics. At one time, 90 percent of my sales were in back issues. I’m kind of a numbers guy. I really like numbers and I like to add up my sell-through percentages every month. Over the years, that changed so that I was selling more and more new comics, while my back-issue sales went down. I’ve tried to buck the trend…” When the Journal suggested that he sounded nostalgic for the days of back-issue dealing, he agreed: “It’s the one part of my business that I have complete control over and I’m reluctant to give it up.”

Collectors and hardcore fans ultimately failed to sustain the industry’s extraordinary growth [as seen in this series’ third installment, Dirk Deppey’s “Suicide Club”]. But by the time that became clear, there was nowhere else for the Direct Market to turn, because it had cut itself off from every audience but the one that had created it. Griepp told the Journal, “There was an interaction between distribution channels and the content and the consumer audience. You can go back further to Marvel’s use of serialized stories in the 1960s. Before that, comics had been much more stand-alone, but [by the 1970s] publishers were going more in that direction [of serialized stories.] Those were some of the editorial trends that created the comic collector wanting to get all the issues of a particular story so they could read the entire story. So comics stores became a place where you could be guaranteed that they’d have all the issues of a title, rather than skipping some because the distribution was sloppy or they didn’t really care. You’d be hard-pressed to say one thing was cause and one thing was effect, but it got to a point by 2000 or whenever where there were almost no comics that a civilian could pick up and start reading and, without help, get into the story. That certainly was hurting the business.”

Not only had the business of comics become an economic micro-world, as Rozanski called it, but the audience comics shops had cultivated had become a micro-world unto itself — a world that some have called a superhero ghetto. If you weren’t the kind of loyal reader who made regular trips to comics shops, you rarely even saw comic books, let alone talked about them over the water-cooler. If venues like grocery stores, drugstores and newsstands had been careless about carrying comics before, they were even less interested, once the Direct Market began siphoning off comics customers. “The newsstands for decades were the seeding ground for comics shops,” said Griepp. “People were exposed to comics for the first time at the newsstand and then, eventually if they got into it, they could go to comics shops and get all the issues. But with no newsstand distribution, that went away.” The result was the loss of an entry point for new readers, and the comics industry found itself serving an aging-fan customer base with stories that were impenetrable to anyone outside that base.

Presented with that theory, Plant said, “I tend to agree. But don’t blame the Direct Market. That’s just the way things went.”

Rozanski defended the Direct Market even more passionately: “The Direct Market provided an environment that allowed for an unbelievable breadth of comics. If the Direct Market hadn’t opened up, there would never have been a Pacific or a First or a Comico. You may build it for Marvel, DC and Archie, but they will also come for Mirage and Aardvark and Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink and Dark Horse and all the other publishers. All those comics were able to exist, because we provided the mechanism, and that’s something I’m very proud about.”

The greatest flaw of the Direct Market may have been that it was too successful at achieving the goal that was set for it: meeting the needs of its teenage readers, its teenage dealers and its teenage fan/distributors — so successful that it became a kind of closed circuit. And at the close of the 1980s, the highest peak of that “success” was still ahead.


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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.