A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part Two

Posted by on February 16th, 2010 at 6:08 AM


Black and White and Dead All Over

(Originally published in The Comics Journal #116, July 1987; reprinted in The Comics Journal #277, July 2006.)

Part One: Fine Young Cannibals
Part Three: Suicide Club

 

 

The reader should note that this was written in mid-1987 and that all topical references are from that period, etc. Don’t feel badly if you’re not old enough to remember any of them. It was a polemical piece, not a news story (don’t bother complaining about my bias), but Dirk Deppey felt it was informational enough to fill in our succinct history of the direct-sales market during this period.

In his introduction to “Suicide Club” [Editor’s note: this essay will makes its appearance on TCJ.com tomorrow], in reference to my calling the black-and-white boom/bust “an unmitigated disaster,” Dirk writes that “hindsight demonstrates that it wasn’t nearly as calamitous as Groth made it out to be at the time.” In fact, I think Dirk is wrong and that it was every bit as calamitous as I intoned — both for what it was as well as for what it portended. It represented a sea change in the direct-sales market to the detriment of alternative comics, which was in the process of building a readership — moreso than the “sheer havoc,” to use Deppey’s term, that followed in the ’90s.

One of the reasons I was in as high dudgeon as I was in this essay is because this was the first time in the history of the direct-sales market when this level and intensity of greed-crazed behavior surfaced. Prior to this, all the independent players, even those who considered themselves pretty slick operators, were penny ante babes in the woods compared to the turbo-capitalists that would rampage through the ’90s — and even the corporate behemoths Marvel and DC were still in the process of consolidating their marketing muscle in the mid to the late ’80s.

 

 

The direct-sales market was still in its infancy, and although it was even then owned by Marvel and DC, it hadn’t quite become the juggernaut of stupidity and vacuousness that it would become in the ’90s. We are talking degree here, admittedly, but a degree that’s significant. In the early-to-mid ’80s, the publishing field could be broken down into roughly three categories. There was, of course, Marvel and DC. Secondly, there were a handful of alternative publishers –Fantagraphics, RAW Books, Kitchen Sink, Renegade Press, Last Gasp, a few self-publishers such as Dave Sim and the Pinis– committed to the proposition that comics was an art form and devoted to publishing work of arguable aesthetic merit, and who were pushing against the ethos of commercial comics. Thirdly, there were new, independent publishers who saw an opening with the more level playing field of the direct sales market (as distinct from the age-old newsstand market) and tried to compete with Marvel and DC on their own turf by publishing superhero comics or ersatz superhero comics: First Comics, Pacific Comics, Eclipse, et al., who all had their eyes on the main chance. They were hipper than Marvel and DC, more youthful, more energized, more upscale, but they were clearly interested in manufacturing commercial comics in the traditional four-color format that imitated Marvel and DC. Publishers such as Fantagraphics published the majority of their comics in black and white because they were being written and drawn for a smaller, more discriminating readership and their sales couldn’t warrant the extra money it cost to print in color. Thus, black-and-white comics were initially generally recognized as high falutin’ art comics, safely marginalized by distributors, promoted by more adventurous retailers (who may have lived through the undergrounds) and bought by a new generation of readers looking for greater sophistication or experimentation. (There was obviously some overlap between the readers of mainstream and alternative comics, more or less, depending upon the comic: More mainstream comics readers read Cerebus than Love and Rockets, for instance.)

The color comics published by mainstream wannabes sold better than black-and-white comics generally because they were appealing to Marvel’s and DC’s fan bases, but still, the bulk of the “independent” color comics were mostly middling sellers, reasonably profitable at least until they became unprofitable, but never enormously so.

It took the unexpected success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to start the gold rush. The Turtles were first published in ’84, and prompted the boom in black-and-white comics publishing, theretofore the realm of modest-selling alternative comics. It wasn’t until ’86 or ’87 when it became widely known that the Turtles were in the process of making their creators millionaires, which is to say that Eastman and Laird fulfilled the failed promise of Siegel and Schuster, resulting in a whole new generation of “independent” creators with more righteousness than talent who thought they too could strike it rich by creating and, more importantly, owning, banal characters. This sense of entitlement was further exacerbated in 1988 when the Creator Bill of Rights (authored by Scott McCloud, et al.) debuted. Since independent cartoonists with integrity and talent already understood their rights and avoided working for unscrupulous publishers who would abscond with them, this document appealed mostly to mainstream artists who were bucking for more rights from Marvel and DC, and an array of amateurs who thought of themselves as mavericks — you know, like Eastman and Laird — and potential millionaires. Careerist motivations took precedence over the love of art in the alternative realm, so in 1987 you had the twin disasters of a declining market for alternative comics — due to the B&W bust — and a proliferation of untalented entrepreneurial artistes entering the market in droves.

 

 

It’s true, as Deppey makes clear, that the direct-sales market in the 1990s was one long train wreck, but the actual effect this train wreck had on the art of cartooning was negligible; it depends on whose ox is gored as to how you evaluate the respective catastrophes. Alternative publishers’ sales took a nosedive across the board in ’87 and ’88 as a result of the black-and-white bust. A comic that sold 6,000 in 1985 would sell 3,000 in 1988. Prior to this — say, between ’78 and ’86, the market for alternative titles, always small, was at least slowly growing and building a readership. The exploitation of the black-and-white comics market by greedheads who tried to manipulate it into a collector’s market and those who tried to take advantage of the subsequent feeding frenzy succeeded in driving sales down on individual titles by 25-50 percent.

It was this precipitous drop in individual title’s sales in the late ’80s that caused publishers like Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics to suffer financial hardship in the ’90s. It became financially untenable to stay in business when sales that were already only marginally profitable dropped across the board. Fantagraphics made up for this by publishing a porn line beginning in 1991. Kitchen Sink tried to solve the same problem by allying itself with Kevin Eastman’s Tundra, which had already lost $14 million in three years publishing alternative comics, and when that failed (through a series of outside investors, which also failed), Kitchen Sink died ignominiously in 1997.

The “sheer havoc” of the ’90s that Deppey describes in his historical essay affected mainstream comics sales almost exclusively; the comics shops that went out of business as a result of the upheavals were not stores that sold alternative comics. The sale of individual alternative comics titles, such as they were, stayed pretty stable throughout the ’90s, and the market even increased at least enough to accommodate the greater number of comics and graphic novels from new publishers like Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf and Alternative. Moreover, the generation of independent cartoonists that emerged in the late ’90s were far more promising, artistically speaking, than those behind the black-and-white boom and the self-publishing movement of the late ’80s. Alternative comics took the biggest hit as a result of the black-and-white boom/bust in the late ’80s, whereas it was Marvel, DC and Image who took the biggest hit in the ’90s. (The distribution infrastructure imploded as well, of course, but that’s a different argument.) The relative, respective disasters of the late ’80s and the mid-to-late ’90s could be evaluated largely by whether you feel like crying more for alternative comics being set back in the ’80s or the declining profit margins of Marvel, DC and Image in the ’90s.

- Gary Groth, June 2006

 

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2 Responses to “A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part Two”

  1. […] Jim Lawson’s art, Eastman vs. Laird, first TMNT movie pulling from the comic and the cartoon, tcj.com rags on TMNT, Barnyard Commandos, JAWSOME!, Ross loves the Leonardo solo issue, Ross airs his 2003 TMNT 4Kids […]

  2. ralphsnart says:

    A rehash of an old article of old times gone by. I remember those “good old days” fondly. With hindsight, perhaps we all would’ve done things differently.