A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part Two

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



The bloom was off the rose in December [1986] or, if you were slow about it, January of last year [1987]. What rose, you ask? The most sacred and cherished rose in America: the belief that the American public will consume limitless quantities of useless garbage.

This idea ran afoul of a very basic economic reality: you cannot shovel shit into a finite market forever. The profiteers who jumped on the black-and-white comics-publishing bandwagon within the last year learned this when the black-and-white comics market collapsed. (The ripple was felt in the market for color comics and other formats, too.) From December through April at least, publishers have reported a drop in sales from 15 to 50 percent across the board. (That means even comics you may have thought were rock-solid have suffered.) The sales of some black-and-white comics may have plummeted even more dramatically over the four or five month period. The cause of the glut and subsequent collapse was partly greed and partly passivity on the part of “publishers,” distributors and retailers. One must wonder why, with all the breast-beating of the distributors and the ballyhooing of the innumerable trade shows held all year, there wasn’t a single mechanism within the entire infrastructure of the direct-sales system that could have foreseen or mitigated the disastrous economic collapse. Part of the explanation is that the infrastructure’s primary purpose is to create a self-perpetuating consumer frenzy at the expense of any responsible or even sane sense of proportion.

The crash began as a boom and the boom was in black-and-white comics. You would’ve had to have been particularly inept to publish black-and-white comics in 1986 and fail. As nearly as I can piece it together, this is what happened:

Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles was a black-and-white comics phenomenon, outselling every black-and-white comic preceding it, including the previous champ, Elfquest. The Turtles was originally a parody-of-sorts of Frank Miller’s Ronin and nobody knows why the parody outsold the book it parodied. The most plausible theory I’ve heard is that speculators, a notoriously slimy lot, realized that the press run of black-and-white comics was consistently smaller than that of color comics. Since the market value of a comic is at least partly based upon its scarcity, it followed that a comic that printed 10,000 to 15,000 copies will be scarcer than a (color) comic that prints 100,000 to 200,000. So speculators descended upon black-and-white comics, previously anathema to speculators because of their minority status, and started buying multiple copies. Multiple copies may mean three copies of a title or 300. No one knows. This probably took place in the late spring of ’86. A few comics achieved a success similar to that of the Turtle Boys (Fish Police, for instance). Here’s where it gets interesting and where the delicious irony sets in. The speculators’ scheme was to buy up huge quantities of black-and-white comics because there were fewer copies of a black-and-white comic printed than that of a color comic. But, if the speculators themselves were driving up the print runs, from 10,000 or 15,000 to 50,000 or 100,000, they were cutting their own throats because the audience for black-and-whites was never that large to begin with and it wasn’t likely the audience would grow exponentially just because a gang of speculators started buying up tons of the stuff.

This only goes so far in explaining why any configuration of ink on paper, placed between two irrelevant covers and badly printed in black-and-white, would sell. If a relatively small gang of speculators had instigated this lunacy, reason would tell us that it couldn’t last; they would wise up and slow down their purchasing or get into some other line of exploitation — become arbitragists or something. But, the boom not only continued, it skyrocketed. Here’s where the consensus theory ends and the Groth Theory begins.



At some point during the speculator frenzy, some weird, inexplicable consumer contagion took over and buying black-and-whites became something of a fad. So, your average fan got hooked on the idea of buying B&W comics, collecting them for no other reason than that they were collectable — not unlike collecting seashells, except that there were more B&W comics than seashells on any seashore.

This sort of psychologically-induced faddishness can’t last forever. It’s a little like the hula-hoop craze. Americans are nothing if not bored easily and kids are bored easiest of all. At some point — my guess is around September or October of ’86 — they got bored. They realized that most of this black-and-white crud was unreadable, that it was ugly and amateurish — even uglier and more amateurish than what they were used to — that there was simply too much of it to collect and hoard, and worse, that it was no longer fun — fun being the only reason to buy anything — so they went back to buying Marvels and DCs, which were at least easier to keep straight. The boom was over. The jig was up.

But the Groth Theory holds that the retailers didn’t know it was over — or didn’t want to believe it was over based upon my sub-theory that no retailer wants to believe a consumer frenzy is over and dead. Positively delighted at their ability to shovel so much crud across their counters, retail stores kept ordering mountains of this garbage — the rodents, the parodies, the ninjas — until their shops were bursting with the junk. And at some point they realized that the crud was no longer moving. Now, understand that retail stores must order books three months in advance of the book’s shipping date. So that, if a retail store owner only realized this stuff wasn’t selling two months after it in fact stopped selling — not an unreasonable amount of time for many retailers to realize what’s going on in their own stores, given the business and observational acumen of many retailers — and had committed himself to buying vast quantities of this unsaleable garbage for another three months based upon the irrational proposition that his customers will continue to buy rubbish forever, he would have five months’ worth of unsaleable, unreturnable flotsam cluttering up his store.

The black-and-white boom might have been over in August; it could’ve taken retailers until October to recognize this fact; and orders by retailers for books shipping in December and January reflected this panic.



You may wonder why retailers didn’t simply stop ordering the dreck and maintain healthy orders for the quality titles or at least the titles with a provable track record — Cerebus, Love and Rockets, The Spirit, etc. My guess is that a) retailers were broke and b) they still wanted to milk the market for everything it was worth.

Most comics retailers work on a tight financial budget; that is, they are under-capitalized and rely on week-to-week cash-flow to pay their bills. They must constantly move products in order to generate cash to pay for next week’s or next month’s books or otherwise sharply curtail the amount of their purchase from distributors. In this instance, the cash they would have theoretically generated was sitting on their shelves in the form of unsaleable crap. All they could do was to stare at it and bemoan their lack of judgment. This puts the retailer in the ridiculous position of being unable to fill the demand for books readers actually want to read because he literally cannot afford to buy them from his distributor. Mr. Retailer had to work with what capital he had left, which resulted in any number of ugly scenarios: if he had no capital left, he went out of business — as an inordinate number of retailers did in the last six months; he may have cut back orders dramatically because he didn’t have the capital necessary to buy his standard order; he may have paid his distributor late or not at all, which in turn forced distributors to pay publishers late or not at all. The domino was in place and it was an unmitigated disaster for distributors as well as retailers.

The disastrous consequences, incidentally, included the following: retailers going out of business owing distributors money; retailers paying distributors late; distributors, in turn, paying publishers late (by as much as 90 days); publishers paying creators late; good books suffering along with the bad when the market crashed in December and January; and a general demoralizing scramble for cash by everyone involved in an attempt to cover just enough of his bills to squeak by. Glenwood Distributors has gone out of business, owing vast sums of money to publishers (another blow to legitimate publishers and the creators who are published by them) and although the glut and subsequent collapse may not have singlehandedly put them out of business, it certainly contributed to their demise.

And the reason all of this happened, in a nutshell, is because mobs of amateurish, opportunistic publishers flooded the market with an avalanche of junk that, instead of being rejected out of hand by distributors and retailers who, one would presume, set certain minimal standards for what they sell, was embraced wholeheartedly.

Granted, comics publishers don’t have much to boast about when it comes to maintaining artistic standards, but the standards for comics publishing hit a new low, if that’s conceivable, in 1986. Retailers may have been at fault for not exercising even the most modest degree of judgment in ordering these artistic travesties, but even worse were these publishers who schlepped into the direct-sales market with all the enthusiasm and integrity of purpose of a particularly seedy brothel greeting the debarkation of the fifth fleet. Any potential profiteer who smelled a buck in comics crawled out from under the muck and started publishing like mad. Regardless, mind you, as to whether what they published was any good, because the idea of imposing standards of quality was either ignored altogether or applied so ignorantly and capriciously as to have been worse than useless.


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

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  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.