A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part Two

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



I shared a panel discussion at a London comics convention last September called “State of the Industry” or “State of the Art” (the two being equivalent in barbarous times) with Chris Claremont, Tom DeFalco and Gil Kane. We were asked to open the panel by summarizing our opinion of the topic under discussion. After describing the then-current black-and-white boom (or, more accurately, amplifying Gil Kane’s description), I went on to say something like this:

“Although the free marketeers will tell you that this boom in publishing activity proves the health and prosperity of the marketplace, what it actually proves are two propositions: the direct-sales market’s insatiable appetite for junk, and secondly, the entrepreneurial opportunism of anyone in the U.S. over the age of 12.” This appealed to English skepticism at unbridled economic exploitation, but Claremont immediately took umbrage and asked me if I was saying that these comics shouldn’t be published, to which I replied that of course they shouldn’t be published, that they were crap and that the less crap in the world the better. This was interpreted as my denying these new schlockmongers the right to publish, the implication being that I was an elitist or a fascist or something even worse.

But, Claremont missed my point, which was not about rights but about obligations. I’m fully aware that we Americans are militant about exercising our rights, particularly when there’s a buck to be made by so doing. But, it’s not inconsistent to criticize the abuse of certain rights while simultaneously defending the constitutionality or abstract correctness of the rights themselves. Americans have been congenitally obtuse about the obligations that parallel the exercise of rights; obligations, after all, require scrupulous self-examination and a commitment to communal as well as private values and these considerations are clearly irrelevant to exploiting market trends. (Edmund Burke: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites … society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Clip and save for future reference, particularly with regard to the current censorship brouhaha.)

This anarchic climate in comics publishing, unrestrained by such civilizing considerations as artistic standards, is the direct result of the value-neutral position struck up by moral nincompoops masquerading as professionals, as well as the logical result of the prevailing commodities mentality. All this talk of standards may sound irrelevant to the poor bastard sitting behind the cash register in his comics shop, watching droves of the young, the innocent and the culturally underprivileged plunking down cold, hard cash for mediocrity and pap, but I assure him it is precisely to the point. If creators, publishers, distributors and retailers had even a marginal comprehension of — not to mention a love for — artistic and cultural values, the crap would have been kept to a minimum; the creators’ consciences wouldn’t have allowed them to write and draw this dreck, the publishers wouldn’t have published it, distributors would be too embarrassed to distribute it and any retailer who prides himself on what he sells wouldn’t have let this crap sully his store. But, the prevailing attitude is one of complete closure to any values but those of the marketplace, and if you argue otherwise, you will be told in short order that all values are infinitely subjective — except for the exchange value of money. Money is objective and any idiot can (and does) understand its objective value. In other words, the argument abrogates any responsibility a person has to engage his conscience in fulfilling his responsibility to himself and his public as a thinking, moral human being.



I realize this is a potentially dangerous proposition. Mr. Publisher or Mr. Retailer could, after thinking on the subject long and hard, come to the conclusion that Buckwheat Comics is a much better book than the pornographic Omaha the Cat Dancer and act accordingly. Philistinism could run amok, as it does with so many right-wing advocates of suppression and censorship, under the guise of moral rectitude, but in the long term it is preferable to promote an ethos of informed moral and aesthetic standards than to allow human conscience to atrophy because of its repeated capitulation to an amoral, abstract economic system.

There are any number of weasely reasons as to why retailers aren’t more selective in what they choose to sell. Here are some of my favorites:

Weasely Reason #1: If I don’t carry every comic being published, I’ll be a censor.

Answer: No, you won’t. Despite the weeping and whining going on in the pages of the Comics Buyer’s Guide about censorship, your refusal to carry certain comics does not constitute censorship. Only the State can censor you or your customers. You may be suppressing the dissemination of certain comics you don’t stock, but it is not only your right but your civic obligation not to carry books that breach the threshold of morality you find acceptable. The criteria you use in deciding not to stock a comic might be criticized as stupid, capricious and irrelevant, which is why it’s probably wise to err on the side of freedom over suppression.

Weasely Reason #2: I pride myself on being a full-line store. I want to carry everything.

Answer: A full-line comics store is a bad idea for two reasons: a) it is virtually impossible and b) it is undesirable. Impossible because the retailer will probably go bankrupt: as a result, as has been proved recently, and undesirable because there is nothing virtuous about selling lousy books. I don’t know a single full-line bookstore, record store, video store, jewelry store, clothing store or anything-else store in the world. Do you?

Weasely Reason #3: Maybe there’s a lot of bad comics out there, but some good comics have come out of this publishing glut.

Answer: As if to say without the glut, the good comics wouldn’t have been published. False premise. The handful of truly superior comics most surely would have been published and could have been published without the ensuing economic catastrophe by established alternative publishers or by two or three new publishers with an eye for quality. Besides, this argument is only proffered by people who don’t give a damn about quality, who might have something to gain by the excessive manufacturing of shoddy goods and who are casting around desperately to tout some good in the bad.

Weasely Reason #4: But everything is subjective. How am I supposed to know a good comic from a bad one? What I think is bad, my customers may think is good. Who’s to tell?

Answer: You are a thinking human being with the capacity to tell good from bad, right from wrong, and it’s about time you started doing so. If you admit to a complete inability to do so, you should probably be locked up as a moral incompetent and a social menace. While you should be as latitudinarian as your conscience will allow, this doesn’t mean your private standards should be infinitely elastic. Would you, for example, proudly display and sell a comic espousing Nazism in no uncertain terms? If not, then you have a conscience and you may want to hone it so that you can make even more subtle distinctions in the future.

Weasely Reason #5: I can probably make a quick buck off some of these stupid comics, at least as long as the trend lasts. What’s wrong with that?

Answer: You should have stopped reading this a long time ago. You’ll never learn.


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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.