A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part Two

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

 

 

Although I have placed a large measure of responsibility for this mess on the heads of retail store owners, it is the publishers who were most reckless in pursuit of a buck. Some of them are probably young or näive or ignorant and don’t know any better; most of them are opportunistic, exploitive, uneducable and incurably stupid, whose only perceivable goal is the scrambling for loot. (Hello, Solson, Americomics, Eternity, Wonder, et al.) These are manufacturers, not publishers; publishing a book is to them no different from manufacturing an industrial commodity. A book is seen as no more the result of a singular, living consciousness than that of a light bulb or a can of Coke or a roll of toilet paper; a book is simply a unit of production, part of the ongoing economic process with no more intrinsic value than its market worth. It’s important to understand that standards only get in the way of the economic process; the publisher cannot in good conscience publish vast quantities of books if he imposes artistic standards on them. The talent that lives up to those standards simply doesn’t exist in the necessary quantities. This is why publishers must either delude themselves into believing that their comics have some artistic merit or look upon them cynically as so much paper and ink. Some degree of self-delusion is probably essential since lip service has to be given to quality in order to sell the stuff (though I know publishers who don’t bother to lie to themselves), but even to the most insensitive clod it should only be common sense that there is not enough talent to warrant the publishing of over 800 different titles in a single year (the figure estimated by the Amazing Heroes Preview Special #5 of the number of titles announced for the second half of 1987). Eclipse is the perfect example of the comics-as-sausage theory put into practice: the lower (or nonexistent) your standards, the more books you can produce; the more books you manufacture, the more money you make because your overhead is amortized and your unit cost goes down. It all makes perfect economic sense. It is in large measure the economic mechanism responsible for heaping so much crap on the market and it eventually creates a cultural climate that smells like a garbage dump.

Crap is the operative word here; I wish I could use a more high-toned euphemism, but I should like to emphasize that I am not making subtle aesthetic distinctions here; I am not criticizing the middlebrow for not being highbrow. The black-and-white explosion represents the dictatorship of pure, unmitigated crud — and this observation comes at a time when many of us thought the status quo couldn’t sink any lower or get any worse. Even the soulless professionalism that represented the standard this industry revered has fallen before the onslaught of amateurish junk recently foisted upon the market.

 

 

And even the best titles to have come out of the black-and-white explosion stand out because relativity has debased any coherent standard of appreciation; Concrete or Ralph Snart or Fish Police, to name a few of the better titles, look good not so much for what they are — unpretentiously sentimental or cute with a little stylistic verve and a modicum of human feeling — but for what they’re not: grossly amateurish, humorless, abysmally crafted or blatantly unoriginal and clichéd. There hasn’t been a single artist to come out of this ugly mess to approach the seriousness, lucidity, or originality of the Hernandezes, Spiegelman, Eisner, Boswell, Loebs, Friedman or, God knows, Crumb. There’s not even the hint of such potential; even the best of the work I’ve seen is mired in formulaic thinking and adolescent humor.

The worst of it gives mediocrity a good name. For the most part, it consists of the usual gang of suspects, rounded up and trotted out the umpteenth time: sword-and-sorcery characters with big swords and small brains; huge-breasted warrior women with swords or guns; space opera of the most dismal sort; superheroes; anti-superheroes; anti-anti-superheroes; parodies and parodies of parodies; the standard litany of diluted genres — detectives, urban violence, the supernatural, horror and the rest of the sub-literate rat pack — all executed so shoddily as to make your average hack at Marvel, DC or Eclipse look like Shakespeare and Michelangelo by comparison.

If you think I’m being unduly harsh, let’s take a quick trip down publishers’ row and witness the kind of commitment these schlockmeisters manifest toward the noble profession.

 

Something called Silverwolf announced 19 different titles for release in January 1987 (including such titles as Fat Ninja, Stech, Thieves and Victim). Thirteen of the 19 titles were first issues. The most artistically insensitive cretin should understand the commonsensical proposition that 13 brand new titles cannot be published in a single month and retain even the semblance of quality. (Keep in mind that distributors looked upon this listing and cheerfully included it in their catalogs.)

Solson is another opportunist for whom quality is a matter of indifference or downright scorn. These are the pathetic boobs who publish Reagan’s Raiders, an idiotic homage-of-sorts to a leader recently proven to be a dissembling incompetent. Just what the world needed, but they’ve published others as winsome: the racist Buckwheat Comics; The Rock Heads, Sultry Teenage Super Foxes (sounds like an Americomic, but it isn’t); G.I. Jackrabbits; and The Amazing Wahzoo.

 

 

Opportunism? The unholy alliance of Gary Brodsky and Rich Buckler, who are behind the Solson line, serves as the very paradigm of opportunistic black-and-white publishers. According to Capital City Distribution’s catalogs, Solson solicited three comics for August 1986 release and six comics for October. The market was looking pretty healthy around this time (i.e., they smelled sheep ready for the slaughter). Solson had to send their solicitations announcing October releases to distributors by early August, so naturally by December they were soliciting 12 titles. Not content with 12 titles, they solicited 16 titles in January, but 16 titles weren’t enough to sate their avarice, so in February they solicited 22 titles (including Lifestyles of the Criminally Insane and Ninja Strike Force). Apparently, the frenzy had subsided somewhat, because by July solicitations they had dropped to a meager seven titles.

Solson makes companies like Americomics and Blackthorne look like Alfred Knopf (though Blackthorne, due less to editorial vision and more to the need to crank out product, at least publishes some classic newspaper strips such as Gould’s Dick Tracy — in abysmal formats, mind you, but at this point you can’t get too picky.) Eclipse probably wins the prize for strip-mining a fragile market, though. We know Dean Mullaney will say anything under oath, but will he and Cat Yronwode publish anything under the sun? Apparently so.

The real tragedy here — what separates Eclipse from the other schlockmeisters — is that the company was founded upon certain artistic principles. They weren’t principles I thought much of, but at least the company was obviously guided by discernible principles. Eclipse originally published graphic novels (or what passes for them) by upper-echelon Marvel hacks. Somewhere along the line — and I think the exact moment occurred when Eclipse adopted all of Pacific’s schlocky titles when that company went bankrupt — Eclipse sold out, adopted Marvel as their spiritual mentor and instituted the assembly-line system of creative manufacturing for their four-color comics. Since then, they have become shrewd hustlers with a line of soulless, mass-produced color comics — the kind Cat Yronwode would attack viciously in her old Comics Buyer’s Guide column — and black-and-white and 3-D comics, about which more later.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. I mean, it looks like Eclipse will publish anything that looks like it has even the slightest chance of turning a buck. It doesn’t matter whether it’s work plagiarized from Jaime Hernandez or Vaughn Bodé; it could be superhero schlock like Champions or Airboy or New Wave (a kind of New Universe, Eclipse-style); anything in 3-D (the current favorite being the 3-D Stooges); the loathsome Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters and other rodent-style books (like Guerrilla Groundhog); media tie-ins from role-playing games (Villains and Vigilantes) or money-making crap like Captain Eo, which conflates two mass-market icons of equally repulsive natures: Disneyland and Michael Jackson. Or standard T&A offal like Axa and Alien Encounters. (The whole point of Axa, by the way, as seen on virtually every page of the Ken Pierce reprint series distributed by Eclipse, was to contrive ways to rip the heroine’s shirt off. Eclipse has announced that its Axa color comic would clean up its act with a PG version. In other words, the whole sleazy raison d’être of the strip has been skewered. If there’s such a thing as corrupting the integrity of a sleazy idea, Eclipse has done it.) And, like good Americans, Eclipse regularly trots out its posturing love for the medium whenever it gets a chance, while concomitantly shoveling junk down the public’s gullet. (This whoremongering approach to publishing, which would shame a more coherent mind, didn’t prevent Cat Yronwode from recently attacking Dave Sim on moral and aesthetic grounds in the pages of Cerebus — a better comic than anything Eclipse publishes, with the sole exception of David Boswell’s surreal masterpiece, Reid Fleming. What David Boswell is doing in the company of these other comics is anyone’s guess.)

 

 

Anyway, Eclipse wouldn’t touch black-and-white comics until — you guessed it — the black-and-white explosion. In July 1986, Eclipse published one black-and-white comic (Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters); by October Eclipse had announced four titles; in November, six; in February and March, eight each; and by April, they had announced nine. Ty Templeton, whose own black-and-white Stig’s Inferno was published by Eclipse (and was probably the best B&W from Eclipse up to that time), confirms my view that this flurry of publishing activity was so much unprincipled strip-mining. In an Amazing Heroes interview, Templeton said:

I don’t think for a minute that Dean [Mullaney] wanted to publish [Stig’s Inferno] until black-and-whites became really big. Because at no time did we talk about it and then, one day, out of the blue, he just called me and said, “We’ve cleared our schedule, we can do Stig.” I think that’s only because the black-and-white market suddenly looked hot. So I hope that he wants to continue doing it even though black-and-whites are dying out, because if the sales drop down to the point that nobody’s making money, like they did with the Hamsters and the Koalas, he might suddenly go, “We-e-ell, this isn’t the gold mine we thought it was.”

From one of their own creators, Eclipse stands condemned.

 

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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.