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The Rise and Fall of the Comic Industry's Direct Market and Other Stories
February 21, 2010 10:03 AM   Subscribe

"Since their birth early in the century, comic books had been regarded as a kind of junior magazine and allowed to occupy space on the shelves or spinner racks of newsstands, grocery stores, drugstores, dime stores, and sometimes even bookstores. They caught on quickly and, initially, more than earned their place in those venues, but after the 1940s, the comics industry experienced more downs than ups. The Marvel-led resurgence of the 1960s had foundered by the 1970s to the point where extinction seemed like a real possibility. Comics retailer (and former distributor) Steve Schanes put it succinctly: 'Comics were on their last breath. They couldn’t have lasted another four years.'"

Part One: Fine Young Cannibals: How Phil Seuling and a Generation of Teenage Entrepreneurs Created the Direct Market and Changed the Face of Comics

Part Two: Black and White and Dead All Over: Gary Groth On the Mid-Eighties B&W Glut

Part Three: Suicide Club: How Greed and Stupidity Disemboweled the American Comic Book Industry in the 1990s

Part Four: Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World: Marvel Bullpenner Herb Trimpe's Journal of Marvel's Mid-Nineties Implosion and His Firing From The House of Ideas.

Part Five: Jeet Heer on The Comics Journal and What It Does Right. The Fall and Fall of TheComicsJournal.com. Publisher/Editor Gary Groth responds.

Part Six: Groth at 17; Or, Portrait of the Publisher as a Young Fan.
posted by Alvy Ampersand (51 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite

 
EGADS ITS XAVIER ST. CLOUD!
posted by nathancaswell at 10:22 AM on February 21, 2010 [7 favorites]


I am ashamed.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:22 AM on February 21, 2010


I was talking to a friend recently who told me he needed some cash, so he was going to sell his collection of #1s and rare limited editions from the 90s.

I didn't have the heart to tell him... :(
posted by empath at 10:53 AM on February 21, 2010


Wow, that is more verbiage on the history of the comics business in the late 20th century than I can ever imagine reading, but I'm glad it exists. Great post.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:01 AM on February 21, 2010


Heh. Remember all the Zap! Pow! Comics grow up. Articles of the 90s? That's happened allright, in terms of reader age at least, but has an inherent problem - there doesn't really seem to be much of a replacement generation following today's comic readers, and despite various efforts there doesn't seem to be much of a way of forming one.

(except in Manga of course, but Manga is pretty much it's own thing)
posted by Artw at 11:16 AM on February 21, 2010


The single issue format has been a big hamper to the comics market. It worked well when sales were through newsstands, etc., but when sales primarily shifted over to specialty stores, basically, you've lost the mainstream sales and now only rely on hardcore folks who know where the stores are, go out of their way to shop there, and buy multiple issues. Add in the fact that people generally want more content per purchase, and it's easy to see why stuff like manga or collected trades do better.

Add in the fact that when you have a consistent author/artist - it's easier to tell coherent and good stories. The Big Two's old habit of switching around creators to push up flagging sales, or grand crossovers to substitute for simply good story arcs isn't able to hold in the face of both indie comics, webcomics, and manga where folks can take time to tell full stories without threat of being switched out.

And for manga? It has all of that plus it's already been market tested in Japan- you can get a better (not perfect) idea of how a series might sell and who would be interested - not to mention the merchandising and cross-media (anime, videogames, etc.) is already in place.
posted by yeloson at 11:30 AM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I grew up with comics and love them, but haven't bought a news-stand issue in something like eight years. Originally, I stopped due to travelling abroad for a year, but once I got back I was out of the swing of all of the regular series I had been reading, and couldn't be bothered to run about tracking down back-issues. So instead I buy collections and graphic novels of the things that are capitalistically decided to be worthy of such treatment. The monthly format is good for ensuring regular sales to comic shops, but only so long as anyone's still buying monthly at the comic shops at all... It really seems like the business model needs to better adapt to the times, one way or another.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:47 AM on February 21, 2010


The other problem for comics is that they are pirated to hell and back. And TBH it's not difficult to see why: for the amount of entertainment they provide they are insanely expensive, and as well as that you have to hunt them out in some special out-of-the-way store.

The upshot of this is a lot of comics folks are now interested in digital distribution, with the iPhone and iPod and things like Longbox being touted as the future of comics.

Me, I'm following that stuff with interest, but I'm yet to be convinced.
posted by Artw at 12:07 PM on February 21, 2010


It’s shocking today to realize to what extent the Direct Market revolution led by Seuling in the early 1970s was actually the mobilization of a network of ambitious teenagers.

Good lord this is great stuff. I'm just a few pages into this epic saga and already I've learned a ton I didn't know. Thanks for posting it.
posted by mediareport at 1:07 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm going to take my time reading through this. Thanks!
posted by thecjm at 1:12 PM on February 21, 2010


Thanks very much for putting all this together. I've always been fascinated by the history of the business end of magazines and comics. If the rest of the links are as good as the first has been so far, this is going to be a great read.
posted by the bricabrac man at 1:28 PM on February 21, 2010


PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM A COMIC SHOP OWNER AND THEREFORE HAVE HUGE BIASES ABOUT COMIC BOOK RELATED FPPS!

I realize that I have enormous bias as a comic shop owner of 22 years to comment on comic books and the comic book industry, but I just wanted to pop in here and throw some statistics out to everyone (that I fully realize only apply to my shops.) Do with these statistics what you will.

Our customer base is

76% Male, 24% Female

7% are under 18 years old
51% are 18-30
34% are 31-50
8% are 51 +

Monthly single issues consistently make up 55% of our sales, and have for a long time. Collected editions/trade paperbacks/graphic novels have steadily increased as a percentage over the same timeframe that we have scaled back or dropped other product lines.

(As a side note, we survived the '90s crash because we have always positioned ourselves as a reader-oriented store and actively discourage buying comic books for "investment" purposes to the point that we have signs by the registers stating that we limit quantities purchased by individuals to one or two copies, unless preordered and prepaid.)

As far as the predictions of the imminent death of monthly comic books and the comic book market in general, our sales have increased in dollar amounts AND pieces sold every year for the past nine, including this past year (at a meager 3%, but still.)

Anyhow, the articles are spot-on... it's pretty much what I've seen and experienced from my side of the counter since February 1988. Great post and an interesting read. Thanks, Alvy Ampersand!
posted by Ron Thanagar at 1:32 PM on February 21, 2010 [54 favorites]


Just finished the first part. Is the series in the current issue? Really nice, clear, well-written journalism (with bits I'm sure obsessive fans will debate, like the first comment objecting to the phrase "Marvel-led resurgence of the 1960s").

Page 9, btw, is a short interview with Phil Seuling's daughter, who has some great stories to tell about growing up in a house filled with comics creators and sellers. If you hit a part that seems uninteresting, keep skimming because there'll be more good stuff later. I especially liked page 7, which covers the distributors move into publishing and how that helped lead to creator-owned comics:

And with comics shops becoming destination points for an increasing number of customers, the shops naturally began looking around for a wider line of products to sell. Hence, in 1981, Pacific Comics the distribution company became Pacific Comics the publisher. "We started the publishing end," said Schanes, “because there was not enough product for our stores."

Eclipse Enterprises, founded by Jan and Dean Mullaney, published its first graphic novel in 1978 and evolved in the 1980s into Eclipse Comics. Wendy and Richard Pini began WaRP Graphics in 1977. Mike Gold and Rick Obadiah’s First Comics began publishing in 1983. Dave Sim began his self-publishing operation, Aardvark-Vanaheim, in 1978. The Comics Journal itself would have folded in 1977 if Seuling and Plant hadn’t given it a strong push to the new comics-shop market, and in 1981, parent company Fantagraphics Books launched a line of alternative comics that would have been impossible in a newsstand-only world. The Direct Market also gave a second wind to underground survivors like Kitchen Sink, Rip-Off Press and Last Gasp.

New comics publishing companies had been rare things since the early 1950s, and as recently as 1974 they were problematic, as evidenced by the Seabord/Atlas line launched that year. At the time, all Marvel had to do to push an upstart comics publisher off the stands was to step up its output. A few extra Marvels and there was little room on the trucks or the racks for a relatively unknown also-ran publisher. As the Direct Market blossomed, however, there was, seemingly, all the room in the world, and Marvel and DC, to their consternation, found themselves facing a wider and wider range of competition.

Furthermore, these new publishers, needing incentives to draw popular comics creators from the majors, offered deals creators had only dreamt of before. The bulk of titles published under Pacific, Eclipse and First were creator-owned or co-owned with creators. Pacific’s Schanes said, "We were the first to introduce better paper in comics, the first to offer royalties and creator-owned comics. It kept people in the industry who would have split because there was no money in comics. Eventually, we forced Marvel and DC to match our terms." In 1982, a year after Pacific started publishing, DC began offering royalties and Marvel followed suit shortly thereafter.

posted by mediareport at 1:55 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can remember the Silver Snail here in Toronto distributing an essay on the 1987 collapse in the black and white market. I've long since lost it, but I remember it being fantastically interesting. I had brief hopes that Black & White and Dead All Over was the same essay, but I'm pretty certain it is not. On further reflection, I think the Snail essay was written by somebody at the Snail, or at the comics distribution company they were associated with (or running) at the time.
posted by Chuckles at 2:20 PM on February 21, 2010


The single issue format has been a big hamper to the comics market. It worked well when sales were through newsstands, etc., but when sales primarily shifted over to specialty stores, basically, you've lost the mainstream sales and now only rely on hardcore folks who know where the stores are, go out of their way to shop there, and buy multiple issues. Add in the fact that people generally want more content per purchase, and it's easy to see why stuff like manga or collected trades do better

I don't agree at all. The real problem in the business has been the way single issues prices have far outstripped inflation for the last 40 years.
posted by Chuckles at 2:34 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know if this was argued in the thread that Chuckles linked to, but comparing the price of singles issues to past prices really isn't apples to apples. The creators are paid a lot better, royalties are involved, and the paper stock and print quality are a lot nicer.

If the creators were still paid peanuts with no royalties and comics were still printed on z-grade newsprint the cost per issue might still be a dollar-something.
posted by thecjm at 2:48 PM on February 21, 2010


Chuckles, I think it's both -- the price of a single comic has gone up astronomically (for more reasons than just simple inflation: comics are printed on much better paper stock now, and are printed in much smaller quantities now than when sales largely relied on newsstand distribution, which now virtually doesn't exist), but the effort of going to an out-of-the-way shop to pick up comics you can breeze through in ten minutes probably limits their readership quite a lot.* But economics do play yet another role, I think, because collected edition TPBs (which usually have a price point that hovers around what you would have paid had you bought each issue individually) are marked down on online retailers like Amazon, meaning you pay less to have the book shipped to your home. It's very difficult for a comic book shop to compete with something like that.

*Comics, by and large, tended to be much more substantial reads once upon a time. Whether mainstream superhero comics -- which is what we're mostly talking here -- are better or worse now than they ever were is a separate discussion, but there's not much question that they just plain used to have more writing in them. In some cases, the dialed-down scripting seems to imply a greater maturation of the form -- more visual storytelling may imply that writers/artists are more confident in their abilities now to tell a story primarily with pictures than was once the case (i.e., that they have a stronger sense of how to play to the form's strengths, rather than producing something closer to a prose story with accompanying illustrations) -- but a lot of times this reads more like just some lazy-ass motherfuckers writing a whole lot of splash pages and shit so they can turn twenty pages of story into the 150 or so they need for the inevitable TPB. It really depends on the talent and motivation of the creator(s) involved. Point being, though, even good comics tend to read really fast now, and damn near everything reads better when you don't have to wait a month (if you're lucky!) between the installments.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 2:56 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not all that relevant to the article, but I took my four year old to the local comic book shop for the first time today. We bought a Batman: TBATB single issue and a couple of Cars single issues. Afterward, he told my wife that the store was "very quiet."

I'm pretty psyched.
posted by bpm140 at 3:05 PM on February 21, 2010


I was over at the Long Beach Comic Expo yesterday afternoon to pick up cheap TPBs and fill some holes in my Transmet collection. There was more than one moment where I saw a kid-- generally six years old or younger-- toddle up to a booth and buy a toy, or pick up a comic from the kid-height rack, or abruptly skid to a stop against the wall, sit down, and pull out a comic and start flipping pages.

Six or younger suggests to me that the parents are 25-34 years old (I'm in the middle of a baby boom at my office, and that's about right in my coworkers' demographic too; the outlying dad is 41).

There might be a trough there while the Naruto generation matures, but I think when those little tykes get old enough to have and use their own discretionary income, their parents' nerd habits will have taken root. I admit to some bias, though-- in 1986, I was the only ten-year-old girl blowing $10 a week on single issues at Cole's Comics in Massachusetts, and certainly the only ten-year-old girl accompanied faithfully by a 68-year-old grandpa.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:13 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry thecjm, but I really don't see that as a compelling argument. Look at the price inflation through 1993/4 when comics were still printed on the same old crappy newsprint they always were.

Arguably, the shift to higher quality paper and printing techniques has been more about falsely justifying price increases than about changing costs. Consider the article linked in this comment by fairytale of los angeles, and my calculations based on that information.

That leaves the question of better compensation for the creators. Fair enough, they deserve to get paid too. However, I'd argue that creators would be getting a lot more compensation if the major publishers had figured out how to maintain volume rather than maximizing price.

I think the story of price inflation has been something like this.. In the 70s sales were declining so publishers had to increase prices to keep operating. In the 80s and early 90s sales were hardly effected by price increases, so publishers pushed to maximise price. Then came the bust, and the problem of the 70s recurred, they needed more money in the face of shrinking sales. All of that is perfectly reasonable until you start to look at the big picture.

Do you have a more healthy industry selling 50,000 copies at $4 or 350,000 at $1.50? Not that publishers can fix the problem any time soon..
posted by Chuckles at 3:22 PM on February 21, 2010


I think the story of price inflation has been something like this.. In the 70s sales were declining so publishers had to increase prices to keep operating. In the 80s and early 90s sales were hardly effected by price increases, so publishers pushed to maximise price.

Uhhhhhh...not exactly, unless I'm very mistaken. Comics prices shot up briefly in the '70s because comics went to a money-soaking new-material-plus-reprints format. Some material has been written about how and why this happened (I'm pretty sure that I read the inside baseball in Gerard Jones's The Comic Book Heroes, which is out of print, and of which I do not have a copy here, so...), but the point is that this was (shockingly!) not successful at all, and so prices were quickly dropped (as was the reprint material) -- but dropped down to a higher price than they were before the big jump. Hence, prices essentially went up.

What happened in the '80s was that some of the popular titles were converted to a direct sales only format. These comics were printed on better paper, used a better coloring process, did not come out through the Comics Code, and were a hell of a lot more expensive. The readers would pay for a souped-up version of a comic they already liked, and the creators would have a freer hand and the opportunity to work on books that came out in a classier format. Unfortunately, sales fell on the direct market reprints of these comics, and so many of the more popular comics of the time wound up never being distributed to newsstands at all. In many ways, direct sales was a better deal for comics publishers, because the nature of the strategy means that every copy printed is sold; newsstand sales work on a consignment basis (like magazines), meaning that an unsold copy is returned to the publisher, who makes no money from it. Direct sales places all of the risk on the retailer, who buys X number of comics and eats the loss for any that are not sold. However, the profit from 50,000 guaranteed sales isn't anything like a successful gamble that a 500,000 print run will only result in a 10% return. (Direct sales shops won't collectively order half a million copies of anything; they'd go bankrupt if the book failed to move.) In any event, driving readers to direct sales shops ultimately helped to end comics distribution to newsstands at all, which meant that the demographic that comics were originally aimed at -- kids -- increasingly did not see comics. This is how you stop getting new readers. This is how you go from a comic book that sells 500,000 to a comic book that sells 50,000.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:03 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Correction above: That's meant to say "the newsstand reprints of these comics" in the second paragraph.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:05 PM on February 21, 2010


(Dang, I'll leave this alone in a second, but my point with the bit on the '70s comics is this: Prices went WAY up, then dropped to a level higher than they were before the huge increase -- but not so much higher that it was crazily out-of-line with the price bumps of the past. It seems less likely that comics was hurting in the '70s than it does just that comics was hurting along with everything else, and raised prices accordingly...after a dizzying price-bump that made the real price-bump not seem so bad.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:10 PM on February 21, 2010


Point being, though, even good comics tend to read really fast now, and damn near everything reads better when you don't have to wait a month (if you're lucky!) between the installments.

The first comic book I ever read was Watchmen, when I was in my 20s. I somehow managed to entirely avoid them prior to that. I picked it up off the shelf and read the entire book more or less in one sitting, during a very long Magic tournament. The owner wasn't very happy with me for doing it, but I did go back and buy it eventually, plus a complete run of Sandman and a ton of other Vertigo stuff after that, so it worked out for him in the long run.

He tried to get me to subscribe to books and I subscribed to Transmet and the Invisibles for a little while, but I didn't keep it up, because all of it got collected eventually and cheaper than the singles, and easier to store.

But, if I ever get around to getting an iPad and single issue comics become available for a reasonable prince (<$1.00) on iTunes, I might buy them.
posted by empath at 4:17 PM on February 21, 2010


Interesting series that has more words than what most comics have in their entire run! I have been reading comics since I was a little kid and have been through the industry's ups and downs -- reading mainstream as well as the indie books and can only say I don't know whether a book's quality or where it's sold are truly deciding factors -- I go out of the way to get my books and have stuck with books that I clearly wasn't enjoying.

I still think it has to do with how much scratch there is in the fanbase's wallets -- if you don't have money for splurges, you can love a book all you want, you are just not going to buy it. Sales don't always reflect sentiment...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 4:27 PM on February 21, 2010


"and it's easy to see why stuff like manga or collected trades do better."

I buy trades, mostly after the first big push, so they're marked down. I simply can't afford to pay $12 for four issues bound. I'll buy a big collection gladly, and I've bought a fair amount of stuff that I've read several times (all of the Morrison Doom Patrol trades), but for the most part, it's all out of the library.

I do remember as a kid just subscribing to comic books like I would regular magazines—my parents started me off with X-Men when I was only four or five, which has given me a lifelong appreciation for Claremont's goofy brogues. They used to have ads in the back of every issue that encouraged you to clip and send (I even ruined the last issue of New Mutants by clipping out the ad in the back, so I could subscribe to X-Factor), but those don't seem to be around anymore. If I could pay $18-$24 for a year of monthly books, I would gladly. Hell, I've got some space, as I just stopped getting Paste and wouldn't mind something else.

I do understand that it's a pretty big risk to just put out the trades with no monthly. But monthlies are such a wickedly terrible deal—the only justification is for those random issues that get missed by trades every now and then.

By the way, anybody know (I figure I might as well ask here) if the Airtight Garage series by Mobius ever made it into a trade? I see individual issues when I search for it, but no trades, I don't think.
posted by klangklangston at 4:50 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Artw : The other problem for comics is that they are pirated to hell and back.

OYATM. Not just a good idea, it means the industry doesn't die. And in practice, I've seen very few recent comics available online - Mostly the "classics", which while it may well cut into TPB sales, really has no effect at all on the profitability of a 40 year old print run.


thecjm : The creators are paid a lot better, royalties are involved, and the paper stock and print quality are a lot nicer.

All of which means what, exactly, to me-the-reader? Hey, I appreciate the fact that they finally mastered the art of "color registration", but beyond that... If I like a comic enough to "collect" it, I buy the TPB. The original run gets read and tossed in a box and stored in entirely non-archival conditions.

I certainly don't grudge the authors a living, but tell that to a kid/teen trying to decide how to spend their allowance.


Now, personal experience time... In my teens and 20's, I bought a pretty decent number of comics (regularly read perhaps a dozen per month, with another dozen one-offs). And I stopped for one simple reason - Ongoing series didn't, and even 4-issue miniseries rarely got past #2.

I realize that people speculating on #1s had a lot to do with that, but none-the-less, it made finding a new series that I really liked all the more frustrating because I knew they wouldn't last more than 6 months at best (if they even made it to next month).
posted by pla at 4:53 PM on February 21, 2010


Those were interesting reads, thanks for the post. Of course, the time we fall in love with an art form we remember as the best time. But boy, when I was really into comics in the early 1980's seemed like a great time. Pacific Comics was coming out with stuff like The Rocketeer and their horror and sci-fi titles. Marvel and DC were reprinting a bunch of Neal Adams and Steranko stuff. It was a lot of fun, most new comics were 75 cents to a dollar. Buttloads of back issues at cons for fifty cents each.

Now I'll go be an old fart and read some Swamp Things.
posted by marxchivist at 4:56 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Other than New York, where are there "newsstands" anymore anyway?
posted by rikschell at 5:00 PM on February 21, 2010


klangklangklangston -->> Re: Mobius' AIRTIGHT GARAGE - I think THIS is what you're looking for. This was available in softcover published by Epic (Marvel), and Graffiti Designs produced a signed & numbered hardcover in 1987. Finding a copy may be difficult.
posted by Ron Thanagar at 5:48 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's one here in Davis, CA! So at least both coasts are accounted for... Also, I don't think they sell comics. That's for Bizzaro World, down the street.
posted by kaibutsu at 6:06 PM on February 21, 2010


Great post, Alvy. Holy cow, it made me realize I've been collecting comics for 30 years! I'm so old.
posted by MegoSteve at 6:15 PM on February 21, 2010


I even ruined the last issue of New Mutants by clipping out the ad in the back

I'm pretty sure Liefeld beat you to that. ZING!!!!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 6:20 PM on February 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


4-issue miniseries rarely got past #2

Even including Image's throw-everything-at-the-wall phase, I can't imagine there are that many half-complete minis from major publishers.
posted by aaronetc at 6:45 PM on February 21, 2010


Just got around to actually reading the article, and it's pretty excellent. Thanks for posting this.
posted by empath at 6:50 PM on February 21, 2010


That journal of Herb Trimpe looking for work is heartbreaking, especially when you consider that a character that he co-created is still one of Marvel's most successful properties.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:17 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


I never would have got back into comics if it wasn't for trade paperbacks. Now I'm running out of shelf space for them.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 7:19 PM on February 21, 2010


Herb Trimpe's firing is heartbreaking, but his resilience in getting a degree and finding a teaching job at 59 years old was inspiring.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:32 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay, reading part 3 reminds me of the late 90s and the comic book store that I spent a lot of time at. The market crash had real effects on people. It wasn't just numbers.

I mostly went there to buy Magic cards and play magic, but I was there pretty much 3-4 days a week buying cards and playing games, so I eventually got to be good friends with the owners. The store had two owners, one was a big mouthed jerk (I can't remember his name now, I'll call him Dave) who had money to invest, and the other was basically a naive kid named Rob who grew up poor (and I mean poor-- his house didn't have running water in it, even-- his dad was a truck driver that abandoned the family and his mother raised 4 kids off of welfare and food stamps). Rob started off selling comics in the back of the video store, and Dave gave him the money he needed to open his own store.

Rob LOVED comic books. Specifically, he loved the mainstream superhero books -- Hulk, Superman, and Spiderman, especially Spider-man. He started dealing to support his habit, just like all the kids in part one of this series. He was never happier than when he was talking to customers about crap like who would win in a fight between Hulk and Superman.

Unfortunately for him, as soon as Rob opened the store, the comic market cratered and the Magic: the Gathering craze hit, which basically meant that he was spending all his time selling magic cards and running tournaments instead of selling comics, which is what he had opened the store to do. Dave didn't really care what they were selling, but he was completely off his rocker -- he even pulled a gun on people during an air hockey tournament at one point.

The stress over the comic book business eventually came to a boiling point, and Dave sold out to one of the customers, who ended up becoming basically an absentee owner -- I think he mostly bought into it so he could get discounts on books. Leaving Rob to run the store himself.

Rob was a high school dropout. He had no idea how to run a business, and he was just about the nicest, kindest person I ever met. He gave far too many discounts on books and cards, he had problems with theft from all the kids hanging around the store, and his books were a complete mess. Comics weren't selling, back issues weren't selling, but he kept buying books and back issues from people, because he loved comics. Unlike all these other retailers from these articles though, he paid his bills. When he was short of cash, he started living in the back room of the store. Every day he was sleeping in the back of the store, and for lunch, he'd buy a 99 cent loaf of bread from safeway, put some ramen noodles and a can of stewed tomatoes on it. Every day, for years.

Somewhere around 1998, my family decided to take a trip to Walt Disney World, and I knew Rob had never gone, and I knew he hadn't taken a vacation for a long time (maybe ever, knowing how he was raised), so I asked him to come with us. This was a 23 year old guy, and he reacted like a 14 year old. I think that trip probably might have been the best time of his life.

After he got back, though, he started to crack under the financial pressure. He wasn't sleeping, he started taking medication for ADD from a free clinic..

At night, he'd crawl up on the roof of the shopping center (i'm not joking about this), pretending to be Spiderman. One day, I showed up to the store, and he had covered up all the windows with comics and had written "HI SID" all over the glass, thinking that the owner of the rival store across town was spying on him at night.

When Magic sales started to slip in 1999 or so, that was the end of the store. He and his partner liquidated everything, leaving Rob basically homeless, with no education and no job skills and no money to start again. He moved in with his brother, both of them living off of welfare. He refused to see anybody that he knew from the store after a while, because it was kinda too painful for him to not be the guy in charge any more, and his paranoia started getting worse. After he made some wild accusations against me, I stopped coming around to see him, but I moved away around that time anyway.

I heard rumors that he had been committed at one point, but nothing for sure. I ran into a mutual friend when I went to see the Watchmen premiere, and it turns out that he eventually hanged himself in his apartment.

It had been a long time since I'd thought of him at that point, but it really hit me hard. He was the guy that pushed to get me into reading comics instead of playing magic all the time. It was through his store that I met the people that introduced me to the rave scene. I met the first girl I ever kissed in that store. It was his store that supported local bands (we had Good Charlotte in the store before they got signed, among otthers). That place was basically an after school youth center for a hundred or so kids that went there every day, and hardly ever spent a dime, and he rarely complained about it.

That place was amazing, and he kept it going for years, sacrificing everything because he had a dream about being a comic book store owner since he was 8 years old, while all those greedy assholes were shitting on the direct market so they could add a few points to their bottom line.

These articles are kind of making me furious thinking about it.

RIP Rob, you were a superhero to me, even though i never told you.
posted by empath at 7:51 PM on February 21, 2010 [42 favorites]


Damn, empath. I've known some comics shop owners that were not good at business and/or interacting with people, and I was mostly just irritated with them because they interfered with me getting my comics fix, but I don't think I'll look at them the same way again, after your comment.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:35 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for that empath! For years the local comic store was the hub of my community too. I have wondered what happened to the guy who ran mine, but google doesn't turn up anything about him.

But back to my pet peeve (ya, I'm that petty I guess..).. Here is a table of prices for January issues of Fantastic Four, from the beginning. Whenever the cover price stayed the same from one January to the next I have deleted all but the last year at that cover price (except for a couple of cases that should be obvious reading the table). That means that the table gives the most flattering picture of the price increases in comparison to inflation.
			Inflation	
	Issue	Cover	Justified	
		Price	Price	
Mar-62	3	$0.12	$0.12	
Jan-69	82	$0.12	$0.15	
Jan-71	106	$0.15	$0.16	
Jan-74	142	$0.20	$0.20	
Jan-76	166	$0.25	$0.23	
Jan-77	178	$0.30	$0.24	
Jan-79	202	$0.35	$0.29	
Jan-80	214	$0.40	$0.33	
Jan-81	226	$0.50	$0.37	
Jan-85	274	$0.60	$0.43	
Jan-86	286	$0.65	$0.44	
Jan-89	322	$0.75	$0.50	
Jan-92	360	$1.00	$0.56	
Jan-94	384	$1.25	$0.60	
Jan-96	408	$1.50	$0.63	
Jan-00		$1.99	$0.69	v3 25 (actual price 2.99)
Jan-04	507	$2.25	$0.76	
Jan-05	520	$2.99	$0.78	
Jan-06	533	$2.99	$0.81	
Jan-07	543	$2.99	$0.83	
Jan-08	551	$2.99	$0.87
Note that price increases were just about inline with inflation until sometime in 1976.

I have an excel file with much more detail, but I simplified it as much as I could for presentability.
posted by Chuckles at 8:45 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


You could even argue that they pretty closely kept pace with inflation until August of 1980 (the last $0.40 issue).
posted by Chuckles at 8:47 PM on February 21, 2010


Empath: That's really touching. I hope the guys who ran Underworld in Ann Arbor are doing well, especially Frank and Tim. I know the guys from Vault of Midnight are going gangbusters, in part because they're the polar opposites of the insular Comic Book Guys. And I'm not just saying that because Curtis was the first guy to get me high with name-strain weed.
posted by klangklangston at 9:07 PM on February 21, 2010


Is it not 3.99 now?
posted by Artw at 9:08 PM on February 21, 2010


just want to say that rob was not Comic Book Guy at all. He was actually really outgoing and fun to hang out with -- more like Simon Pegg in Spaced than he was like Comic Book Guy. though he was a bit hyper-focused on the store. He just lost his shit, either from hereditary mental illness or stress or both. I wasn't around when his mental health took a turn for the worse. At the time, I just figured it was stress and medication that was causing the erratic behavior.
posted by empath at 9:14 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm actually really, really interested to see what iPad does for comics. There's quite a few comic readers for the iPhone but it's just too small. And Kindle can't do color.
posted by effugas at 9:45 PM on February 21, 2010


I love comics. Still have a few crates filled with the choice keepers, Mylar-ed and acid-free-backboard-ed for future civilizations to read and appreciate. A few of those are my father's… the ones his parents didn't throw away. I consider them family heirlooms.

Anyone interested in reading more great articles on the comics industry should check out Chuck Rozanski's Tales From the Database. Chuck, for those of you who don't know, became the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in the history of mankind when he was basically handed an entire house full of mint/near-mint Golden Age comics that the owner wanted to throw away. Entire runs of some series. More mint #1 issues than you could ever imagine (Action, Superman, Batman, etc.).

Anyway, one of the most fascinating articles I ever read on the comic book industry was Chuck's article on the purchase of the second "Mile High" collection. "Mile High 2" was a single purchase of more than a million Silver Age, mint/near-mint classics and apparently made Chuck ten times the money he made with the Edgar Church ("Mile High") collection. Here's an excerpt where he talks about his conflict over buying the comics:
On the flight back home from New York, I had to wrestle with a severe moral dilemma. This huge accumulation of old comics was clearly something I desperately needed in order to validate the entire back issue mail order business I had built with the proceeds of the Edgar Church collection. The price was right, and I believed I could raise the money for the down payment, but I was still very conflicted about whether I should buy the deal. The reason for my hesitance was that I strongly believed that the books were very likely affidavit returns, and I had made it a personal policy up to that point to never deal in such books.

To explain, affidavit returns are comics which were originally sent to certain very powerful newsstand distributors on what is known as a "sale or return" basis. These comics were ostensibly put out for sale by these distributors, didn't sell within the allotted 30-day sales period, and were then pulled back off the newsstand and replaced by new issues. As a part of the contract that the publishers make with the newsstand distributors, all unsold newsstand issues were then supposed to be destroyed. In fact, most distributors are required to "strip" the covers (or the top third of the covers) off all unsold issues, and mail them to the publishers as proof of destruction.

Where this system went totally wrong was when certain very large distributors were able to make arrangements to simply send in notarized affidavits of destruction, rather than actual stripped covers. Books that were then supposedly destroyed were simply shipped out with a willing trash hauler, who then sold them into the secondary market, and split the money with the distributor. Joe Brancatelli wrote a wonderful expose of this practice in his short-lived INSIDE COMICS newspaper, back in about 1980. If I remember the details of Joe's story correctly, the FBI investigated the entire newsstand distribution system at that time, and there were indictments of certain players. It was strongly implied that the FBI believed that this entire process was all being run by elements of organized crime.
Chuck puts most of the blame for the 80s/90s decline of the industry on the head of Ronald O. Perelman, the former owner of Marvel Comics (plus a lot of other businesses he later "flipped").
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:23 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Okay, let's clarify something here: A severe moral dilemma is whether to tell a dead man's heirs that the "junk" they want to get rid of is worth a fortune, or to buy it off them for a pittance. Whether to buy what are likely essentially stolen goods is more of a could-my-ass-end-up-in-prison-over-this-shit kinda dilemma.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:08 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is funny how Rozanski covers his ass on that issue.. He says he talked to Marvel and DC and got the okay to buy them. That whole thing is really kind of fishy. And then there is the fact that the warehouse was widely known about among East Coast dealers--Rozanski says this himself--so it wasn't exactly a find..

On the other hand, I really don't understand why people get into a moral panic over the original Mile High find. Straight forward business deal as far as I can see. People upset about the original collection must have no sense at all about the effort and costs involved in selling stuff.
posted by Chuckles at 6:56 PM on February 22, 2010


On the other hand, I really don't understand why people get into a moral panic over the original Mile High find.

I don't understand any of the Rozanski hate except that, well, he's one exceptionally lucky motherfucker, and people like that are easy to hate on. Kind of like the exceptionally unlucky motherfuckers are so easy to pity, even if they're assholes that don't deserve it.

And kittens, no, that's not an accurate clarification. This purchase was done just fifteen years after the comics in question were printed—it's not like today where a shipping crate full of X-Men #1 will net you a house or two. Chuck was looking to create a back-issue empire and got most of the structure in place with his slow sale of the Edgar Church collection, but was desperately in search of raw supply of Silver Age issues to support the demand he was seeing.
Our receptionist buzzed me one day in early March, 1985, with the very strange message that there was a man on the phone who wanted to sell me 2 million comics. If I received this same message today, it would be no big deal, as there are several bulk comics dealers who today might be able to claim that they have 2 million books in stock. In 1985, however, that was a quantity equal to our entire inventory, which was probably the largest in the country. In addition, today's bulk brokers would have in stock mostly from 1992-1994, which are practically impossible to sell. In 1985, with the Direct Market still in its infancy, there were almost no unsaleable back issues. If this guy really did have two million back issue comics, it was imperative that I figure out some way to buy them.

[...]

When the seller first pulled the chain on that single light bulb, and the resulting dim illumination lit up that cavernous room filled six feet deep in comic books, I was genuinely stunned. My general experience had been that most comics dealers have no clue as to what a million comics entails. Over and over again I've gone to look at collections that supposedly contain"A Million (!)" comics, only to find actually find only a small fraction of that number. In this case, however, I really was looking at well over a million comics.
Not just anybody can pull together $200,000 overnight to spend on comic books, especially back in 1985. So while the deal was heavily in his favor, he didn't do anything immoral just by buying them.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:52 PM on February 22, 2010


C_D, I don't question whether that sale was moral, but whether it was legal -- evidently he thinks it is, or he wouldn't be writing about it, so I presume it's above board enough. I just think it's funny that he considers that a moral dilemma, and not the super-sketchy way he bought that original big bunch of comics (legal, but oh so very wrong sounding).
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:16 AM on February 23, 2010


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