Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Throughout 2015, I posted an intermittent series of articles under the "90 From The 90s" heading, covering the scars, scratches, poorly-thought-out tattoos, and other distinguishing marks which typified the culture and industry of comics in the 1990s. This is the final installment of the series and, appropriately for its significance, I'd like to end with what the Blink 182 era truly brought to comics and which stick with it to this day -- the major problems.

Starting with ...

The Speculator Market
Anyone who worked in a comic shop during the 1990s remembers the experience of having a grinning, previously unknown figure walk through the doors, position themselves in front of the newest released rack and, with hands on hips, loudly ask "So which of these are going to be worth a lot of money in the future?"

It was the type of customer which some shops and publishers were dying to hook, and more than willing to create. Orders were amplified beyond reason, based on the expectation of exceptional sales, which was then reported by content-hungry local news, which would bring veteran and curious collectors alike out to the shops in order to purchase multiple copies of four-color birdcage liner in bulk.

While the repeat customer willing to buy multiple issues of any given book -- at the very least, "one to read and one to keep in the bag," as it were -- was a much-sought-after commodity in the heyday of the speculator market (and continues to be to this day), it's a false purchasing segment which creates what is at best a temporary bubble of success. After all, when the speculator inevitably becomes burned out, distracted or disillusioned, it's not just one customer the book has lost -- it's two, or five, or ten or even more.

That speculators kept books out of fans' hands by snapping them up and overpricing them is practically the least of the speculator market's sins, particularly now in an age of digital media and trade collections. That they were a comfortable lie against which publishers and retailers could rest their weary noggins is the real problem, having created a market which generated no new readers and merely taxed its existing audience to near-extinction.

The Celebrity Creator ... But To What End?
Comics creators have a long if sporadic history of fame and wealth. Creators like George MacManus, Harold Gray, Charles Schulz and a few dozen others enjoyed quite a bit of celebrity along with exceptionally comfortable paychecks from their syndicate bosses.

What never came of these bouts of popularity was any sort of union, collective bargaining tool, or in short anything which genuinely helped anyone except the highest-earners in the field of comics -- and not to mention how much harder comic book creators had to work to gain the respect which their newspaper strip counterparts acquired with such seeming ease.

The young turks of independent comics picked up a slate of star-like accolades throughout the nineties, appearing on talk shows and jeans commercials, featured in non-comic magazines, courted by movie studios. But, again, the end result was fat wallets for the few and their friends. The closest comics had come to this level of popular celebration prior to this was restricted to the coverage surrounding the plight of Siegel and Shuster around the time of the Superman motion picture release -- a movement which at least resulted in the attempt to improve creator's rights across the board.

This takes us to the present day, where page rates among even the biggest publishers resemble the same unadjusted-for-inflation page rates of the Eighties, while we find a need for very worthwhile charities like Hero Initiative when rather what we should have is a hard-but-rightfully-earned retirement and health resource for united freelancers and creators.

Cons - once a sort of promised land for comics enthusiasts, rarely staged and often remote - began to enjoy its first incarnation as an industry in and of itself. And like any industry, it grew as quickly as its customers were willing to shell out the dough to support it.  It didn't take long for the first Con megalith - the dreaded Wizard World con founded by Wizard Magazine's Gareb Shamus - to pop up, and immediately begin crowding the smaller, more modest cons out of the marketplace.

We're in a state these days where a single entity is running a significant number of Cons around the country, focusing on television and film at the expense of comics while shoving comics out of the big halls where smaller creators need the most exposure. The future of this touring roadshow of past-the-sellby-date genre actors is a conceivably grim spectacle of the mall comic shop exploding into an unbroken chain of bulwarks across the country, and speaking of which ...

The Tipping Point
Comics have always embraced merchandise, as far back as the debut of Superman. The merchandise, in fact, may have provided a collectible component long before anyone ever considered the madness of "holding on to a comic" long after it had been thoroughly read and enjoyed. By the time that the Previews catalog became required reading at your local shop, however, the back pages of the books where all the plastic bullshit resided outweighed the actual comic book listings by a significant amount.

T-shirts and buttons always had a home in comic fandom, being the means by which fans would often express their interest to one another, not unlike a handkerchief system but for nerds. It has spread far beyond t-shirts and buttons, though. How many bottle openers can one person even own?

 The end result of this increasing devotion to the collection of shotglasses, chess sets, bobbleheads and novelty ice cube trays has been the rise of the dreaded "comic shop at the mall," an entity which - with exceptions, admittedly - primarily exists as a means by which to sell marked-up action figures, statues, heroclix and other non-comic merchandise at the expense of actual comic books. In many ways, the one wall of new releases and the token shelf of trade paperbacks represents what some diehard fans secretly always wanted - to have the actual content of their fandom marginalized and ignored for the sake of flashy nonsense. This is how you keep a scene "real."

The Direct Market as Battleground
When the Direct Market debuted, it was a godsend to smaller publishers who'd either never before had a chance of getting their books sold anywhere other than a head shop or who were locked out of a distribution network wholly owned by either of the major comics publishers. Companies which had struggled so long to dominate the much-more-profitable-than-comics distribution networks weren't planning to give up so easily, however, especially as smaller and more friendly distributors began multiplying in the wake of the newly opened market ... monopolies took a lot of work! That shriveled little spider Mister Potter wasn't going to let Bedford Falls Building and Loan mess up his schemes ...

The direct market became the site of tooth-and-nail battles for the arguably-expanded retail environment, with exclusivity deals crowding smaller distributors into dark, forbidding corners where they perished without celebration. The result is a single distributor almost exclusively serving every shop, opening the direct market up to the very battles which the newsstand distribution system had suffered a few decades earlier. Flooded shelves, variant covers, special editions and retailer incentives which make for less room on the rack for less-prominent titles also reduce the entire field of mainstream comics to a tug-of-war between two rivals, with occasional mud-and-blood being spilt on some nearby observers.

1 comment:

bitterandrew said...

An excellent end to an excellent feature!

On the merchandising thing:

My brother recently bought up a bulk lot of unsold, unworn Marvel t-shirts from circa 1984. (I got the Alpha Flight one as a Christmas present!) Their packaging and overall quality left no doubt that they were intended to be ancillary promotional materials to the REAL product -- the comics themselves. Cheap fabric, flimsy iron-on transfers, the sizes and other indicia written in ballpoint on a stock Marvel label slapped on a repurposed polybag.

Truly bizarre to behold given the current state of affairs.

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