08 August 2006

More on how Things got Fucked and Why Your Spawn Comics are Worthless

ROUND TWO -- FIGHT!

Okay, so it's 1993 and superhero funnybooks are riding high saleswise, even though qualitywise they're pretty consistently crap. (There are exceptions, sure. There are always exceptions.) DC has "Reign of the Supermen" and "Knightfall/Knightsquest/Knightsed" running interminably, Marvel is pushing out polybagged-collector's-card-super-collectable-six-different-title crossovers like X-Cutioner's Song and Rise of the Midnight Sons, and a bunch of other companies are nipping at their chromium die-cut holographic heels, with Valiant and Image at the forefront. So imagine the excitement when Valiant and Image announced a big cross-company crossover: DEATHMATE!

This was tipped to be the collector's item classic bonanza of the year, and people ordered lots and lots and lots of this hot book, scheduled to come out over the summer of 1993.

Except the Image issues came out in October, December, with Rob Liefeld's Deathmate Red issue finally coming out in late January 1994, somewhat after the summer excitement wore off.
This was hardly a new development for Image Comics, and as the company approached its third birthday, retailers and fans were getting less and less patient with the new company's excuses at being "new at this". Retailers were particularly hurt by this, since they were sinking a lot of money into pre-ordering (collectively) a million or more copies of hot books like Spawn and Wildcats, only to find the books delayed several months. At a certain point the late books would be made returnable due to the publisher's breach of contract, and lots of books barely squeaked in under the deadline, often with shortened main stories with the solicited artist/characters and lengthy "special previews" of the next books.

In a move showing amazing chutzpah, Todd McFarlane took Spawn #19, which was something like six months late and returnable, and shipped it out as Spawn #21, which was in fact not returnable because it was only two months late. He later resolicited an obvious-rush-job fill-in story about Spawn vs. Houdini for issues 19-20. None of this sat well with retailers, who were starting to run into some money troubles in ordering super-late issues of Spawn or Youngblood, especially since they hadn't raked in the big bucks with their unsold cases of Spawn and Youngblood from two years previous.

The speculators were also getting tired of not getting a big return on their crates of collector's item #1 issues. They were starting to leave in droves, forcing the retailers to eat even bigger stacks of all these books. Marvel was in financial trouble too, as Pereleman was doing some really scummy money-swapping deals with his corporations, and Marvel corporate was in an insane buying spree, purchasing Toy Biz, Fleer, Skybox, Malibu Comics and various other things that had no positive impact on their comics line, which while still managing to make money every quarter, was starting to get mired down pretty severely with very shitty comics.

All of these conditions combine to lead to what was really the Perfect Storm of fucking over superhero comics, which came along in December of 1994 when Marvel purchased Heroes World Distributors. Heroes World was a pretty small little distributor, mainly servicing comic shops along the northern East Coast, and Marvel purchased it with the intention of making it their sole distributor across the entire country. This made sense in terms of Perelman's vision of Marvel owning (and therefore profiting) from every step of the process (this is why he wanted to buy a toy company, a trading card company, etc). But it was a spectacularly bad idea. I cannot stress this enough.
At the time that Marvel bought Heroes World, there were probably around a dozen or so distributors set up to accomodate the direct market. Diamond and Capitol City were probably the two largest, but lots of smaller ones dotted the country, mostly specializing in a particular region or in independent comics or something like that. There was competition between distributors for the business of different shops, which American Capitalism will tell you is healthy.

So Marvel buys Heroes World, and announces that in a few months, HW would be the sole distributor of Marvel Comics to the direct sales market. All comic shops would have to divide their monthly order between at least two different distributors: Heroes World and [another distributor for everyone else]. Given that even during the boom, Marvel usually made up ~40% of the market in a given month, this reduced their total outlay to Diamond/CCity/etc. quite a bit. This is not only a hassle, but since comic shops' ordering discount is often contingent on their total order, this pushed practically everyone down to a lower discount tier.

Almost immediately after Marvel bought Heroes World, Steve Geppi and Diamond went on an Exclusive Signing Spree and got nearly everyone else that mattered at the time signed up to exclusive distribution deals: DC, Image, Dark Horse, Valiant and Wizard, and some other companies to boot. It was at this point that Diamond created the "premiere" section or whatever the call it in the front of their Previews catalog, putting all of the "big" [then-exclusive] publishers up front and prominently displayed, and shoving everyone else into the back ghetto.

Most distributors, faced with a loss of ~90% of their comics business, folded very quickly. Capital City managed to get a few exclusives with who I guess we'd call the "indie" publishers -- Kitchen Sink and Viz are the two I remember, and this was before manga was big so Viz was not really any sort of force. So now comic shops were forced to order from three different distributors, or more likely just not bother ordering various indie books because it would be such a pain in the ass. So not only were the store owners boned by this decision, but some of the smaller publishers got hurt too.

Once Heroes World got off the ground... well, there were some growing pains. To add to the lateness troubles that still plagued many Image books (as well as other indies, several of which, like Valiant, were in the middle of going out of business), now Marvel was trying to ship out every comic they sell out of a regional distribution business that was accustomed to servicing a few dozen shops in a radius of a few hundred miles. Books were regularly delayed -- not neccesarily for months, but often shipments wouldn't show up on Wednesday, or wouldn't be the right comics, would end up damaged, at the wrong address, and everything else you could imagine going wrong when someone unprepared for a shipping business starts up. This all spells further trouble for already struggling retailers, who start dropping like flies, or depending more and more on Magic the Gathering cards and other non-comics stuff to pay the rent.

The whole industry at this point pretty much goes into a free-fall. The best selling comics start selling about a tenth of what they used to, with the hottest books barely poking into six figures. All the publishers buckle down to really hit their "core constituency", the sort of people who will gladly buy in excess of five or six titles featuring Batman/Superman/Spider-Man, who will buy every single issue of Zero Hour or Onslaught, who will follow their favorites through anything. And even those people started getting bitter and declaring crazy boycotts over the treatment of Hal Jordan, over the Spider-Clone saga, over Heroes Reborn, whatever. We'll get into the sort of comics these people inspired a bit later.

Anyway, after a few months of the Heroes World experiment, Capital City (now lacking the ability to distribute comics by Marvel, DC, Image, Valiant, Dark Horse, Wizard, and about a dozen other publishers) shuts down, and is purchased by Diamond, who as of 1996 distributes literally every comic book sold in a direct sales comic shop, except those published and distributed by Marvel. Following a whole bunch of bad business shit (little to none of it involved with the publishing of funnybooks), Marvel Comics declares bankruptcy in 1996. As a result of this, Heroes World shuts down and Marvel signs an exclusive with, you guessed it... Diamond! Proud monopolistic distributors of everything you buy in a comic book shop since 1997!

I imagine a lot of you have been reading comics for less than a decade and don't really remember a time before the big ol' Previews catalog was the only game in town. Diamond is to blame for a lot of the shittiness of comics in the mid to late 1990s, as they had a pretty sweet racket going on as de facto Tastemakers of the direct sales funnybook market.

Besides stripmining the loyal old school comic fans, the other market that could almost be considered "successful" in this period were the BAD GIRL books -- Vampirella, Shi, Witchblade, Lady Death, Avengylene, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. In a funny bit of synergy, almost all of these were published by Diamond Exclusive publishers, and given a lot of attention in the "Diamond Premium" section of the catalog, the bit up front with all the color pages and feature "spotlights". This got the books a lot of attention, and considering that Wizard (another Diamond Exclusive publisher, what a coincidence!) kept touting these books as the greatest thing ever, and the prices on back issues kept shooting up (a price guide organized by Wizard, how strange!) suddenly this became a big hot thing, even though I defy you to find more than a dozen people alive today that could describe the plot in any given issue of one of these books. And I open this contest to the writers, artists and editors of these "bad girl" books.

So here we are, 1996. Two thirds of the comic shops in the country have shut down. Superman has a mullet, at least five (often closer to a dozen) books churned out a month, and a readership that is about 6% of what he got when he was dead. There's only one distributor pushing comics to the remaining stores, and only the most hardcore and devoted of superhero readers left standing after all the bullshit drove away the people who are not extremely dedicated or patient.

Comics are fun!

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