American Thesis #4:

Direct Distribution and Comic Book Culture

Direct distribution was a major turning point in the world of comics. It spawned the creation of specialty comic book shops resulting in a culture surrounding the medium, some of the components including conventions and fanzines. With more revenue flowing throughout all facets of the industry, artists and writers of comics now had legitimate careers. More talent was devoted into their creative work, resulting in a better product that would make more money for the industry, which spent more money on the production value of their books. Comics could be printed with better quality paper, ink, colors, and covers. This increase in quality gave way to the idea of comic books becoming collector’s items. Direct distribution gave rise to the speculator’s market when people were beginning to realize the potential value of certain issues preserved after long periods of time.

“In the 1970′s, news-stand distributors did not give comics much priority and thus hampered sales and expansion,” (Bongco, 127). Before direct distribution and specialty comic book shops, comics were only available at newsstands or drug stores, so readers and collectors had to be very adamant about checking the magazine racks for new issues. (At this time, back issues were not available.) The industry had difficulty expanding the comic book audience, because of the great expense of advertising in newspapers, television, or radio. According to Bongco, small “networks” of fans began to appear in the 1960′s, and a very serious and strong collectors market emerged in the next decade. A comic book community was established that would “…know and follow the work of the princip[al] artists and writers. The new comicbook specialty market with its attendant collector consciousness increased the value of comicbooks and made them not only commercially viable but attached a certain nostalgic, sub-culture-art[i]fact prestige to them as well,” (130-131).

It was in 1974 that retailers and vendors were first encouraged to open specialty shops “…usually near universities or in the low-rent part of the city,” (130). Several years later, they would move into shopping malls and city centers, attracting customers with their elaborate window displays (130). Besides being a dependable source of comics and other collectables, the comic book shop created an entire community. The specialty shop offered a haven where fans could relax and discuss their preferences and recommend other titles to like-minded individuals. Fans feel safe in a shop where they can talk about their hobby without the criticisms of an outside world that saw it as juvenile. Because fans were spending more money at stores, and shops attracted new customers all the time, they led to increased commercialism and capitalism in the comic book industry. Publishers were now selling more, wasting less, and making higher profits. With more revenue, they could invest in employing better artists and writers at higher wages, as well as releasing multiple titles and spin-off titles of existing lines.

Sometime in the late 1970′s, the first issue of Action Comics was sold for $10,000 through the direct market and the transaction was widely publicized. Television news programs reported the event and a new interest in comic books as a financial investment was born – comic books were a new economical goldmine. Even young children would buy multiple copies of issues; one for reading and enjoying and the other issue was sealed and stored in a plastic sleeve with cardboard backing. These timeless issues were preserved to ensure that they would be kept in “mint” condition, to be sold at a higher price. Comics had become an investment for the future to some, and the speculation market was larger than it ever had been.

Direct distribution and specialty shops had existed, but before this craze, Marvel and DC only sold about 10% of their books with them, because they did not realize the potential (131). Direct distribution encouraged retailers to open up their own specialty comic book shop. Through order guides, distributors like Diamond offer retailers price breaks and other incentives to purchase a large number and variety of products from their catalogue. Order guides are a useful tool for vendors or retailers to more accurately estimate orders and reduce wasting money from over ordering. Distributors advertise about hot new products and offer promotional materials to advertise to fans. Details about the value and availability of certain back issues, as well as speculate about which issues would eventually become valuable, are also readily available through the distributor.

Upon entering any specialty shop, a fan is bombarded by posters advertising new books or products. Fans can see other titles that may spark their interest or even see their favorite character guest-starring on the cover of a different title. Exclusively through distributors, fans get special edition issues with variant covers that could eventually become valuable collector’s items. Variant covers can sometimes feature bright and shiny embossed designs made from thicker paper or even foil or feature elaborate holograms. At these shops, collectors can now pick up back issues of their favorite title, experiment and try out new titles, or purchase a wide array of different products such as toys, statues, posters, apparel, and other collectibles. Depending on the owner, in some shops, issues can even be set aside for loyal shop customers in special “holding bins,” to be picked up at the customer’s convenience. This insures that fans could get the issues they wanted and not have to worry when a particular issue is sold out, and brings the comic community even closer.

With the increased interest in comic books through promotional offers in specialty shops, a whole new haven for comic book readers to share their interests was created: the comic book convention. The first convention was in 1963 when Jerry Bails invited many fans back to his home to tally the results of a poll; this would later evolve into the annual Alley Awards. Today there are conventions in almost every major U.S. city, where a small comic book village is literally established at a convention hall or civic center. To many die-hard fans it is an occasion, almost like a holiday, that many travel far for and look forward to with much excitement and anticipation. Here fans can be immersed in commerce, meet professional comic book creators, publishers, editors, distributors, and vendors, and view previews of upcoming films and participate in product research surveys. Panel discussions are held where the top names in the industry give fans the inside scoop by discussing upcoming events as well as answering fan questions. Collectors can buy back issues that are hard to find at their regular shop, including exclusive convention products.

Conventions also feature a large market of fan-made products including mini comics, action figures, and even fan-movies; it is a great place to become recognized. Fans interested in writing or illustrating comics can have their work critiqued by industry professionals. Many popular artists and writers were discovered at conventions, such as Michael Turner, one of today’s most popular artists, who was trained by Marc Silvestri after meeting at a convention. Conventions often feature Artist Alley where experienced artists sell prints of their work or fans can even commission artists to illustrate the characters of their choice. Networking is a big purpose of conventions; fans and professionals can get together and exchange ideas as well as contact information in order to possibly work together on some future project.

The final piece to the comic book community is the circulation of fanzines. Fanzines evolved from letter pages in the backs of issues where fans would write their opinions on different works, artists, or writers. Pustz identifies Ted White as the creator of the first ever comic book fanzine when he typed “The Story of Superman” on a postcard using a mimeograph machine in 1952. The first regularly published fanzine was Bhob Stewart’s EC Fan Bulletin, and since then they would circulate throughout local stores and especially at conventions. The three major fanzines or comic book magazines are Comics Buyers Guide, The Comics Journal, and Wizard Magazine.

Comics Buyers Guide (CBG), created by Maggie Thompson around 1971, is mostly geared towards collectors of Golden and Silver Age comics and features advertisements for back issues. Meant more for the hardcore collector, it focuses on the business or speculation aspect of collecting comics. Many articles in this publication discuss problems of the industry like the idea that there are not enough children’s comics published, that the complicated continuity of many titles severely limits the audience, or that there are too many complicated crossovers, like DC’s 2005-2006 universe-wide Infinite Crisis, that make storylines somewhat convoluted.

The Comics Journal (TCJ) was created by Gary Groth in 1976, which is now owned and operated by Fantagraphics. TCJ focuses on independent, alternative, or underground comics, often analyzing work in a very scholarly approach, applying literary theory to current titles. Their articles often criticize the mainstream comics for not being intellectually challenging. On the other side, there is Wizard magazine started by Gareb Shamus in 1991, which has a clear focus on mainstream comics, unlike TCJ. Often called the magazine of the fanboy, Wizard articles generally deal with what is new and upcoming, focusing on “hot” new artists and writers.

It is not uncommon for a community to be based around a common interest, like a person’s fascination with something like the comic book. Direct distribution indirectly led to an increased enjoyment of these comic books, and after the realization of the monetary value of comics, collectors and speculators began spending great deals of money buying as much as they could. Advertising brought on by direct distributors, as well as a chain reaction started by word of mouth, greatly expanded the comic book audience, creating this community of fans that would begin to support ventures like fanzines, conventions, and local specialty shops. When any entertainment industry receives enough attention and funding, it can afford to spend more money in the production value, making it more accessible to a wider range of fans.

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