Tiptoeing Through the Tulips with Neil Gaiman

Many of you are probably already familiar with the “humble bundles” offered by various publishers.  Generally, a publisher will make available digital copies of things like video games, comics, and books for a “pay what you can” rate with additional tiers of items available depending on how much you spend.  The buyer then chooses how to divide the proceeds between the creators, charities, and the humble bundle service.

Currently, Humble Bundle is offering a particularly interesting collection of rare books and comics by Neil Gaiman.  It’s already been setting records for the book category, and by the time you read this, the offer will only have a few hours left.  Any money Gaiman receives goes directly to his non-profit, The Gaiman Foundation, and the other charities include the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and The Moth Education Program which supports storytelling communities for young people and educators.

The three tiers are full of enticing items, perhaps none more so than Gaiman’s first book, his long out-of-print account of Duran Duran’s first four years.  If you haven’t ever looked into it, believe me when I say it’s a book you simply can’t get unless your tax bracket is significantly different from … well, everyone else’s.

But for me, the most interesting and most important book included in the bundle is not a comic at all.  Instead, it’s a collection of essays and speeches by Gaiman, collected under the title God & Tulips.  The highlight is the text of a speech Gaiman delivered to retailers in 1993.  Now I know the way I just described that must sound as exciting as a 40-hour boxed set of unedited C-SPAN broadcasts, but trust me when I say the speech is must reading.  While some of the points he makes about the comics industry are less relevant than they were in the early ‘90s, the overall prescription he offers for saving the industry is as simple and true today as ever.

So let’s establish a little context.  The early ‘90s was a strange time for comics.  Sales were booming and the general public’s interest in comics was at a high point.  Much of this excitement was the result of the revolutionary mainstream comics of the mid-to-late ‘80s.  Thanks in part to the innovative work of creators like Gaiman, as well as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Dave McKean, many of the mainstream genre comics were featuring stories that were complex and sophisticated enough to compare with the independent comix of the underground.

And as the stories improved, people noticed.  Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman film in 1989 grew out of this new, “Modern” era of mainstream comics.  So in the early ‘90s, the industry was experiencing a boom.  So far so good.

But the ways in which many of the major companies responded to this new opportunity was … disheartening.  The innovative creators had made mainstream comics interesting for older teens and adults, but rather than meeting the increased demand with new, high quality work, the publishers and retailers gravitated towards narrative stunts and gimmicks.  For example, Marvel Comics began pairing their flashiest new artists with new “number one” issues of iconic characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man, printing multiple versions of issues with variant and foil-embossed covers.  Some were even sold already packaged in bags so buyers could be sure and race their newly minted investment straight to an airtight vault where it presumably could rest undisturbed next to their deed for the George Washington Bridge.

On the other hand, DC, which had been the leading company in breaking away from the constraints of continuity and artistic “house style,” now reversed course, launching multi-title, multi-creative-team crossover “events” which often read like patched-together narrative versions of Frankenstein’s monster, gracelessly lurching through comic shops and demanding that readers purchase 30 titles to tell a story better told in six.

Both Marvel and DC’s approaches were money grabs—pre-sold concepts that didn’t rely on quality, reviews, or word-of-mouth.  And people bought them.  Many of the publishers and retailers took to the early ‘90s like it was a drunken weekend in Vegas, and they had scored front-row seats for a stage full of Elvis impersonators.  Never mind that no one who came to comics because of Watchmen, Sandman, or Animal Man was likely to be impressed by Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or DC’s The Death of Superman.  Their focus was on sales and those books sold like crazy.  Little did anyone know, the comics industry was on the verge of becoming the new Atlantis, Pompeii, or Krypton.

Neil Gaiman would later complain to Bill Baker:  “As an industry, I think comics destroyed itself in 1992, and nobody noticed.”[1] However, that wasn’t entirely true.  At least one person noticed exactly what was going on and he said so publicly.  His name was Neil Gaiman.

By 1993, Gaiman was already one of the most celebrated figures in comics.  He was over halfway through Sandman, and he had already written Violent Cases, Black Orchid, The Books of Magic, Signal to Noise, and Miracleman.  Then Gaiman spoke at the Diamond Comic Distributors 10th Annual Retailers Seminar.  His speech, later titled, “Good Comics and Why You Should Sell Them,” is more commonly known as the “Tulip Speech.”  Referring to a book by Charles Mackay, Gaiman explained the manner in which Holland, in the 17th Century, went crazy for tulips.  In fact, they were so infatuated with the new flower bulb, they inflated prices and centered their entire economy around tulips:

You had an entire country obsessed with getting rich and convinced that it was impossible that tulips could ever be less than the ultimate, perfect investment object.  […] And instead, the rest of the world stared blankly at the Dutch for fussing foolishly after something that was, after all, only a tulip.  The entire economy of Holland was destroyed.[2]

While this lesson in Dutch tulips might seem a bit esoteric, it provided the perfect metaphor for what was happening in comics.  Gaiman warned the retailers that they were artificially inflating the market with comics they didn’t even enjoy reading, and that if they didn’t start pushing “good comics,” their bubble was going to burst.

Coming from a member of the creative community, it was a stunning speech.  His tulip metaphor was designed to appeal to the business-minded in the audience, warning of the economic damage caused by artificial “bubbles,” but he also included a fairly stern ethical warning as well:

I think any comic shop that sells multiple copies of the same comic to any child under, say, sixteen, because that child has somehow been given the impression that he or she has been handed a license to print money, should, if nothing else, get the child to read a form explaining that comic values can go down as well as up and require it to be signed by a parent or guardian.[3]

He also adds that “any organization or store that pushes comics as investment items is at best short-sighted and foolish, and, at worst, immoral and dumb.”  It was daring, edgy commentary from a creator who had been careful not to pick fights. But his tulip speech shows a creator who is taking on a leadership mantle, looking to the future, and adding a moral component to his pragmatic arguments.

Five years later, while talking to Bill Baker, Gaiman was even more pointed in his condemnation of the practice of “investment comics,” specifically targeting both retailers and publishers:  “You’ve got unscrupulous dealers, selling boxes of twenty-five comics to kids as an investment.  You’ve got unscrupulous publishers, aiming their stuff towards those kids.  And it was like some kind of bizarre con, trick, or [pyramid] scheme.  It all works fine, until the first person tries to sell their comics.”[4]

Today, the investor craze isn’t the problem.  However, the other half of that disastrous early ‘90s formula persists.  As anyone who follows DC and Marvel knows, stunt publishing has only grown more dominant.  Company-wide reboots, new #1 issues, and temporary deaths of popular characters all seem like basic conventions of the superhero genre these days.  There are still good books, of course, like Snyder and Capullo’s Batman or Fraction and Aja’s recently completed run on Hawkeye, but the focus of the companies seems to be on the narrative stunts.

Gaiman’s Tulip speech offered retailers a clear path to sanity, and the simplicity and purity of that path seems as relevant to today’s market as ever—promoting good comics.  In Gaiman’s speech, “good” simply meant whatever the retailers actually enjoyed reading—not what would be valuable, not what would be hot, not what was trending.  As he concluded, “Comics are for reading and enjoying, like tulips are for planting and blossoming and appreciating.”[5]

Looking over the past 20-plus years since that speech, it’s easy to rattle off mainstream comics that have made a difference, but I would be hard-pressed to pick any of the big editorially-driven publishing stunts that have done anything besides damage the industry.  It’s a nice reminder, of what we should keep our focus on—not the public relations stunts, but rather those handful of good comics, with creators who pay little attention to investing in the tulips, choosing instead to act as the little Dutch boy of legend, putting their fingers in the dike in order to stave off the flood.

[1] Baker, Bill.  Neil Gaiman on His Work and Career.  New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2008.  25.  Print.

[2] Gaiman, Neil.  Gods & Tulips.  Easthampton:  Westhampton House, 1999.  4.  Print.

[3] Gaiman 5.  Print.

[4] Baker 26.  Print.  Brackets are Baker’s.

[5] Gaiman 8.  Print.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Mario Lebel says:

    I know, I know I have to go read those comics, essays, and that Duran Duran book. I can’t just buy and download those goodies, I have to sit down and read them too. I didn’t need another reminder of how this particular Humble Bundle inflated the to read documents on my eReader.

    Also, thanks. Thank you so much for the reminder of how great Gaiman is.

    I’m one of those people who suffers from disliking something or someone they really used to love because now, seemingly out of nowhere, they’re huge. That happened to me with Gaiman.

    Sure, it’s most likely all about perspective. Gaiman has been a big deal since the late eighties, at least, but I remember a time where it seemed like nobody else knew about him except for me. It’s a preposterous idea. He had dozens of comics and plenty of novels and short story collections out by the time I first discovered him. Yet, from the confines of my reading chair, it seemed like nobody else was touched or amazed by the wisdom and marvels contained within every book that had Gaiman’s name on the cover. Sadly, I realized one day that Gaiman wasn’t mine and mine alone. Other people’s fervent energy and acclaim seemed to lessen my appreciate him for him. I know it’s dumb. I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how I felt at the time.

    Anyway, Gaiman is great writer. One of the best and one of my favourite. These minor works of his are only minor in the sense that they’re not widely read and many people don’t even know they exist. If anything else, there are gems to be found within this bundle and I for one am more than excited to spend a few hours exploring them on the weekend. Worst case scenario they suck and I gave money to a good cause. Best case, I did that good cause thing and I was rewarded with favourites from the Gaiman library.

    Also, that Holland tulip thing. Whaaaaat?! History is insane!

  2. Brent Holmes says:

    I remember attending Carleton university as a freshman in 1991. One night I was at the house of some fellow students and we were passing around a copy of Sandman #1. It was outside my experience and was one of the first times I had seen a world beyond traditional superhero comics. Elektra: Assassin was another. I believe the story is every bit as good as The Dark Knight Returns. Thematically it may not be as accessible, but the painted artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz lends the entire story a dreamlike quality that synergizes such varied and surreal concepts as a Cyclops (perfect) level understanding of spatial geometry, a powerful demon shaping the outcome of a U.S. presidential election and a human brain physically adapting to the more immediate sensory needs of an animal.

    Stray Toasters blew me away as well.

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