A Marvel guy, a DC guy, and an Image guy walk into a comic book store
Everyone’s life is more structurally framed than they think. Consider the humble comic book store.
The Monterey Peninsula, 1975-1983
My early comics-buying life is like most others my age, and plenty a bit younger: the unpredictable spinner racks, here and there and wherever. I guess really urban people still had newsstands in the 70s, but for me, it was these things as I described them in The beginning. In my neighborhood, technically Del Monte Park in a hidden corner of Pacific Grove, there were no grocery or department stores. There was one tiny corner store we all just called “The Little Store,” which served pretty much any and everybody within a couple of square miles. For me that meant “Still only 25 cents!” When I suspected I’d missed an issue, that meant a bike ride in ever-widening circles to the other racks I knew about.
There were stores too, but all that meant, then, was a couple of cardboard boxes set out among bookshelves, whether in an old magazine/book shop or some kind of second-hand, who-knows-what shop. There were several of these; they came and went, and within each, the comics and Warren mags came and went too. I sold most of my comics, and those of an adult acquaintance, to one of these.
Stores which actually billed themselves as comics retail appeared right when I was able to travel independently by bike and bus; I know now that they were spearheaded by Comics & Comix up in Berkeley, but mine were right on its heels. They sometimes had back-issue bins, but their main draw was predictable availability: completeness, breadth, and consistency of titles. Consistent with the original model, it was absolutely the case that they’d carry Last Gasp titles or The First Kingdom along with Superman vs. Spider-Man. The one I attended (best word for it) in downtown Monterey was some prime real estate too, a nice open space on Alvarado Street, airy – not the stereotypical smell-hole at all.
This is all before the so-called direct market, a misnomer that meant bypassing the newsstand distributors and going to store-oriented distributors instead. It’s significant for comics because it meant disconnecting this product from the same paper and outlets used by newspapers, and thus putting the burden of their financing upon the product itself.
The history of comics retail has been well-documented, more than once. The names to conjure with include Phil Seuling, Bud Plant, Buddy Saunders, and Diamond distribution, but details aside, the key words are paper (comin’ in, goin’ out, the money is a-turnin’) and returnability. Not being bought wasn’t failed-sale – it was a whole dimension of tapdancing among compensated / claimed as a loss / sold-in-shadow. The latter went into high gear when people just a bit older than me decided they simply could not live without owning a full run of, say, The Fantastic Four or the 1958-1963 Flash.
Look, the little boogers just don’t pay for themselves in terms of store upkeep. The history of comics retail – documented as it may be – seems not to impart the lesson it should, that you need something besides comics sales underpinning your store’s continued existence.
Back then, though, it was early days, and spinner racks were still considered the primary venue. The stores were still “alternative,” and they preserved the catch-as-catch-can approach to comics content, which had been established in the culture by (1) decades of Hustler et al. sold openly at newsstands, (2) the long-established freedom of actual-prose books to say whatever they wanted, and (3) the strong presence of undergrounds as validators of comics’ legitimacy, as far as most customers were concerned.
My life in Chicago from 1983 through 1989 – my late teens to mid-20s – was rich in bookstores. At any point I was either within walking distance or right next to 57th Street Books, Powell’s, and O’Garas, and I frequently visited the uptown stores like Bookseller’s Rows; my very existence then is well-summarized as the middleman between my paychecks and these stores’ monthly upkeep. However, Hyde Park was strangely free of comics during that period. There was a legendary newsstand on 51st, but it had just closed. When I got back into buying comics some time in 1985 or early 1986, my friends John and Edd (see Moses and the Mosquito) took me downtown to the completely invisible and mysterious Loop Comics, on Wabash. You have never seen anything like it: you went into a skyscraper lobby, signed in at the desk, then went up in the elevator to the seventh floor – all with no trace or sign that any comics were in the place. There wasn’t any list of companies on the lobby wall. You just had to know about it and you just had to know how to get there.
It was an oddly-angled little nook with a displaced window, an interior by-product of some architect’s notion of aesthetics regarding the exterior corners of the building that yielded something you could stick a door on and call a “space.” There was room for one three-row shelf of superheroes and another of Turtles, The Crow, First titles, Comico titles, Eclipse, et al., and that was it. The owner, Greg, was scruffy and intellectual, managing to look bored and intense at the same time. He obviously had known John and Edd for years. I went there all the time, sometimes bringing people with me if I was in the Loop for some other reason, all of whom were probably convinced I was about to kill them and deposit their bodies in some closet when we went left-right-left-left through the Kubrickian skyscraper corridors. Greg turned out to be a real gentleman, putting women that I brought there at ease without seeming to try.
How he afforded the space, I have no idea. Grandfathered, somehow? Even more so, how the fuck did he get started there and how did anyone ever learn about it? It literally had negative sidewalk appeal; there was no way to find it. Was it primarily a mail-order outlet? Could word-of-mouth been the whole story? I never did learn how John and Edd started going there.
When my here-and-there comics buying went into “must get back issues” mode, though, I learned about Larry’s Comics, then quite a public transit hike from Hyde Park to Rogers Park, especially on a weekend if you missed the Jeffrey Express. I’d double-up on a visit to the Black Star Bookstore nearby. Larry’s is easy to describe, at first glance your stereotypical attic-at-ground-level dump, full of cardboard boxes with nary an issue bagged or tagged, as a couple older guys sort of brooded on their stools in the dimness. Then you realized … everything was cover price. Fucking everything was cover price, and only that, they had everything. Nothing was particularly organized until you found the right box, but once you did, you could walk out of there with several dozen continuous issues of a single title for twenty bucks. That’s how I was able to backstop all my First Comics series, having come into them in the company’s third year, and now I kick myself repeatedly for not swooping up all those Archie and Charlton superhero titles that were just … sitting there. I can’t even imagine what goodness from Warren or other 70s B&W mags I must have walked past.
I knew back then that something shady must have underpinned Larry’s, and now I know that most of those comics had walked outta distributors’ warehouses and been reported “sold” or “unsold” based on the bookkeepers’ needs of the moment – a long-standing tactic that makes a mockery of any/every “sales figure” ever reported by a comics company. It would soon become inviable once Marvel defined itself as a distributor and tried to control both the heat and the supply of the new collectability of the 1990s – and sure enough, by the mid-90s Larry’s had evaporated.
Chicagoan comics people are probably looking for a mention of Hepcats, but it closed moments before a friend took me there; or of Graham Crackers, but that was set up in the Loop after I left the area. There were glimmers of the future. Lined up on Western Avenue, and benefiting from some sort of zoning or tax dodge on that street, were three stores: one of which was Variety Comics with its cool mural and sometimes surprising inventory, and the others being the new-style massively boxed, bagged, boarded warehouses with their inflated Wolverines hanging around. The latter store found its ultimate in the hits-playing, hip Chicago Comics on Lincoln, and, I now know, in the stripmall phenomenon of Moondog’s. But I didn’t know much about these and was mainly loyal to Greg in the Loop, and willing to trawl at Larry’s, instead of paying top dollar for boards and bags.
Gainesville, FL, 1989-1998
In 1987, I first encountered the store Novel Ideas in my comics news reading, possibly in the Comics Buyers Guide, that it faced obscenity charges. I even think I first met one of the staff in Chicago before I moved to Gainesville, at the only Chicago Comicon I ever attended, when I stopped by their booth to express my support. By the vagaries of grad school selection and application, I ended up living there and adopting it as my store from 1989 through 1997.
Briefly: the owner, Bill Hatfield, had built up two locations with full-service comics, new and used books, and games, the latter managed by long-term employee John Marron. In the mid-80s, the store was booming, and they were selling comics in six-set bags without much attention to what was in them … and a kid bought a set with who-knows-what in the middle, Cherry Poptart or something, you name it. The mom flipped out, some local action group hopped in, and it turned into a sting: the local prosecutor scented blood: and the kid went back in with a wire, primed to hunt down a set with something similar in it, and to buy it.
I’ve written about the 1983 Meese Commission on Pornography before. Its conclusion a couple years later was a triumph of anti-sex fiat: “obscenity” need only be defined after charges are brought, subject to the “standards of the local community.” This is of course witch-hunt talk – no one in a community or justice system is going to dial back an accusation of obscenity based on definition, lest they look immoral or soft. The “local community” standards are therefore defined by whoever screams loudly about whatever they want to scream about.
Gainesville has a complex history, but suffice to say it’s multiple-membraned, subject to many unspoken power plays which created both libertine opportunities and strongly-enforced morality zones, each of which shifted seismically when some city council member died or when the university bought this-or-that bit of property. A lot like my original hometown, Pacific Grove in California, and my later hometown, Evanston in Illinois, in fact. In such places, popular but financially-tricky venues like blues bars and comics shops are easy to set up but also vulnerable to elimination. And (among other things) Gainesville was and is a classic example of liberalism + moralism run amuck.
Novel Ideas became the first humpback whale discovered by this newly-armed harpoon squad, and unfortunately the model, for how to “run them outta town” with no principled opposition. Cue the courts through multiple, multiple hearings and showings and inquests and all that stuff – and to cut to the chase, the store ultimately won the case. Of course, by then, the negative publicity and especially the court costs had taken Bill through at least one bankruptcy. My years in Gainesville are easily tracked by the store’s increasingly-desperate changes in location: University Ave, then to a quarter of its size elsewhere on University Ave, then a big space off 34th Street next to Bud’s Half-Price Beds (where I bought Magic: the Gathering and the dice I always used in playtesting Sorcerer), then I think another place north of there on 34th Street where the books part was sadly abandoned, and finally south of there, when it included an assortment of dubious videos.
I am finding nothing about this history on the internet, which is crazy – it was national news, a big deal in comics/obscenity history. One wrinkle that didn’t get coverage at the time was the crossover to the Danny Rolling killings in 1991, just a few blocks down from our department on campus. Rollings’ possessions included an issue of Mike Diana’s Boiled Angel, resulting in long-term career effects and its own set of legal proceedings as well, in fact, the first instance of a comics creator’s conviction for obscenity. But I don’t think that tied into the Novel Ideas case.
What we learn by this …
- Over-extension matters a lot, and comics retail is over-extended by definition; related to that, it’s not able to amass the clout to form alliances with nearby businesses or subcultures.
- The First Amendment died a thousand deaths. Comics retail wasn’t legitimately “books” enough to be protected as speech, and not fringe/back-room enough to fly under the radar.
- “Protect the children” brings the twin forces of progressivism and classic small-town conservatism down upon you with nary a thought to their competing first principles.
Throughout the 1990s, although I often got an earful about this or that distributor shenanigan or company policy from my comics-pro friends, I was really a boring, out-of-touch customer. I didn’t follow any of the trade mags or “it’s a hit” pseudo-news piped to the fanbase. So to me, the stores were still just one-guy shops, as I completely missed the strip-mall, glass-front, new-school comics chain store phenomenon, as pioneered by Moondog’s.
I like to think of it as the comics equivalent of Y. K. Kim Tae Kwon Do, and about as substantial, but to go by industry and fandom talk from the time, this was really it, “comics grow up” validated yet again, free from the fringe, blessed with normalcy and glowing in a Norman Rockwell haze … and yet also the venue for uniquely deluded speculation. Plain old sales weren’t good enough, for some reason; to be fair-and-square all-right-by-me, these stapled pamphlets had to make you rich. Collectability became, for a while, the legitimizer for comics, but it was very odd: no longer simply object-based memorabilia (“I bought this when I was nine!”), but also tied to content (“This is when Toad Lad squirted Glitz Girl!”), and dosed with the weird delusion that a comic could be designated by its publisher to hold considerably increased resale value.
I really shouldn’t have to explain that later resale value is set by entirely different variables. Anyone could have told you, correctly, that all those duplicate covers, foil covers, et cetera, and hyped events depreciated at point-of-purchase to somewhat less than used Kleenex. Briefly: if a product says “Collectible!” on it, then it isn’t. No matter how much you spend to keep it minty fresh.
The weirdness is that this wasn’t a mere case of cynical scam promotion, itself so ordinary as to bear no mention. No – the comics company executives, the distributors and retailers, and the comics pros themselves seemed to believe it! Bankruptcy, destroyed careers, stores up in smoke, confusion, soul-searching, recriminations, all abounded.
I mean … it wasn’t just spotty-faced fourteen-year-olds with a Liefeld fetish, who take way too much of the blame. Get this: par for the course for comics, enormous quantities vanished into private stashes between printer and store. And yes, this contributed to the illusion of mighty, mighty sales. But that’s not my point, it’s that … well … look, the parties responsible, insiders as they must have been, had no excuse not to know the whole thing was bogus. What were they thinking? When, and how, did it finally dawn upon them?
On a different note entirely, over in the UK, another sort of store was pioneered, beginning with Page 45 in 1994. I’ve written about them before too, and you can find out more here. If I had to summarize them for my present point, it’d be: to sell comics, you don’t try to mold them into the shape you want or approve of most, and you sell to people, not fandom.
Chicago north ‘burbs, 1999-2017
When I moved back to the Chicago area, the stores on Western were looking tired, and they closed one by one. The mall stores faded too – people who talk about “the crash of 2008” should have been looking at the canary commercial sector including start-up martial arts schools, comics stores, non-franchise student hangout joints, and other slightly-fringe, labor-intensive, direct-service type retail – most of it died hard by 2005.
There weren’t any survivors; instead, the stores that persisted or that started and thrived, were usually spins on Page 45, extremely well-tuned to clientele, location, and specific kinds of socializing. In my immediate area, that included:
- Comics Revolution in downtown Evanston, which apparently found a way to reconcile workers-solidarity and much left-intellectualism with prime real estate and prices to match. Good titles there, always.
- Third Coast Comics on north-north Broadway, one of the real gems of neighborhood comics buying, begun and run by my good friend Terry Gant. This is where you can be hip, enjoy your comics, and not get grunted at or condescended to.
- The Comix Gallery in Wilmette at the top of the CTA line, now a generational staple there, run by Vernon Wiley. This was “my” store until my recent move to Sweden, and as it happens, I’m also a good case for how it succeeded. Vern managed to provide the knowledgeable fringe insider personality and every sort of comics content, old or new, in what amounted to a total parent-friendly environment. You started buying your own comics there, then showed up with a baby in a belly-pack, then you brought your infant, then your toddler … and that kid was welcome to play with the toys all over … and then would be sitting and looking at the pictures … and you can see where this is going. There are parents in the store now who were those toddlers a couple decades ago. And Vern carries just the right amount of just the right titles, placed at the right heights and ways to access them in the store, to suit every stage.
It’s all about moi et toi
Again, this post isn’t intended to capture or summarize comics history; I’m not a journalist or pundit. What I am, is clearly sculpted by the state of comics commerce per unit time, indeed per unit purchased, to an extent from which radical Marxists would recoil, their praxis and materiality falling every which way. What the stores were like, what comics they carried, what “back issues” meant, what the damn things are to me … valuable and disregarded variables alike, it’s all right there in the history. Granted I chose to value X and to disregard Y, for any number of such pairings, but what X and Y were in each case – that, I did not choose.
You ought to do this too! Where did you get your comics, and how, and what was happening in each case that structured your choices? What “kind of comics fan” were you, and are you, and how was that identity shaped?
Many thanks to John Marron for sharing his memories of the events in Gainesville. He says it’s OK to describe his life during that time as Cheapass Games’ game Get Out.
Links: 1999 Chicago Reader interview with Larry Charet, Comic Bool Legal Defence Fund re Boiled Angel, Bill Hatfield’s website, Your comic books are worthless (and here’s why), Third Coast Comics, Comix Gallery
Next column: Is your hate pure? (June 18)
Posted on June 11, 2017, in Commerce and tagged Bill Hatfield, Boiled Angel, Comix Gallery, Edd Jones, John Hotchkiss, John Marron, Larry's Comics, Loop Comics, Meese Commission on Pornography, Mike Diana, Novel Ideas, Page 45, Terry Gant, Third Coast Comics, Vernon Wiley. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.
(Damn it, Ron! With your move, your column now debuts Saturday night. I read it before bed 3 hours ago and my stupid brain wouldn’t let me stay asleep. It kept composing this reply.)
When I was young, we lived pretty far from anywhere alongside a high-traffic two-lane road. Biking anywhere would be taking my life in my hands for five solid miles of dangerous drivers. In elementary and middle school, I got Star Wars and G.I.Joe comics directly from Marvel via mail order subscription. Seeing that brown paper wrapper in the maillbox was always a treat.
In 1987, my mom saw an ad for a local comic book shop and took me and some friends. Beachhead Comics was in a cramped converted house in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They had a cool mural on the wall featuring Batman, Spider-man, Cerebus, and She-Hulk: http://www.fortressofbaileytude.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Beachead-Comics-1024×681.jpg As an eager thirteen-year-old, I was amazed by the oodles of things I had never heard of packed into their place. While the staff was polite, they had a bit of a “go away, kid, ya bother me” reaction to our youthful ignorance. (I went back in a few years ago, in my late-thirties. The store seemed exactly as I remembered it, except dustier. The phrase “old man’s comic book shop” still fit.)
Soon after, a store opened much closer to where I lived: Cap’s Comics Cavalcade. Cap’s was my store all through high school and I was there almost every week. They were in suburban strip mall with a nice, airy space. They had huge tables of back issues in the center, new comics on the one wall, role-playing games on the other wall. There were shelves in the back with a few toys and collectibles. I think they focused primarily on superhero comics, but that’s all that I wanted in those years. I was there almost every week and developed friendships with several of the staff, who didn’t talk down to a high school kid who was far too eager about all this stuff. I still miss Cap’s. I fell in love with comics and with superheroes in that store and with role-playing games in that store. I bought boxes and boxes of mainly Marvel superhero floppies (including an embarrassing number of crossover events and variant covers of X-men #1).
I went to college in a western Pennsylvania town far past its prime. The only comic shop I knew of in Johnstown was in a nearly-abandoned strip mall that was completely inaccessible without a car. And they were only open Saturday mornings or something like that. I think I made it there once, but with a tiny space crowded with cardboard boxes of poorly-organized trade paperbacks, it was no Cap’s. My mom was too indulgent of her only child and continued to pick up my pull list from Cap’s and mail them to me every month or so. She had better friendships with the staff than I did in those days. I remember reading Death of Superman out of those manilla post-office envelopes from my mom. The quality of the superhero books I was reading declined over my years at college, and I crossed them off my pull-list one-by-one.
After college, I did a year of graduate school at Penn State. Comic Swap was a cool little store half a block from campus. In a college town where retail space was at a premium, it had two big rooms below street level. Comic Swap carried a little of everything, with walls of comics in the front room and a few back issues and games in the other room. It was cramped (like everything in downtown State College) but tidy and welcoming.This was where I started shopping for comics with my then-fiancee, now-wife. I learned that she is much more talented at finding new series than I am. She discovered Strangers in Paradise at Comic Swap, and Poison Elves. I remember that the owner had just started doing comic book reviews for the local free weekly newspaper. During one trip, I overheard someone complimenting him on using is platform to “Promote the good stuff.” His response stuck with me. “Well, the crap sells itself. It’s the good stuff that needs a little help.”
I moved back to my hometown after that, but by that time, Cap himself had retired and sold the store to a guy I didn’t really get along with. The culture of the staff changed from “professional and enthusiastic” to “cliquish and condescending.” If you weren’t friends with one of the staff, you got talked down to, no matter how thick the pile of comics and games you were lugging to the counter. This particular attitude is rife in comics shops in this area. It’s driven me away from any number of them over the years.
I took my business to a former rival of Cap’s called Comic Masters. They were set up inside a shopping mall that was slowly failing. When they opened,they were across from a Waldenbooks. As the mall was remodeled around them, they moved into the old video arcade: https://s3-media2.fl.yelpcdn.com/bphoto/EX88kpbe9IDhIAmae9Ls7A/o.jpg They’ve always had a very clean, well-lit store, as you’d expect for a mall. They’re heavily focused on superheroes, and have scads of collectibles and T-shirts right up front, along with kids’ comics (which is a nice touch). Walls of graphic novels, trade paperbacks in the back, with tables of back issues. The staff has always been very positive and helpful (except for one thing which I’ll get to).
Comic Masters is where I bought most of my Sandman trade paperbacks. It’s where my wife discovered Transmetropolitan and Preacher. It’s also where I figured out what kind of comics shopper I am. Every trip to the store, I have to buy something extra. Maybe it’s a trade of something I’d read about online. Maybe it’s a few floppies of new series that look promising. I can’t just get my pull-list items and leave. Because of this compulsion, when money was tight, I often wouldn’t go to the store for months at a time. Which was good for my budget, but when I’d show up, some of the issues that should have been in my pull-box weren’t there. It really irked me after a while, as reordering them or hunting down the missing issues in back issue boxes at other stores was a big pain. That drove us elsewhere.
Dreamscape comics was a little more focused on all different types of comics, beyond simply selling superhero titles. They had a sizable space a few blocks from downtown Bethlehem, with a dizzying amount of inventory. Anything you wanted, you could find it at Dreamscape. Probably 80% comics, 20% games and collectibles. My wife discovered Liberty Meadows there. Still the funniest comic I’ve ever read. The owners were friends of friends of ours, which gave each trip something pleasant to talk about. We were happy with Dreamscape for years, until their mass of inventory got the better of them. The shelves got fuller and fuller. Cardboard boxes of trade paperbacks and collectibles started to block the walkways. Aisles became dead ends. We physically were unable to browse any more. Our pull list atrophied as series would end and we hadn’t found anything to replace them with. I was sad when I canceled our pull list there, but it was necessary. The owner died quite unexpectedly four years ago, and the store is closed now, although the big sign still hangs over the empty storefront: https://favoritesightsandsounds.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/dreamscape-comics.jpg
After trying a number of shops in the area and being repulsed by their cliquishness, we ended up back a Comic Masters. In the intervening years, they seemed to have gotten a handle on the pull-list problem. Even though it’s more superhero-focused that I prefered, I was happy there. I like that they completely rearrange the store every year or so, experimenting with placements of the cash register, collectibles cases, new comics, etc. It keeps it fresh. When my wife got laid off and I called to cancel my pull list, the owner was very grateful for the call, but it was a sad day. I haven’t been in since.
My job sends me to Manhattan every so often, so I have done some browsing there. Midtown comics is convenient to the bus station, and packed with everything you could want, but kind of sterile and even a little corporate. St. Marks Comics has the cool, weird layout you’d expect of the NYU area, but also has that dust-covered patina I think of as “Old man’s comic book shop.” I liked Jim Henley’s Comics on 32nd street, even it’s a bit out of the way. It also has the weird layout, but a greater focus on independent comics. They shelve their trade paperbacks alphabetically by author, which is kinda cool. Jim Crocker’s Modern Myths is a great store, with a clean, welcoming layout. But requiring 45 minutes and two different trains to get to, it’s the farthest store I’ve been to in the NYC area.
These days, when we go on trips, I’ll often look up local comic shops. Sometimes they are cramped and dusty, like somebody’s attic. Often they are clean and colorful, like someone bought a mass-produced “comic book store starter kit.” I am often disappointed. Rationally I know that in the age of the internet and my decades of experience, I should not expect to be surprised by something I see in some little shop somewhere. But somehow, my heart still holds onto the hope that in some little, out of the way comic shop out there, I’ll find something amazing. I guess that’s what keeps me coming back.
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1. Cap’s rings a bell. I think it was well-known and well-regarded.
2. Jim Henley – as in the frequent contributor at the early Forge? Or just a coincidence in names?
3. Jim Crocker is a reader at this very blog! I’m hoping for a reply here from him.
The transition you describe at Dreamscape catches my eye – that’s a very, very common sequence of events. Given the burden laid upon the stores when returnability ceased (part of Seuling’s original pitch to the comics companies regarding these stores, if I understand correctly), the always-dubious biz of back issues became the new under-pinning principle.
The sales of newly-ordered inventory simply cannot carry the burden of its own cost + ongoing overhead + standing costs from the last cycle + any unforeseen problem. Something’s gotta carry it. Cue turning the relatively pleasant hunt for decidedly non-mint back issues for reading purposes into a literal fetish that closeted comics all over again. I can sort of see how naive fans + desperate retailers + coked-out 80s execs created a triangle of madness, with one’s faith fanning the buy-in of the others.
All those white longboxes with their mylar and boards … by 2000, the stores were full of them, and the owners looked like they despised the very ground the customers walked upon, let alone their hatred of the inventory gumming up their tax returns, yet which they could not abandon without closing down.
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Please make sure you have a snack and a drink before you start this.
So, my own journey from kid in bike to Guy Who Actually Owns A Comic Book Store has a trajectory similar to the other White Dude Of a Certain Age who have already spoken here.
The broad outlines of how the industry developed have been covered so far, so I’m going to try and stick to how I intersected them without too much digression into industry history but fair warning I am going to fail.
So, my own First Contact experience is something I like to think I vividly remember to this day. My mom’s Uncle came to visit us in our home in suburban CT. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Granby,_Connecticut)
They were traveling around in an RV, which to my 8 year-old eye and strictly white-WASP Northeastern background was as exotic as if they had landed a spaceship in our front yard. We did some camping, yes, but this was… you were driving around in a house!
So, an older cousin had some comics that they brought along and I expressed some interest in, so they left them with me. There were some Archie digests and a couple of random issues, but the magic bullet was arguably one of the VERY first ‘trade paperbacks’ as such, ‘Origins of Marvel Comics’.
For anyone who’s not familiar with these volumes, they were anthology collections that I presume were specifically aimed at getting Marvel comics into libraries; they contained stories of half a dozen heroes with a reprint of their origin, a ‘current’ story, and a couple thousand words from Stan himself hyping and mythologizing the creation of those characters as well as commenting on the development that got them from, say, Ditko to Romita, or Kirby to Buscema (not much of a jump in hindsight, but I was eight.)
This book utterly consumed me, I literally read the cover off of it, and snapped up the other volumes in the series, ‘Son of Origins’, ‘Bring on the Bad Guys!’, ‘The Superhero Women’, and ‘Marvel’s Greatest Superhero Battles’ (which should probably be considered the point of diminishing returns for this particular arc.)
So, not to put too fine a point on it, I started by digging the trades, which got me into the floppies, a full 2 decades before that was cool.
So, my young life proceeded on the expected trajectory: I hoovered up comics wherever I could find them, which in my case meant doing ‘the circuit’, biking my ass down to Granby to hit the three drug stores and two grocery stores where I could find whatever monthlies I could lay hands on as well as snapping up any and all of the plastic-wrapped 3-packs, Workman-legit and dubious-cover-stripped, that were scattered amongst the Family Circles and Reader’s Digests.
My obsession grew in direct proportion to the available income my expanding paper routes provided, to the point where I was regularly having to do complicated math to determine if I could afford BOTH all the new Marvels I saw in the local hobby/department store AND the new Champions adventure they had in back with the weird gamer books. (That’s a story for the July look at HERO Games, though…)
Eventually, the direct market hit and I was realizing there were comics I couldn’t find any more locally, even at the brilliant headshop/wood stove/record/romance paperback/smut mecca known as the Book Exchange. It was a long ride from my house, but doable, so I got over there as often as I could, but their huge bin of cheap back issues was inadequate to feed my desire for CURRENT stuff, so…
As with Ron, I did some subscribing, and that was cool, but it was more sporadic than I liked, and they only made some of the titles available. Enter the Styx mail order comics service. I presume they were one of the early entrants into this gig; but as soon as I found them, my comics consumption absolutely took off, as I could order everything I wanted, delivered to my door. (It worked exactly as you’d expect it would; I’d fill out a catalog and send it in, along with a money order or check from my folks, and they’d mail them out as they were released. My recollection was that they pretty much had their act together; if anyone else used them, I am curious what your own recollections were, and what their ultimate fate was. I now honestly can’t recall if I just stopped using them when my self-imposed cold turkey quit of comics came or if they dried up).
This resulted in my already mediocre grades absolutely tanking. In an effort to combine carrots and sticks (Styx?), my dad came up with The Deal: he; put a lock on my comics closet, which had slats I could slide comics through, and I was free to keep buying them, but I could only actually read them when the lock came off after my grades got back on track. Thus motivated, I had the best semester of my checkered academic history, culminating in a media binge that went down, again, two decades before that sort of thing was cool. The following semester went about how you’d expect it would with that powerful motivator thus removed. During this time I imagine I must have bought a few comics elsewhere here and there, but Styx got the vast majority of my comics spending for what must have been a couple of years.
High school proved to be every bit as awful for a nerd in the 80s who had gone to school with the same 60 other kids (graduating class at EGHS: 55). So I pretty much quit comics for a few years in a misguided attempt to do stupid shit like bring terrible at sports and generally being a complete asshole to my best friends as my parents went through a slow-rolling 3 or 4 year divorce. Not a fun time, and best glossed over other than to say I missed the first flowering of the British Invasion.
Smash cut to year two of college, where I learn that one of my Theater department classmates is the goddamn daughter of the guy who owns the Book Exchange, which actually has its main store located the next town over from my school (Central CT State University, a working-class teacher’s college south of Hartford).
So, from quitting comics cold turkey for 2-3 years, I walk into a job where I’m selling them, working for a guy older than me who’s been in deep since the mid-60s and is now the kind of post-hippy workaday intellectual who’s voraciously consuming everything from Eisner to Crumb to Moore to Dave Sim, and like any other addict confronted with the prospect of a bender that’s not just consequence-free but arguably necessary, I’m off to the races again.
Since that’s the place that marks a pretty clear, bright line between my pursuit of a comics as a fan and my pursuit of a comics as vocation, I’m going to leave off there. Prior to this, my interest in the finer points of whether my comics were getting into my hands via Capitol City, Diamond, Yankee News, or Ingram were largely immaterial, but once you turn pro, all that shit suddenly matters. I feel like it’s probably tangential to the specific topic Ron was running at here, though.
I’m happy to discuss my more intimate contact with the sausage factory (well, more like the sausage trucks and counters, but you get the idea) if anyone is still awake at this point. Ron, is this the place for it, is there a piece that makes more sense to tack it onto?
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Reading these comments is really like being in someone’s skin. Almost too intimate, which I suppose says something about how we all internalize and identify with the comics as objects. Jim, I appreciate this one a lot.
As for more, well, you’re always welcome to add more … and it also strikes me that a full-size guest post would be a great follow-up to this one, and give you more room to draw personal or structural conclusions. Please consider yourself invited!
Re: Jim Henley: Maybe. Or maybe my sleep-deprived brain misremberered the name. Their website lists it as JHU comics: http://www.jhucomicbooks.com/about.html?m I might have retrofitted the name.
Jim Crocker is a friend of mine. He always brings an amazing assortment of games to sell at the carrots Double Exposure game conventions, like Metatopia. He closes up shop for the evening game session and it’s a great role player. I got to run Sorcerer:. Dictionary of Mu for him a couple years ago. It was an epic game.
Re: the financial pinch of non-returnability. Yeah, I can’t imagine how anyone makes it work. I know some of the stores have active online storefronts and move product on eBay to keep the aisles from silting up like a river delta. Whenever I get the crazy daydream of “I should open a comic book store. That would be awesome!” Taking a single look Kat the reality of what is required wakes me up real fast. The folks who can keep it going long-term are like magicians.
Early on, mail order was a huge part of my games/gaming book purchasing (a lot from Lou Zocchi’s catalog, as I recall). Mail was even a meaningful part of my SF/Fantasy book acquisition. Did comics have anything like that option?
Hi Gordon, I don’t have a complete answer, but here’s partial info. Marvel ran a subscription service all the way back since the 1960s. I don’t know how continuously it’s been available throughout the history or how it works now. Way back then, the comics arrived folded in half (which meant little or nothing to customers at the time). I subscribed to a few Marvel titles for a brief time in the late 1980s, which was long after the cultural shift toward valuing comics’ condition. They arrived very well-packaged, but also a bit later than the store arrivals. Like many other readers it was important for me to get the titles NOW, so that’s actually when I started looking around more actively for stores.
That’s all I know, which is very little in the larger context of comics experience and commerce. My only thought is that mail-order for comics, from the publisher, has always been subject to late-release conditions, because “we have it first” is a very big deal for retail of any kind.
Oh yeah, one other thing. Really direct sales, from the publisher, not what comics people use that term for, has always been contentious. I doubt it was practical at all back when comics production was tied to newsprint turnover. Maybe mail-order was treated as secondary, for those customers whom retail didn’t manage to reach. And how did it relate to military base sales … because that’s always been a huge part of comics. I don’t know.
The distribution-centric context was especially hard on 90s independents, pre-internet, because they could not afford to lose public display of their stuff in stores, yet they could not afford to stay in business given the shitty margins (sound familiar?).
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