Forgotten Comics Wars

Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 6

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“Diamond has been accused by its competitors of being a censor because of our stand. We are not censors. We no more want someone deciding for us than you do. We cannot, however, stand by and watch the marketplace become a dumping ground for every sort of graphic fantasy that someone wants to live out. We have an industry to protect; we have leases to abide by; we have a community image to maintain. Not one of these items is worth jeopardizing because someone else is trying to take advantage of the competitive marketplace….

Miracle Man [sic] #9 is no doubt, one of the most blatant examples of such material, but it is by no means the only one. Captain Jack #5 was a good candidate for runner-up. Now we have animals fondling each other’s genitals and then having intercourse. Sure, it too was labeled for mature readers but what does that mean? Is it a license to do anything? I consider myself to be mature, and I can assure you that it does nothing for me….”

- Steve Geppi, “Special Report” to Diamond Distributors retail accounts, October 23, 1986.
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“I could count on one hand the number of actual obscenity busts that ever involved any undergrounds… Omaha is a very literate book, but it is not intended for children… [the Friendly Frank's Comics bust is] an aberration. I see it as a small town enforcing a small-minded ordinance.”

- Denis Kitchen, quoted in “Newswatch: Comic Shop Busted,The Comics Journal #114, February 1987, pg. 15.
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SRBDCRatingsdoc1bYou must understand, too, that much of this was about ‘face’ — pride.

Saving face.

Losing face.

And how corporations and corporate CEOS and management — like Steve Geppi, Jenette Kahn, and Dick Giordano — deal, and don’t deal, with saving face, and losing face.

And there was a lot of ‘face’ on the floor in 1986 and early 1987 — and somebody had to pay.

I mentioned earlier that my chronology of the events of 1986 was only a partial list. Here’s a few more highlights of that year; it was a pretty memorable one:

* 1986: A bitter battle between Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics raged over the return of Kirby‘s original art, and Marvel‘s demand that Kirby sign a singular document deeding over all copyrights and claims for the return of only 88 pages out of the thousands Kirby had pencilled since 1959 (the Kirbys estimated at the time that Jack had penciled over 13,000 pages). I can’t possibly summarize the controversy here; suffice to note Kirby signed a specially negotiated ‘short form’ release for return of some of his art (much had been stolen and/or lost and/or destroyed over the decades), and continued to fight for his legal rights as co-creator of much of the Marvel universe (a battle that still rages to this day, with Kirby‘s heirs currently suing Marvel/Disney).

The bitter legal battle between DC freelance writer Michael Fleischer (The Spectre, Jonah Hex, etc.) and The Comics Journal and Harlan Ellison — a protracted $2 million lawsuit, the particulars of which I won’t go into here — also ended on December 5, 1986 after six long years and a four-week trial (see The Comics Journal #114, February 1987, pp. 8-9, and Joe Sacco‘s extensive report “The Fight for 1st Amendment Rights,” TCJ #115, April 1987, pp. 51-59, with additional material by Harlan Ellison, Gary Groth and others, including the depositions of Eclipse publisher Dean Mullaney and Marvel Comics Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, pp. 61-142).

Like I say, there was a lot of face at stake.

And a lot of blood on the floor by the end of 1986.

Diamondlogo* The 1986 black-and-white comics boom in the Direct Sales market exploded, expanding from almost 40 titles in January 1986 to over 160 by December, spawning many new publishers (including Dark Horse Comics) and self-publishers. New Direct Market retail shops opened during 1986 as well, but before the boom imploded it would take a few comics distributors (Glenwood, etc.) down with it.

* Summer 1986: The issue of Atlantic cover dated August 1986 featured an article by Lloyd Rose targeting the new ‘adult comics’ and the work of Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Dave Sim and others as “the apotheosis of the uncritical, fannish attitude, the triumph and redemption of shameless trash.”

Miracleman#9cvr* October 23, 1986: Despite being clearly labeled, Miracleman #9 (Eclipse Comics), Captain Jack #5 (Fantagraphics) and other titles (e.g., Love and Rockets #19, which Steve Geppi had removed from the retail shelves of his six stores) drew fire from Diamond Comics Distributors president Steve Geppi. In a “Special Report” mailed to retailers written the day after Geppi was interviewed for the October 22 WUSA-TV Eyewitness News report (see previous timeline), Geppi wrote, “Personally, I am getting sick and tired of making excuses for irresponsible publishers… Miracle Man [sic] #9 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This issue contained graphic scenes of childbirth. I don’t care how many warning labels are stickered to this comic warning parents about its contents… Diamond has been deluged with phone calls and letters from irate retailers who insist on return privileges on this book…”

CaptJack5dvr

 Please note — again, the cover labels did not in any way rectify the objections. Geppi was objecting to the content, labels or no labels, and clearly was not arguing on behalf of labeling as a means of dealing with what he strongly considered objectionable material.

* Fall 1986: Lone Star Comics instituted an in-store ratings and racking policy, labeling comics with content considered objectionable with either I-16 (not sold to anyone under the age of 16) or I-18 (customer must be 18 years of age or older to purchase) stickers; the I-16 titles were Mylar bagged, the I-18 titles Mylar bagged and displayed only behind the sales counter, out of reach of casual customer browsing.

* September 5, 1986: Vet sf author and recent Heavy Metal editor (former editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Science Fiction) Ted White, age 48, was convicted of possession with intent to sell illegal substances (marijuana, LSD, mushrooms) and sentenced to ten years on each count, to be served concurrently, with nine years of each sentence suspended. [Note that this did not break in the national news; it was only reported among sf fan publications, Heavy Metal circles, and certain comics circles; see The Comics Journal #113, December 1986, pg. 24. Heavy Metal dodged another bullet in a rough year for other comics publishers.]

ADistantSoilcvr* November 24, 1986: WaRP Graphics (Wendy and Richard Pini, cocreators of Elfquest) filed a lawsuit against A Distant Soil creator Colleen Doran and collected edition Distant Soil publisher Donning Company (and, in an addendum filed in February 1987, Donning editor Kay Reynolds) seeking $85,000 from Colleen, over $250,000 from Donning, over one million dollars from Doran and Donning (and, as of February’s addendum, an additional $3 million from Reynolds). Colleen had parted ways with WaRP in June 1986; the lawsuit was a shameful chapter in publishing and self-publishing comics history, further blighted by an FBI investigation of nine threatening, anonymous letters received by Reynolds in October-November 1986. Suffice to say Colleen Doran retains full ownership of A Distant Soil (copyright and registered trademark, thank you very much).

* Winter 1986: Marvel Comics sales rep Steve Saffel announced that the Comics Code seal of approval would be reinstated to the covers of all Code-approved Direct Market Marvel titles beginning sometime in 1987. Note that the Code seal had been removed from eligible Marvel titles over a year earlier due to requests from retailers; an “informal” 1986 survey of retailers demonstrated that retailers now wanted the Code seal visible on all Code-approved titles.

That’s a whole lot of shitstorms in just a few months. This fueled the atmosphere like petro fumes, adding as well to the sense of urgency Frank Miller and the rest of us involved brought to our response to the proposed DC Standards and Practices. 

* Note: Many of the very titles under attack throughout 1986 swept the sole industry award of that time, the 1987 Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards (which later were ‘divided’ into the Eisners and the Harveys, but that’s another story). Prominent among the nominees and winners was Frank Miller (for both The Dark Knight Returns and Elektra: Assassin), Alan Moore (Swamp Thing, Watchmen), Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin) and other titles and creators repeatedly cited in the ratings/adult content controversy.

* Also, the May 1987 issue of American Bookseller trade magazine featured an article entitled “Comics for Grown-Ups” by Dan Cullen on the new graphic novel movement and market spearheaded by Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, etc.

This was on the heels of a plethora of sterling, complimentary and quite prominent articles about the new adult face of comics that were published throughout 1986 in The New York Times, Rolling Stone (prompting DC to purchase a full-page color ad promoting The Dark Knight Returns in the issue with writer Mikel Gilmore‘s laudatory article on the new comics movement), The Village Voice, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and many other venues — including The Today Show.

There was a lot of positive attention to the new comics, too, and in high places.

* January 16, 1987: In a relevant sidenote, Tony Isabella and Gary Dumm‘s three-year-running weekly The Comics Buyer’s Guide editorial strip Everett True was withdrawn by the creators due to editorial censorship. Isabella noted, “…one cannot express an opinion criticizing” the publisher of CBG, Krause Publications.

It was in the air, one might say.

CrisiscvrBefore I get into the details of Marv Wolfman‘s firing from DC Comics Inc. and Alan Moore‘s ‘Guest Editorial’ in the same issue of The Comic Buyer’s Guide that published the jointly signed letter from Moore, Wolfman, Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin, it’s worth noting the another DC editor was fired in November, 1986 due to a letter published in The Comics Journal #110 (July 1986).

Mike Barr, editor of The Outsiders and other DC titles, was asked by DC Vice President and Executive Editor Dick Giordano to resign due to his TCJ letter citing both Bill Finger (“…indeed ‘the unsung hero of Batman’… and who received no payment beyond service fees (to my knowledge) from DC…”) and Keith Giffen (who “obviously attempted to use [Jose] Munoz‘s style without compensation…”), concluding, “I hope the management at DC… will be… zealous in prosecuting misconduct within its own walls.”

Obviously, DC considered Barr‘s letter “misconduct,” and after Barr refused to resign, he received a letter dated November 4, 1986 “terminating [his] editorial contract.”

According to Barr, Giordano had said, “freelancers can speak out against the company; staff editors can not,” and that Giordano considered Barr‘s TCJ letter in and of itself evidence of Barr‘s “resignation as DC editor…” (see The Comics Journal #114, February 1987, pg. 25).

That, in a nutshell, would also seem to summarize DC‘s reaction to Marv Wolfman co-signing the January 19 letter to DC Comics publisher Jenette Kahn.

That letter read in its entirity:

“Dear Jenette,

We have received your correspondence of December 4, which announced and described DC’s new rating system.

Since no member of your staff saw fit at any point in the development of these guidelines to consult a single member of the freelance community, we cannot accept your assertion that the rating system was designed to protect our creative autonomy. It is apparent, from the timing of DC’s decision, and the wording of the document itself, that DC is surrending to demands for censorship made by distributors and retailers.

Nor can we accept claims made by DC personnel that the rating system will leave working conditions for freelance talent at DC unchanged. No policy could be drafted that would accommodate Steve Geppi, Buddy Saunders, and us.

Further, we are not eager to bring our ideas and efforts to a publisher whose stated intention is to place our work in ‘controlled distribution.’

To the extent that it is possible under DC’s rating system, we will honor our contractual obligations to DC. However, we will not consider producing any new work for DC as long as DC maintains its position in this matter.

We hope you understand that, due to the urgent nature of the issue of censorship in the comics industry, we feel it necessary to make our decision known to the comics profession and readership, and will protest DC’s ratings system in every public forum available to us.

Frank Miller
Marv Wolfman
Howard Chaykin
Alan Moore”

Crisisspread

The letter was dated January 19, 1987, and it was published in The Comics Buyer’s Guide for February 13, 1987.

I presume Frank had Federal Expressed that letter (and likely FAXed it, too) to Jenette, as he had the initial December 1986 documents and letters to all of us, but I have no proof of that. My notes, however, show that the letter was sent and received by January 20th, according to phone conversations I had with Frank that very week.

TeenTitansIn the subsequent coverage in The Comics Buyer’s Guide and The Comics Journal (which offers the fullest and most accessible public record; see TCJ #115, April 1987, pp. 9-10, with excellent coverage by then-managing editor Kim Fryer), little was made of the time lag between the letter being sent and received by Jenette, and its seeing print in TCBG, save for Marv‘s concern that the letter “was not supposed to be published at that particular time.”

Given my own involvement in the December 1986 flurry of activity, I’ve no doubt Frank (and possibly others involved) likely pushed the publication as being urgent, eager to ensure the letter appearing in the same issue as Alan Moore‘s ‘Guest Editorial’ (which I’ll be running in full next installment). But I’ve no evidence of that, either, so take that as pure conjecture on my part. I knew the late Don Thompson, and know Maggie Thompson and Frank, well enough to say with certainty they wouldn’t have published Marv‘s name as a signatory had he not signed the letter. Note that Marv never, ever contested his signing the letter — just the matter of the letter being apparently published prematurely — but I just want to be sure nobody reading this in 2010 thinks that might have been an issue. It wasn’t.

Be that as it may, whatever the timing issues concerning the letter’s publication, it was foolish of Jenette and/or DC to think they had time to ‘sit on’ the letter, which stated clearly the intention to publicize the quartet’s position. Also given the rapid-fire public arena exchanges of December 1986, it was doubly foolish to think Frank, Howard, Alan and Marv might be bluffing. They weren’t.

TeenSpotlightIt’s also obvious that Marv, being editor of The New Teen Titans and The New Teen Titans Spotlight On… at that point in time, had the most to lose for his involvement — and given DC‘s firing of Mike Barr only two months earlier over a letter in TCJ, Marv must have known DC wouldn’t take his involvement lightly.

Then again, nothing had been done (as far as I knew then, or the public record or my private notes show) to Marv over his signing the December 1986 petition, or his letter to TCBG of that month. Maybe Marv thought he was in a good position to ride it all through and out. His comics were, by and large, strong sellers, and he had the hit New Teen Titans titles under his stewardship.

DC made sure he paid the piper.

(FYI, I’d had personal experience with how vindictive DC could be by this time. A couple of years earlier, when John Totleben and I thought it essential to publicize the theft from the DC offices of the original artwork to Saga of the Swamp Thing #34 and pinups from #32 and #33. Though we carefully coordinated and cleared all the press releases, statements and announcements through DC, it was repeatedly made clear — at the time, and over well over a year later — that DC and Dick were decidedly embarrassed and unhappy about the debacle, and angry at — well, me, certainly. They were not upset over the theft, per se, but over their having to publicize it had happened, and the press it briefly generated. Given how relatively minor that incident was, I can only imagine what kind of heat Marv endured in February 1987.) 

According to Kim Fryer‘s TCJ #115 reporting, “Wolfman was called shortly after the publication of the letter by… Dick Giordano, who asked Wolfman to resign as editor… because Wolfman had signed and publicized the letter. According to Wolfman, when he refused to resign, he was told by Giordano that he would be relieved of his editorial duties. ‘I was fired because DC editors are not allowed to take a public stance,’ said Wolfman…. Giordano called days later, according to Wolfman, offering to reinstate Wolfman as an editor if he would apologize for the content of the letter. Wolfman refused. ‘I think DC is totally wrong,’ Wolfman told the Journal, ‘and it’s going to backfire on them.’ According to Wolfman, Giordano then asked that Wolfman apologize only for publicizing the letter…” (Fryer, Ibid., pp. 9-10).

Marv declined, reiterating in writing his view that DC‘s proposed ratings system was “misconceived and potentially dangerous” — which is absolutely consistent with Marv‘s initial December letter published in TCBG — and which subsequently “made the situation worse.” 

I’ve no doubt. 

Marv received official written notification of his termination on February 19, 1987, only 6 days after the letter had been published in TCBG.

If only Jenette had responded sooner to the letter itself, it might have all been averted or at least postponed — but that was not to be, nor was it DC‘s management style to respond in a timely manner to any such matter.

DC, according to my records, never publicly commented on the firing, save for DC publicity rep Peggy May saying to TCJ‘s Fryer, “We don’t discuss our negotiations with freelancers in public.” 

Nor their negotiation with their editors.

Or ex-editors.

DC was making an example of Marv.

They could not place his head on a pike outside the DC offices, but that is figuratively what had been accomplished.

Marv was the only one of the letter’s signatory quartet they could lash out at — and they were losing considerable public face in the wake of Alan Moore‘s TCBG ‘Guest Editorial’ of February 13.

As I said, please remember — much of what happened that fateful year was about saving — and losing — face.

Next: A Letter from Mr. Moore


All comics covers ©1986, 1987, 2010 their respective creators, publishers and/or copyright owners; Captain Jack #5 cover ©1986, 2010 Mike Kazaleh, all rights reserved to their respective owners. NOTE: All images are posted for archival and educational purposes only, under applicable US Fair Use laws.



Discussion (25) ¬

  1. RAB

    “…when asked why he was filing suit against God, Mr. Geppi explained ‘The graphic nature of human childbirth is utterly disgusting to most parents, and simply restricting such lurid, blood-soaked events to the privacy of hospital delivery rooms and the homes of midwives is clearly inadequate so long as ordinary law-abiding citizens are aware the gory event is taking place anywhere. The Almighty has allowed this to continue for literally the whole of human history, and He cannot go on making excuses for His irresponsible attitude while childbirth goes on without sign of stopping. I myself was forced against my will to undergo the whole filthy, depraved ordeal of being born, without any say in the matter, merely because my own parents were unable to control their carnal desires and engaged in blatant sexual intercourse some nine months earlier. I am still recovering from the shame.’”

  2. srbissette

    Actually, RAB, Geppi’s comments to Joe ‘Scoop’ Sacco at TCJ at the time were almost as ludicrous:

    “All of us have imaginations. We all know what’s going on. We don’t have somebody’s birth graphically depicted… I can imagine a 13-year-old girl seeing [the childbirth scene in Miracleman #13] for the first time. She may be shocked into never wanting to have a baby, because now she sees a head lying out between the woman’s legs. I think there are some things that are not a question of censorship. I think they’re a question of common sense.” (Geppi to Sacco, “Newswatch: Concern over comics’ content escalates inside industry and out,” TCJ #113, Dec. 1986, pg. 13)

  3. Roger Green

    My goodness, I’d forgotten much of this stuff.

    I can’t help but think that the vast majority of the items cited, esp. Miracleman, would be a non-issue if released a decade later. What thinkest thou, Stephen?

  4. Aaron Poehler

    Wow, Captain Jack, haven’t seen that in a loooong time.

    I gotta figure the childbirth scenes would still be an issue today in that I can’t imagine DC publishing the book at all.

  5. James Robert Smith

    The first time I met Steve Geppi, all I could think was:

    “What used car lot did this asswipe walk off of?” He seemed to leave a slime trail as he walked.

    I really do think the comics industry could have saved itself a world of pain by nipping that particular problem in the bud when the chance was to be had. The biggest and baddest of the independent publishers could have pulled their books from being distributed by that fellow and his customers would have been forced to go elsewhere–to the competitors that he still had in those days (Capital City, Friendly Franks, Heroes World, Bud Plant, etc.).

    But the creators caved. They tickled his wrist and cried “uncle” and Geppi ended up owning a monopoly, which was one of the major reasons that the comics industry imploded. (Not the only reason, but one of the main reasons.) For all of the grandstanding done initially by the likes of…well, I’m tired of naming the names, but you’ve already listed most of them. These were artists who had popular books. Instead of taking a stand–a real stand–they made a little noise and crawled back into their studios.

    Oh, well. All water under the bridge, now. And reading Baltimore news sources, it seems as if Steve Geppi’s empire may very well be on the verge of collapse. If he does finally get what’s coming to him, I sincerely hope that the distribution business reconstitutes itself as something that is a healthy battleground of competing companies and not the monopoly under which the direct sales industry now suffers.

  6. Colleen

    No offense, but you weren’t there and I was.

    Heroes World? Hunh?

    Heroes World was bought out by Marvel. That is what precipitated the collapse of the distribution market. Marvel pulled its business from every distributor BUT Heroes World and the rest of the distribution system went home to Jesus.

    No one is going to thrive when 40% of their income disappears in 60 days. That was early 2005, and by that summer, my business had collapsed and I was nearly bankrupt.

    Heroes World was no longer distributing other people’s work after they were bought by Marvel. The exclusive deals you refer to happened AFTER. Heroes World was NO LONGER a client to anyone BUT Marvel.

    The only “distributor” on that list which you name that was still in business and actually paying bills was Capital City. Bud Plant was not a distributor of my work (and I never considered them anything but one of many small mail order services, whose orders were equally small). I can’t recall Friendly Franks still being around and paying bills, but they accounted for no more than about $100 per invoice of my business. They were so small I can’t think they accounted for more than 1% of anyone’s business.

    And perhaps you don’t recall, Capital City ALSO had exclusive deals. Many independent creators stuck with Capital City, including me.

    But in the end, DC went exclusive with Diamond and there was no way the remaining distributors could stick it out. Between DC and Marvel, distributors had lost 80% of their business.

    And you’re blaming some creators for this? Hunh? That’s daffy.

    I don’t think people get just how small some of these indy distributors actually were. How small their orders really were.

    24 copies here. 40 copies there.

    If that’s distribution, then sign me up. I am sure I could move 20 copies of a comic, and a 60% discount is great motivation to do so.

    I had 16 distributors go under in a period of six months. Capital City was running quite late on bills. I bought out a good deal of Styx’s remainder of my stock in their last days, too.

    The only way I knew some of these distributors had gone under was when their invoices were running net 90-120, and when the new orders I shipped to them came back as undeliverable.

    Exactly how we are all supposed to continue to do business with clients who did not exist or could not pay their bills is a mystery.

    In other words, I am certain you do not have a very clear picture of what went on.

    There were almost no distributors in business, and of the few left, they did not pay their bills.

    Which means, they weren’t in business. The only one left standing was Diamond.

    Not because everyone went rushing to Diamond for exclusives (I was never offered one,) but because Marvel bought Heroes World and collapsed the system. Then DC went exclusive with Diamond (which saved Diamond’s ass, BTW).

    By the time other people starting making deals with Diamond, for all intents and purposes, they had no competition left.

    I had nothing against Capital City, and felt very badly for them. But I never got paid and dude, they couldn’t compete without Marvel. No one could.

    And in the end, Marvel couldn’t compete without everyone else. Heroes World folded.

    You are just wrong with wrong sauce. Heroes World was the lynchpin.

    And I remember it all very well, because I was one of those small press publishers who could not get paid.

    You can’t do business on good will forever. And a business which does not pay its bills is not in business.

  7. srbissette

    Marvel bought Heroes World in 1994 (not 2005) — the industry Pearl Harbor — and it was all downhill from there.

    Other than correcting that date, I’m with Colleen on this one.

    I don’t know what you, Bob, or anyone expected creators to DO given the scale of events in 1994-96, and the fact that most creators (including self-publishers) were completely barred from any form of active participation, and wouldn’t have known where to go, what to do or ANYTHING. The events of 1994-96 were profound fundamental business decisions made by the most powerful players in the industry, and it all began with the January 1989 acquisition of the Marvel Entertainment Group by notorious Wall Street junkbond king and billionaire Ronald O. Perelman. No creator collective could have foreseen or blocked that, and the rest of the debacle played out in arenas that had nothing to do with creators, save arguably for the 1992 defection of Marvel’s top selling artists who subsequently formed Image.

    Creators hadn’t “caved,” unless you’re specifically citing the Image Comics founders, who indeed ultimately followed suit with the rush to exclusivity terms with Diamond initiated by DC Comics Inc. and hastily followed by Dark Horse and the rest. With Marvel exclusive with Heroes World, and DC, Dark Horse and ultimately Image exclusive with Diamond, the Direct Market was fucked and Geppi soon had his monopoly.

    Creators (specifically self-publishers) fought this as best they could, which wasn’t much of a fight given the nature of the market and the closed-door meetings (literally) that determined the fate of the entire market. Creators weren’t even the pawns in the chess game: retailers were, and they were helpless to affect the outcome as well. I have vivid memories of the final two trade shows (spring 1996) where the final death throes were apparent; after that, the small distributors folded up, some leaving us unpaid or waiting for postponed payments, and Capital capitulated to Diamond in short order (July 1996).

    To somehow portray that as creators “caved” just doesn’t jive with the reality of events, Bob. We weren’t even in that game, and we ALL lost to varying degrees. Colleen was among the few who survived, in part due to moving camp to Image’s umbrella (as did, for a stretch, Jeff and Vijaya Smith with BONE and others). Jim Valentino personally invited me to move TYRANT to the same umbrella, but I declined. The writing was on the wall, and I had a divorce to see through and two kids to take care of; I had nearer, dearer ‘battles’ to see through closer to home. If that’s somehow “caving” to Geppi, well, so be it.

    FYI, Kitchen Sink was the ONLY sizeable (choke!) publisher to sign exclusively with Capital; the rest of us knew the exclusivity game was a losing strategy, and none of those in my immediate circle of self-publishers wanted to be exclusive with ANYONE.

    I posted a rough chronology of these events on MYRANT’s original incarnation back in 2007. Anyone interested in consulting that, go to: http://srbissette.blogspot.com/2007_12_12_archive.html

    I’ve since revised/corrected/expanded that timeline for CCS classroom use, but I won’t be getting into that in this essay, as those events aren’t relevant to the subject at hand.

    Finally, Bob, I think you’re retroactively ‘expecting’ and decrying creators to have fought battles that were the RETAILERS battles.

    I speak from hard experience, in a different industry: I saw and was amid very similar market upheavals in the VIDEO marketplace from 1998-2005, and was thankfully directly involved via my active role and participation as co-manager of First Run Video as part of the New England Buying Group. When remarkably similar dynamics were playing out in the video market — consolidation of distribution, studios rushing to exclusivity (led by Warners going direct, cutting out distribution — a move comparable to and much better executed than Marvel buying Heroes World to go direct), etc. — it was the solidarity and collective strength of the RETAILERS that made differences at key points in the chain of events.

    RETAILERS in the video market were by and large a far more active, savvy group than I ever saw in the Direct Sales comics market; that said, the fallout was remarkably similar (shops closed, smaller distributors imploded, larger distributors vied for exclusive product, etc.). I was IN some of those closed-door meetings during my video years, and have written about those in my introductions to the BLUR volumes. The New England Buying Group asked me to attend a powwow with Universal reps, in which I was ask to recount what happened in the comics market when publishers went exclusive with distribution; I also delivered a written report to Warners/HBO reps in a closed-door meeting that demonstrated irrevocably how exclusivity was preventing Warner product from reaching retailers (which prompted the Warner honcho to curse at me — “Fuck you! I’ll be damned if some fucking retailer is going to get in the way of my bonus!” — and the HBO rep who’d been studying my report and stats to quietly say, “I think you really should check out the guy’s figures…” — a sweet moment). It was the RETAILERS who HAD to fight those battles; the respective creative players in the video industry couldn’t have done a fucking thing about it, Bob.

    Nor, I put it to you, could have the creators in the comics Direct Market.

    In their way, many retailers DID fight the good fight. The final Capital City Trade Show in the spring of 1996 was packed with retailers looking to Capital to do something, ANYthing to turn the tide — and John Davis and Milton Griepp blew it. Milton’s fateful final speech to the collective retailers (I was in the room, along with many self-publishers) was a death blow, as less than five minutes into Milton’s talk he managed to inadvertantly alienate half the retailers in that room and it was self-evident the ship was going down.

    Check my timeline at the old MYRANT (link above): “The Direct Market shrank by at least 50% in the wake of the events of 1996. According to Capital City co-founder John Davis (subsequently employed by Diamond), “about half of the approximately 4500 retailers in business during 1996 dealt only with Diamond in the wake of the ‘distributor wars’…”…” — that’s HALF of the retailers in business in 1996 voting with their feet, and moving to other lines of business altogether rather than deal with Geppi.

    That dealt quite a blow to Diamond and their exclusive publishers, who had entertained the fantasy that they’d subsequently own 100% of the market that had existed in 1994-95. They learned the hard way that their power-brokering cost them HALF their marketplace — and thus, the Direct Sales market came to an end, effectively. What we have left today is a shadow of what once was.

    You’re not doing anyone any favors by conflating the hard battles many creators DID fight in 1986-87 with the events of a decade later, Bob — and you’re not doing creators or retailers any favors misrepresenting what went on in 1994-96, either.

  8. Colleen

    Thanks, Steve.

    2005…cripes. Now that’s a typo!

    You’re absolutely right. I remember the panic. It was awesome.

  9. Colleen

    Almost forgot, and this was a biggee: by not being able to consolidate their orders at one distributor, retailers lost a chunk of the profit on every book they sold. They couldn’t make the minimums with one distributor anymore, because in order to get the full range of comics, they now had to deal with three.

    There was no way some of those stores could stay in business. It was a bloodbath.

  10. srbissette

    That’s true, but more importantly the market had shaken out by 1994 to the retailers who DIDN’T ever want to have to deal with Diamond again, and those who did work with Diamond or depend entirely on Diamond. Diamond and Steve Geppi were, for a multitude of reasons (including retailers not being able/permitted to buy from Diamond due to earlier bad business transactions: unpaid Diamond bills, etc.), simply not an option for many retailers.

    This is another reason diversity of distribution alternatives were vital to the well-being of the market as a whole. Again citing my video retailing experience (where I was the buyer for First Run Video for much of my tenure, and worked regularly on the monthly orders), there are many reasons some retailers ordered from a number of distributors and/or venues, including going direct with some publishers when possible. Sometimes its the bottom line — where can I get the best terms/discount? Where can I eschew shipping charges? — sometimes its personal — so-and-so pissed me off, I won’t do business with them any longer; or, such-and-such rep gives me special attention and deals and wins my business and a long-term client/account.

    Diamond had burned as many bridges with some retailers as some retailers had burned bridges with Diamond. Once Diamond was the only game in town, many retailers found other ways to make a living — our loss.

  11. Colleen

    Very true.

    Man, good times, eh?

  12. Brian Hibbs

    Collen:

    “Heroes World was NO LONGER a client to anyone BUT Marvel.”

    Not strictly true — HWD had at least one or two other publishers. I want to say… Archie and Bongo?

    -B

  13. Colleen

    Thanks, Brian.

    Doesn’t really make any difference there. Not much market share in that, and they sure weren’t doing business with the small press anymore.

  14. mike dobbs

    Great book proposal this series is…put it together and get a proposal out. By the way, screw Alan Moore.

  15. srbissette

    Thanks, Brian — I’ll check (I still have some old Heroes World catalogues, and can maybe coax some info out of Larry Shell, who used to work for Ivan at HW), and appreciate the correction.

    That referenced Colleen’s comments — in the meantime, tell me, folks, if I get ANYTHING wrong, please!

    Ah, Mike, these are all sample chapters in the making. But who the hell would want to publish it?

  16. James Robert Smith

    “You weren’t there and I was.” ? What the hell does that mean? Where were you? Working for Steve Geppi and Heroes World?

    The fact that Marvel bought out Heroes World was one of the things that contributed to the comic book implosion. But the most damaging contributing factor was that direct sales comics were increasingly ending up in the hands of a single person: Steve Geppi/Diamond.

    I’m glad that I was able to close my shops and get the hell out of the business before Diamond had completed its domination of the markets. And doubly glad that I was able to shut it all down without owing any money. I know retailers who went belly-up owing Diamond (and others) hundreds of thousands of dollars. I saw the retail world that was developing for comic shop owners and got the heck out of it.

    I was at one of Geppi’s retailer seminars when he was actually running scared that folk such as Eastman & Laird, Dave Sim, etc. would cut him off, forcing his retailers to go to other distributors for popular books. He was frightened that once that happened, they’d get other books from those distributors and cut into his profits. Yeah, I was there, all right.

    If that same core group of creators had actually done something concrete other than whine for a little while, perhaps they could have forced a situation in which we’d still have a competitive market in comic book distribution. Instead, the industry was left with a monopoly and a bullying jackass running it.

  17. Colleen

    “You weren’t there and I was” means exactly what it says.

    Mr. Smith, by your own admission, you were already out of the game, having closed your shops before Diamond “completed its domination”.

    Marvel buying Heroes World brought down the direct market. It wasn’t ONE of the things, it was the primary thing.

    And if you really believe that the Diamond monopoly was the primary responsibility of creators, well bully for you. I was also at distributor seminars, from 1991 through 1996 (and later Diamond shows). You haven’t presented a single bit of evidence to prove your point that creators were the cause of the Diamond monopoly as valid.

    No matter how popular you think these “popular” books were, the market share they enjoyed was actually quite small. Any one or a dozen of us could have gone under and Diamond would not have suffered much, which is why they started passing new distribution rules in 1993 to cut the small press. A book with 20,000 sales was not going to threaten Diamond. 10 books with 20,000 sales weren’t going to threaten Diamond. Neither were 50 of them. Diamond was going out of its way to ditch books that weren’t moving 10,000 units. Including mine. In the end, per issue, Diamond was making a whopping $3500 on my book. They would not have missed me.

    If every single self publisher agreed en masse to leave Diamond before 1993 then they would have lost at most about 5% of their market. The entire independent press, including Image and Dark Horse and all the hundreds of other companies, accounted for about 35% of the market.

    Exactly how did you expect to get all those companies to move en masse away from Diamond? Or do you really think the “…same group of core creators…” actually carried enough market share to cause Geppi to quake?

    No. Not ten of us. Not 20 of us. All of the top self published comics combined equaled one successful mainstream comic.

    If you really think we could have all pulled our business from Diamond by, I dunno 1992, 1993, before the implosion in 1994, I am really not sure how you figure. Or how you figure we would have some kind of reason to leave Diamond when they gave no incentive to do so. They placed their orders and paid their bills.

    Or how you figure creators had sufficient power over their publishers to demand they remove their business from the company with 60-70% of the orders.

    Most of the self publishers had only been in business for a year or two at that point. Dave Sim being an obvious exception.

    Since the self publishers accounted for no more than a few percent of the ENTIRE MARKET, we had no control of the publishers themselves, only our own businesses. If every single one of us had gone under, Diamond would have lamented a drop in market share, and recovered. Other comic sales would have picked up the slack. The best seller of all of self publishers (BONE) was moving 60,000 every two months. That’s 30,000 copies a month. At the time, DC Comic routinely canceled books for sales that low.

    Just because Geppi was concerned about losing a portion of his market share does not mean his business would be on the verge of collapse if we gave him the boot.

    You have no empirical evidence that whatever distributors remained in force would have been effective at handling the business they would have picked up had we left Diamond. Since I was dealing with 16 of these distributors, I have no reason to believe removing my business from Diamond and going entirely with these companies would have been an improvement. I’m positive it would not have been.

    Other factors would have brought the industry down, not the least of which was the rampant speculation in “collectible comics” a balloon market that was already collapsing by 1993. Even before I knew Marvel was going to buy out Heroes World, I was hired by Skybox to do a market report for them. And my market report advised them NOT to move forward with their plans to produce sports comics. I figured the market had two years at most, and then it was going to tank big time.

    Marvel bought Heroes World within 60 days of my market report, and Skybox was very happy with me; they saved themselves $250,000. But Marvel buying Heroes World was something I didn’t see coming. No one did.

    Everyone already knew the market was on the verge of collapse. Sales were dropping. Mine had gone down by more than half. Nothing brought it down faster and more thoroughly than Heroes World.

    No sir, you weren’t there. You weren’t there among those creators. You weren’t there touring with them, or doing business with them, or dealing with 16 different distributors on the supplier end. You simply weren’t there. And, as you admit, you simply got out.

    Some of us fought the hard fights. But you were already gone.

    As Steve put it :

    “You’re not doing anyone any favors by conflating the hard battles many creators DID fight in 1986-87 with the events of a decade later, Bob — and you’re not doing creators or retailers any favors misrepresenting what went on in 1994-96, either.”

    Thanks for sticking up for the truth, Steve.

  18. srbissette

    Bob, retailers WERE going to other distributors to get indy books because the Diamond reorder system was so unreliable, and Capital’s was so solid. I knew many retailers who kept accounts with both, preordering the bulk of all titles via Diamond but utterly dependent on Capital for prompt reorders and special orders. (I did the same at the video store: our primary accounts/monthly orders were placed via one distributor, but Baker & Taylor was THE most reliable source for all reorders and special customer orders.)

    I can’t say it was true for TABOO, but it sure was for TYRANT: Diamond orders were always about a quarter to a third higher than Capital with preorders, but the Capital reorders were higher and steadier, prompting me to go back to print on all but #4 (the market imploded after #4 shipped).

    Remember, please, that Dave Sim DID play hardball with the distributors, Diamond more than any, numerous times. It’s impossible to do business in a constantly adversarial business environment, but Dave stuck it out for the long haul and fought some impressive battles along the way.

    Still, you’re painting an absurd revisionist picture of perceived power on the part of the indies; collectively, even with TMNT and Mirage, we never approached Image’s numbers or clout, and they were the ONLY indy to compete at comparable scale to Marvel and DC (not even Dark Horse could touch ‘em).

    I simply don’t see why you’re letting the retailers — yourself included — off the hook. What collective action did RETAILERS take, prior to the Heroes World/Marvel announcements? And after?

    Marvel cut off Walter Wang at the knees before that, as retailer and distributor; nothing was done in retaliation, which emboldened Marvel to push the envelope further, bullying Don Thompson/TCBG mercilessly over editorial content/reviews they considered anti-Marvel, then taking on the whole industry via the Heroes World move.

    The one historical moment when creator/publishers could have made a difference, perhaps, was when Image was negotiating with Diamond, but the damage had been done by Marvel and DC to the point where I suspect nothing Image might have accomplished would have saved Capital. Image was the most protracted of all the exclusivity negotiations, and I vividly recall the trade show where we (Rick Veitch, Paul Pope, Colleen, Dave, etc.) were sweating the news of what might happen at the closed door meetings upstairs between Diamond and Image, with Larry Marder occasionally popping down to deliver rather cryptic, vague news bits until the decision was made — and our hearts sank. It felt like it was over, and indeed, it was.

  19. Peter Urkowitz

    Obviously, Colleen and Steve, you are correct in your analysis of the events of 1994-6. But I’m not sure that Mr. Smith’s initial post above really warranted lashing into him so strongly. It sounded to me more like he was just criticizing Steve Geppi, and wishing that something, anything, by anybody, could have been done to stop him, whether back in the 80′s, or in the 90′s, or anytime. Maybe he overestimated the power that creators had, and maybe Geppi looks worse in retrospect, and certainly nobody could have predicted way back when how things would turn out today. In any event, I didn’t read that post as a criticism of creators in particular. Thanks to all of you for sharing your information and perspectives.

  20. srbissette

    Peter, I wouldn’t be ‘lashing’ into Bob if I didn’t think he could ‘take’ it (or dish it), or if it weren’t relevant. These creator stands and battles are still grossly misunderstood, belittled and/or forgotten, as are their lasting impacts (the point of this essay, coming soon, and the reason for its undertaking). They are most misunderstood, belittled and/or dismissed by the current generation of creators who benefitted most from their occuring.

    It’s easy to take ‘rights’ you have that were hard-won by prior generations for granted. The fact that the real consequences of this struggle were largely invisible to the public, and almost instantly glossed over by those involved, is a factor in that, too. My goal is to redress that by finally ADDRESSING in a public forum — the only one open to me, really — what I saw really go down, and the real consequences I observed over time.

  21. Dave MIller

    A late comment here, but I recall Dick Giordano discussing Marv Wolfman’s termination in the The Comics Journal in an interview following up on the controversy (#119, if the Internet is to be believed).

  22. srbissette

    Keep reading, Dave — that’s cited in the later chapters (though I trimmed much of what I was going to write about Dick’s role in the controversy, given Dick’s death this past weekend — it just wasn’t the time to get into it any more than necessary).

  23. Dave MIller

    You’re right, Steve. Thanks for putting all this out there.

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