Monday, July 23, 2007
"(GASP!) EEEE EEAIIIIIEEE!!"
from Adventures into Darkness #14 (April 1954)
Someday I'd like to see a collection of all the space-filling short humor strips used to fill out comics back in the day. Also...was this Weird Watson's only appearance? How can you not love that guy?
What fresh hell is this? Weekly World News...shutting down? Bat Boy...homeless? Ed Anger...even angrier?
Weekly World News has had several connections to the comic book world, such as editors Paul Kupperburg and Bob Greenberger, writer Andy Mangels, and, of course, Peter Bagge's run of initial "Bat Boy" comic strips, among others.
The supermarket just won't be the same without Weekly World News staring back out at you at the checkout line. Another little piece of Americana slips away.
(First spotted via Metafilter.)
A couple more follow-up questions from the '90s bust discussion:
Another good sequence from Adventures into Darkness #14:
Sunday, July 22, 2007
More racial sensitivity in comic books, plus more '90s stuff.
I don't normally buy current publications from Archie Comics, and when I do, it's almost always books that reprint their work from the '60s and earlier. Such was the case with last week's Archie Digest #236, which reprints Archie's first appearance from Pep #22, along with a full reprinting of Archie #1 from 1942.
One of the stories from Archie #1 has Archie involved in a series of mix-ups on a train with another passenger, and the poor railroad porter gets caught in the shenanigans as well. The porter looks and talks like this:
I realize it's no shock to anyone familiar with comic book history that racist caricatures of black people (and Asians, and Native Americans, and so on) were common in early stories (and this isn't even the worst example from this particular story, with other panels including dialogue like "I done thought..." and "Mus' be dat bump on yo' had!"). Not having an original Archie #1 lying around the house, I'm going to assume the porter has been recolored slightly for the reprint, even though all his stereotypical dialogue appears to have remained intact.
I'm not saying this shouldn't have been reprinted as is. If you're going to reprint your old material for historical purposes, it should be reprinted as it was, warts and all*. And that's what folks have been doing...a glance through your Shazam Archives and your Golden Age Wonder Woman Archives, among others, will show you examples of political incorrectness similar to that bit of business with the porter. But these are high end reprints, aimed at comic collectors, who are presumably familiar with the poor way minority groups were portrayed. Disclaimers aren't uncommon, noting the usage of such caricatures were typical of the time, and left unchanged for historical reference.
This Archie digest, however, is aimed at a young, general audience. It's one of the few modern comics actually sold in places where people who aren't comic fans shop. At my grocery store, they're right up there at the checkout line, next to the TV Guide and the Weekly World News. How will kids take the porter's portrayal -- how will the parents? -- particularly since there is no disclaimer that I can find noting the historical reasons for that portrayal.
I'm very curious as to the response Archie Comics will receive.
Okay, one last round of "Mike Remembers Barely Making It Through the 1990s:"
* As far as story content goes, anyway...I realize the comics in question have been recolored and (it seems) relettered for clarity.
Friday, July 20, 2007
More '90s retailing , a Licensable Bear™ cartoon, and links to Punisher studies.
Okay, I'm gonna try to go through these a little more quickly...I've given you a lot to read this week, which means a lot of typing on my part, and a man's gotta get some sleep sometime. Plus, that Doctor Who Genesis of the Daleks DVD I got from Netflix ain't gonna watch itself.
So, here are a few more answers to questions posed to me about the comics market, the '90s, and, God help us all, POGs:
Cove West asks
"Did you as a retailer see any signs that comics were recovering in the late-'90s, or was it just a long period of malaise from the Bust until Quesada/Jemas at Marvel kicked off the Media Age?"
I think the simple departure of the investors meant a stabilization/correction of the market...unfortunately, that stabilization of the market also included the departure of fans who were present prior to the fad/boom, who left for a myriad of reasons (tired of the decline in quality, disgusted by the catering to investors, distracted by other hobbies, etc.).
At that point, there was no where to go but up, really, and with the shaking out of lesser books and a general increase in quality in what was left, you got the sense that a slightly healthier market was beginning to emerge. Retailers ordering more sanely, consumers showing a bit more discretion...we all went from "wild abandon" to "cautious penny-pinchers" right quick.
The Quesada/Jemas thing, if anything, probably stirred things up a bit more than the market was really ready to deal with at the time. It's like taking someone out dancing two days after they broke both their legs...a little more recovery time is probably required. I'm thinking the whole "upping comics schedules to every three weeks instead of monthly" shenanigans they tried, briefly, before discovering everyone hated it.
Commenter Bill asks
"I was wondering if your shop saw a lot of customers who, like me, didn't even notice the boom and bust."
Probably...we had a few folks wondering where all their Punisher titles went, for example, or noting that a lot of the comics they were following suddenly dried up, or came out less frequently. Whether some of them were aware of the changing marketplace as a whole, I don't know...I imagine some never really noticed. So long as we still had our doors open, still getting new comics every week for them to buy, then it was all Business As Usual.
The mighty and fearsome Ken Lowery asks
"Rare, sought-after book = high value. Did speculators not realize that companies printing 300k-500k copies of a new book, and everyone buying five copies apiece to store away, meant that these books were by definition not rare and therefore not valuable?"
You'd think. I did a lot of explaining to people trying to sell us comics during the lean years why their stacks of Image #1s weren't worth diddly squat.
On the other hand, there's a particular phenomenon I've noticed when I see collections from people who bought multiple copies in large quantities. The vast majority of these people did not keep their comics in new condition. Of those 500,000 copy print runs, chances are the copies that actually made it into customers' hands (and not just stored away in shop's backrooms) are not longer in mint shape, if they were even kept at all and not just tossed out once the faddish fever broke.
So, maybe, just maybe, that one person who bought fifty copies of Secret Weapons #1 and managed to keep them in mint shape actually may have something, there. Still not going to buy 'em, though.
Commenter P-TOR asks
"You wouldn't happen to have any packs of GHOST RIDER hero caps (aka; pogs) left over would ya?"
Nope, no more POGs. A year or two back I found one last cardboard box filled with POGs and associated paraphernalia still gathering dust in the back room, threw it as is on the eBay, and got about thirty bucks for it. Aside from maybe a POG promo or two in our card section, and that little tiny plastic POG case with a few caps in it that I use as both a paperweight and as a constant reminder of my retailing sins, POGs are no longer welcome in the store. Phooey, sez I.
FMguru has lotsa questions, so let's see what kind of answers I can give him:
"When the boom was going on, did you believe that the market was ascending to a new plateau (i.e. that a lot of the boom was actual long-term growth in the market) or did you think it was all hot air and candyfloss and likely to end in tears (or, more positively, a nice little bump in sales and cashflow before things settled back to normal)?"
My expectations was that it was a faddish increase, and that things would eventually normalize...but I figured it would normalize with some extra folks joining the comics scene as regular readers, so that as a whole the market would be slightly larger than before. Alas, what ended up happening, as I noted earlier in this post, was that the investors went away, the fad-followers went away, and a bunch of the regular fans went away, leaving us with a shell of an industry.
"Also, what was the most traumatic event of the boom, from a retailer's POV? What one thing (corporate decision, book delay, whatever) did the most damage to your business?"
I've discussed this in past posts of mine, trying to track down the book that killed the industry. In my mind, it's still Turok Dinosaur Hunter #1 from Valiant, which every retailer overordered, and ended up not selling anywhere close to expectations. It might just be me creating connections in hindsight, but it seemed to me that this was the book that triggered the realization that investing in comics, particularly comics that had larger print runs than the Bible, was a really stupid thing to be doing.
"What was the most ludicrous waste of money that was clearly going to be an enormous failure? I'm thinking Tekno Comics, here."
Tekno Comics is a good answer, featuring a lot of Big Famous Names on titles that they were only tangentially attached to, like, say, Isaac Asimov's I-Bots. Not saying they were bad books, but having "Isaac Asimov's" and "Neil Gaiman's" and "Mickey Spillane's" across the tops of the covers, and having someone else write the insides, was bound to disappoint somebody. Yeah, I know, what were they expecting, but still.
In general, though, I think the huge amounts of money spent to try to compete with Marvel and DC at their own shared-universe superhero game was a bad idea. And the whole "collect the trading cards to assemble the first issue of our series" idea for Defiant's Warriors of Plasm and, I think, Dark Dominion, seemed like a good way to dissuade people from trying your books.
"What role did the Magic: The Gathering boom of 95-96 have in helping keep your store afloat during the comic market implosion?"
Games in general helped keep us going...half the store was devoted to role-playing and tabletop gaming, and that kept bringing in the bacon when the comic half was in the doldrums. I knew something was up with Magic almost from the start, when we'd get calls like this:
"Hi, I'm in Los Angeles. Do you have any Magic packs?"
"Uh, yeah, I have a couple left here."
"HOLD THEM FOR ME I'M DRIVING UP THERE RIGHT NOW."
So, yeah, RPGs, Magic, Warhammer...all that stuff definitely helped.
Not a question, but an observation:
"One other good side effect of the boom was that it created a huge demand for writers and artists, and a whole bunch of people who otherwise wouldn't have broken into the industry got breaks."
True enough...I was going to touch on that, but I kept wanting to phrase it as "consumer confidence was undermined by the influx of not-ready-for-prime-time artists and writers hired primarily for their ability to fill a page with something, regardless of quality, as all those books being pumped out each month couldn't go out blank."
But you're right...the side effect of this was that, just by the sheer numbers involved, some of those people would actually turn out to be pretty good, and got their breaks during this creative influx. So that's a good thing, but too bad about the trials we all had to endure for this to happen.
"Finally, of all the dumb cover enhancements that came along in the 90s, which was your favorite? I really liked a Superman cover that was just a Metropolis cityscape with a slightly waxy coating - and it came with a sheet of ColorForms(tm) you could peel off and make your own cover with. Reusable!"
That is probably one of the best ones, but I still like the firework effects on this Adventures of Superman cover, and this enhancement may be the Greatest One Ever.
I'm kinda partial to glow-in-the-dark covers, too, like the Spectre ones. Or that elaborate Mighty Magnor pop-up cover by Sergio Aragones.
All in all, I didn't hate the idea of novelty comic covers, but there were just too many, too fast.
(FMguru has many other good observations that I'll eventually get around to discussing in a future post.)
Commenter Mark dares to ask
"You know, I still can't effin' understand how POGs are played. Is player? Are played with? I can't even get the prepositions right!"
It involves throwing a heavier POG, or a Slammer, at a stack of other caps, and whatever flipped over you got to keep, or something. Either that, or the point was to accumulate as many POGs as possible, so your mom will something to complain at you about leaving all over the floor of your room.
And Pal Nat notes
"About the black-and-white boom, it should be noted that some of those 'failures' were selling in numbers which would happily get them continued by a small black-and-white publisher today."
True enough...though a portion of those b&w titles were selling to retailers, and not necessarily getting into the hands of any customers. Shadow of the Groundhog sold great to that convention guy I told you about yesterday...he just couldn't sell 'em to anybody else!
But I get your point....lots of good b&w titles sold solid numbers, to actual readers...numbers that may have been sneered at by Marvel and DC at the time, but are probably looked at now as "pie in the sky hopes" dream numbers by the Big Two.
Speaking of Pal Nat, the (sniff) last issue of Licensable Bear™, #4, is now out in stores. Read more about the cutest little licensable bear ever at Licensablebeartm.com.
And here's a Licensable Bear™ video that I seemed to have accidentally skipped featuring on my site when it was released. So, please, enjoy a lesson in branding and marketing from the only expert you can trust...a bear wearing a shirt:
Tim O'Neil continues his in-depth examination of the rise and fall and rise again of the Punisher comic book, inspired, at least in part, by a post of mine briefly discussing the character's waning and waxing popularity. (Here's part one of Tim's Punisher posts.)
Thursday, July 19, 2007
"Buy something you'd like to read, that way it'll always be worth something to you."
So some of you folks had some good questions in response to this post of mine from yesterday...I'm mostly just answering direct questions today, but I'll probably get around to speaking about some of your more general observations soon.
If you have more questions or comments, feel free to lay them on me.
Commenter Allan asks
"I would be curious if you could think of any possible bright sides of the bust. Did anything good come out of it (besides the death of a ton of lousy titles) or was it just a great big pile of suck without any glimmering glints of gold peeking out from underneath the rubble?"
Well, there were a few good things, I think:
1. A refocusing by certain publishers on comics that were worth reading, rather than just being foil-covered, die-cut objects for magpies to gather. (Though this is slowly coming undone.)
2. Shaking out some of the retailers who jumped into the market just to exploit their customer base with "investments" and "collectibles."
3. And most importantly, teaching the surviving retailers a very important lesson about over-ordering, buying fads, and the transience of "investing" customers. You'll find a lot more retailers nowadays swearing by their cycle sheets and ordering a lot more conservatively, particularly if they weathered the '90s.
Commenter Larry E asks
"As a retailer, did you ever try to talk any customers out of buying multiple issues or otherwise contributing to the speculation bug? If you did, was it regular customers or just guys thinking they would cash in on the Death Of Superman or X-Men 1, etc?"
If someone came up to the register with multiple copies of a book, I wouldn't necessarily try to dissuade them, but I would at least ask them something along the lines of "Are you sure you want this many?" Even if they had just two copies of a book, I'd say "Hey, you had two copies of this comic in your pile...did you mean to do that?" But, if they were adults, and they wanted to have multiple copies...hey, it's their money.
Also, keep in mind we had ginormous distributor bills...we were raking in a ton of cash, but we were also doling out a lot of coin of the realm at the same time. If someone wanted to buy thirty copies of a book that otherwise was kind of sitting there, we weren't in a position to say "no," really. Multiple copy sales of that magnitude (or more, like full cases of books) rarely happened anyway, and it was usually as special-ordered wholesale items to people selling at swap meets, or via mail order, or what have you.
On the other hand, when customers asked me which comics would be a good investment, that's where I drew the line. Depending on my mood (and how well I knew the customer) I'd say "If I could tell the future, I'd be at the racetrack," or I'd just respond with a "Who can tell?" Or, more likely, I'd say "Buy something you'd like to read, that way it'll always be worth something to you." That particular mantra was repeated many a time.
At no time did I ever, ever, recommend a comic book as an investment. Aside from the fact that I'd prefer people read the books, the danger of that was, of course, recommending a book that turned out to be a turkey, and having the customer chase after me with a rusty clawhammer because I sold him four hundred copies of Team Youngblood #1.
Another thing that, hopefully, makes me look a little less bad was, at the time, I had set up a "RECOMMENDED READING" rack of good comics that I wanted to encourage people to actually read, as opposed to just dropping into a Mylar and waiting for the price to skyrocket. (That's how we ended up regularly selling about 5% of the print run of a Pirate Corp$ issue, to bring up one fond memory.)
Commenter Scratchie asks
"I've often wondered if Overstreet and the other pricing guides acknowledged the crash, or whether their 'market prices' for various issues just kept going up, and up..."
You know, that's a good question, and I think I probably have the magazines and guides at the shop to research it. But just as a hunch, I imagine it's like this:
Overstreet, on the whole, is pretty conservative with pricing, so aside from some fluctuation on, say, Valiant titles, it probably didn't alter its pricing too much, since they probably never acknowledged too much of the "hot title" pricing to begin with.
Wizard probably just dropped "hot" comics out of their price guide entirely as prices dropped, with "not enough interest in the title to justify using the space" as a reason.
And the other fly-by-night price guides all dried up before they could start running post-crash pricing.
I need to dig out some of the guides and take a look to see what they actually did. Watch this space!
Commenter Thelonious_Nick asks
"...Do you think there will ever be another time when comics are a mass medium, as they were from the 1940s-1990s? And if so, what changes in the comics industry and/or society will be necessary for that to happen?"
I think it was Dave Sim, of all people, who said that television is the only real mass medium, and everything else is a distant second. But, for a while there, comics were enormously popular, but I think the '90s may have been the last hurrah of that particular market situation (no matter how hard the publishers are trying to revive it with all their variant covers).
1. We had an enormously popular Batman movie that created a faddish interest in comics.
2. The sports card market collapsed, driving investor types into the comic market looking for more collectibles (a drive pushed by the Batman-created fad, most likely).
3. This may just be crazy talk, but I've had a half-baked opinion that comic sales seem to bump upward during times of economic depression, and maybe someday I'll get around to researching that a little more fully.
And I'm sure there are other reasons, but I think the main reason for the '90s market being the way it was could be attributed to the faddish nature of comics' popularity. There's no real telling what will create a fad like this, how big it'll get, or how long it'll last...and now that comics have had their big fad moment, it's unlikely it'll happen again in the near future. (How many big "pet rock" revivals have there been since the '70s, for example?*)
As it is, the comics market is improving slightly, as the focus moves ever so surely towards a trade paperback-based system. As awareness of comics increases, more people find things they like, and readership increases...and so long as the market grows naturally, and healthily, I don't care if it does reach the heights of the '90s. And frankly, the only way that would happen at this point is for another comics fad to hit, which I don't know any of us really want to see.
By the way, in some instances, comics are doing enormously well. How many best seller lists is the Naruto manga on, for example?
Commenter Matt asks
"...Was there one "eureka" moment for you when you knew the crash was coming? When you knew things were falling apart, or about to fall apart?
I think I've noted before that the crash was pretty sudden. We had a few weeks when sales dipped a bit, and we thought it was just one of those periodic sales adjustments, and things would be back up to normal shortly.
And then things just kept dipping, and we thought "Well, this is going on a little longer than normal, surely those customers will be back. We'd better keep ordering our regular numbers so that we'll have the back issues for them when they return."
And then the sales continued dipping, and then we, along with every retailer in America and abroad, went "Oh, shit."
The one thing that really made me think "Oh, this can't be good" was a certain issue of the Diamond Previews catalog. For one, it was much thicker than previous issues. I think it was even thicker than the current Previews. And two, it contained the debut of (or at least special-featured solicitations for) at least three different superhero shared universes from three different publishers (one may have been Dark Horse's Comics' Greatest World). I remember looking at that and thinking "We don't have the rack space to support this" and "How do they expect customers to afford to follow all these books?" I can still recall my very strong feeling of dread.
Commenter jimbo asks:
"I guess like Larry E, I'm interested in, for lack of a better word, the 'ethics' of the 90's speculator boom. Did you feel a certain responsibility to dissuade folks from being a bit too silly with their money (multiple issues, 'investing,' etc.), or is this sort of like asking a liquor store owner if he feels bad about taking money off a guy who buys a 30 pack?
I addressed this at least partially with my response to Larry E...I think my responsibility was in telling people who asked about comic book investing was that it wasn't a good idea. But, if people wanted to spend money on multiple issues, even after I asked them if they were sure...well, I'm not their mom, I'm not going to tell them what they can or can't spend their money on. And like I'd said...most of the time, it was just people buying doubles, which was no big deal.
Was that healthy for the comics industry in the long run? Probably not. But not even a Mikester in his early 20s' fightin' prime could save the industry by himself, refusing to sell multiple copies and extolling his customers to turn away, turn away I say, from those five different X-Men #1s, stop rubbing the blood on Bloodstrike #1, and buy only comics you'll enjoy reading! I did what I could to encourage reading and discourage investing, but the economic reality of it was that I had to accept the investors are part of the deal. Besides, if they didn't buy 'em here, they'd go to one of the other half-dozen stores that popped up in our immediate area and buy 'em there. ('Course, most of those stores dried up years ago.)
On the other hand, the kind of person who'd buy a case of any given issue at a time wasn't someone who was going to stick around as a reader anyway. He was in it for short term profit, not long term entertainment.
As far as the "not why I got into this business" part...it wasn't comics, but POGs what did the deed. I've written about this before, but POGs and their ilk are really the only thing I hated, hated selling. It honestly made me feel like a crook taking money from kids for POGs and POG supplies and POG sheets and slammers and what have you. I would have probably felt better about selling cigarettes to them, because then at least the kids would get cool menthol flavor, which is far more than they'd be getting from these stupid milkcaps. This was pretty much post-crash, however, and we were doing everything we could to get cash in the door and keeping the doors open. And, kids wanted POGs, we had no shortage of people wanting to wholesale POGs to us, and our will was weak.
When my time comes, I'll have a lot of explaining to do to God.
Commenter David C asks
"Were you around for the '80s 'Black and White' boom? If so, how was it similar and different?"
I was around as a reader and a fan for the black and white boom, but I wasn't on the retail end of things until shortly afterward. Our shop didn't fall for the b&w boom like some folks did...we may have carried Solson titles and assorted other small press titles cranked out to take advantage of the investors market created by the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but never more copies than we thought we could sell. There was no investing in these b&w #1s in quantity, in the hopes a financial killing could be made (like the poor bastard I saw at a convention circa '91, with a whole long box of the notoriously terrible Shadow of the Groundhog).
I would say, in general terms, that the primary difference between the black and white boom and the late '80s/early '90s boom was that the former was more publisher driven, while the latter was consumer driven. When TMNT came out, it was a huge hit, with early issues commanding enormous prices. Suddenly everyone was a comic book publisher, cranking out their own black and white titles hoping for that same success. Not saying there weren't any good publishers that came out of that (like Slave Labor and Dark Horse), and that some titles didn't sell well, but there was a metric assload of terrible, terrible comics, number ones pumped out one after another, in the hopes that if you threw enough crap at a wall, some of it would stick...and very, very little of it did. (And then there are the tales of some publishers holding back cases of their own titles, attempting to manipulate the market and create their own "hot" books....)
And Comic Bob wants a more detailed timeline of the '90s, in regards to the rise and fall of the industry. I've sort of noted some of the things he mentions in past posts linked in yesterday's post, but perhaps a more thorough timeline would be in order. I'll see what I can cook up.
Related: Dick has been relating his history as a kid reading comics in the '90s beginning with this post, which may be of interest to people curious about what the market was like from a reader's point of view.
* A TRUE MIKESTER STORY: In grade school, we were given a project to create some kind of marketable product, along with its packaging, for...well, for some reason, I'm sure. Hey, it's been 30 years, give me a break. Anyway, the product I created was a Pet Rock knockoff called the "Pet Stick," a wooden stick packaged in a triangular tube I constructed (kind of like the priority mail tubes you get from the USPS). It came with a set of instructions that included games you could play with your Pet Stick, including "Fetch the Dog" -- you throw the stick, it'll attract a nearby dog, which will pick the stick up and bring it back to you. I'll still defend that as being a pretty good joke.