Was going to joke about newsstand reprintings of Watchmen with Dr. Manhattan having little bikini briefs edited in, but that’s probably what’ll happen in Rebirth.

§ March 15th, 2017 § Filed under publishing, retailing § 8 Comments

BobH has a few things on his mind, in reaction to my oddball analogy in a recent post:

“I wonder if, in retrospect, the direct/newsstand plan DC did was considered a success or a failure? The reprints lasted about 30 issues, which isn’t too bad, but they only added one other book to the plan, OUTSIDERS, and that one only lasted 8 issues into the reprints.”

Without going back and check exact dates on various titles (well, okay, I double-checked Omega Men) DC was experimenting quite a bit with “direct sales only” (i.e. only available in comic shops and your slightly more comprehensive newsstands*) titles in the early-to-mid 1980s. This was slightly before I entered into my lifetime of comics retailing, so I don’t have specifics on sales numbers and customer reactions and what have you to this turn of events, beyond anecdotes like BobH’s own. The “hardcover/softcover” plan, which, as previously described, was DC publishing stories in the direct market first, then reprinting them in their newsstand titles a year later, was a way for DC to establish a greater foothold in comic shops, using their biggest title (New Teen Titans) and the comic with a then still-strong fandom (Legion of Super-Heroes) while hopefully not abandoning their newsstand-only fans.

Now, was it a success? In the short term, if my memory of the sales charts in the Amazing Heroes magazine was correct, the direct-only NTT and LSH did sell quite well, and each series did last a long time (over 100 issues each, back in those “we don’t have to reboot a title every dozen issues” days), and the newsstand reprintings lasted about 3 years for the Titans, a little less for the Legion. I guess that’s not too bad on the newsstand reprints, though I suspect print runs were pretty low on those later issues. I wonder how many fans of either property bought both versions, just to keep their runs going? Even so, there must have been, at least for a time, enough people just buying the newsstand versions to keep them going even that long.

Also, was reminded of one of Marvel’s attempts (or only attempt? I’m drawing a blank) to duplicate the hardcover/softcover plan, the short-lived Dreadstar and Co.. That was a weird choice (an oddball creator-owned sci-fi book, though Marvel distributed other creator-owned books to newsstands, like Groo and Elfquest) though I don’t know that Marvel had enough big name direct-sales-only titles that would really fit this particular type of publishing/reprinting program.

“I always get the feeling that it ended up disrupting the momentum of TITANS and (especially) LSH, taking them from DC’s flagships to more fringe books. But I’m not sure how much of that was the publishing plan and how much was the quick change in artists (Perez only lasting two issues as full artist, three more as penciller and then gone, Giffen only two as penciller, three more co-plotting and then gone).”

At the very least, this seemed to be the beginning, or the middle-ing, of the abandonment of newsstands, by splintering the fandoms these titles in this way (in addition to the many direct-sales-only titles both Marvel and DC were producing). The newsstand reprints, though holding on for a while, were probably doomed to eventual cancellation as sales shifted toward comic shops and the folks who could only buy comics at newsstands were left behind. Widespread casual sales and awareness of these particular characters gave way to the “preaching to the converted” sales in the specialty comic shop, where people who were already comic fans were going anyway. …That’s a huge simplification (yes, of course there were some new people going to shops and discovering titles) but I think I’m reasonably on target.

Creative team changes probably didn’t help a whole lot in the direct market end of the equation, but New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes still had some solid artwork even after the departure of the artists most associated with each title. I’m sure some people were disappointed and stopped reading, but these comics still remained quality titles for quite some time. Again, I wasn’t there at the time except as a reader/buyer of funnybooks, but my sense is that sales probably were still doing fine after losing part of the creative teams that started ’em all off.

My own memories of the time are a little hazy, what with being 48 years old now an’ all, but I suspect I can ask former boss Ralph how sales were going on these comics at the time. Lemme get back to you.

* A local newsstand I used to go to seemed to have a lot more comics than your usual supermarket and convenience store racks…I don’t know what distributor they used, but they’d often get comics earlier than your traditional outlets, and even carried ‘zines like The Comic Reader and various indie publishers, like Fantagraphics and PC Comics.

8 Responses to “Was going to joke about newsstand reprintings of Watchmen with Dr. Manhattan having little bikini briefs edited in, but that’s probably what’ll happen in Rebirth.”

  • King of the Moon says:

    If it wasn’t for the newsstand versions I never would have been introduced the Perez/Wolfman Titans. That was my gateway deep into the DC comics universe.

    I have a George Perez sketch of Dick Grayson Robin ad one of my treasured posessions

  • MrJM says:

    “I always get the feeling that it ended up disrupting the momentum of TITANS and (especially) LSH, taking them from DC’s flagships to more fringe books.”

    This conforms with my memory/experience.

    Pushing the Legion to the periphery of the DC Universe — out near the SHAZAM/Captain Marvel properties — gave license for the Five Years later soft-reboot.

    And the Five Years Later stories only served to further exile the Legion from the proper DCU — now out near Sugar and Spike’s unseen mommies. The Five Years Later stories had the weird adult Legion continuity I loved; but even as a kid, I could feel that the LSH’s place in the DCU was now very tenuous, even fragile.

    Which lead directly to the Zero-Hour hard reboot and the renunciation of my “Long live the Legion!” pledge.

    For me, the Legion’s chief qualities were its huge cast and its deep and nearly unfathomable history/continuity. Getting stale LSH stories from the news racks disrupted that for me — and only lead to further, bigger disruptions!

    Heartbreaking, ain’t it?

    — MrJM

  • Marvel did a similar thing in 1994 when they began releasing the X-Men books to the direct market first in a glossy format, with the cheaper newsstand version coming out later (I think only one month later?). Of course, the glossy direct market copy soon became the only version.

  • BobH says:

    Thanks for the detailed reply to my random musings. I’m always somewhat fascinated by that period where I stopped buying comics (but continued re-reading the ones I had, so almost every comic I owned as of 1984 I probably read at least five or six times) until I could make regular trips to a direct market retailer. Never quite sure if my perception of how the market shifted in that period is correct from my piecemeal filling in of the gaps through back issue purchases.

    Never heard of the DREADSTAR AND CO. reprints. That was an odd choice, indeed.

    From the partial runs I’ve gotten, I’ll agree that TITANS and LEGION both had really good artwork after the quick exits of their launch artists (I probably like Lightle more than that weird transitional style Giffen was going through at the time, and a run by Garcia-Lopez on a well-printed book is a nice treat), but it still seems bad form to have a big launch lose the marquee artist so quickly. Especially when part of the justification for the upscale format was to reproduce the artwork better, and the big-name artists went on to do more newsprint books.

  • Thom H. says:

    I remember being really disappointed when Perez left the direct-market-only Titans book, and I’m pretty sure I dropped it shortly thereafter. He was doing the best work of his career, in my opinion, so even good art was a letdown in comparison. Of course, best-work-of-his-career Perez is going to take more than a month per issue to complete. I wish they’d given him the lead time he needed to at least finish the first arc himself.

    Never considered that the move from newsstand to DM would have damaged the overall momentum of those books’ sales, but it makes sense. The production values of the newsstand versions were pretty poor — they *looked* like reprints, which was a big mistake. Also, there was an entire year of stories in the newsstand versions that DC kept insisting weren’t fill-in stories, but very much felt like fill-in stories.

    And as long as I’m here: unmooring the Legion from some of their connections to the 20th century DCU was a genius move, I think. It allowed the book and characters to go in directions no one could have ever imagined before. And more than the move from newsstand to DM, changing Superman’s backstory was probably what did it. Once Superboy and Supergirl are gone, then the Legion’s strongest connections to the 20th century are gone. Of course, we can debate the relative success of the 5YL Legion forever — it was probably a mistake to let Giffen destroy the whole planet, for example. But the impulse to move in a more independent direction was a good one, in my opinion.

  • Jack says:

    As someone who had found a comics store in this time period, it was losing Perez that caused me to stop reading the Titans book. I always thought the decision to basically cut the audience for the book in half was a silly one, and it pretty much ended the Titans as a competitor for the X-Men audience DC had clearly positioned it to be. Unlike Claremont, who thrived once Byrne left, Wolfman just didn’t seem to be interesting without Perez. (Moving him to the Superman revamp after Crisis probably didn’t help either.)

    My only memory of Dreadstar & Company was that it allowed me to pick up the first six issues on the cheap, since they were kind of pricey at my local store. They wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway, since by the summer of 1986 Starlin had decided to move to First Comics, but I still wonder what the heck Marvel was thinking.

  • David G says:

    Gotta agree with Thom H that the Tales of the LSH stories really did feel like fill ins, even thing the art was nice (weren’t those weird Invisible Kid alternative dimensions stories in there?). And that the Legion was much improved once it was disconnected from the mainstream. It was amazing how often the Legion was thrown off track once it had to reflect some continuity issue in the mainstream. I really liked it being in its own little universe.

    Letting Giffen blow up the earth was a dumb idea though. Thank god he never got the chance to make the clones the “real” Legion.

  • Bully says:

    Also worth considering: newsstand copies that sold at non-direct market outlets (supermarkets, newsstands, airports, etc. — everything except comic book shops) would have been eligible for strip-and-return for news distributors. I’d have to do research on Statements of Ownership to make a more definitive statement, but I’m guessing this would have been the last gasp of major returns numbers from the non-direct market.