Thursday, 14 April 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Five)

Comics lesson 3:

When the average (non-comic fan) person thinks of comics he usually thinks either of the latest glut of superhero film spin-offs or possibly how much some guy your mum knew sold the contents of his loft for ten grand. People think of comics either as something for kids or something that might be worth a lot of money. I haven’t been a retailer for nearly 20 years and yet I still get asked ‘How much is this worth?’ That sentence is a generalisation, but it is one of the most common reactions I get from people I meet. It happened as recently as last week (April 2011) when an old friend brought asked me about the 2000ADs he has and whether the comics and annuals were worth anything.

Comicbook speculation has been around for as long as comicbooks have been a collectible commodity. I have a copy of a very old US book – it’s called The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and it has been going since the late 1960s – it is an illustration of how people realised that comics were collectible and were going to be worth more money than cover price. Back in the days when US comicbooks only cost 12cents, there was still a collectors market out there and comics were worth thousands of dollars – there were collectors even then, prepared to pay through the nose to complete their sets. By the arrival of the 1990s single comics items such as Detective Comics #27 (the first appearance of Batman) were selling for upwards of $100,000 (Heck, if they only had crystal balls seeing into the future...). The comicbook as an exchange rate had arrived.

The thing was when the modern speculators arrived, they weren’t interested in the old classics as such; they were more interested in how much they could make out of small print runs, gimmick-enhanced covers and anything that Movers & Shakers might have declared as a ‘hot item’. While the collectors’ value of Golden and Silver Age comics have never wavered, the desirability of them has. Comics speculation is as vulnerable to trends as any other commodity.

It is the law of supply and demand that makes retail work. The comicbook back issue industry (a lumbering whale if ever there was one) hardly ever works well, especially when it is mainly dependent on zeitgeist. In reality, it is incongruous to even think of it as an industry. Back issue sales are a massive way of a retailer making money on dead stock, but in reality, the percentage of saleable comics compared to worthless pieces of printed paper is massive. Only about 1% of old comics have a resale price more than they originally cost and while some of these might increase exponentially, the profit disappears because of all the comics a retailer will eventually take a loss on - the 99% of shit.

The speculators came in and not only strip-mined the retail industry; they filled it with a belief that was not, in the long run, a commercially viable economics. There were neither morals nor ethics being applied. Comicbooks were inflating at the rate of 500% a week in some cases. Specifics we’ll go into later, but in 1992 the only comics worth buying were the ones you were told you had to have, even if that meant paying £500 for a comic that wasn’t worth 500 pence a month earlier – and trust me, this happened, on numerous occasions. The advent of the comics speculator saw the prices of sought after comics increase faster than petrol prices rose in 2011. Comics for a time were the fastest growing profitable commodity on the face of the planet, so it wasn't that much of a surprise when their worth got exploited!

In 1976 when I attended my first comic mart there were about 15 entrepreneurs selling their goods. This stayed pretty much constant for the next few years. By the time I gave up selling for the first time there was a growing number of ‘dealers’ and by the time I returned, I was just a drop in the ocean. Every bank manager, civil servant and isolated Goth in the country was digging out their comics and hawking them around the comic mart circuit, trying to catch the speculator wave and make some money.

In 1976, there were a dozen or so dealers that could travel to London for one of the quarterly comic marts that had been created by Nick Landau in the December of 1975. Landau later went on to become co-owner of Titan Distributors and the co-owner and publisher of Titan Books, one of the UK’s leading comics reprint specialist publishers. Dez Skinn claims he had the idea of creating these specific comic markets after coming back from a trip to the US, but by the time he got his act together Landau had his up and running. I find this revision of history unlikely, by the end of this book you might understand why, so I’ll say no more of that for now. I feel that is wasn't unheard of to believe that Landau had the original idea; he had already shown a lot of business acumen - a not quite Richard Branson of comics - and possessed enough 'fanboy' in him to make it feasible. I remember meeting Landau before he became a businessman; he was an amiable geek, basically. The kind of guy that you can imagine having an idea, not stealing one.

With new comics selling for no more than 25p and the average back issue selling for about 10% more, the guys attending these comics markets sold shed-loads of comics and could quite easily take £4-£5,000 at each event - and this was the late 70s when a gallon of petrol was about 50p. They were the only people in the country selling comics and they benefited enormously from that exclusivity - or, in other words, they made a killing. However, by the time I stopped dealing the second time around, I knew some of those dealers who had once taken 5,000+ for an afternoon's work, taking less than £50 and losing money because the tables' cost exponentially more in 1992 than they had in 1976 - a table cost me £3 in 1977 and in 2011 they cost upwards of £100 a time.

There were so many people selling their collections, mixed with so many dealers all selling the same comics at the same prices that only those with truly unique stock were benefitting from these comics events. Typical supply and demand, but in a reserved, very British way. All it needed was for someone to say, bollocks to this I'm having a 25% off sale, and they would have cashed in big time, but even comicbook dealers in the 1970s had a blind side about selling comics for less money than they believed them to be worth. Comics dealers are obstinate creatures. They are not retailers. A true retailer would baulk at a comics retailer and spit feathers at a comics dealer.

Comics Lesson 3b:

Back Issues – you will hear much mention of these. If you hadn’t already worked it out, a back issue is an old issue of a comicbook – it can be worth money or it can be worthless (and this statement in itself has caused more consternation in retailing than any other single theme). Back issues are something of a bane to retailers, dealers and publishers.

The publishers don’t give a shit about back issues because they’ve already made their money and won’t make anything from the collectible resale. It doesn’t matter that a back issue can stimulate present day or future sales, no comics publisher is either that forward thinking or could justify it to their keepers - you want us to promote old comics? Are you mad?

Dealers, specifically the ones who have day jobs and sell at markets on the weekend, see back issues as their lifeblood, but (and this is a but that applies in all fields of retail) they can only really make any money if the stock they are selling is the stock the buyer is currently looking for – pretty bleeding obvious, really; first law of supply and demand.

The dealer, the one with the battered old estate car and the energy at the weekend to do lots for little return is normally best situated to sell back issues because, quite simply, of the way the he stores them. A comics shop retailer takes up most of his shop floor space with back issue boxes - rows and rows and many thousands of what is essentially, to him, dead stock. In the 1990s, retailers could have 60% plus of their total floor/retail space covered in back issues, yet this area would only generate – if they were really lucky – about 10% of the annual sales! The comic dealer, on the other hand, keeps his stock in his garage or garden shed and it doesn’t cost him anything bar his travel expenses and his table cost.

But, you have to remember one vital historical and sentimental point –back issues were the reason comics shops started in the first place! Old comics are collectible, but they also have a sentimental value that is almost genetic.

Shop owners of this era knew that there is (supposedly) always a new punter out there who will become so engrossed in the new concept of comics or specific characters that he or she might buy everything you have in stock for vastly inflated prices! Believe it or not, it does happen, so don’t smile knowingly, because you don't know - unfortunately, it happens less and less.

Most retailers, right up to about 2000, could not bring themselves to realise that the vast majority of their stock was worthless and literally anything obtained for it was money in the bank. Even today, many retailers refuse to acknowledge that a comic that has already been paid for and absorbed into stock is worth whatever someone will pay for it and that alone. Time over price along renders most comics worthless pieces of paper. Plus, arguably, some retailers will look at old stock and say, "I paid X for that. It retails for Y. I will therefore sell it for Y, regardless of trends. If you find a copy in my shop two years after it came out, it'll cost you the same price as it did then. Simple." This might sound sensible, but in reality it's stupid.

Comicbook retailing is probably a subject one could easily write a book on - oh look... It is both fascinating and deadly boring. For every positive you can think of, I can think of 100 negatives. People should never go into comicbook retailing unless they have a limitless supply of money, patience and understanding of abstract surrealism. It also helps if you have an understanding of the retail sector – which I thought I did have, but it’s either immaterial or inconsequential in comparison to the amount of money you can throw at it.

Jesus, this is difficult. Comics retailing is a stupid business and, to add insult to injury, is also one of the most convoluted areas of this labyrinthine industry. First a history lesson; entertaining I hope and then we'll attempt to herd cats or see through milk...

Once upon a time there was a shop called Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, it was situated in London’s Soho district and it sold comics. Stacks and stacks of comics. It was the first dedicated comicbook shop in the UK. I went there just the once and was blown away by it - it was the cornucopia of dreams for a 16 year old comics fan. This was the mid-1970s. Dark They Were and Golden Eyed grew out of an SF-fantasy-horror books mail order operation (The Vault of Horror) run by Derek “Bram” Stokes. In 1969 he opened a small shop in Bedfordbury, a back street that was spitting distance from Charing Cross tube station (or The Strand tube as it was back then). He included comics in his list because of demand for them, though he was not a fan as such. It succeeded and he expanded in new premises in Berwick Street, behind Wardour Street. That was even more successful, so he expanded even further, opening a superstore in St Anne's Court on the other side of Wardour Street. But the cut-through, linking Wardour Street to Dean Street was almost exclusively red light, had little legitimate passing trade and was just too big - which sounds like a big budget version of my own tale. Stokes disappeared following a 50% (cash only) sale in 1980. Could this have been an early indication that a comic shop should stay with the confines of its scope? I wish I'd known this when I opened Squonk!!

This was followed by Dez Skinn’s own Quality Comics in Chelsea, Nick Landau’s Forbidden Planet chain and before long comic shops were opening in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. The seed was sown.

By the time I opened my shop in 1989, it was just one of about 300 countrywide. Add that to the 5,000+ stores in the United States and you can see that comics retailing had grown exponentially. The main reason for this growth was the advent of something called the Direct Market - quite possibly one of the least sexy things about a very unsexy industry.

Since their creation comicbooks have been traditionally sold on the US newsstands and on a strictly sale or return basis (SOR). Comics could also be bought in grocery and drug stores. By 1972, the major comics publishers were convinced that business was dying – sales had dropped from a high of ‘in the millions’ to just a million or so; the less popular comics were selling between a quarter and a half a million copies. The small independent magazine distributors had draconian methods with little or no flexibility and those people who had already opened comic stores in the United States were suffering because of restricted ordering practices. Where a Walmart might sell 200 copies of Casper the Friendly Ghost or Betty and Veronica, these new fangled fantasy comic shops, the ones that specialised in Spider-Man and Superman, could only maybe sell 2 copies of the humour mags. However, if they ordered 100 copies of Superman – which they would sell easily, they had to have 100 copies of Casper as well. If they didn’t sell, which they wouldn’t, they had to be returned. No ifs, ands or buts, if you wanted one you had to have the other. Returns weren’t bad, but you paid for them first and then got a refund two months later for your unsold copies – the retailer was making returns every single week of the things he would never, ever, sell.

There had to be some way for the publisher to get more power over the distributors?

Along came a guy called Phil Seuling, the man credited as having invented the Direct Distribution Model. He took his idea to the major comics publishing houses and said ‘leave the distributors, you don’t need them. Sell all of your comics to me. Let me take the risk and you will sell 100% of what you print.’ Or in layman’s terms – leave the distribution to me and I’ll tell you how many of each copy you need to print. It was an idea the publishers embraced wholeheartedly (who wouldn’t? Suddenly a lot of the risk had been removed).

What effectively happened then was a network was formed. Seuling distributed order forms to comics stores, they ordered what they needed and Seuling went back to Marvel, DC and the other smaller publishers and said, ‘here’s what I need’. They printed, waited for their cash and suddenly found new life. There was less uncertainty for the publisher now. The onus had been placed on the retailer suddenly and completely. Of course, both Marvel and DC were still attempting to be distributed in their more conventional retail spaces and they therefore still produced SoR items, but the bulk of their profit suddenly came from Seuling’s ingenious little idea.

Seuling’s Sea Gate Distribution catered for everything the then modern comics store needed – comics, undergrounds, posters, badges, fanzines and any other ephemerally related product. It was a success, but it didn’t go down that well with everyone. Chuck Rozanski, the owner of one of New York’s oldest and best loved comics stores, Mile High Comics, commented, “It [is] essentially a private fishing hole for Phil Seuling”. Fair comment really; because it was. Seuling had only a little more risk than the publisher. The comics stores now had more responsibility for the cash turnover of the comics industry, within a few years it would be responsible for almost 100%. The distributor offered strict 30-day payment deals (in many cases 14 days) and if you didn’t pay, your lifeblood would be stopped almost immediately, and without comics to sell no one will come into your store. And if no one comes into your store..? Seuling effectively became the most powerful man in the industry, far more powerful than your Stan Lees and Jenette Khans (the then publisher of DC Comics).

The fact was even if a small percentage never paid, the comics industry and especially Phil Seuling was making money. The problem was Seuling in 6 years could only capture 6% of the US market and seemed reluctant to expand, the publishers saw the Direct Market as very much the way forward. They didn’t like the fact that 94% of it was still too risky, with SoR deals curtailing their profits.

By 1979, there were a number of distributors starting up and Seuling’s monopoly had been broken, but he had an ace up his sleeve. His distribution centre was situated in the same location where all comicbooks were printed. Therefore Seuling could cut out the middle distribution costs. He could effectively deliver from the back door of the printer.

Enter Chuck Rozanski again. Mile High Comics was a hugely successful business, but under the surface it was not as healthy as Rozanski would have hoped. One of the main reasons was despite Phil Seuling’s own distribution outfit many large retailers were still not benefiting from any changes in distribution. Rozanski wrote to Marvel Comics and basically told them that a lot of the retailers weren’t arseholes, they deserved better from the publisher whose pockets they were lining and unlike corner shops, comics store workers go out of their way to sell comics. Much internal legal and political nonsense took place, but at the end Rozanski was responsible for Marvel Comics changing its trade terms, agreeing to help promote the industry in co-op schemes with retailers, but most important the abolition of the advance payment terms. For years Marvel had insisted on being paid for their product before it had even been printed, this meant that what you paid for is what you got, even if it wasn’t what was advertised on the tin.

The industry changed fast over the next few years. Probably due to the arrival of a former postman called Steve Geppi. There have been fortunes made from comics over the years but probably none as big as Steve Geppi and his Diamond Comics Distributors. If you compared comics distributors to football teams, Diamond are Manchester United, the rest are non-league amateurs. Diamond holds the business so firmly you can just about imagine it oozing through its metaphoric fist of iron. When Diamond took over from Seuling things started to move much faster.

In 1981, the first Direct Market only comics were released. A Superboy comic from DC and a new ongoing series from Marvel called Dazzler, which had links to the X-Men so it had an extra bit of oomph behind its launch. Orders exceeded 400,000 a record that stood for three years (but still a drop in the ocean compared to the 'in the millions' the industry once had, but the publishers were bracing themselves for a dramatic shift in the fortunes of comics).

By the mid-1980s Diamond has established itself as the largest distributor of comics, graphic novels, books and comics-related ephemera in the USA. It had competition, but with the exception of a company called Capital City (who Diamond later ‘amalgamated’ with), they were the market leaders in selling comics publishers’ wares. Geppi had taken a gamble in 1979 and because of his reputation as a man of integrity, the comics publishers were quick to deal with him. As publishers saw more and more ways of cutting their own overheads and distributing them further down the food chain, the larger distributors discovered newer ways of offsetting those costs to the retailer. Diamond established its own freight network and this effectively put the rest out of business because they were all dependent on UPS, DHL and the like. The retailer who shopped with the lesser distributor started seeing shipments arrive late and more importantly the overall costs were higher.

To use a metaphor, the Direct Market is like a tyre with a slow puncture. In 1981, when DC Comics finally relented and joined the program, the publisher offered the larger distributors (Diamond and Capital) a further 5% volume discount. Rozanski claims, “DC set it up so that the large distributors would put the small ones out of business.” The man should have done the lottery such were his prophecies. What DC did was put a small nail into the tyre and it has been deflating slowly ever since. There is this thing called The Law of Diminishing Returns and the Direct Market is kind of a perfect example of a Law of Diminishing Returns self-fulfilling prophecy. The word politicians and employers' use is 'consolidation'. DC, owned by the huge TimeWarner corporation, effectively altered a workable premise into something that ensure that comics became the thing I've referred to them as being for all the time I've been involved with them - a cottage industry. Before the Direct Market it was a legitimate, public-faced entertainment medium. The Direct Market ghettoised comics. DC marginalised 50% of that ghetto and witnessed an implosion that still has effects in 2011.

Next week: Mammon, superhero icons, ignorance in retailing, more words...


  1. Bank manager: "Well, let's see your Cash Flow Projection then"
    Wannabe comic shop owner: "Ain't got one, but I do have an innate understanding of abstract surrealism"
    Marvellous! :)

  2. "Most retailers, right up to about 2000, could not bring themselves to realise that the vast majority of their stock was worthless and literally anything obtained for it was money in the bank. Even today, many retailers refuse to acknowledge that a comic that has already been paid for and absorbed into stock is worth whatever someone will pay for it and that alone. Time over price along renders most comics worthless pieces of paper. Plus, arguably, some retailers will look at old stock and say, "I paid X for that. It retails for Y. I will therefore sell it for Y, regardless of trends. If you find a copy in my shop two years after it came out, it'll cost you the same price as it did then. Simple." This might sound sensible, but in reality it's stupid."

    So which retailers are these? Let me know, I've got a box full of stuff I want to get rid of.

  3. Why? Do you want to be ripped off? I'm not suggesting for a minute this applies to your (or any other) old comics/back issues/collectibles; and later on in this serialisation you'll read about how your comics are worth considerably less than you think they are. I'm referring to stock bought from Diamond. Theoretically, if it retails for £2.95; it therefore has to be £2.95 (or more) in perpetuity (therefore becoming the dead stock I referred to, wasting space and not paying its rent). If retailers, for a long long time, looked at comics as a commodity rather than some sentient being then they would have shifted a lot of stuff that they eventually put in coffin boxes and shoved in a storeroom to eventually be auctioned off for pennies when the shop went out of business or the owner dies.
    Perhaps I wasn't being clear, but that's the main drawback with serialising this kind of thing, the bigger picture that I'm trying to draw is lost a little because you can't flow right through this.