Monday, 30 May 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Twelve)

iii) comics – a history lesson, kind of.

The arrival of the Internet allowed information to pass faster than it had ever done before. Suddenly magazines like Comics International (a publication we will look at in detail very soon), ostensibly a news magazine, was finding that where it once was jam-packed full of exclusives, was now stuffed full of what people considered regurgitated press releases. To a certain degree it was, except once upon a time the rest of the world wouldn’t have seen the original press release, but by 1993, anyone who had Internet access and was a comic fan had probably seen it. Because USA and the UK were at the forefront of Internet technology, a misnomer began to appear. Because comics were reportedly born in the USA, the people behind them seemed to misguidedly believe that they were still the most important comics country in the world. In reality, characters such as Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and the Hulk were worth far more in terms of what Hollywood could do for and with them, whereas characters such as Tin Tin, Asterix, Lucky Luke, Jeremiah and any popular manga sold vast amounts of comics and albums (as they are referred to on the continent) that were, at the time, worth just as much, possibly even more from publishing alone.

Admittedly all the Marvel and DC icons are published worldwide – there’s a lucrative reprint market where mainstream US comics are translated, which in many countries makes the USA’s own industry look paltry. Syndicated publishers sell more Spanish language Batman comics than DC sells English language ones! Marvel and DC comics sell in most countries that have comics industries and worldwide sales/royalties probably amount to a substantial percentage of their operating costs. Comics companies turned over billions of dollars in the 1990s and that no longer represented a small or insignificant part of the entertainments industry any more. Comics were actually a form of entertainment, which for a while, quietly turned over vast amounts of money from licensing and royalties. In the USA, the land of opportunity does not overlook opportunities. Comics entered the world of business for real in the 1990s.

I might have led you to believe that after the X-Men explosion of 1991 that was the end of the comics industry’s glory days. It wasn’t like that at all. Despite many retailers suffering and many more going out of business, it didn’t stop the rest of the comics retail industry trying to play catch up on the money they lost. Sales were still huge. The three main X-Men books were selling close to half a million copies a month during the latter half of 1991 and early 1992 – an amount unheard of since the days of sale or return. Marvel was now owned by a guy called Ronald Perelman, a known asset stripper, who had bought Marvel cheaply ($83million) and was now witnessing the company’s share value increase at a delightfully obscene rate.

Marvel suddenly became the antithesis of late 1980s DC Comics marketing. Where DC was always reticent about releasing spin-offs of popular titles, Marvel did it with such gay abandon that you literally started to lose track of all the books coming out. The success stories of the early 1990s inflated the egos and the expectations of Marvel’s executives. They believed they could not just produce comics, they could control them in every part of the production. This included enhanced covers, which according to a source caused a massive number of fans to boycott titles because of the inflated prices being asked for a comic with a gimmick cover. Yet, Marvel wasn't interested in the fans - that's been obvious from the outset - it was only interested in the bottom line.

Perelman’s men, most with no real experience in the comics industry, decided that they didn’t like their company kowtowing to an independent distributor, so Marvel, buoyed by millions of extra dollars, bought a small distribution company and set themselves up as publishers and distributors. This was the main reason for their decline in terms of how economically viable they were. Marvel sank shit loads of money into their distribution service and eventually went back to Diamond with their arses stinging and cap in hand. By the time all the accounts were sorted comics sales had dropped so badly Marvel was seriously looking at bankruptcy. The company had gone from the goose that was laying golden eggs to a mangy bird crapping out all manner of undesirable shit.

I remember one of the reasons I didn’t like DC comics when I was younger. DC’s biggest problem was that Superman and Batman were just so eponymous. Virtually every comic used either of these characters as a blatant sales tool. Lois Lane was a comicbook as well as a major supporting character in all the Superman comics and spin-offs. But the real truth about Lois Lane or Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was that they were just Superman stories with more emphasis placed on the supporting character’s role in the adventure. Even as a youth I saw this as the work of hucksters. Of course this didn’t stop me as a collector of the X-Men comics from trying to get every single issue of any comic that featured an appearance by someone vaguely associated with the X-Men (I’ve had comics in my once extensive collections that I have ended up being genuinely puzzled as to why I possessed it! This isn’t an unusual thing either, believe me). But essentially these comics were frauds. DC only did this with two of its characters, the most recognisable and now looking back I think it was almost a lovely touch that DC felt its supporting characters deserved a platform all of their own, even if it was a sham. But in reality, DC was actually doing what I accused them of being so slow off the mark with; they cashed in on their icons long before marketing departments infiltrated publishers.

Comics Lesson 7:

US comics come out on a monthly basis, always have done, but they produce so many titles that they get released in batches every week. British comics have always traditionally come out on a weekly basis. US readers now prefer their comics to feature one story; the UK still prefers the anthology, or Beano approach.

However, DC weren’t slow in spotting that while most of their titles were monthly, they had comics coming out every week – or put simply Superman would come out on the first week, Batman on the second, another Superman comic in the third and a Batman in the fourth week, plus all the other titles they produced. DC saw that their most popular characters could come out on a weekly basis, in some cases more so and still not saturate the market. Superman appeared in Action Comics, also in his own eponymous title, plus he also appeared in Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, World’s Finest (where he appeared with Batman), and was often a working member of the Justice League of America. There was also a Superboy comic, eventually a Supergirl, and even a Superteam Family.

Batman was almost as bad, but not quite. The Caped Crusader, as he was better known then just had Batman, Detective Comics and World’s Finest, but eventually a Batman Family title was added in the mid 1970s. One wonders why they were so reticent about cashing in during the late 1980s, when they unashamedly did it in the 1960s and 70s. However, DC did almost go out of business in the mid 1970s and that was largely due to over-saturating the market and increasing world paper costs; so perhaps the earlier analogy I used of being reticent about cashing in on success still rang in the executives ears?

Comics Publishers prey on a specific type of fan the most. Dez Skinn christened them the ‘Full Set, Full Set, Gotta Have a Full Set’ brigade, wordy but definitely appropriate. Full Set specialists, like I had been with my X-Men collection, were the people who were devoted to specific comics and characters and would buy just about anything that featured said characters (and in some cases the better writers and artists who had worked on their favourite titles). A devotee of Wolverine, for example, would follow the character all over the Marvel universe and eventually would pay whatever asking price, to have that ‘full set’. Speculators have, for years, attempted to inflate comic prices that have appearances by popular characters; sometimes it works, but only if the character has a big enough following.

If it’s true to suggest that DC over-exposed its most popular dynamic duo during the 60s, Marvel saturated the market with its characters by the mid 1990s. Leading me to think that a real nerd would sit down and look at what X-Men books came out and wonder how they fit all their adventures into a year. One month they might be in space, the next Antarctica, the next Massachusetts - they were busy bees.

There just wasn’t any standalone Marvel comics any more, at least none that mattered - everything had a 'family of titles'. You couldn’t move in comic shops (mine had closed by this time) for stacks and stacks of comics that featured every Tom, Dick and Harry from every other Marvel comic crossing over into each other’s comics. When this wasn't happening you were plagued with everything from cardstock covers to lenticular holographic shit masquerading as an excuse to charge $2.00 more for a standard comic. It was blatant salesmanship and a large percentage of fans continued to fall for it. A lot of the fans cottoned on a damned sight quicker than the retailers, but to emphasise an earlier point, the retailers aren’t really people who have any business acumen. Most retailers who have been going for more than 20 years and own their own houses, obviously knew something about retail, or learnt damned quick, because most of the retailers in the 1990s were blind, stupid, deaf, dumb and headed for huge financial falls.

Dez Skinn, a former retailer before he entered the world of publishing said this, “People often forget that comics knowledge is not retail knowledge. Just because they like a comic don’t [sic] mean their customers will. Best to start by working for somebody else and get a feel for both retail and consumer preferences. Running a comics shop is more about cash flow and savvyness [sic] than knowing when Hulk first fought Thor. It’s also about being enough of a tart to stock Pokemon when it’s big, moving into toys, customisable card games, trading cards... following whatever related trends bring in business. And charging yourself for comics you take home!” I was as guilty of the latter as anyone else, Skinn included.

I’ve always believed the best people to tutor potential shop managers and owners are those who have already tried and failed. They’ve been through all the pitfalls themselves and know to expect the unexpected. Most of us would recommend investing your money into something safer, like drugs or porn. Potential comic shop owners don’t want to hear anything from anyone that might rain on their parade. They think they’ve cracked it, even if many before them didn’t succeed and have the scars to prove it. But saying that, I've also believed that Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image - the four biggest comics publishers in the USA should employ ex-retailers to run their marketing and promotions departments; but that is altruism too far.

I couldn’t say now [nor in 2011], but in my day most comic shop owners went into this business because they were ostensibly fans of the medium, had either made money from property, had been left it in wills or had plunged into potential bankruptcy to fulfil a dream.

There have been a few who have been successful and had no knowledge of the medium at all, my brother has proved this and when his lack of knowledge caught up with him he moved sideways into trading cards – where the one-eyed man was a king in the land of the blind – but he never went into full scale retail, he just remained a weekend warrior and did the mart circuit. A prerequisite, in my opinion, is a working knowledge of comics, but as important is an understanding of working in retail and, probably more importantly, experience of working in retail with all the odds stacked heavily against you. Few people realise how difficult it is, or maybe refuse to believe, until they start to see how tough it gets.

Next: You'll believe a fan can dictate a retailer's cash flow!

Monday, 23 May 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Eleven)

Spider-Man #1 just wouldn’t go away and as a measure of how desperate some people were to recoup their losses on X-Men #1 they kept putting the prices up despite demand having dropped off almost completely. No one was buying X-Force or X-Men now and while sales on the new comics were high and most retailers were now ordering conservatively again, the unsolds were a constant reminder of how their own foolishness and overzealous behaviour had almost put many out of business. People were desperately looking for something to recoup the losses and it came from one of the most unlikely of sources – my brother.

Ron Hall junior was (and to some extent, still is) something of an employment nomad and I often got a laugh from friends by saying that he’d moved to Liverpool to join all the other unemployed people – but he was the one who originally said it. You couldn’t wish to meet a more likeable person. Where I’ve had more than my fair share of enemies over the years, my brother seems incapable of falling out with anyone. He’s also something of a chameleon. He takes on things he likes – styles, tastes … even occupations and does a really passable impersonation.

He had spent a lot of time helping me track down a lot of comics collections for my shop before it had opened and probably felt that by living in a huge city like Liverpool, he could possibly break into comics himself. So, by buying up whatever he could and working out of his lock-up garage, that’s exactly what he did, much to my dismay. Also to my dismay was the fact that within two years he’d become a far more successful comic mart dealer than I could have wished for. He knew bugger all about comics and that lack of knowledge never changed, but he showed many how it should be done. Ironically, my brother struck up a friendship with an old friend, a guy called Colin Gould who I wrote a comics news column with back in the 1970s.

One quiet day, around the time the X-Men feeding frenzy would begin, he was looking through a stack of comics he’d just bought from a dealer who was packing up. Among the boxes were about 200 copies of the new Spider-Man #1 in an assortment of the previously mentioned variants. He had as much interest in reading comics then as he does now – zero, but he thought he’d look through an issue of Spider-Man to see what all the fuss was about. He opened the pages to see Spider-Man fighting The Lizard just as he was in the 3 million other copies – except there was something a bit wrong. For those of you who don’t know the Lizard is a villain, of sorts, who was originally a biologist with an arm missing. In an attempt to try and synthesise in a human how some reptiles can grow missing tails back, the biologist turns himself into a 400lb scaly lizard man. He’s been around for years and always wears his lovely white lab coat to nicely contrast with his bright GREEN skin. The copy in my brother’s hands had Spider-Man fighting the Lizard except the Lizard was bright BLUE.

To the trained eye it was a simple mistake – sheets of print had been collated that had come off the presses at the end of a run and one of the ink levels – this time yellow – had run out. But to my speculator brother it was something else entirely. With the aid of his unwitting accomplice – me – he set about turning Spider-Man #1 into a really hot speculator comic.

The ‘Blue Variant’ is possibly the most ridiculous 'rip-off' ever to happen in comics. There were probably many thousands of misprinted comics in existence and none of them are ever worth anything. In fact, most comics fans want the perfect comic and will ignore the misprints – they are faulty goods and therefore have no value.


I was always on the lookout for comics speculator news, it helped fill Movers and Shakers, but I couldn’t always attend comic marts for my research, so I had a network of trustworthy people who reported on what was hot and what wasn’t. One of them was my brother-in-law Neil, the one who had got me back into comics (and the one I’d taught how to lie). He came back from a mart in Leeds with the news that a new comic had taken the show by storm, except it wasn’t a new comic at all, it was Spider-Man#1 and it was selling for £5. Impossible, I proclaimed, I was, after all, the oracle of all comics economics, I would have heard, surely?

He filled me in with all the details; the issues that sold had 8 misprinted pages, all of them devoid of yellow. I laughed and made a comment about how fools and their monies are soon parted. The following week, just prior to Movers deadline, I heard the ‘Blue Variant’ was now selling for between £8 and £10. It had, it seemed, become genuine news and it took the lead story. The next morning I went through all my unsold issues of Spider-Man #1 and found 7 of my own ‘Blue Variants’ – just how many of them were there?

Over the next three months the price went up as high as £50 and while it was never recognised as officially anything other than a misprint, even the price guides began to acknowledge its existence. The price guides of the time included the caveat that while not worth anything more than cover price, it will sell for huge amounts of money – a statement that contradicts itself almost perfectly, but might tell you more about comic collectors’ mentalities than I could possibly try to.

Then I learnt the truth – that my brother, with the aid of some of his mates and my brother-in-law, had coerced me into telling a made up story. Yes, they had copies of it, but they wanted the world to know they were selling before they actually sold them. I didn’t mind, it was one of the few times I actually benefited from my marketing column. My brother and his friends started selling ‘Blue Variants’ after I told the world it was hot. I thought it inspirational, and my brother still has copies of the comic, for sale and at the ridiculous price of £9.95. He still sells at least one a year!

There should have been valuable lesson learnt from this ridiculous excuse for a collectible, but there wasn’t. All anyone could see was a long queue of fools and their money waiting to be parted, and just to make it worse there were more and more fools out there actually proving this. It was getting silly and the tragedy was that the people who had spent years working hard on their businesses refused to be drawn in and lost out. Many could have done with the extra cash – in those days that could mean the difference between survival and extinction – but the ones with ethics lost out completely. Plus the situation didn’t go unnoticed by Marvel or DC. Over the previous couple of years particularly, they’d realised that the back issue market had some potential in the form of them reprinting comics that had become too expensive for the average reader to buy. Altruistically, I wish it had been done for the benefit of the fans, but it was really done because neither major publisher really liked the fact that anyone could make money from their product, without their consent, after they had absolved themselves of all interest in it. The irony was that as Marvel and DC suddenly saw potential in back issues, most retailers had begun to see the folly of dedicating so much space to masses of dead stock.

Eventually though the next hot comic or creator rode into town and most people forgot about blue lizards and got back on with collecting. And this is where we’ll leave speculative retail for a while; we need to move into different areas.

Comics Lesson 6:

I mentioned earlier that comic sales in the USA and the UK are lucky to have a combined total of 100,000. Many comics trundle along selling (being ordered) to the tune of about 30,000. It is a ludicrously small amount of comics and yet the major US publishers, like major US film producers, believe that they are the be all and end all of comics.

Take Brazil for starters, it has a larger population than the UK, but until the last decade, it was economically bankrupt and suffered from poverty like there was no tomorrow. Yet, amazingly, over 3½ million people read at least one comic every month. The people who read this comic were and still are aged from 0 to 100. The comic is called Monica’s Gang and it is essentially a ‘funny book’. Almost the same number of people also read all the other comics produced by the publisher of Monica. In Brazil, the comics produced by Mauricio de Sousa Productions represent almost 6% of the gross national profit. There is a theme park that puts Disneyworld to shame and it is based solely on the characters from MSP’s line of comics. People from kids to parents will read the comics. Being seen sitting on a park bench, or on the bus, or in a waiting room or wherever you want reading an MSP comic is treated the same way as sitting reading a newspaper or a novel or an iphone or anything that is regarded as normal by you and me.

In Japan, comics – not the characters, but comics as a medium is treated as cultural icon and its industry, which has contracted some in recent years, is still massive. Remarkably, it would not be classed as wrong or out of place to see a business executive reading a hentai manga comic (Japanese porno comics) on the train. The same can be said for France, Holland, Poland, Spain, Italy, South-East Asia, in fact just about everywhere in the world treated comics as an extension of the entertainment industry, apart from the UK and USA (until CGI allowed them to make the films the fans wanted to see).

Comics are not considered nerdy, nor are they considered the hobby of the social outcast. Comics are read by a huge percentage of the world’s population, yet the only country that, piously, appears to believe it has the only working comics industry, the USA, comics are read by a mere fraction of the population. There is an estimated 100,000 comic buyers in the USA (and as we touched on earlier, that is a liberal estimate), there are more comic buyers in Rio de Janeiro alone.

Why are comics and their followers so reviled by the non-comics buying public in the two main English speaking countries? Maybe we'll uncover the truth as we continue on...

Next time: a history lesson and an exploration of an obsession.

Monday, 16 May 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Ten)

In the summer of 1990, I was invited to sit on a group calling themselves the Comic Book Retailers’ Association, or CoBRA for an acronym. I achieved this status because I was already making a name for myself as being something of an outspoken person. Although I wrote Movers & Shakers anonymously, you couldn’t keep me from wanting to see my name in lights; therefore I regularly sent articles and letters of comment to the magazine I worked for. I was also being published in the USA in the Overstreet Price Guide*, a monthly update spin-off from the annual big book. My comments were normally about how badly comics retailers were treated and trying to think of ways in which the comics publishers could be of more help. On a hot and sticky day in a pub by King’s Cross Station about 30 retailers from all over the country met and discussed setting up a body that would attempt to control and police their own trading standards, who would be ombudsman for the mail order industry and would negotiate on the behalf of the retailer with the major publishers and distributors. I was honoured to be trusted enough to represent this group. I was actually more than honoured I was overwhelmed.

Being on this group was a great step forward by British retailers. Dez Skinn (by then a publisher and an ex-retailer) sat as non-partisan chairperson and we set about trying to persuade the powers that be that there were ways in which everyone could make money. We felt we had a voice, the UK represented roughly 8% of the US market, it might not have seemed much, but it was considerably bigger than most States of the Union managed. We also had grandiose ideas about how to help struggling businesses. Retailers, mail order suppliers and even back issues dealers were offered the chance to join CoBRA (for just £5 per year) and if nothing else it gave them a seal of approval in advertising. Being part of CoBRA meant the customer could order from you and feel confident. The scheme worked, but the six retailers who sat on the inaugural committee all went out of business within six years of that meeting.

We tried, and failed miserably, to set up a network of dealers throughout the country who would willingly exchange stock with each other, because as I was quick to point out, Britain wasn’t just like the America, our fans have a more discerning palate and what is hot in Glasgow might not be hot in Exeter. The problem was that comics retailers while liking each other, have a deep-rooted mistrust of their competition. During my days at Comics International, I heard stories about how retailers would rip out catalogues and adverts of rival shops and businesses before giving (or selling) the magazine to regular customers!

Being on the committee saw me getting invited to things I would not ordinarily have been privy to. Instead of just being two Americans in suits talking at me as a retailer, I suddenly found myself rubbing shoulders with the vice-presidents of sales and marketing for Marvel and DC. I went out to dinner with Steve Geppi of Diamond, I ingratiated myself within the inner circle of the business side of comics and I was never asked to leave, even after I left retail and became a hack comics journo, specialising in gossip and sleaze.

The two most prominent VPs were Lou Bank of Marvel and Bob Wayne of DC; affectionately referred to as Morecombe and Wise by many British retailers of the time. Lou was an ebullient stocky man full of vibrancy and with a patter that would have made Stan Lee, the Godfather of both Marvel Comics and hyperbole, proud. He was also something of an Anglophile and a very humorous man, ironic as he was from the US. Bob, on the other hand, was a dry Texan who, even today, seems slightly unapproachable and distant. Their personalities were like chalk and cheese, yet together they worked well and the fact they worked together was strange in itself. Marvel and DC have been in direct competition with each other for years and if you talk to people in editorial about the relationship between the two companies it is safe to say they are as opposed as Palestine and Israel. But upstairs, in marketing and sales the guys from both companies spend shitloads of time on the road together, doing conventions, and basically working out of adjoining hotel suites. They were friends despite being out for each other’s business and of course Lou was always the more jovial because Marvel’s sales made DC seem like small beans.

The fallout from retailers was beginning to hit by October '91. Many had pushed themselves to the brink of bankruptcy in order to pay off debts and remain open and in the UK, Comics International began to report on a sudden decline in the smaller independent comics shops. Lou was over from the States and had agreed to meet Dez Skinn and me at a posh Chelsea restaurant.

It seems that my main aim for that evening was to show how unbelievably naïve and lacking in business acumen I was to a man who was essentially my friend as well as my enemy. I was suffering from the X-Men, but not half as much as some of my fellow retailers. I had an armful of questions to ask Lou and not all of them were going to be easy to ask nor easy for him to answer. Or so I thought. Attitudes change when the VP of sales and marketing turns up for dinner in an Armani suit and has an expense account in the thousands. Marvel and its employees were living the high life and someone like a small rural retailer wasn’t going to stop the party for all the questions in the world.

My big point was one I’d held back from Dez in our pub briefing before meeting up with Lou. The reason I didn’t run it past him first was because it was not a logical question. It was an emotive one and Dez would have made me promise not to ask it. I asked Lou how he and Marvel as a company could allow something like X-Men #1 to happen and then exacerbate the situation by making what amounted to false promises? I reminded him that I wasn’t driving down to London in a Porsche; I had driven down in a 1982 Vauxhall Astra which had overheated on the Embankment and caused a minor tailback.

I should have realised what his reply would be before he said it. “What did you expect us to do, call up all the retailers and say, ‘hey guys, we think you got it wrong, you’ve over ordered far too many of this baby!’? We couldn’t do that and I’m surprised you asked it.” But I’m nothing if not tenacious. I emphasised that it was Marvel’s own hyperbole and devious sales techniques that had pushed sales up by almost double. He shrugged. I said that if we lose 30% of the comics shops in the UK and US they, Marvel, would probably end up losing the vast majority of the comics readers from those stores unless there was another one locally, so it would end up being self-destructive. I emphasised that instead of helping the retailers, they actually effectively made the borderline businesses extinct.

“We don’t really care about the retailers who struggle to pay their bills. They aren’t the ones who make the industry run, they’re the ones that hinder us; prevent us from doing more for the businesses that need it. It helps us spend more money on co-opted advertising and stops us, and the distributors, from wasting resources chasing bad debts up.” I was a bit stunned. How about Marvel operates a percentage sale or return offer? I asked this more out of desperation than belief it was a valid question. “And what do we do with 3 million unsold comics? The retailers made a mistake, I’ll grant you that maybe we were a little overzealous with our estimations, but we really thought there was a market for it. You certainly did.” He had actually given me something to work with.

“How can you sit there and say there’s a market for it when you yourself estimated less than a year ago that there was probably only 200,000 devoted, dedicated and hardened comics collectors?” I asked him. During a post comics convention pint a year earlier Lou had stated quite matter-of-factly that there was less than a quarter of a million comics readers in the US and UK. In fact, he said the figure was probably closer to 100,000.

You do the bottom line maths. 8,500,000 copies divided by 100,000 collectors equals 85 copies of X-Men #1 per comics fan (as an extreme), divide that 85 by the five different versions and each collector had 17 copies of a comic worth precisely bugger all. Those figures would be halved if Lou’s highest guess were more accurate. It would still be a ridiculous ratio and one Marvel must have been more than aware of at the time of the ordering. But he just repeated his first point again – they were not in the business to turn money down, even, yes even, if it meant that business in the future might be jeopardised.

That’s a problem with modern comics publishing; it’s all about the short term, it was like no one expected to be in a job in two years so they were going to make the most of it.

Yet, Marvel or specifically his department of Marvel, could still approach all the retailers and say, ‘Have you ordered enough?’ knowing that even at 5 million copies that was 50 each for every single collector. But, hey, I’m naive. I still, to this day, think that it would have been more prudent to keep all of the comic shops going rather than hedge my bets on just the major ones. Comics distribution, for which Marvel toyed with the ideas of going into a few years after this, was for comics distributors; they were the experts and yet they were blinded by greed too. Only Marvel really knew the problems everyone was letting themselves in for and this was the early 1990s; this was a time to make hay while the sun shone.

At least I left with the knowledge that our almost pathetic amount of nouveau cuisine had cost well over £300. (£100 for a piece of char-grilled chicken, a few half cooked green beans and some wild rice! I didn’t even get any chips with it!) I was getting something out of Marvel at least.

Actually that wasn’t all I was getting. Marvel had brought out a special Platinum ink edition of Spider-Man #1. It was limited to 10,000 copies (which by today’s standards is an enormous print run) and was released a few months after the original and was given to US retailers as a thank you. The UK didn’t get any, but that changed with the meeting. Marvel estimated the value would be worth £50. Within a week of its appearance it had sold for £500. In the US prices hadn’t done much, but suddenly with UK dealers buying copies up, the demand suddenly increased. The UK comics dealers were already trying to recoup a percentage of the X-Men losses through exploiting another already overly exploited comic. Lou agreed that the UK retailers should all receive copies of this Platinum celebratory edition. He had little or no ideas that I was negotiating so that retailers stood a chance of recouping enough money to be able to pay for their X-Men comics.

[*Overstreet Price Guide or the Overpriced Street Guide as it was known in some quarters, because it believed in hyping comics!]

Comics Lesson 4:

‘Hot books’ is a term that became synonymous with the speculator scene in the 1990s, but in truth virtually any comic that has been deemed a ‘hot book’ at some point in its history remains a hot book, in emeritus as they say in fandom.

A hot book is essentially a comic that is worth considerably more than others in a series. Issue #1s can be hot books, but the reality is #2s and #3s are more likely to be hotter – in terms of scarcity – than #1s.

Hot books can also be afforded that status because of the demand of a certain creator, normally an artist. For instance, we talked about the last 10 issues of the first run of Uncanny X-Men earlier; every single issue of this run is worth considerably more than a lot of the earlier issues. Seven of those final run of Uncanny X-Men were drawn by the aforementioned Neal Adams. Adams was a highly stylised, realistic artist who didn’t so much as draw comics, he designed his pages. He was one of a new breed of artists who put gritty realism into the art, even if the stories he was illustrating seemed, at times, puerile.

There are rules about hot books – they are normally either scarce or rare, have been drawn by a sought-after artist, or have a major milestone take place that has increased demand. Very little else makes a comic valuable – apart from their age.

But the 1990s weren’t ordinary times for the comics industry and there were idiots who bought comics at prices normally reserved for fine wines and modern artists. But of course since writing this a couple of books have topped the million dollar mark, making comics as collectible as antiques; but these aren't necessarily 'hot books', yes, we'd all like a copy of Action Comics #1 in mint condition, but it isn't HOT! Action Comics #900 is. This is a recent issue of the longest continually running US comic in existence and in it Superman denounces his American citizenship and was up to $35 on eBay when I wrote this little addendum in May, 2011. This doesn't exactly fit in with my reasoning above, but there were also issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Green Lantern in the early 1970s that dealt with drug abuse, neither gained a comics code of approval stamp and subsequently became collector’s items. The point is hot comics are quite unique because they tend to be recent.

Next time: I, sort of, wrap up Spider-Man and X-Men excesses.

Monday, 9 May 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Nine)

I know you’re all eager to find out what happens next in the X saga, but we need an aside. We’re not going far. In real terms we don’t even leave the same office.

Marvel had broken all previous Direct Market sales records with Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man. The total sales ended up in excess of 3million copies, making it at the time the biggest pre-ordered comic in history. It was June 1991 and Marvel was about to eclipse that pre-order figure by over a million copies. The first X-Men spin-off The New Mutants was a successful comic in its own right, yet it hardly had the jazzy name for this exclusive team of junior X-Men. The title lasted an impressive 100 issues and would have lasted 100 more had Marvel decided it was to be replaced by a new cutting-edge comic named – X-Force.

[A brief aside: just over a year before the termination of the New Mutants title, Marvel unveiled a new, dynamic young artist called Rob Liefeld; he helped create a character called Cable, who was, in effect, from the future and was an older, wiser, nastier version of a character that hadn't even been born at the time of all this happening. Cable's introduction, in New Mutants #87 was one of the hottest comics during the entire period of the speculator boom. It retailed for about 75p, but by the height of X-mania was retailing for up to £50. It was one of the most talked about comics of the early 1990s. It was a piece of shit that looked like a poor fanzine strip compared to the great artists of bygone years, yet it was never out of the news for one reason or another.]

X-Force (marketed as the X-Men’s understudies) was ordered in excess of 4million copies (including reprints) and is quite possibly the best example of nerdism from the 1990s. The reason for this is simple; X-Force #1 came out in 5 different versions, except it didn’t. It came out, poly-bagged, with a trading card included. Each of the 5 different trading cards was of one of the members of the new X-Force team and there was a bonus card - of the ambiguous character Deadpool. The different trading card was the only variation; everything else about the package was identical – the comic was the same, the packaging was the same, the only thing different was the picture on the trading card. The fans bought them like shares in a stock market boom. I ordered over 500 copies of this little gem and sold 400 within a few days of release; over 70 people bought all five comics with the different trading card. Some bought an extra copy to open and read, while leaving five unopened copies for the future! I stood behind the counter of my little store, in my little town and watched the shoppers go gaga.

In all fairness, what makes X-Force #1’s success even more amazing is that it was essentially, as far as art and story were concerned, a piece of shit that a 10 year-old could probably have put together better. Marvel even put the thing back into print with a variant cover, which in reality was far more rare than any of the other versions (the reprint has a small 10,000 run, compared to the 4 million others, It’s therefore a far more collectible item if you apply the same logic as is applied to 50% of the comics that end up being sought after).

Because of the quirks involving the cover date of most US comics, X-Force came out in the June with an August cover date – this was designed originally to allow the newsstand comics to have more shelf life. The problem with this policy in the Direct Market is if a comic hasn’t sold inside one month, it probably won’t (and then, by default, becomes one of the many back issues, with a higher price and less chance of it being sold - ostensibly, because most retailers were idiots). Despite a comic’s cover saying August and appearing in June, the Direct Market means that you have to order your stock in March - three months in advance! That’s two and a half months before the thing even goes to print. You remember how I said that I was just scratching the surface of the problems faced by the retail side of the industry? Well here’s another that will have people wide-eyed in disbelief. Not only do the retailers have to order the comics three months in advance of release, until the late 1980s most retailers had to pay for their orders before they received them! That isn’t all, if you didn’t get what was advertised in the sales catalogue, tough shit. You pay your money, you get shafted with no recourse.

That changed a little, but in reality it is still as bad in many ways – publishers now offer limited Sale or Return on product that arrives not as advertised, but trust me returning comics is like trying to put Humpty together again. The Direct Market allowed the major publishers to effectively abolish the practice of Sale or Return. They factored out most of the risk to themselves and the distributor. The retailer was left with having to ‘guestimate’ what extra he would need – every month! If a new title came out, because there was no sale or return options, a retailer had to order blind. A retailer might know his customers better than his relatives, but he can’t make them buy something – he can only presume to believe what they will buy – some exact science, huh? But that isn’t where the problem ends; because the retailer has to order so far in advance he has to guess how many copies of issues #2 and #3 he’ll need – ordering blind again, before he gets any idea of how sales will settle into an average. Does he order the same quantity for #2 or does he cut back? Most cut back, hence why, ironically, in actual terms most issue #2s are considerably scarcer than #1s.

Before we even think about the ramifications, think about the support the publishers and distributors give the retailer. There is a new launch – there is no Point of Sale and if there is it has to be paid for by the retailer – “We’d like to give you the privilege of buying from us materials which will help us make more money,” is what the publisher is saying and the retailer has to agree. Well, he doesn't have to, but his business is selling comics.

There is a new launch – there are no preview copies in existence. If you are lucky there might be a plot synopsis, maybe even some designs by the artist or even a dummy cover, but you can’t really judge a book by its cover in literature and the same rule applies here.

There is a new launch and you over order by 25, 50 or 100%; you still have to pay the bill by the end of the month or you get no more comics. Yes, you could argue that this is business and everyone is taking a risk, but essentially what was created by comics publishers and entrepreneurial distributors was a way in which the comics store retailer shouldered the responsibility of the success or the failure of the industry. Until 1993 there had never been a national or international advertisement campaign to encourage people to read comics. In fact Batman: the Movie was the biggest bit of advertising DC-TimeWarner ever did, but it didn’t really ever touch on the history of the character. Comics benefited from a knock-on effect.

The retailer has only the word of the publisher and the publisher isn’t going to say, “Order sparingly, we think this is or might be a dud” are they? And rightly so, but you would have thought that in a modern retail environment the producer would have come up with a better and fairer way for the retailer to sell its wares?

There was also another factor to take into consideration. Comicbooks were no longer Marvel, DC and a handful of other lesser-known publishers. In the intervening years between my departure and return to the fold, comics publishing houses sprung up all over the place. The Direct Market allowed smaller publishers to compete with the big boys and this was viewed as one of the first real positive kickbacks from the DM. Now there was Dark Horse Comics, Comico, First Publishing, Eclipse, as well as even smaller houses producing one or two titles. Creators who couldn’t get comics deals were self-publishing, but in a far more professional way, with exceptionally high production values. The market had much to choose from and hardly any of this growing number of independent comics could be ordered on the strength of someone actually having seen it to assess its worth. Now the comics shop owner not only has to be a theoretical mathematician, but he needed to be able to assess what his needs were from a list that is now as long as a country mile. With Marvel, DC and Charlton you had maybe 60 comics a month in total, by 1990 there were 500+ comics coming out every month, and where some of the list above disappeared into bankruptcy, comics publishers were like the mythical hydra – as soon as one went down two more appeared in its place. It is easy to see why comics became a target for the speculator; with so many titles available, not every hot comic would be seen immediately, but they would exist.

With Marvel’s intended ‘X-Men X-plosion’ having gotten underway with pre-orders higher than Marvel could have ever have wished for on X-Force, Marvel solicited Uncanny X-Men #281, like UXM #94 this was effectively a new beginning, a new start, a new #1 (of sorts). Orders came in and they were the highest for a non-#1 comic ever. In fact, orders rivalled that of Spider-Man #1 and only fell short of X-Force because of the lack of gimmicks for this particular X-launch. Retailers all across the UK and US who had ordered in excess for X-Force and had seen the gamble pay off big time, now applied the same aggressive ordering attitude to UXM’s re-launch. Actual sales were far better than could have been expected even without Chris Claremont’s name attached, but that wasn’t to be seen for a few months yet – when things settled down. Two months after the soliciting of X-Force #1, Marvel also offered its retailers a brand new X-Men book – called simply X-Men it was to be written by Chris Claremont (hurrah!) and drawn by the current artist de jour Jim Lee.

Lee, a Korean-American, was another artist to bring a completely new style of comics art to the industry. He was influenced by many of the greats of the Sixties and Seventies, but also found inspiration in Japanese manga comicbooks and European styles, obscure stuff often overlooked by the average US comics reader. Also with Jim Lee came his friend and fellow artist Whilce Portacio (a Philippine whose real name is Ursuerro Barrento). Portacio had also worked for Marvel before, but like Lee, never on such a prominent title. While Lee was drawing and co-plotting the new X-Men comic, Portacio had drawn and co-written UXM #281, with comics writer and former X-Men alumni John Byrne. Byrne had been hired ostensibly as the Claremont clone for UXM. Both comics were solicited in the same month and this was to ultimately have profoundly bad ramifications for retailers.

Not content with just advertising these new X-Men books, Marvel did something it had never done before in all its years of publishing. Shortly after the first issue of X-Force went on sale, with orders already in for the new X-Men launches, Marvel contacted distributors and retailers and basically appealed to their sense of greed. “See? We told you X-Force would be a huge hit. We bet you never expected it would be better than imagined? How many will X-Men #1 sell? How many will the new Uncanny X-Men sell? Have you ordered enough to meet the demand?” Some shrewd people in Marvel’s sales department saw that demand was outweighing supply exponentially. Once the initial orders for both comics had been tallied up UXM was 3million and X-Men #1 was just over 5million. By the time Marvel reminded everyone how successful X-Force had been and threw in some more bulk discount rates at larger retailers, orders exceeded anything ever seen anywhere in the world.

X-Men #1 was pre-ordered to the tune of 8.5million copies. The world’s retailers almost doubled their initial orders. You’d think this was a good thing. You’d think if retailers had that much faith in the product it surely couldn’t fail? But there was a sting in the tail, a really bad one.

Spider-Man #1 with its massive sales for the five variants issues had swept comics fans off their feet. X-Force #1 with its blatant sales gimmick (and first introduction to trading cards to many people) had swept away the previous year’s record holder. Uncanny X-Men, arguably, did best of all because it was released in (initially) just one standard comics format. But the ultimate was X-Men #1. The sales gimmick this time around was quite inspirational – but, with hindsight, only in a way that can be compared to cavemen discovering fire – they knew they were onto something but people were going to get burned in the learning process. X-Men #1 was released in 5 different versions and would ship from the printer on weekly intervals. Four of the five versions would have interlocking covers that put together formed one giant montage. The fifth edition would be printed on glossy paper, have the highest production values Marvel could use at the time and would retail for twice the price. X-Men #1 was a double-sized introduction issue. Issues #1a to #1d were $1.95 and #1e was $3.95. With the exception of the covers there was no difference between #1a, #1b, #1c or #1d. The only difference in #1e was that it was glossy and featured a foldout cover of #1a-d’s cover images. They were the same story repackaged in different covers. That was it - 1a was the genuine, all others were effectively reprints. That was the gimmick that would revolutionise sales and buy me my Porsche.

Can you guess what happened?

The week #1a came into the shop it was like a feeding frenzy at the zoo. I had over 10 boxes full of just one comic, when my standard weekly delivery normally consisted of 2 or 3 boxes with everything in. I had people three deep at the counter buying five copies of this first issue. We sold 75% of them in the first week. #1b arrived a week later and you could see the tumbleweed sweeping across the shop floor. #1c and #1d were even worse and #1e was an unmitigated flop. I had a cellar full of X-Men #1s. I knew of fellow shop owners that had even more. Despite this being the most popular comic of all time it probably only sold about 3 million in total. More than half the orders sat rotting in retailers’ backrooms or store cupboards. I heard tales of the comic being used to light fires, even as toilet paper! Who would you blame? Who was responsible for this humungous waste of paper? Well, it was obvious. We were.

Then it was time to pay.

The problem was very few people took enough money to cover their orders. Just about every retailer in the US and the UK took a bath on this comic. The problems started when about 30% of the comics shops owners realised they didn’t have enough money (cash flow) to pay their bills and their ‘friends’ the distributor and publisher were hovering over them like vultures on a rotting carcass.

This is where I come back into the tale, but we need to rewind a year or so...

Next week: Hall - champion of UK retailers and a meeting with Marvel.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Eight)

1991 started well. As the owner of a shop I was happy with sales and making enough money to keep the wolves up the street, let alone away from my door. Times were good. An idiot could have made money from comics at that point – and I did. Despite the previous year’s Spider success story, the one real bonus for comic shops at that time was the X-Men franchise of books. It was a franchise because on its own it would be the biggest single comics publisher in the United States. The X-Men were huge even before the films came out. The X-Men were the real success story of comics between the mid 1970s and 1991.

You have to understand something about The X-Men. It is the perfect rags to riches story. It is, contentiously, one of the single most important US comicbook series to have existed and thanks to its continued success helped the industry see a premature end to the good times.

[I used to know a lot about the X-Men. I worked on a year-long feature for Marvel UK exclusively on the X-Men. I was interviewed in Time Out about my love of the X-Men. I produced a fanzine about the X-Men; I knew the editor, the writers, some artists and most of this will be covered as we trundle through the 1990s at a pace.]

Created in 1962 by that man Stan Lee again and an artist called Jack Kirby, who we’ll touch on later, the X-Men was quite unique from the word go. For starters it was a sort of superhero parallel to the race situation in the US during the late Fifties and early Sixties, except instead of these heroes being black; they had been born with genetic ‘improvements’. Therefore because they were homo superior they were immediately outcasts. The biggest difference between mutants and superheroes was that superheroes gained their powers through experiments or accidents; mutants were born with their power latent until puberty – therefore they were different, they were freaks!

The X-Men started in an almost covert way. We were introduced to a world, the same world as housed Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, but one that was already aware of the threat to humanity from mutants. How the average guy in a Marvel street could tell that Spider-Man was obviously the result of a freak lab accident involving a radioactive spider and not a mutant, but Cyclops, who shoots bolts of energy from his eyeballs was obviously born that way, is anyone’s guess? Perhaps all mutants smell really bad? But Marvel (whether it was Lee, Kirby or both of them) created this prejudicial concept - not new, but new for comics - and one that is still phenomenal today.

Marvel’s dip into the world of DC and superheroes followed years of producing horror, SF, western and romance comics - the only way they could produce comics was to guarantee they wouldn't produce stories that looked anything like market leader DC. Fed up with playing second fiddle to their larger opponents, Stan Lee, his publisher Martin Goodman (both already veterans of comics, who had both worked on superhero titles such as Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Red Raven and The Human Torch during the war years) and some others (Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Marie Severin, Bill Everett to name just a few) created Marvel Comics - from the dregs of Atlas. In their first year they launched Spider-Man; the Fantastic Four – Mr Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the (new) Human Torch and the monstrous Thing – a team of world saving misfits (but obviously not mutants); The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man and a host of now familiar faces such as Doctor Doom, (the return of Marvel’s 1940s hero) the Sub-Mariner, Aunt May Parker, Rick Jones and Dr Octopus. In the second year Marvel needed to sustain its early impetus and Lee and his team set about creating new characters, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandoes (essentially a WW2 piece that Lee and Marvel were renowned for producing, but with that new hip superhero style applied) and then his later incarnation as Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (who appeared in the title Strange Tales).

Among this second wave of Marvel characters was The X-Men. Stan Lee claims that he always had faith in the product, but it was clear that from the start the X-Men wasn’t a comicbook that high hopes were held out for; Lee cut his ties with the book after a dozen issues or so.

Back in those days comics sales tended to be measured in the half millions. Comics were a staple diet of most kids and adolescents of the Forties through to the Sixties. The choice was startling and the same stigma wasn’t attached as it is today. Half a million copies an issue was about the breakeven point when The Uncanny X-Men began and it achieved this figure and higher. But within 18 months of creating the title both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had moved onto other projects and UXM (as we shall refer to it) was taken over by people who many will argue were great creators in their day but really weren’t the right people to steer this ship.

Yet despite a host of (arguably) substandard artists and writers, UXM continued to be a groundbreaking comic for its era. It was the first major comicbook to feature the death of one of its leading characters – Professor Xavier (but don’t worry, he got better); it was the first Marvel comic that told the origins of the lead characters as vignettes – a back-up story rather than as a flashback. It was also groundbreaking in other ways. Artists with big reputations were attracted to the book mainly because by the time it had been going 5 years it had become a kind of playground for experimentation. Stan Lee’s protégé, Roy Thomas, reached heights of storytelling he could never, ever, achieve again on other books he wrote, but probably only because no one else really wanted to write it, so Thomas treated it as the comic to experiment with, because the general feeling in Marvel’s offices was it wasn’t going to live very long.

This first came to light with #49. It featured a cover illustrated by the artist who had turned Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD from a Cold War version of the gung-ho Sgt Fury into a Prisoner-esque psychedelic montage of the best the Sixties could offer. The man’s name was Jim Steranko and while he’s hardly the best known person in comics and probably unknown outside of your local comic shop, he was 60s cool. Steranko, who worked on only a handful of comics in his long, at times barren, career, is revered by anyone over the age of 50 as one of the key people to have helped implement changes in comics and their overall presentation. Steranko drew the cover to #49 and then wrote and drew #50. It was like reading the Famous Five on acid.

Many people inside Marvel’s offices knew that UXM was bordering on the point of cancellation. Marvel had had failures before, some that had even returned as successes (The Incredible Hulk was cancelled after 6 issues in 1963, but went on to become one of Marvel’s best selling characters; but both Silver Surfer and Nick Fury; Agent of SHIELD failed; the latter becoming a serial failure), but the general feeling inside the Marvel offices were that the X-Men just didn’t work. The comics fans didn’t ‘dig them’ the way they did the other characters. The comic and the team had makeovers almost every six months but still lost readers hand over fist. Yet remarkably UXM was about to enter a period that many fans consider one of the best and the tone would be set for the future, unknowingly at the time.

Despite a ten-issue run that saw some of the best comics the still relatively fledgling Marvel ever produced, UXM’s fate had already been sealed (plus it had been reduced to the ignominy of a bi-monthly distribution, which in the late 60s was another kiss of death). The book was being cancelled and because of newsstand commitments its final issue was set over a year in advance. Issue #66 would be the last issue and yet #55 had not even been printed. Given 18 months to try and tie any loose ends up, Roy Thomas decided he would do something different with Marvel’s tragic mutants.

Over at DC, a young artist called Neal Adams was shaking up editorial staff and readers with his realistic depictions of Batman and Green Lantern, so Thomas approached Adams and offered him a chance to work on UXM. Seeing the potential but controversially unaware that the book was being canned, Adams jumped ship from DC and came over to Marvel and with Roy Thomas, Tom Palmer, an up and coming inker, they set about reinventing the X-Men for the last time.

Out went the corny costumes, dodgy dialogue and silly villains and in came a real sense of paranoia; the kind that Lee and Kirby had attempted to convey when the comic started. Suddenly, the X-Men were dark and the stories reflected this new direction. The fact that sales on the books rose could not stop cancellation, but suddenly the sale or return figures for the comic were growing in one direction and getting much smaller in the returns direction; the mail sacks at Marvel’s offices were getting heavier; the kids had started to dig the X-Men, but it was too little, too late.

Adams, who was plotting as well as drawing the series, quit before the final issue - he had even persuaded Marvel to take Dennis O'Neil, a DC editor on and intended to work with O'Neil on future X-Men comics, but then he learned that his comic had no future. He was also hot property and moved onto other projects and it was left to Thomas to wrap up the story lines as best he could. It probably was intentional to have The Hulk as the guest in the final issue; perhaps Thomas saw history repeating itself. It really seemed like Marvel was shutting the book on mutants forever, because #66 really had a schmaltzy they-lived-happily-ever-after ending. 1969 saw the end of UXM.

Marvel was into recycling long before it became fashionable and the publisher tried to keep a lot of its back catalogue of stories in print as often as they could. Reprints cost nothing and at the time they didn’t have to pay royalties or reprint fees. They had 66 X-Men stories to recycle and by 1971 UXM was back with new covers and the same crappy interiors that had the book cancelled in the first place. But the point was, all it was costing was a new cover and reprinting, even if they only sold a really small percentage some money would be made, and remarkably, these reprint issues of UXM still outsold 80% of all new comics on sale today!

Then in 1975 Marvel’s then President, Al Landau (no relation to Nick as far as I know), was looking into ways to sell Marvel products in foreign countries and the idea was mooted that they could re-invent the X-Men but this time have the bulk of them mutants from other countries. Then editor in chief Len Wein (the man responsible for writing that issue of Swamp Thing that started me on this trip originally) recreated the X-Men and then handed the writing reins to a young Marvel wannabe called Chris Claremont – Wein didn’t think there was any future in the team and was sceptical of its potential. Wein was also the man who created probably comics’ most popular character at the moment, Wolverine. The clawed X-Man made his debut in The Incredible Hulk.

Marvel started the ‘All-New, All-Different’ mutant book with the number following the final reprint issue, but it was premièred in a comic called Giant Sized X-Men #1. A new team was introduced. The original team consisted of Cyclops, the Beast, Iceman, Angel and Jean Grey – Marvel Girl, (there was also some ‘junior members’ in Havok – Cyclops’ brother and Polaris, his girlfriend). However, the new team would only feature originals Cyclops and Jean Grey; they were joined by the Canadian Wolverine; Colossus from the USSR; Nightcrawler from Germany, Storm from Detroit via Africa, Banshee from Ireland and Thunderbird, a native American Indian. The new team was assembled to rescue most of the old team from a living mutant island and stayed on when the old team decided they couldn’t work with this new team of roughnecks – hey prejudice amongst those prejudiced against – how very post-modern!

Giant-Sized X-Men #1 wasn’t a classic comicbook story, but it set the scene nicely for #94 (the new team’s issue #1) of the then bi-monthly new comic.

What followed was significant because new writer Chris Claremont tore up the rulebook for superhero teams – actually that isn’t true, he didn’t even look at other superhero teams, he set about building a soap opera family thrown together by their powers. He also killed Thunderbird off in the second issue, thus setting the standard that no one was safe. Claremont set about changing the way we viewed our superheroes. We learnt more about his X-Men in two years than we did about any of the other characters in the comics universes. Claremont invented the soap opera comicbook. But he also perfected the art of nothing actually happening yet the story always moving forwards at a pace you wouldn’t have believed possible. No other comicbook offered the reader the actual feeling that time was actually moving in these stories, there was unparalleled character development and all of this was achieved with infrequent issue scheduling and an ensemble cast. This was groundbreaking comic book writing.

By the time the new UXM went monthly it had one of the hottest artists in comics drawing it – John Byrne – and was one of Marvel’s top sellers. Marvel could have made the comic a monthly within a year but actually waited closer to three years. The company line was that Claremont and Byrne (and Dave Cockrum before Byrne) needed the time to produce such stunning issues – it was the usual Stan Lee created hyperbole thrown in to cover up the fact that despite the success of the book being phenomenal, the publisher was chicken shit about committing the book to a monthly, the X-Men had burned Marvel before. Comic fans were notoriously contrary, Marvel might get burned again.

By the time Byrne left the book, he and Claremont had killed off one of the main players (people who have seen X-Men 2 will know that Jean Grey sacrificed her life to save her team members); the book was breaking records and winning awards. Byrne left to work on the Fantastic Four before leaving Marvel to recreate Superman for DC, while Claremont remained at the helm of the X-Men for another ten plus years, steering it with a variety of what Marvel would class as A List artists.

Because of its success, the X-Men became the comic by which every other titles’ sales were judged. In even the leanest of years, each of the X-Men franchise books sold in excess of 100,000 copies per month. The X-Men and the ever-enlarging supporting cast were a family and the soap opera being woven by Claremont was as intriguing as any soap to appear on TV. Just being with them was as important as watching them kick arse and this was proven by entire issues being taken up with dialogue and discussion – in an era where action ruled, the X-Men could have an issue long conversation and get the fanboys even more excited. That feeling everything is moving forward working again.

Ironically, it took Marvel many years to finally do a spin-off title – New Mutants. It took a couple more before they produced a second spin-off title – X-Factor (featuring the original X-Men line-up), but by the time the revamped Spider-Man #1 was released it seemed Marvel had plans for more X-Men spin-offs than there are TV talent shows. After years of refraining from cashing in on the comics’ successes Marvel was about to flood the market with so much product you needed a scorecard to keep up with it.

“Ever dreamed of owning a Porsche? Well it isn’t a dream anymore!” That’s not the exact wording of the advertisement Marvel put out in the trade press in the autumn of 1990, but it’s pretty damned close. What they were teasing every retailer with was the possibility that 1991 was going to be the best year ever for them and Marvel. They got half of it right.

By 1990 the X-Men franchise was churning out future artistic stars at a rate of knots. After John Byrne had left a number of new artists came along and most of them became big stars. Working on UXM was your ticket to riches and there were few exceptions to this rule. Paul Smith, John Romita Junior, Arthur Adams, Alan Davis, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, all names many of you will not know from Adam, but people who would later become as famous in the world of the comics fan as Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks are in the film world. The latter two on that short list and a number of other comics artists, including Todd McFarlane, would be so inflated by the public’s response to their craftsmanship they would form their own comics publishing company. But that wasn’t to happen for a year or so yet.

While Marvel was busy making kings, the long-standing writer was making waves of his own. Marvel wanted to expand the line, bring out another X-Men book. Claremont didn’t see the need. They reached an impasse and Marvel committed an act of gross one-upmanship. On one hand Marvel was hyping the likes of Lee, Silvestri and McFarlane as the saviours of modern comics, yet casually disregarding the man who had single-handedly turned UXM from being the dud in the box to being the brightest of roman candles. Claremont didn’t want to write another X-Men title and didn’t want anyone else writing one that might interfere with his grand plan – a pompous attitude perhaps, but his track record spoke for itself. The man should have been in a position to bargain. He wasn’t and he left. Unfortunately he left the title on the eve of the new book’s launch and Marvel was facing a backlash from fans and retailers about Claremont’s sudden disappearance from the book. To give you a clearer idea, it’s a bit like Tom Cruise being advertised as the star of the film only to find that Dolph Lundgren had replaced Cruise and no one bothered to tell anyone else.

Marvel had such expectations of its new X-Men launch that it saw Claremont as pivotal to them. They needed him, or at least his name attached...

Next time: More Claremont and The X-Men; plus how all of what you've been reading started to effect the industry. It's a long one and probably hard going for the non-comics fan amongst you...