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!

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