When my shop closed I was just one of about 15% of all retailers in existence that shut down between January 1992 and the summer of 1994. That was a particularly bad time for retail and yet orders and sales continued to rise. Well, orders did, sales had already started to slump because of the over-saturation of product. Of course, there were a high percentage of retail ignoramuses already up and running, who were the people who kept their business going, but probably didn’t really know how they did it. You think I’m joking? Take a wander into House on the Borderland in Peterborough. It’s still there and what a fantastically antiquated old comic and record shop it is. It has been there since time began, but neither of the guys who run it put their success down to acumen. “As long as I pay the bills we’re OK,” said Pete, the owner, once. It is a bit like a jumble sale gone wrong mixed with rubbish tip; it is, however, a pretty wonderful experience, especially if you’re into music, giant elephant carvings and dust. It is not a place for asthmatics or people with cleanliness OCDs. [And it is still going in 2011, having visited it for the first time in years and faced even more clutter!]
The UK had over 300 comics shops in 1990, in 2005 there are fewer than 150 and a huge percentage of these specialise in everything else but comics. In the US almost 20% of the independent comics shop went out of business in the early to mid-1990s. Marvel and DC put this down to natural wastage, but during this period it was not only the biggest spike in failed comics businesses ever seen, but one of the biggest drop offs in sales in specific regions. Some people claimed that this was good for the industry, a sort of wheat from the chaff scenario. The strong will become stronger and the rest will wither and die. But what about the less savvy comics fan in Shitsville, Iowa whose closest shop is either in Canada or Chicago! He’s gone. He doesn’t do comics any more, too much hassle – he’ll go and get drunk and join the KKK.
This was probably very good for the almost completely Direct Market-led comics industry. While the major publishers still had a newsstand presence and could bolster their income that way, it was still dwindling and made them little profit, if they could guarantee almost 100% payment from the DM distributor now – because the DM distributor had managed to kill off all the marginal and less profitable shops – then there might be a drop, but the ensured payments would counterbalance it. It was all about the ‘now’ rather than building for a future. The comics industry had again forgotten to think about tomorrow, they were only interested in how much money they could guarantee now.
You could argue that this wastage was probably good for the industry, especially if there were so many people opening comics shops who didn’t know their arses from their elbows, but this wasn’t about business acumen – many of these inexperienced owners were actually great managers, who were struggling to make a business work and just about holding it together. The difference between an owner and a manager is owners have to deal with everything about keeping a business going, a manager is responsible for managing the store and many crap owners had become great managers. Marvel, then DC and later Image Comics all exploited the basest of human emotions from these less-than-businessmen – greed. I know I must sound naive; God, I felt it during the early 1990s; but in comics retailing 75% of new owners have zero experience, but many of them are either lucky or learn very quickly and therefore they deserved support and help because you nurture your future, you don’t just exploit it for a quick buck. The major publishers, especially Marvel, exploited these naive people and it ended up being to their detriment. Yes, Marvel might now [be owned by Disney and] produce some of the biggest box office blockbusters in cinemas, but at the time it was just crass stupidity to believe that getting rid of the stragglers would end up making the comics industry a stronger place.
Put yourself in the place of Mr Fat Bastard and his moderately successful comics store ‘Fat’s Comics’. He’s been going for ten years and makes enough money to keep himself in Twinkies, pay the rent, and buy as many questionable DVD as he can afford. He supplies a service to his region, even if some of the customers’ parents aren’t keen on little Johnny going to the store on his own (or without a semi-automatic weapon). Fat Bastard is a bit half-sharp; he’s a redneck American who is probably inter-related (he is his uncle’s cousin’s brother). His ambition is of fulfilling a dream to be rich on selling comics and suddenly, through some very questionable advertising, Marvel Comics tells him he can be. There’s actually no physical evidence to prove that Marvel’s forecasting that 1991 would be the year that the profit floodgates would open. They were throwing hyperbole at retailers like they were free Point of Sale posters... The comics company constructed almost the entire scenario and, with the unwitting help of the comics press, made a killing – literally. Fat Bastard thinks that if he normally sells 100 copies of X-Men, then the new launch should be considerably bigger - if every one of his customers buys all of the copies that increases his order by 5 times. There are going to be the people who never felt they could penetrate the X-Men’s thick hide who will be interested in checking it out. There will be the speculators who want to invest in copies for the future. By this time he’s already over-ordered in his head, but he refuses to accept that it won’t be a success because Marvel ‘seems’ to be throwing money at the launch and are talking it up like the second coming of Jesus. He has faith in his publishers (He thinks Marvel is throwing money at the launch because he sees a lot of press coverage, unable to realise that’s what Marvel are good at, getting free press), he has to believe in them; they are his life blood.
The problem was that even though he over-ordered on Spider-Man and X-Force, instead of even barely getting his fingers burned, he was dining out on double cream Twinkies and wanking to new Razz mags. Hey, lightning had struck twice, who was to say that it couldn’t go for the hat trick? Never mind the fact that some of his die-hard aficionados were complaining that X-Force was a bit of a rip-off, most of the fans hadn’t woken up and realised they were having the piss extracted. So he commits himself to an order that’s something like 10 times his normal order – he’s going to get 1000 X-Men instead of 100. Add this to his already increased orders for the previous year’s Spider-Man and the huge orders for X-Force and UXM, he really needs to be able to shift a huge quantity of books in as short a time as possible just to make sure he can meet that bill – the one that he’s underestimated on the amount it is going to be. Then a month after he’s committed himself to ten times the expense in the following months, he gets a letter from Marvel saying that interest in X-Men is so phenomenal that even they are considering increasing the print runs to meet the huge demand they are expecting – something almost unheard of; Marvel taking a gamble on one of its own comics?! You need to realise that for a publisher to over print is rarely heard of in this day and age; they print to order; the concept of over printing is essentially the bold statement that they feel the comic is so good they know the retailer is going to want more and more of them. If a comic has a print run of 80,000 and the publisher is that impressed with the art/story/overall package, they might over print another 20,000 copies; but Marvel, in this instance, were suggesting they needed to overprint up to a million copies.
Now remember, we’ve already established that there were, at best, 200,000 die-hard comics fans in the USA and UK and the thing has already been ordered upwards of 5 million copies. It doesn’t matter how stupid the retailer is; he’s going to be blinded by the faith he has in the people who are keeping him in business. Trust me when I say that very few retailers, even the best ones, were not tempted to over order. Hey, it was money in the bank at a time when it really wouldn’t hurt!
So, the retailer is invited to beat the rush and order extra copies NOW before it’s too late. Fat Bastard panics and orders an extra 200 copies. He’s convinced himself that it will be a good investment. He now has to get rid of 1200 copies to his 100 regular X-Men readers. If no one else buys an issue that’s 12 per customer; he should have realised by now that this was not going to be of speculator interest. How could it be? There were too many copies!
The comic ships in August – a traditional hot month for the USA comics retail industry and the quietest month in the UK for retailers because everyone is on holiday. By the end of August Fat Bastard is looking at a huge amount of unsold issues and a bill larger than he has ever seen in his life. His bank balance doesn’t reflect what he has to pay. The distributors are as approachable as a rabid wolverine. There is only really one company to blame, but he will refuse to accept it. He will argue that his own industry fucked him royally up the chocolate starfish, but at the distributor level, the publisher is blameless. He is allowed, in my opinion, to believe he had no support from comics, but in this scenario, he probably doesn't blame them at all. By October he is being threatened with closure. He hasn’t had a new delivery in weeks and his constant letters and calls to Marvel for help have fallen on deaf ears or stonewalling receptionists. A sting has been performed and it was totally legal.
And here’s the rub. Does Fat Bastard hate them for ruining his life and business? Not at all, if he could sell his mother to finance just a few more months of running his shop he would. There’s very little he wouldn’t consider to allow him to continue. But he closes and part of the town it was in has lost a service that catered for enough and now because there isn't another comics shop for miles and miles, that money is lost forever.
The repercussions however don't stop with him. Despite the size of Diamond Distributors, they also have to pay the bill to Marvel and if 50% of their customers are struggling to meet their debts, it puts huge pressure on the supplier. Eventually, the people who remain in business will pay for those that fell; so if Fat bastard had stayed open, he would have continued to be butt-fucked by the industry because of the failure of others caused by wild ungrounded optimism.
The thing is, from a socio-economic perspective, the comic shop owner is the person that most people associate with comics fans. Yeah, you might see freaks and weirdoes in the street, but they might be into something altogether different, but when you see one sitting behind the counter of a comics shop, the immediate thoughts are that everyone that comes onto his floor space is going to be equally as odd. Plus you always remember the weird ones, never the normals.
So, as you might have gathered, by the way we keep coming back to X-Men #1 and the Marvel sting that I’m a little obsessed by it. The truth is that I am, because ethically what Marvel did was wrong. It killed businesses and destroyed lives. It prevented people from having access to comic shops like they have access to chemists or record store and all of the fans I’ve talked about ended up being the ones who suffered – the largest demographic. In the end, Marvel didn’t give a fuck about their fans, they were only interested in end of year returns; making fast cash and breaking records. I wonder, all these years later, how many people who worked for Marvel during that summer still work there or even work in the upper echelons of comics? I really hope that it’s zero and a large percentage of these people have suffered at some point or another since.
And that largely concludes my retail story; we have one other fan excursion to take before we get down to the nitty-gritty.
Next time: Humour, or the lack of it.