Phill Hall used to be a comics retailer and the News editor for Comics International before launching the PDF comics magazine Borderline – then abandoning comics altogether. Now, however, he is going to look back on it all for Bleeding Cool.
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 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 collectors 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.