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Issue #99

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #99
  • Marc Mason of the Internet graphic novel bookstore (and Arizona based reader) Khepri recently sent me some observations from this year’s San Diego Con. (The following is only a portion; you can read the whole thing here.) It’s a retailer’s ground zero point of view on the current state of the business, and speaks more concretely on these matters than I can, so here it is, with Marc’s permission:

    “San Diego took some serious recovery time this year.

    That said, I think I learn exponentially more about the inner workings of comics and readers each time out, so it gets more interesting. I didn’t just have a good time seeing old friends; I also got to get a greater grasp on the retail side of things thanks to working at the Khepri booth. A very well-rounded week.

    Biggest Thing Learned: no matter how much lip service is given to working on building the audience, diversity is still an enormous issue that needs to be dealt with, and not just on the comics side of things. Khepri uses SD to sell off toy overstock, and people are starving for good toys. More to the point, people are starving for toys that really don’t exist.

    DC put out a golden age Wonder Woman figure years ago that they let slide “out of print.” You have no idea just how many of those we could have sold. Girls want toys just as much as boys, and they don’t want Marvel’s semi-porn Black Cat and Elektra figures. They want real heroes, and they aren’t there. The animated Wonder Woman figure was a damned near instant sell-out con-wide, mainly because she was packed one to a goddamned box by Mattel. Apparently no stereotype can be left unturned.

    Even moreso, where are the action figures of color? African-American participation at the con is rising steadily, but comics barely show this, and toys certainly don’t. Anything with the John Stewart Green Lantern was gone within two days, whether comic, DC Direct, or animated figure. Thanks to the JL cartoon, his popularity is through the roof. And needless to say, a Static figure would be nice as well.

    The real pisser about that is that DC has a third wave of Superman figures coming, and they don’t include Steel. What sort of idiocy is that? The lack of a figure of the black Superman is just…sad. There needs to be some smarter market research done and some minds opened.

    It’s best not to get me started about the lack of Hispanic characters in comics and toys. I’ll just say that we were all grateful that living in Arizona gives you the opportunity to learn a bit of rudimentary Spanish, because it was completely necessary. Sadly, barely any publishers or toymakers seem to care.

    Over the last three years, these trends have grown and grown huge! But matters continue to simply get worse. And, as a retailer, it just churns your gut when a ten-year old Latino kid wants to find a superhero toy that looks like him but instead puts on a sad face when there isn’t one. So he buys a “Spawn” toy because he recognizes that the easiest. Bleah.

    You see these things happen over a five day period, and you feel for how much of an uphill climb that Prism Comics, the Sequential Tarts, and Friends of Lulu have. No one with the big money gives a damn about diversifying the audience except the big money that makes small digest-sized books that read right to left, which is why Dirk Deppey is right about the future of the market.”

    I forget where – sorry for not crediting it – but somewhere else I recently read a conversation among Hispanic comics readers along the same lines, complaining of how they’re traditionally treated by mainstream comics, where characters like “The Living Lightning” are introduced as “Latino heroes” and the main way you know they’re Hispanic is the way bits of Spanish pepper their dialogue. Given that Hispanics are now the largest minority in America (there really is no such thing as a majority racial group here anymore, is there?) – and I know there are tons of Hispanic comics readers (I meet them constantly) – doesn’t it make sense that we start coming up with some decent Latino characters? As for toys, someone suggested someone produce a line of LOVE AND ROCKETS action figures, which sounds like a pretty good idea to me. Young Hoppy or Fat Hoppy?

    Or, to put it another way, we’ve already surrendered to (now revealed as) huge female audience to manga. Who do we want to surrender the Latino audience to? How much are we willing to sacrifice to cling to our preconceptions of what comics are supposed to be?

  • Another subject that came up recently was exactly what the direct market is, since many blame the current problems of comics (not without some justification, though, as with most things, it’s complicated) on the “monopoly” of the direct market on comics sales. (Usually cited is a need to get “back to the newsstands,” but, as I’ve said before, newsstands don’t want us. (We don’t bring in enough profit for the space involved, which is why newsstands dumped comicsnot the other way around, as many seem to think – in the first place.) As many don’t appear to have a grasp of the forces that resulted in the development of the direct market in the 1970s, I produced the following down-and-dirty cheatsheet. I wrote it quickly and without doublechecking dates, so it’s probably not flawless (and if anyone can provide corrections, I’d be happy to run them) but it should give everyone a basic understand of what was going on. Like now, the 1970s were a tumultuous time for the American comics industry – a time when DC seriously, albeit briefly, contemplated canceling SUPERMAN and BATMAN (of course, there was still a tradition then at DC of canceling any title that fell below sales of 300,000 copies, so keep it in perspective) – and, like now, there was a lot of clinging to ideas and institutions that had run their course, as everyone fumbled their way into an uncertain future:

    “Technically, newsstand distribution of comics became problematic around 1974, when there were great changes going through the magazine market (not to mention massive inflation), and comics sales were plunging (particularly for DC, but across the board). This perhaps not coincidentally also corresponded to the rise of interest in specific comics, such as CONAN THE BARBARIAN (very popular on college campuses throughough the early ’70s) and HOWARD THE DUCK. A problem was the distribution system: due to the economics of distribution, distributors were credited for every unsold comic returned, and this led to the regular process of whole comics runs being pulped by distributors – they’d simply pick, oh, this month’s CONAN, strip all the covers and send the whole lot back without ever putting the books on the stands to see if they’d sell, and since all comics were equal to the distribution chains, they didn’t really know which comics were hot properties and which weren’t. It had seriously gotten to the point where they could actually make more money “pulping” comics for return credit than they could by putting them on the market.

    Around the same time, antique stores etc. were starting to sell old comic books, and the back issue market — particularly of Golden and early Silver Age comics — was taking off and becoming an economic force. This period saw the first publication of the Overstreet Price Guide, which eventually became the Blue Book for the collector’s market. Because these shops were getting comics fans in, some shops got the idea to also sell new comics, which they had to get from distributors. Before long, it wasn’t rare to see these shop owners, who generally did know what was hot in the market (CONAN; HOWARD THE DUCK) and what wasn’t, into the distributors on delivery day to pull their own comics, which some distributors allowed and some didn’t. (I briefly worked for one of these distributors in 1973; I know whereof I speak, as I watched them in action.)

    NY comics retailer and convention boss Phil Seuling as early as 1973 began trying to convince DC specifically to sell their comics directly to him. DC was loathe to go around it’s “real’ distributor, IND (the national chain, paradoxically called Independent News Distribution), which the company had longstanding ties to and which was now a brother part of Kinney Corporation (which a couple years later would change its name to Warner Communications). But IND turned out not to be particularly upset by the development; they were just as glad to not have to fill precious rack space with comics when PENTHOUSE and PLAYBOY were so much more profitable in the limited space. By 1974, DC was experimenting with directly supplying comics to Phil, and by 1975 others around the country were trying to get comics directly from Marvel and DC. As the back issue venues started getting more and more new comics in, the comics shop was born.

    Also feeding into this was underground distribution. Since the late ’60s, the counterculture had developed its own magazines, newspapers and comics, and a haphazard distribution system had sprung up. As the Supreme Court’s obscenity decision of ’73, making the definition of obscenity a matter of “local standards.” quickly shut down a lot of underground publishing, including a lot of underground comics, the counterculture distribution chains scrambled for new material to distribute. They caught wind of DC and Marvel feeding comics directly to outlets, and decided to get in on the act.

    The benefit of the system to Marvel and DC was that all this product was non-returnable. Don’t know whether it was Phil who proposed this as a carrot to get the ball rolling, or whether it was an unassailable condition before the companies would even consider such a “risk,” but it meant Marvel and DC were no longer subject to the weird system of credits and paybacks; even if sales were down, the new system meant money came in and stayed in.

    By 1976, these “underground” distributors (and by then I was working in an advisory capacity for one of them as well) were feeding comics to record shops, head shops, etc. – anywhere they could get them in. A problem they had was that they were still taking returns, but had nowhere to send them, so their economy was shaky even as DC and Marvel’s became more stable. But they also made putting a comics shop together much easier, because they were generally much more eager to accommodate customers than IND was, and neither Marvel nor DC was ready to start dealing directly with hundreds of little stores all around the country; they just didn’t have the marketing set-up for it. Underground comics had spurred a lot of “fan publishing” in the early ’70s, but now there were comics springing up, like STAR*REACH and the Eclipse line, designed to hook into these new systems when they wouldn’t have had a prayer of hooking into IND, so there was new product getting out there too.

    By the late ’70s, several things were happening. A lot of comics shops had sprung up, and it wasn’t lost on Marvel and DC that a) an increasingly large part of their business was coming from that sector while their newsstand sales continued to shrink. New publishing houses, most of them short-lived (it’s easy to underestimate the financial burdens of comics publishing, something that continues to be true today), were springing up right and left. The back issue market had fueled a new issue market. And the underground distributors were collapsing from their own weight; their economics were catching up with them. >From the ashes of one of these collapsed distributors, WIND, rose Capital City Distribution, owned by the two men who had handled WIND’s comics distribution, to service comics shops throughout the Midwest that had come to use WIND as their source. About the same time, Steve Geppi opened Diamond Distribution to serve comics accounts on the East Coast. These became feeder systems to basically the specific, captive, growing market of comics shops, which were now using new comics as a lure to get customers in to buy back issues, which was still where the profit was for most of the shops. CCD and Diamond (and the other handful of distributors) were subject to the same conditions Phil Seuling had been subject to: all purchases were final, no returns. And both distributors received their comics directly from the comics companies (actually, they were drop shipped from the printers), hence what became known as the Direct Market. This was an enormously profitable set up, particularly for Marvel, and it fueled the growth of comics in the ’80s. The existence now of shops dedicated to comics and distributors whose business it was to move comics also led to the explosion of comics publishing in the ’80s.”

  • Interesting comics site: Tommy Nosto’s NOSTOMANIA. Sounds like it should be a self-obsessed blog, but it’s actually a collecting site where users (registration is free) can list their comics collections, and then the site keeps track of the current market value of each issue for you. (The site provides the same service for coin collectors, by the way.) Now I’m not huge on speculation, but buying, selling and trading comics, hell, these are cornerstones of fandom. Check it out. More interesting on the site than that (to me, of course) is a new column by my old pal Mike Baron , perhaps best known as the creator of NEXUS and THE BADGER, talking about comics in general and the ups and downs of his writing career in particular. And it looks to be entering an up phase. Go read it.
  • Other interesting mail:

    “Good to see you at the con a few weeks ago. The con is too big with security partitioning off who can go up the escalator, so it is a little bit insane. One of the interesting thins for me was talking to another independent publisher who said that to defray costs, they had a co-op going. By joining together with other publishers to reduce printing costs, obviously, the overall costs are reduced because it is in bulk and it makes me wonder what other offshoots of that agreement could work. After all, the Japanese have keratsu where certain companies only do business with each other, so who knows?”

    Sure, why not? There are already a ton of companies in the business that won’t do business with each other… why not the other way around?

    “Stop insulting the Clamp School boys! Not only did you think that Akira-kun had a crush on Nokoru-sama, but you make fun of Suoh-kun!!! A fifth-grader dating a kindergartner might seem a little outrageous- But think about it like this! When one’s 40, the other’s 35, and it’s not a big difference! So why should it be when they are kids? As long as they love each other, who cares about any of the other stuff!

    …And Akira-kun likes the class president of the kindergarten class, NOT Nokoru-sama, or that apple pie lady! Thanks for listening to my ranting! I’ll defend my kawaii detectives at any cost!”

    Okay, okay. I’ll stop interpreting CLAMP SCHOOL DETECTIVES from my adult American perspective…

    “Sorry to bother you, but here’s something I think you might find interesting to discuss on your column that isn’t politically driven. 😉

    I was recently informed from an associate of mine that basically drawing any pinup of any character that I don’t own, be it in a sketchbook, on bristol, what have you, is technically breach of copyright / TM unless you’ve arranged a licensing agreement with the holder. I thought about this, checked with some legal counsel, and this seems to be accurate.

    Am I correct to assume that every artist should be watching over their shoulders at conventions now? I mean, if you charge for a sketch, you’re making money off of someone else’s character(s), be it in a sketchbook or not, which is infringement on their rights. More importantly, in today’s age, there’s no knowing whether or not a fan will scan your work and display it online (or print it out on their printer and sell copies, for that matter). Though the fan is the one in breach, you drew the character, so you’re legally responsible, because they couldn’t have displayed or copied it if you didn’t draw it.

    I realize that there’s good faith and all that, and that for the most part comics publishers aren’t going to go after someone for an individual piece. But it seems to me if a publisher ever chooses to single out someone (save for artists whose works are sexually explicit or clearly derogative to a concept), there’s going to be a major shitstorm. To do this would mean technically they would have to enforce it against any / all artists not currently under the publisher’s employ or covered through licensing arrangements. My associate has basically said that this is where all the publishers are headed and this will be the natural state of things by next year, as publishers are trying to kill the eBay and other online sales of their characters, for one thing.

    This seems very disturbing to me, as obviously no individual artist not currently employed by a publisher, whether they’ve worked for said publisher or not, is going to request and pay for the license to draw said company’s characters for individual pinups. They just aren’t. They can’t afford to acquire the rights, in all likelihood.

    What’s your take?”

    Hmmm…

    Not being a lawyer, I can only guess at this. From what I know, yes, I guess technically any commercial use of someone else’s copyright or trademark would constitute a breach of rights. This is what allows publishers, movie studios, etc., to occasionally shut down websites that prominently feature their trademarks, even though, on the surface, those websites are fan sites promoting those trademarks. (Which is an argument such websites most often make.)

    So, yeah, technically, I suspect every artist who sells a Dr. Strange convention sketch for $10 should be paying Marvel a little something for use of the character – or, preferably, should get permission (maybe even do a licensing agreement beforehand) to use the character in a commercial manner, which, when you think about it, is really what’s going on. (Same deal with fan fiction, when you think of it, particularly if published on the Web, where many Web sites use the “content” as a come-on to get exposures for banner ads, which is how they make what scant money they make.)

    Fortunately, this isn’t a perfect world, and the amount of effort and trouble (not to mention alienation) companies would have to go through to enforce this kind of thing and collect their tithe would almost certainly not be worth the trouble and could trigger severely bad relations with the talent and the marketplace, and most of them have the brains to know that. Also there’s a tradition in comics going back decades and decades of artists doing sketches of popular characters, etc., and I think it’s fair to say the understanding in the business is that companies have tacitly licensed their properties in that manner, so that, even though an artist may be charging ten dollars to do a convention sketch of, say, Vampirella, it constitutes no inherent challenge to ownership of the copyright or trademark. It is understood that the art is the property of the artist (or whoever buys it from the artist) and the character is the property of the company. So while the art itself may be a commercial exploitation of the character, traditionally no actual infringement is considered to take place until the artwork itself is commercially exploited. (You can’t start selling posters of Steve Lieber’s rendition of Tarzan without all kinds of interesting infractions, given that a) you have no right to commercially exploit the property and b) ownership of physical artwork and ownership of publication rights to the artwork are two different things, and one doesn’t necessarily imply the other, as comics companies themselves have discovered.) That might not be the case from a strictly legal standpoint, but it’s the traditional point of view of the comics industry, and that holds a certain amount of weight until some other precedent is established.

    Of course, eBay trade of original art etc. has complicated the picture. Can artists be held responsible for unintended illegal exploitation of their work? (I can see why some companies might want to establish that precedent, but it has nothing to do with convention sketches.) Who knows what company lawyers are cooking up? I don’t see them going after the artists creating the work unless those artists are making a substantial income off exploitation of the characters. Then again, as I said, I’m not a lawyer… and companies would be within their rights, as I understand them, to take such action, suicidal as it might be on a number of levels.

    Any legal eagles want to step up and take a shot at this?

  • Due to circumstances beyond my control (see below), I’m not much up to any political discussions this week. I would like to recommend that anyone who still insists our expedition into Iraq was all about helping Iraqis and nothing at all to do with oil should read this article by Kenneth Davidson about how the Hand Puppet a few months back quietly signed an executive order (they have the force of law, y’know) that allows American oil companies to go hog wild exploiting Iraqi oil on the American taxpayer’s nickel, and gives them amnesty in advance from prosecution for any crimes, corporate or otherwise, stemming from those activities. So you can say whatever you want about Iraqi oil belonging to the Iraqi people and how we’re in there for humanitarian reasons, but you’re lying to yourselves, just like the Hand Puppet and his administration have been lying to us. I mean, come on, how much proof do you need?
  • Bad week: constantly interrupted work capped by the apparent self-destruction of my ISP, which began with e-mail problems and ended with their toll-free number being disconnected and their main phone answering with an automated voice saying their voicemailbox was full. Didn’t take too much effort to get a new ISP, but it was a day I didn’t need wasted trying to figure out what was going on and another day I didn’t need wasted fixing it. Oh well…

    So I don’t really have the attention span today to do reviews, though I’d intended to. But here’s what’s in the hopper: SHOOTING STAR COMICS ANTHOLOGY #2. STAN LEE AND THE RISE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN COMIC BOOK. THE COURIERS. JENNIE ONE. Alan Moore’s THE COURTYARD. Roger Robinson’s SAMURAI SKETCHBOOK VOL. 1. VERTIGO POP: BANGKOK #2-3. KILLING DEMONS. WEDDING PEACH. PROJECT ARMS THE FIRST REVELATION: THE AWAKENING. FLAME OF RECCA, and I know there are some other things around here somewhere… Plus whatever comes in by next week…

    By the way, for truly strange anime, check out FOOLY COOLY (or FLCL, apparently), which quietly snuck onto Cartoon Network (Weekdays, midnight). It’s about an alien girl who rides a Vespa motorcycle, and when she whacks this boy on the forehead with her electric guitar, giant robots grow out of his head. Or something like that. The series isn’t very long, they’re replaying it after it concludes, and so far it’s big fun. Cartoon Network really has to do a much better job of publicizing their new shows and schedule changes, though, ’cause they stink at it now; who knew RUROUNI KENSHIN, which used to play early evenings weekdays, had been moved to Saturday 9:30?

    Want to remind everyone again that Avatar Press is releasing the first issue of FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, with gorgeous art by Juan Jose Ryp and a great cover by Frank himself today, in theory. Also don’t forget this month sees Cyberosia edition of DAMNED, my crime graphic novel with Mike Zeck, Denis Rodier and Kurt Goldzung, with a new cover, new story pages and a lot of additional material. DC now has October or November pegged for the SUPERMAN: BLOOD OF MY ANCESTORS graphic novel (story by Gil Kane, art by Gil, John Buscema and Kevin Nowlan), and it’d be nice if it made it out in time for the Las Vegas Comic Convention over the Halloween weekend. And don’t forget that Larry Young’s AiT/PlanetLar Books should be issuing the complete collection of my MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS collection some September; I should get an update from Larry on that for next column, just to get everything straight.

    If your local dealer doesn’t carry these titles, check out the fabulous online graphic novel shop Kephri – and look for their “Steven Grant” page. (They’ve got lots of creator-specific pages, so you can easily find what you’re looking for.) Plenty more to talk about, but time’s up, so check in next week.

    Ah, it’s that time of year again, when young men’s thoughts are turning to WizardWorld Chicago, and it looks like DC and Marvel are both out to outgun each other by shooting their entire announcement wad for the foreseeable future at once just to get anyone talking about anything. But, let’s face it, if the stories are true and Bill “I’m from New Jersey, where they know how to take a joke” Jemas really has been nutted at Marvel (and his not stepping forward to say he hasn’t been suggests an answer) and won’t be there to raise everyone’s blood pressure, it won’t really be the same, will it? But I still need a report or two from Chicago, if anyone wants to do one. Just nothing about food or drink in it, okay?

    (From Phil Ochs:

    Where were you in Chicago?

    You know, I didn’t see you there.

    I didn’t see them break your head,

    or see you breathe that teargas air.

    Oh, where were you in Chicago

    when the fight was being fought?

    Yes, where were you in Chicago

    when I was in Detroit?

    Poor old Phil…)

    Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

    Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

    I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

    My old personal webpage – the one with all the information – has finally vanished, and it’s about time, since I left that server almost a year ago. The new one isn’t up yet, but keep watching this space for details.

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