Mar 272015
 

I keep referring to ‘The Glut’ that occurred in the B&W comic book markets in the late ’80s, and came across this great series of re-posts from the Comics Journal. Of course, I cannot re-post the whole thing, but here is the pertinent page from the article, one that explains it all perfectly.

I highly suggest anyone trying to understand just how the heck the comic book industry destroyed itself once upon a time read the whole thing over at The Comics Journal; http://classic.tcj.com/history/a-comics-journal-history-of-the-direct-market-part-two/


From A Comics Journal History of the Direct Market, Part Two by .

Black and White and Dead All Over

(Originally published in The Comics Journal #116, July 1987; reprinted in The Comics Journal #277, July 2006.

Page 2:

The bloom was off the rose in December [1986] or, if you were slow about it, January of last year [1987]. What rose, you ask? The most sacred and cherished rose in America: the belief that the American public will consume limitless quantities of useless garbage.

This idea ran afoul of a very basic economic reality: you cannot shovel shit into a finite market forever. The profiteers who jumped on the black-and-white comics-publishing bandwagon within the last year learned this when the black-and-white comics market collapsed. (The ripple was felt in the market for color comics and other formats, too.) From December through April at least, publishers have reported a drop in sales from 15 to 50 percent across the board. (That means even comics you may have thought were rock-solid have suffered.) The sales of some black-and-white comics may have plummeted even more dramatically over the four or five month period. The cause of the glut and subsequent collapse was partly greed and partly passivity on the part of “publishers,” distributors and retailers. One must wonder why, with all the breast-beating of the distributors and the ballyhooing of the innumerable trade shows held all year, there wasn’t a single mechanism within the entire infrastructure of the direct-sales system that could have foreseen or mitigated the disastrous economic collapse. Part of the explanation is that the infrastructure’s primary purpose is to create a self-perpetuating consumer frenzy at the expense of any responsible or even sane sense of proportion.

The crash began as a boom and the boom was in black-and-white comics. You would’ve had to have been particularly inept to publish black-and-white comics in 1986 and fail. As nearly as I can piece it together, this is what happened:

Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles was a black-and-white comics phenomenon, outselling every black-and-white comic preceding it, including the previous champ, Elfquest. The Turtles was originally a parody-of-sorts of Frank Miller’s Ronin and nobody knows why the parody outsold the book it parodied. The most plausible theory I’ve heard is that speculators, a notoriously slimy lot, realized that the press run of black-and-white comics was consistently smaller than that of color comics. Since the market value of a comic is at least partly based upon its scarcity, it followed that a comic that printed 10,000 to 15,000 copies will be scarcer than a (color) comic that prints 100,000 to 200,000. So speculators descended upon black-and-white comics, previously anathema to speculators because of their minority status, and started buying multiple copies. Multiple copies may mean three copies of a title or 300. No one knows. This probably took place in the late spring of ’86. A few comics achieved a success similar to that of the Turtle Boys (Fish Police, for instance). Here’s where it gets interesting and where the delicious irony sets in. The speculators’ scheme was to buy up huge quantities of black-and-white comics because there were fewer copies of a black-and-white comic printed than that of a color comic. But, if the speculators themselves were driving up the print runs, from 10,000 or 15,000 to 50,000 or 100,000, they were cutting their own throats because the audience for black-and-whites was never that large to begin with and it wasn’t likely the audience would grow exponentially just because a gang of speculators started buying up tons of the stuff.

This only goes so far in explaining why any configuration of ink on paper, placed between two irrelevant covers and badly printed in black-and-white, would sell. If a relatively small gang of speculators had instigated this lunacy, reason would tell us that it couldn’t last; they would wise up and slow down their purchasing or get into some other line of exploitation — become arbitragists or something. But, the boom not only continued, it skyrocketed. Here’s where the consensus theory ends and the Groth Theory begins.

At some point during the speculator frenzy, some weird, inexplicable consumer contagion took over and buying black-and-whites became something of a fad. So, your average fan got hooked on the idea of buying B&W comics, collecting them for no other reason than that they were collectable — not unlike collecting seashells, except that there were more B&W comics than seashells on any seashore.

This sort of psychologically-induced faddishness can’t last forever. It’s a little like the hula-hoop craze. Americans are nothing if not bored easily and kids are bored easiest of all. At some point — my guess is around September or October of ’86 — they got bored. They realized that most of this black-and-white crud was unreadable, that it was ugly and amateurish — even uglier and more amateurish than what they were used to — that there was simply too much of it to collect and hoard, and worse, that it was no longer fun — fun being the only reason to buy anything — so they went back to buying Marvels and DCs, which were at least easier to keep straight. The boom was over. The jig was up.

But the Groth Theory holds that the retailers didn’t know it was over — or didn’t want to believe it was over based upon my sub-theory that no retailer wants to believe a consumer frenzy is over and dead. Positively delighted at their ability to shovel so much crud across their counters, retail stores kept ordering mountains of this garbage — the rodents, the parodies, the ninjas — until their shops were bursting with the junk. And at some point they realized that the crud was no longer moving. Now, understand that retail stores must order books three months in advance of the book’s shipping date. So that, if a retail store owner only realized this stuff wasn’t selling two months after it in fact stopped selling — not an unreasonable amount of time for many retailers to realize what’s going on in their own stores, given the business and observational acumen of many retailers — and had committed himself to buying vast quantities of this unsaleable garbage for another three months based upon the irrational proposition that his customers will continue to buy rubbish forever, he would have five months’ worth of unsaleable, unreturnable flotsam cluttering up his store.

The black-and-white boom might have been over in August; it could’ve taken retailers until October to recognize this fact; and orders by retailers for books shipping in December and January reflected this panic.

You may wonder why retailers didn’t simply stop ordering the dreck and maintain healthy orders for the quality titles or at least the titles with a provable track record — Cerebus, Love and Rockets, The Spirit, etc. My guess is that a) retailers were broke and b) they still wanted to milk the market for everything it was worth.

Most comics retailers work on a tight financial budget; that is, they are under-capitalized and rely on week-to-week cash-flow to pay their bills. They must constantly move products in order to generate cash to pay for next week’s or next month’s books or otherwise sharply curtail the amount of their purchase from distributors. In this instance, the cash they would have theoretically generated was sitting on their shelves in the form of unsaleable crap. All they could do was to stare at it and bemoan their lack of judgment. This puts the retailer in the ridiculous position of being unable to fill the demand for books readers actually want to read because he literally cannot afford to buy them from his distributor. Mr. Retailer had to work with what capital he had left, which resulted in any number of ugly scenarios: if he had no capital left, he went out of business — as an inordinate number of retailers did in the last six months; he may have cut back orders dramatically because he didn’t have the capital necessary to buy his standard order; he may have paid his distributor late or not at all, which in turn forced distributors to pay publishers late or not at all. The domino was in place and it was an unmitigated disaster for distributors as well as retailers.

The disastrous consequences, incidentally, included the following: retailers going out of business owing distributors money; retailers paying distributors late; distributors, in turn, paying publishers late (by as much as 90 days); publishers paying creators late; good books suffering along with the bad when the market crashed in December and January; and a general demoralizing scramble for cash by everyone involved in an attempt to cover just enough of his bills to squeak by. Glenwood Distributors has gone out of business, owing vast sums of money to publishers (another blow to legitimate publishers and the creators who are published by them) and although the glut and subsequent collapse may not have singlehandedly put them out of business, it certainly contributed to their demise.

And the reason all of this happened, in a nutshell, is because mobs of amateurish, opportunistic publishers flooded the market with an avalanche of junk that, instead of being rejected out of hand by distributors and retailers who, one would presume, set certain minimal standards for what they sell, was embraced wholeheartedly.

Granted, comics publishers don’t have much to boast about when it comes to maintaining artistic standards, but the standards for comics publishing hit a new low, if that’s conceivable, in 1986. Retailers may have been at fault for not exercising even the most modest degree of judgment in ordering these artistic travesties, but even worse were these publishers who schlepped into the direct-sales market with all the enthusiasm and integrity of purpose of a particularly seedy brothel greeting the debarkation of the fifth fleet. Any potential profiteer who smelled a buck in comics crawled out from under the muck and started publishing like mad. Regardless, mind you, as to whether what they published was any good, because the idea of imposing standards of quality was either ignored altogether or applied so ignorantly and capriciously as to have been worse than useless.

Continued on 3 more pages at http://classic.tcj.com/history/a-comics-journal-history-of-the-direct-market-part-two/

  3 Responses to “The Glut Explained Via A Reblog”

  1. I may be a bit late coming in here, but there’s a part of the equation missing from this explanation. WAY back in the day…. late 70’s/early 80’s comic shops came about as a place to get the kind of books you couldn’t get elsewhere. Undergrounds, independents…. stuff like that. A lot of comic shops used to be counterculture “head shops” back in the 60’s and 70’s, switching to comics because those were what sold, and those comics were the old undergrounds. They chugged along, doing enough business to stay open and facilitate a handful of publishers. From this came the FIRST comic boom of the 80’s: the independents boom. And from that came the fist megahit of the era; the TMNT.

    The Turtles taking off took EVERYONE by surprise. It brought the independent scene more to the fore, and that was the problem. A LOT of folks who shouldn’t have been doing comics did; leading to the B&W glut. The problem here wasn’t that speculators were buying this stuff hoping for another windfall like the TMNT; it was that NOBODY was buying this stuff. Stores had to order months in advance, often with little to no description of the books they were ordering. There was no way to tell what was going to be good ahead of time, and since the comic distributors didn’t have a return policy, the stores got stuck with the books.

    *SIDE BAR: Marvel and DC were still distributed by the old magazine style publishers; who took returns and required repayment for unsold books. During the early 80’s when comic shops were taking off, both were desperate to get into the comic shops because of the no return policy. That’s why they started their “direct sales only” lines. It didn’t work so good…. at the time…. because most of the folks buying in the comic shops weren’t interested in “mainstream” books.

    The collapse happened ‘cos the shops couldn’t afford to take chances. They got REAL conservative about the stuff they’d carry. At the same time you had reports in the media about books like “The Dark Knight Returns” and the Punisher getting his own book…. reports emphasizing the value of older comics. Shops started carrying the Big Two, the buzz around their new books brought the speculators in, and the second 80’s boom kicked off.

    So it wasn’t the greed of the shops that created the Glut; more like fear. The Greed came later, resulting in the designer comic fad of the 90’s….

    Don C.

    • Hi Don, thanks so much for taking the time too add your thoughts and input.

      I’ve tried to better understand just what led to Silverwolf’s creation, and it’s the details like what you wrote about that give those of us looking back some ideas about what the heck happened, how, why, etc.

      You make a great point about nobody buying the books. In previous posts, I have looked at the print runs and figured if each shop only ordered (I thought sold, but ordered is more correct here) 4 books a month X 1,000 shops…and boom you’ve got an insane 40K print run for a B&W indie. I think Grips sold ‘decently’, maybe a couple others for an issue or two, but yeah, most were probably unsold.

      Heck, I discovered Silverwolf and Greater Mercury by finding near complete runs in a 10 cent bin, so…you might have a point.

      I really wish someone would actually write a book about that period and on through the gluts and busts, I think it could be a great book.

      Thanks again!

      Note: Check out Don’s Podcast at http://obeythedna.com/

  2. Oh man, you got me talkin’ about comics…. I don’t get to do it that often….

    > 4 books a month X 1,000 shops…and boom you’ve got an insane 40K print run for a B&W indie

    Yeah; especially since a lot of the old indies had print runs around 2000. You wouldn’t think it’d be that hard to move 2000 books, especially since the mainstream companies were cancelling books that fell to 250,000. I think the biggest problem of the boom/bust was that it didn’t see an expansion of readers. For the second boom you had a big influx of buyers, but a narrowing of what a “comic” was. I’m sure the reason why the Japanese comics took off here so big in the 2000’s or so was because it was marketed as “manga,” and not “comic book.” So people who’d never read a “comic book” – kids, girls, etc.- WOULD read “manga” because it was something different. And because it wasn’t a “comic book” it could be sold in places other than a comic shop. Places where the non-comic fan public could get at it. (By the 90’s Marvel and DC had effectively sequestered themselves in the comic shops.)

    It’s sad in retrospect because there WERE good books that got lost in the flood; and there were a lot of books that WOULD have been good if the folks making them had a bit more experience/practice/training/whatnot….

    >I really wish someone would actually write a book about that period

    It would be a good read, but I don’t think too many of the current crowd would be interested. You’d almost have to write two books; one for the indie folks, one for the mainstream. There was a LOT of animosity back and forth during the 80’s: each side was sure the other was ruining comics. You can see it in the article, how much disdain there is for the indies of the day.

    >Positively delighted at their ability to shovel so much crud across their counters, retail stores kept ordering mountains of this garbage

    ….like that. And there was just as much on the other side towards the Big Two.

    Don C.

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