Is a monopoly on comics distrbution in the UK a good thing?

‘Geek’ culture is an a zenith right now with comics now seen all over the place, but back in the distant days of the 1980’s things were different. Comics were still very much a minority medium, and the comic book a niche product for mainly children and collectors; however by the late 80’s the seeds of today’s ‘Geek’ culture were sown when the UK’s direct market exploded after the boom created by work such as Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and in the run-up to Tim Burton’s Batman film, the industry hit what was considered by some at the time, as a peak.

Before I go on it is best to explain things in a bit more detail which may get a wee bit dry so stick with me here. The direct market in the UK took years to build up as comic shops slowly appeared (albeit normally as parts of a wider SF/fantasy bookshop) during the 1970’s in cities like London, Bristol and Edinburgh. In the early 1980’s comic shops started to really spring up with the growth of the American direct market, thanks partly to Titan Distributors ensuring there was a distributor of American comics based in the UK. In the mid-1980’s a number of competitors to Titan sprung up so there was nothing like the monopoly we have today where you only get your new comics via Diamond Comic Distributors.

American distributors like Bud Plant and Mile High dabbled with direct distribution to UK shops, but the issue was one of logistics. It wasn’t til American distributor Glenwood Distributing started air-freighting comics direct from the printers that it became possible to consider actually beating Titan at their game as they just relied mainly on sea-freight, or shipping comics from a third party outwith the printer. For the UK this meant that from 1985 onwards there were a number of distributors pushing to break Titan’s grip on what was a growing market in the UK, however it was Neptune Distribution run by Geoff Fry based in Leicester that broke the deadlock. As an ex-employee I go into details of Neptune’s history here, so go read those blogs for a more in-depth history of Neptune’s rise and fall, but what is important here is that by 1987 Neptune were knocking great big chunks out of Titan’s grip on the UK market.

Here’s where I get to something that’s a tad controversial. Titan and Forbidden Planet were linked by having the same owners in Mike Lake and Nick Landau creating an obvious conflict of interest. After all,how do you stop a distributor delivering to your customer base first potentially taking more business away from your company? Simple solution; start expanding the Forbidden Planet chain. This ended up causing a battled between Neptune and Titan that I outlined here. Then the editorial below was published in Fantasy Advertiser, published by Neptune and sold in Forbidden Planet. This was written solely by Geoff Fry but to this day I stand by the jist of it.

neptune-conflict-of-interest

When Mike Lake apparently read this in FP’s store then in New Oxford Street, apparently he went off his head with rage because this one editorial nailed the problem with having a distributor also acting as a retailer. They could use what should be confidential information to buy a business advantage in an area and they could unfairly compete with other shops by offering prices at wholesale prices (this happened when FP opened in Bristol in 1993) ensuring they undercut the competition. It should also be pointed out that publishers were not aware of this conflict of interest. I know of at least three retailers who pointed out to people from DC and Marvel what was going on, including one case where Mike Lake was asked to leave a DC retailers meeting when it was pointed out he also represented a distributor.

As I’ve outlined in my blogs Neptune did what it could to try to level the playing field but after Neptune’s implosion and subsequent purchase by Diamond the UK market started to be, frankly, less diversified than it is now to the point of being less adventurous. The reason for this is simple. Once Titan/FP had its hands round the neck of the market it squeezed so smaller titles that they or ourselves at Neptune may have taken on were dropped. Some shops also couldn’t compete with having a wholesaler who also acted as their main competitor which led to shops closing across the UK in the 90’s which to be fair wasn’t just the fault of FP/Titan as the speculator bubble of the 90’s burst taking a lot of people and businesses with it. In 1992 after swallowing up the corpse of Neptune, Diamond bought out Titan leaving the UK market to be served by one distributor deciding what they stock which in effect unnaturally shapes the market in the same way that say, having Virgin Trains running a train network on the basis of profit unnaturally shapes the market.

The title of this blog asks if a monopoly on comics distribution a good thing? It clearly isn’t. We’ve seen an industry grow beyond belief in the last decade with ‘geek’ culture being smeared everywhere yet the retail market in the UK has been shaped in the most unnatural way to barely any yelp from most of the so-called ‘journalists’ of the British comics scene who are more interested in self-progression so for decades have let this rotting sore in the industry fester. True, one or two have touched on this in the past and the Forbidden Planet situation but it remains one of those things that folk like me talk about in bars and coffee shops with others of our generation wistfully wondering why it all went so wrong when it could have went so right.

For me a more diverse, interesting industry comes with wholesalers who will play fair let alone taking risks as we’re now in a state where the Diamond catalogue is a minefield of variant covers and tedious new superhero comics with little new or exciting because once a monopoly is secure you can do anything. Yes, shops like Page 45 in Nottingham and Gosh! in London do what they can to show the comics industry is a diverse thing, but while there’s only one distributor we have a situation where any diversity is hard to find and if you’re a small press publisher then it can be a struggle to be discovered. Although digital helps for some, it doesn’t for most which means for new British talent it’s either hoping 2000AD accept you, or but some stroke of talent/luck your comic finds a market because as sure as shit isn’t likely that Diamond will distribute your book or FP will bother to stock it.

It’s impossible to turn back the clock but it is possible for the future to be changed. How that changes depends on what we all do as fans if we’re fed up of a monolithic monopoly controlling distribution. I’m not offering solutions here, but consider this a call for people to consider what’s best for the future as at some point this bubble is going to burst as all bubbles do and for our industry to remain interesting and diverse we need to shake the system up in a way that shifts power from the large corporations to the independent retailers, the creators and the fans or the future is bland, boring and fucked.

100 Years of Jack Kirby

It’s the San Diego Comic Con (well, it’s barely a comic convention than a media whorefest) this weekend, and the convention is celebrating Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday with a fantastic programme cover recreating one of his Jimmy Olsen covers from back in the 1970’s.

I’m glad they’re doing this as quite simply had there not been a Kirby all those people drawn to ”geek” culture would have drifted elsewhere. No Kirby, no Captain America, no Fantastic Four, no X-Men, no Iron Man, no Avengers, no Thor, no Mister Miracle, no Groot, no Nick Fury, no SHIELD, no Darkseid, no Black Panther, no romance comics, and in fact, the entire American comic book industry not to mention modern culture would look entirely different.

So well done to San Diego for driving the point home. No Kirby, and comic conventions would probably just be full of middle aged men buying back comics they sold when they were in their 20’s, and verbally wanking over Barry Smith’s Conan. Actually…

Anyhow, we should celebrate Jack Kirby and I hope the attendees this weekend make Jack proud.

What I thought of The Flash #22

It all ends and begins here! The DC Rebirth/Watchmen clustefuck hits a new level as the four-part ”The Button” storyline comes to a close with a cover featuring Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash promising the return of everything the New 52 cleaned out, but before we get there there’s a bit of matey banter between The Flash and Reverse-Flash, not to mention some prime product placement.

During all this Barry Allen mentions Hypertime, the Grant Morrison/Mark Waid idea that DC dabbled with in the 90’s to try to explain all the inconsistencies of their superhero universe.

Eventually the Reverse-Flash encounters the mysterious figure behind all of this (It’s Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen which we know anyhow), gets horribly killed and the Flash and Batman end up adrift in time and space heading towards an unknown voice.

That’ll be the Golden Age Flash.

However Barry and Bruce have no idea who Jay is because of that evil Dr. Manhattan chap and his big blue willy.

After Jay vanishes back into the ether, Barry and Bruce wrap things up while leaving things dangling, and talking about dangling, here comes Dr. Manhattan.

Which leads to the issue plugging November’s Doomsday Clock in which Superman and Dr. Manhattan will punch each other and ensure, once and for all, that nobody working at DC from Dan Didio to Geoff Johns actually read and understood Watchmen. As a roll of the creative dice this is a massive blank, but in terms of sales (and I speak now as someone diving back into the world of comics retail) this will sell books. They won’t be very good books but such is the power of Watchmen that it’ll propel DC along for a few years and then the novelty will have worn off.

See, Watchmen will continue to sell. It’s a classic book. Every time I read it I find something new in it. You will never, ever say that with Doomsday Clock. But hey, it’ll sell and in 2020 when this has all died down DC will try to work out what to do next and realise they’ve nothing left in their tank and creatively, they’ve worn out the bottom of the barrel but certain people will have kept their jobs which ultimately is what all this has been about…

DC bring Watchmen into their universe so there can be big fights

DC Comics are releasing a mini-series where Superman (the first superhero as we know it) fights Dr. Manhattan from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen which is an adult orientated story that DC have been trying to exploit in this way for decades and now their dream is nearly complete as this series is being billed as the one that brings Watchmen fully into the DC Universe.

This is all part of the DC Rebirth event that started last year and now looks to close with a full-fledged fight between Superman, who looks like this currently…

And Dr. Manhattan who looks like this…

This is all being masterminded by Geoff Johns, a writer who is more popular, not to mention successful than his talent belies. Of course it’ll annoy people like myself who find the idea of integrating Watchmen into the DC Universe, but it shows the lack of creative thought at DC as make no mistake, this is a last throw of the dice for some people who want to retain their very well paid jobs.

As a piece of creative bankruptcy this is probably one which will pay off. Readers and speculators alike will be drawn to it in some cases in the same way one is drawn to a car crash on the motorway, but it’ll sell, it’ll save people’s jobs and it’ll sully the one piece of Alan Moore’s work for DC that DC’s not managed to shamelessly exploit. Question is though in a year or two when this is all settled what do DC do next if there’s nobody creating new works of the quality of Watchmen? Gimmicks are fine but they’re short term sales tricks and won’t help when people are bored of Superman punching Dr. Manhattan.

What I thought of Batman #22

The saga of DC incorporating Watchmen into the mainstream DC Universe continues with Batman #22 which follows the last issue of The Flash.

The Flash and Batman are stuck in the Flashpoint universe, which shouldn’t exist but it does mean Bruce Wayne can have a conversation with his father, Thomas Wayne who happens to be the Batman of the Flashpoint universe. Confused? Of course you are. I don’t even think DC know exactly what’s going on.

Essentially this issue is about Bruce and his father talking while all of Thomas’s enemies mass to end his life. Of course they have The Flash with them who could fight all of them at once but he’s busy rebuilding the Cosmic Treadmill.

As the army of Amazons descend upon the Batcave, there’s a fight (of course) and eventually The Flash repairs the Cosmic Treadmill but not before Thomas and Bruce share a tender moment.

However the Flashpoint universe is collapsing.

As Barry and Bruce enter into the timestream they end up entering it before the Reverse-Flash was killed so they meet him holding his Watchmen badge.

Thawne is running to his doom though he says he knows who is behind this all. As for the issue it’s a bit of a mess as regular writer Tom King has Joshua Williamson help with the plot, and with Williamson dealing with the script too the entire thing feels like an undercooked stew.

Still, next issue of The Flash sees this story come to a close as DC ramps up the integration of Watchmen so that Comedian versus Batman series some fans have been drooling about is nearly here..

What I thought of The Flash #21

When watching a car crash it’s said to happen in slow motion. Well, it doesn’t and DC’s attempt to integrate Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen into the DC Universe and blame it for all of DC’s fuckups continues from the last issue of Batman to the latest issue of The Flash. To be fair the issue starts well as being a fan of the Justice Society of America it is nice to see Johnny Thunder at the start of this issue.

However the issue picks up from Batman #21 with Barry Allen finding not just Batman having had the living shite beaten out of him by the Reverse Flash, but the corpse of the Reverse Flash.

This isn’t actually bad superhero comics. Barry Allen is a bit too draped in misery to be the Barry Allen I grew up with but this is all decent, even passable stuff. It just feels a tad forced but there is a nice scene between Barry and Bruce Wayne which allows both characters to breathe a bit.

During this chat Bruce reveals to Barry he saw his father in a vision.

It seems also that the Comedian’s badge from Watchmen didn’t return with the Reverse Flash,not to mention Barry’s been having visions of Jay Garrick’s helmet.

In this reality Jay Garrick (the original Golden Age Flash) never existed, but yet Barry can’t stop thinking about his helmet and how it makes him feel. There’s a suggestion a lot of things from the pre New 52 era of DC is about to make their return, and indeed, when Barry goes to the JLA’s Watchtower there’s clearly been some tweaking going on.

After some faffing around The Flash and Batman go off in search of the Comedian’s badge, or to be exact, where it came from. To do that Barry digs out the Cosmic Treadmill which takes him and Batman though time and space.

What they see are all the missing out of continuity stories DC decided to dump for one reason or another.

Barry and Bruce end up back in the Flashpoint universe with Bruce’s father who is the Batman of this universe. Confused? Of course you are if you’ve not got any idea of the history of DC Comics. and frankly, it’d have been easier to just reboot DC’s superhero titles from the start but being attached to continuity means this complex bollocks.

Still, it seems that DC are heading towards at least making things more accessible unlike Marvel who are stuck in a mess of their own making. Still, two more parts of this story arc to go and we might just be nearer that Batman-Rorschach team-up people have been wanking themselves into a frenzy for.

What I thought of Batman #21

The ongoing car-crash that is DC’s Rebirth (DC’s attempt to integrate Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen into the mainstream DC Universe and blame it for everything ‘dark’) continues with Batman #21, a comic that makes the Watchmen link very, very obvious from the off.

That’s Saturn Girl of the Legion of Superheroes who has been locked up in Arkham Asylum since the Rebirth reboot started.She’s a telepath from the future so has knowledge of the 21st century and can read minds, so she knows (we think) what’s coming. As for the reader what’s coming is a bloody unsubtle reminder of what DC are doing with Watchmen.

Yeah, that isn’t subtle. Neither are the pages on 9-panel grids as Batman watches the same hockey game Saturn Girl was, which also adds as a meta-commentary on the nature and voyeurism of violence in comics. Of course Watchmen had very little violence in it, though what their was was either repulsive or there to make a point about the nature of violence in comics was never reflective of the nature of violence in reality. Here the point seems to be muddled, not to mention blaming Watchmen for the violence in comics after its publication.

A brush with the Psycho Pirate’s mask sees Bruce Wayne encounter his father, the Batman of Flashpoint.

Bringing the Flashpoint Batman back for a glimpse reminds us of The New 52,one of  DC’s previous attempt to reboot its universe in a ‘gritty’ way. it’s also blamed for generally poor sales and the company struggling before leading to Rebirth last year.Anyhow, after contacting The Flash, Batman ends up in a fight with the Reverse-Flash as it’s hinted that a ‘power’ (Dr. Manhattan?) brought him back from the dead.

So we get a few pages of Thawne beating up Batman (MORE VIOLENCE!!) before Thawne finally wins thanks to The Flash being late. Picking up the Comedian’s badge does this to Thawne…

That does look like a Dr. Manhattan style ”BZZT’ there. Unfortunately for Thawne he comes back a tad worse for wear.

The story picks up in The Flash #21 due out next week but it’s clear DC are pushing on with the integration of Moore and Gibbons work into the DC Universe even if its clear they don’t seem to really have got or understood Watchmen, or what Moore and Giibbons were doing with their work. I don’t blame writer Tom King as he actually does a pretty good job in working with a shitty stick to create a pretty reasonable superhero tale, but the entire idea seems seedy.

I don’t think the higher-ups of DC get how integrating Watchmen changes the meaning of it, but they are counting the praise for that work rubs off on titles like this. It’s a bit like the Fearless Girl statue in New York and the controversy around that. This is just simply another example of late capitalism of course, but as a sales tactic it’ll work as already on Ebay issues of Batman #21 are being advertised at stupidly high prices.

So I’ll take a hit for the team and carry on to the next part in The Flash to see what happens next…