Wizard magazine and the 90’s speculator boom

The 1990s now seem like a Golden Age  The Cold War was over and the sheer insanity of the post 911 world was far, far away. For comics the decade started with an explosion as Marvel had found themselves a handful of creators including Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Erik Larsen who were able to draw in hundreds of thousands of sales while expanding the market. By the time these creators create Image Comics people normally making money off the stock market were buying hundreds of copies of Spawn #1 in the hope that one day they’ll make millions off them.

spawn1

Marvel and DC tried to catch up, and other new companies jumped onto the bandwagon throwing money around like water to cash in because this wasn’t going to end right? Like any bubble though, it was due to burst and when it did lots of people from publishers to retailers to speculators to ordinary fans. When the shit hit, it didn’t spare anyone. By 1995 the party was well and truely over but was there one thing that helped drive this insanity?

Sort of. Wizard Magazine certainly has some blood on its hands.

wizard1

Wizard was a mix of articles, interviews and art but really it was about the price guide it published each issues of ‘hot’ comics. From 1991 to 2011 it pushed out some, well, awful content, as well as pushing out all the ‘hot’ comics you could swallow. In reality Wizard was a sewer which helped bloat the industry to the point where certain books were selling for vastly over-inflated prices purely off the back of a Wizard mention.

Take one book, Rai #3. Today it’s a 15 buck book but realistically you’ll be lucky to get more than a few quid for it. Back in 1993 it was 50 quid plus partly because of low distribution, but mainly because Wizard told people it was a ‘hot’ book.

Rai-3-May-1992

In fact Valiant Comics were overall heavily pushed, but so was Image to the extent where Wizard and Image were ridicuously close in the early years and people literally were buying dozens of copies of comics hoping they’d be worth money but are now barely worth 50p.

Wizard gamed the market  which is bad enough, but people working for Wizard also advertised their comic shops in the magazine, so they’d push issues in articles with a handy ad on the facing page selling these comics for an ‘exclusive’ price. Effectively it was a con and they got away with it even after the bubble burst in the mid 90s. The damage however lasts until today, but thousands of shops went burst not including companies and even though DC made it through thanks partly to having what seems now to be an amazingly diverse series of books; Marvel were fucked. They’d went from bathing in cash in 1990 to the verge of bankruptcy in less than a decade. Everything that could be sold was trying to be sold (one of the reasons Marvel/Disney have an issue with film right lies in this time), and job losses were rife in the company. They managed to just turn things round starting in 1999 but the revious half decade was by now scattered with casualties as speculators deserted as fast as they came.

I saw dealers vanish between conventions/marts at the time. Stories of people making huge punts on runs of Valiant and Image meant when the shit hit, that they’d maybe at best get a third of their investement back. People coming to cons selling what they though was a valuble collection ended up being burned and there were piles and piles of unsold comics in warehouses everywhere.

The reason this comes to mind is because of the excellent YouTube channel Cartoonist Kayfabe (who are Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg) talking about Wizard, and this video especially where they cover their dubious business practises.

I’d recommend watching those Kayfbabe videos about WIzard as they are an amazing document of a time in comics where a new comic could literally be worth four or five times the cover price, maybe more, within days of release. I mean, we’ve learned our lesson now and we’d never do that again.

Why the direct market monopoly has damaged comics

Back in the 1980s the comic book direct market was seen as a saviour of the industry. Comics were struggling to compete with this new thing called video games and shipping comics directly to comic shops seemed liked the best way forward. I explain here more about the history of the direct market to give you an idea of what it is but basically it is the one thing most responsible for how the comics industry looks like here in 2019.

And it is probably one of the major reasons why the industry today is so damaged.

To explain; the direct market today is run by a monopoly. I‘ve explained this and the history of it before, including my own wee part in shaping the industry back in the 80s so if you want the full story regards the below image, click on the link.

neptune-conflict-of-interest

I write this as we’re at a time when comics are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Spider-Man was the subject of a recent big story but few media outlets spoke about the comics because why should they? The characters and ideas have been absorbed into the mainstream but they didn’t bring comics with them. Comic conventions are held over the world every single week with very, very tenuous connections to comics and shops are opened up by people who see comics as a sideline to Funko Pops or games. Yet none of this bubble would have existed without comics.

And again, we can look at the direct market for part of the reason. Monopolies are not good so Diamond have a clear shot at goal but they miss because the industry is unable to move to cope with change because a monopoly is a juggernaut. Shops have product pushed upon them, and Diamond’s rules over minium orders affects publishers and retailers so  if you ever wonder why variant covers are still a thing, it’s because publishers use them to hit thresholds that mean Diamond can list them which in turn means dealers take punts on unseen titles that means dealers run a gamble on every order.

Seeing as dealers have to order months in advance and there’s no sale or return because this is the direct market, not the newsagent industry, means this locks dealers into a Kafkaesque hellscape every month with the Diamond order form turns up trying to work out what covers will sell, and what won’t.

The obvious solution is to open up the market and create competition, but this isn’t the 80s and the Big Two, Marvel and DC, aren’t going to use anyone else so the fact is we’re in a massive comics bubble where what was designed to see the industry free from the shackles of distribution has instead locked us into an ongoing battle for survival. My solution would be for regulators to break the monopoly but that’s been tried both sides of the Atlantic and shot down, so I know no other industry where a single company controls all the market and is even tolerated by some.

Which means we’re not screwed but if you wonder why the industry is loaded with comics that are all sort of the same, or why shops are often parades of products that range from the quality to the tacky or why comics aren’t punching their weight, then look at the industry at the top and you’ll find the answer.

Though this doesn’t let shops off the hook. More of that another time.

The comics of San Diego Comic Con

Gem Mint Collectables are a pretty fun comics based YouTube channel, and by ‘comics’ I actually mean comics and not ‘geek culture’. It can be a wee bit tied up in speculator prices but the love of comics is there and I can’t fault that one bit.

This year they released their annual video of the comics of San Diego and it is an utter joy drooling over stuff I’ll never, ever have but hey, I can dream about that Gil Kane original art can’t I?

So fanboy’s assemble and enjoy this great wee video.

What I thought of The Walking Dead

After 16 years, 193 issues (And various specials) Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (drawn for the majority of the run by Charlie Adlard, the person you’d least have expected in the 90s to have become one of the major, and richest, people in comics) is over as a comic.

twd1

KIrkman has been saying for some time that he has an end in place, but the feeling is he was after Dave Sim’s record of publishing 300 issues of Cerebus, though 193 issues for an independent comic is pretty good going for something which in 2003 was a risk, and anyhow, Aircel had already published a comic called The Walking Dead in the late 80s and it barely set things on fire. However Kirkman and Image were publishing this one at the start of the zombie revival of the early 21st century. It came at the right time and found an audience quickly as the zombie bubble expanded to the point where it became an amazingly popular TV series in 2010.

The comic still drove the TV series but by 2010 the comic was hitting a certain pattern; Rick and his crew would find somewhere safe. It’d be full of crazies or/and cannibals. Rick and crew would fight them. For the first 100 or so issues KIrkman tells a tale of survival horror intermingled with soap opera elements but on the whole the comic pushes forward with a relentless tale of survival and how one deals with their humanity, or lack of, in such a situation.

Then issue 100 happens. Glenn is brutally murdered by Negan, the latest  badguy protagonist  who although less comic booky than The Governor (whose TV version was much better than the comic) and like many villains becomes a fan favourite.

twd111

Negan is a great character but the problem is once Negan is defeated, Kirkman keeps him around and although the scenes between Negan and Rick act as two philosophical viewpoints however we’re then into fighting the Whisperers, and onwards to the point where the comic seems to be building to another quiet phase.

And then it ended.

twd193

I applaud Kirkman, Adlard and Image for ending this now. It isn’t an ending that closes things off as Kirkman smartly leaves it open just in case there’s a massive tax bill in the future.

Instead of years and years of following the same cycle we have an ending, and it works well. As a run, The Walking Dead never really captured the quality of the first decade but to maintain that level of quality for so long is an admirable task beaten only by Kirby and Lee’s run on the Fantastic Four.

The Walking Dead changed modern comics, saved Image Comics (who were floundering at the time in 2003), made rich men of the creators and has been at the front of the current ‘Geek’ bubble for nearly a decade. Kirkman continues to make comics as well as count his money, but nothing he’s done will ever match what he’s done with The Walking Dead.

What I thought of some recent comics…

For many folk who follow this blog one way or another you possibly followed me because of my reviews of comics and although I don’t have the time (or to be honest the energy right now) to pick this up again but I do miss it so here’s a rundown of some of the comics you should be picking up, and some to avoid,

Starting with…

The Immortal Hulk.

The Hulk has had long runs of quality throughout the character’s long life from the original Kirby/Lee run, through to Herb Trimpe’s long run, and so on. This latest run written by Al Ewing and drawn by Joe Bennett is rewriting the character in a horror setting although still playing with the superhero genre. It owes a lot, and I mean a lot, to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run and Neil Gaiman’s superhero work.

It is however a stunning work in its own right melding body horror. supernatural elements and superheroics. This is by far the best comic produced by the Big Two today.

Batman.

Tom King’s run initially was offputting to me but he’s developed a clear story for Batman/Bruce Wayne that’s went from strength to strength. DC suffer from producing reams of utter drivel with art trapped in DC’s sub Jim Lee house style. King’s Batman run is blessed from having artists who can actually draw comics.

The Walking Dead.

This is a title which has been treading water for some time since the introduction of the Commonwealth with the title often resembling an essay of the benefits of capitalism versus socialism. With issue 200 coming soon it was clear Robert Kirkman would pull something out his hat for that issue to rival #100’s death of Glenn and introduction of Negan.

Well he’s done that in #191 and #192 and in these two issues the entire comic is up in the air as I have no idea how the comic is going to develop from now on. Picking these issues up won’t be easy as they both are selling around the £10 mark already and look to increase once the second print hits.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Remember the days when Marvel used to produce fun, all-ages comics that anyone could pick up? They’re more or less gone but Squirrel Girl keeps the flag flying with light, fun superheroics every issue and it is a complete delight.

Wicked and the Divine

This title was one again I was less than excited about at the start but is now clearly the best superhero based title out there today. It is however nearing the end so pick it up now and you’ll get the final days of one of this decades most interesting mainstream books.

The Green Lantern.

Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp’s revamp of Green Lantern is interesting mainly thanks to Sharp’s stunning art. Morrison is going back over old ground in terms of style and although it is readable, there’s not much going on here apart from Sharp’s splendid art.

The Avengers.

As a title, this sells like proverbial hot cakes and it should do but I’ve never been convinced by Jason Aaron as a writer and this title won’t be the book that sells me on him having one good title in him and that’s about it. Its readable but disposable rubbish.

Savage Avengers

Remember the 90’s when any old shite would be thrown out if it had a bunch of EXTREME characters who were anti-heroes so they could do EXTREME things every month? Well, this is that book but they’re doing SAVAGE things instead of just being EXTREME. With a lineup of Wolverine, Elektra, The Punisher, Brother Voodoo, Venom and err, Conan this is a shameless cash cow designed to milk the Avengers brand, the Conan IP, and the popularity of Wolverine, Punisher and Venom for every single fucking penny Marvel can get out of the punter. It is terrible but it does serve as a signpost as to how awful comics can get.

 

And that’s it. Hope this pointed you in the direction of some good books and warned you off others. I may end up making this a monthly thing, so until the next time go out there and get yourself some good comics.

Why are comic shops closing in a time when comics have never been so popular?

The Guardian published an article recently about why are comic shops closing when superheroes are quite literally making all the money on the planet and have never been so popular? The article isn’t bad and gets most of the reasons why. For example…

So why are so many going out of business? Like other retailers on the high street, comic shops must factor in rents, business rates, staff wages, insurance – but the profit margins on comics are so narrow as to make this a very delicate balancing act.

They then go onto discuss how monthly comics is a guessing game. You as a retailer have to sit with a copy of Diamond Previews, and try to guess what will sell and in what numbers.

Previews is a massive book released by the largest, and only real distributor of mainstream comics in the world, Diamond Distributors. As a retailer you spend so much time scouring the monthly order form working out how much of say, Iron Man, is going to sell in three months time. So you order enough for your standing orders and maybe 5-10 copies for the shelves as people like Iron Man right? But all that money of yours is now sunk into comics that aren’t sale or return (SOR) plus your profit margin is pitiful, so do you run the risk of having unsold copies sitting there wasting your money or have nothing which means people coming in asking for Iron Man leave empty handed?

Whatever decision you make depends on lots of things but the one thing you can’t change is where you get your comics from as Diamond operate a monopoly. There is no competition, which means the direct market which was meant to bring control to retailers and create a better overall industry, is stale and bloated at a time when the Marvel films are making billions, and folk see comic related characters adapted to to film and TV everywhere.

There are other reasons, such as kids especially not being familiar with how comics are read because it isn’t just words with pictures. Comics are an entire art form and medium of its own, and although there’s a lot of titles out there which are written or drawn by people who don’t understand how comics work (hence why some books are glorified storyboards) a lot do get the basics at least. Also some shops are opened by people who may love comics but have no idea of business so once the comic collection they used to help launch the shop is gone, then they struggle to push on because they don’t know what to do next.

As for shops there’s still those out there where staff are uninformed, unhelpful and these tend to be places with ‘Geek’ in the name of the shop. These places are part throwbacks to the old style of shop and a pretence of a more modern shop but end up just being awful places to shop. To use one example I walked into one such shop and had some 17 year old follow me around the shop thinking I’m obviously some shoplifter even though I’m now a middle aged man who suffers from right sided numbness after a stokes three years ago, so move at the pace of a drunken slug.

But ultimately the main reason shops go under is the business is an unforgiving one controlled by a monolithic distributor so it forces the retailer to take on other revenue streams which may be more profitable (see the proliferation of Funko Pop toys and wargaming) but take you away from what you wanted which is a comic shop. There is no easy solution to this but for shops to make money they need to adapt, but they all need to start questioning, and actually challenging, the way the entire direct market has been set up. Maybe then things will swing back the retailers way.

What I thought of Hey Kids! Comics!

The other day at work I was waiting to grab myself a coffee when I was standing behind someone with an Iron Man mug. I recognised the design to having being inspired by Steve Ditko’s version of the Iron Man armour. In those seconds I stood there watching my cup fill I wondered just how much income Ditko lost over the decades because he was ripped off by an industry which still sees the creator as a minor part of what is a sausage machine grinding out product and associated merchandising.

Then I got home and the last issue of Howard Chaykin’s Hey Kids! Comics! was sitting there to be read and it ended up being just the scream of primal rage for creators shafted by the industry.

Hey Kids! Comics! draws its title from the innocent blurb American newstands used to lure children into buy in decades past.

Thing is as one gets older you hear more about how the Marvel Bullpen wasn’t making Jack jolly, or how creators would be dumped in the gutter, and that’s where the comic opens as the analogue for Jerry Siegel (who along with co-creator Joe Schuster was royally shafted by National/DC over the rights and profits from Superman) living virtually as a down and out as he joins the crowds at the opening of the Superman (called Powerhouse here) musical.  

From this grim, bleak opening Chaykin tells the history of comics through three people, Ted Whitman, Ray Clarke, and Benita Heindel who travel down the decades from the 40s til their deaths in the early years of the 21st century when comics as an industry has transformed into a billion dollar one, but has remained a breeding ground for bastards and con-artists. Though to be fair the amount of actual gangsters in the industry has fallen of late.

Using these analogues, Chaykin tells a lot of those stories you only hear in convention bars, or the occasional critical book on the industry and some of the incidents in these five issues are familiar ones to those of us who know bits of the industry’s history so things like Mort Weisinger’s legendary cruelty through to Stan Lee sitting the the office waiting for Jack Kirby’s work to turn up because his creative role was at best, minimal. This book is not for those who see the industry on a purely surface level or those who canonise the superhero as the pinnacle of the medium.

But Hey Kids! Comics! for all the cynicism, bitterness, hate and bile recounted in these stories has a love for the medium as the core of the book. It just says that people involved in the industry were crooks, racists and bastards but the industry itself is full of people who believe there’s a future for the medium beyond superhero stories. This is a book for those of us who love the medium but want to deal with the awfulness of the history of the industry at the same time so it makes an often harsh read as after all, we want to cling onto our childhood heroes. This comic will see people many see as heroes being portrayed as somewhat less than that (the fact issue five came out not long after Stan Lee’s death adds an extra thrill to it) but these stories are an essential part of the history of the industry. They need to be told because if they don’t the next Steve Ditko is going to see his work made into mugs to help make corporations money while they get fuck all.