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.

A short word of praise for the woman that helped make Marvel Comics, Flo Steinberg.

One of the most crucial but unsung figure in the creation of Marvel Comics, Flo Steinberg, has passed away.  At a time when women in American comics were at best, limited, Steinberg’s role is extraordinary in that if she didn’t act as not just Stan Lee’s ”secretary” (she seems to have had more like an editorial role) but as the glue, and blood of those early Marvel years in the 1960’s.

Steinberg famously left Marvel when they wouldn’t give her a $5 pay rise, but she didn’t just hold together Marvel at a time when the myth didn’t reflect the reality, she was an essential part in subsequent decades in trying to sort out who created what, and who essentially got shafted by Stan Lee’s myth-making. Of course only recently did the Kirby family finally get a settlement from Marvel/Disney, but as Steinberg herself later found out, Marvel wasn’t the merry place we all thought it was mainly thanks to Flo ‘s work with The Merry Marvel Marching Society (a Marvel fan-club in the 60’s) that cemented fandom’s image of Marvel Comics that lasted long after she left.

I especially like Kirby’s barely suppressed passive-aggressive tone…

So cheers Flo, you held it together and helped give us of a certain age joy. I hope now you get the credit you deserved when you were alive.

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.

Marvel Two in One: Stan Lee and Michael Jackson

With the sad news about Joan Lee’s passing here’s something nice and fun about Stan Lee with a bit of Michael Jackson thrown in.

Back in the 90’s Stan Lee was a peripheral (The excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story goes into more detail) in regards Marvel Comics. A figurehead at best, but still an important figure in comics but Lee was off in Hollywood trying to make TV adaptations and films of Marvel#s characters. Today that seems like it was easy, but no so in the early 90’s where this great video of Michael Jackson touring Marvel’s animation studios comes from.

It’s great to watch Jackson fanboying all over Lee, but there’s hints of why Lee was a then peripheral figure in the video as they talk of Lee being ‘cut loose’ from Marvel. It’s a nice video whatever just to see the biggest star on the planet at the time looking up to Lee like a wee boy.

Enjoy.

What I thought of Zombies Assemble #1

The zombie genre is, well, like a zombie. It lumbers on and somehow keeps going even when the genre has well and truly been done to death. However, never underestimate the power of milking a dead horse and when mixed with Marvel’s Avengers cash-cow and the popularity of manga we have a hybrid here as these are The Avengers of the films, not the comics. So yes, a ”mixed bag” as you may say…

Part of the problem is that all the characters have that tedious wide eyed look that large chunks of Manga artists use, not to mention that they all look about 12. Anyhow, the story starts with Tony Stark’s birthday party which involves Steve Rogers dressing as a zombie to scare Tony, before (Ho Ho) a real zombie crashes Tony’s party and is dispatched by the Black Widow fairly quickly.

A virus breaks out turning people into zombies thanks to Tony’s R & D department, and (all the while everyone involved is talking like 14 year old kids)  who all seem to have been turned into zombies.

The vaguely teen Avengers then decide to stop a potential outbreak.

Somehow Thor becomes infected, and we’ve got a sort of zombie Thor.

The Black Widow is also infected so we’ve got two Avengers slowly decomposing. Yes, seriously, this is like a Garth Ennis script but without the spite and humour.

This, frankly, is shite. There’s a rich stream of manga or even unlicensed comic versions of films which can be fun, but this is just garbage. The art is bland. The writing is awful. The horror isn’t horrific. There’s pages where characters act like children. It’s bollocks, and that’s the best I can say about this exercise in self-abuse.

A look at the Marvel Bullpen in the 1970’s

The 1970’s was a great time for comics when arguably Marvel Comics were still in their pomp, and it really isn’t a point of discussion that DC Comics were in a terrible state with sales down thanks to a slump which was to last til the early 80’s. It was that Jurassic period of comics fandom and creativity.

Thanks to YouTube a wonderful bit of archive popped up showing not just how much some prime Golden Age comics sold for in the late 70’s (hint, much less than now) but what members of the Marvel Bullpen looked like around this time. It’s a wonderful bit of archive so enjoy…

Do Marvel have a diversity problem?

Marvel vice-president David Gabriel recently said that Marvel Comics are suffering a sales slump due to the fact they now publish a diverse line of comics featuring people of all sexes, races and ages. As this Vox piece says, the truth is somewhat more complex but that was lost in the outrage from all sides when this story broke into the mainstream from the comics ghetto.

What do we mean by ‘diversity’ though? Well, this is the Marvel Universe in the 1970’s into the 1980’s.

Here’s a poster of the Avengers in the 90’s.

To put it bluntly the Marvel Universe is a white one.  Sure there’s the odd green skinned hero and blue mutant but black characters, or anyone non-white, are thin on the ground. In short it doesn’t reflect the world of today and that’s a problem if you want to pitch to as wide an audience as Marvel did in the 60’s.

The Marvel Universe today is better. There’s Ms Marvel, Moon Girl and a load of other characters that expands what the Marvel superhero universe is and many of these characters are in decent to good books, but for people like Gabriel the sales figures are what’s important and they don’t add up.Which brings me to the point that this isn’t an issue for comics as a medium, but the superhero genre which may have had over the last decade undreamed of exposure, but that’s never translated to sales.

This Cracked article touches on some of the reasons why this is the case. Some of it will be painful reading as the point that Marvel can say ”we have an <insert minority here> character! Why are you moaning!?’ is going to resonate. For years Marvel did this with the Black Panther before they actually started creating other black characters but even then that was mainly to cash in on the 1970’s Blaxploitation craze.For me though the issue is accessibility. There’s no point coming up with say, a Muslim Ms Marvel if you’re rebooting the series with a new number one every other year, and your entire superhero universe has a massive crossover event once a year. People may have more disposable income in 2017 but people have limits.

If you want to have read all of 2016’s Civil War II with all the crossovers then with titles priced at $2.99 to $3.99 (or for the UK, somewhere between £2.00 and £3.50) then you’re paying hundreds to keep up with an event where to be blunt, most of the series is shite. You may pick up a few issues but finances and tedium dictate that you bin the rest so you leave only the hardcore fans to carry on. Which is another point as if Marvel pander only to the core fan (as DC Comics are doing) then they’ll never grow and develop to take advantage of the fact their films are making billions having been seen by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

So the hard facts are that Marvel are the creators of their own problems. Yes, it’s a tough market but making it harder for readers doesn’t help so it isn’t a case that Marvel has a diversity problem which causes them sales, it has a problem with making easily accessible comics for all ages. Until it gets to grips with that and at the same time it stops pandering to a decreasing, ageing core then it won’t be picking up the readers it could, and indeed, should.