Flashback: Comics Retailer #24
January 1994 saw an earthquake — and tremors in the comics business
by John Jackson Miller
As noted in the introduction and previous installment, I spent the last five weeks of 1993 learning the ropes as Comics Retailer editor — and had in that time come to realize that the industry which appeared to be booming to me as a consumer was actually on the precipice. No incident brought that closer to home than the afternoon in early January when we received news that Gary Colabuono, owner of the Moondog's store chain in Chicago, had sold his stores.
Moondog's was a name I was aware of, having bought ComiCover comic bags for my own collection; I'd also seen the name in Comics Buyer's Guide for years. Colabuono (interviewed about his business by the Chicago Tribune in 1991 here) was seen in the Krause Publications office as a shrewd market observer, and many present that day took the news that he'd sold to another chain, Dream Factory, as a sign that the market was in trouble.
An impromptu office meeting followed, an hour in which comics magazine publisher Greg Loescher, CBG editors Don and Maggie Thompson, and I compared all our notes about the state of the market. The Thompsons had been warning of the market glut for months, and their contacts within publishers were sharing some pretty dire reports. Word had come in that a thousand comics-ordering accounts — not necessarily stores! — had vanished at the end of 1993, a drop of nearly 10%. Publishing house Innovation collapsed, and rumors abounded that several other small publishers were in dire straits. Chuck Rozanski, another alert observer, had warned in a letter to the March issue of a "color collapse," similar to what had happened to the black-and-white comics market in 1987. It was alarming enough for this new arrival to the offices that Maggie assuaged me at the end of the conversation, saying that Krause always tried to find positions for employees elsewhere in the company when this hobby or that one hit a rough patch.
Whatever was happening with the rest of the market, the show had to go on. And by that point, production on #24, the March 1994 cover-dated issue, was already underway. To refresh your memory about what was on the stands, click to see the Top 300 comics preordered from Diamond Comic Distributors in January 1994.
The major new feature introduced in the issue, "Market Beat," would completely redefine the magazine; read more about it further below.
Issue #24 in my new numbering scheme was a themed issue, "Alternative Comics," although that theme had been selected long before my arrival. The entire 1994 advertising rate card had mentioned special focuses for individual months — games, trading cards, etc. — with the idea being that a few pages of editorial on the topics would give the ad staff a sales opportunity for those advertisers that might only place one ad a year. This was common with trade magazines and I didn't mind it, although some of the focuses chosen were irrelevant once the issues rolled around. Infamously, an issue focusing on POGs missed the milk-cap fad by a considerable stretch.
I was buying more "alternative" comics than just about anything else at that point, so I liked the idea. I realized, however, that there wasn't a way to clearly define what alternative comics were, a point that came up in one of my calls — this one to Gary Groth, publisher at Fantagraphics. His Comics Journal had been in a rivalry with CBG for years; the Thompsons loved many of the titles Fanta published, but relations were otherwise frosty. Not seeing any reason for Comics Retailer to be any part of that, I reached out — and heard his concern that "alternative" as a term had lost meaning, being used interchangeably by many with "independent," meaning outside the Big Two. "Alternative" was a sensibility, not a genre — and certainly not a subset of publishers.
I agreed with that and opened the issue's coverage with a page about the difficulty in defining the term, seen here:
The section included writings on alternative and/or independent comics from Richard Pini of Warp Graphics, Wayne Markley of Capital City Distribution, Rozanski of Mile High Comics — as well as a column from Bob Gray, who tied into the month's theme. (In general, I provided the issue themes to the columnists just as possible sources of inspiration for the month; often everyone went their own way.) The extensive publisher news section that followed focused entirely on publishers outside the Big Two, which again underscored that "alternative" probably wasn't the right name for the theme. We wouldn't use it again.
An earthquake — and smaller rumbles
On Jan. 17, 1994, the Northridge earthquake struck Los Angeles, impacting comics businesses including Malibu Comics, which lost phone and electrical service. We reported on those events, plus several of the aid efforts, including Marvel sending return copies to L.A. relief shelters. Several of the news items came from the CompuServe comics message boards, an early example of the internet driving the news.
Other news in the issue included the creation of Wildstorm Productions for Jim Lee's imprint at Image. It would later move to DC. We also reported the move of Lou Bank, director of sales at Marvel, to Dark Horse; he would become an occasional contributor to the magazine in later years. SkyBox International claimed the trading card market had exceeded $2 billion in 1993; that seemed high at the time, as did SkyBox's valuation when Marvel bought it, not long after this issue's release. The trading card market would not see such heights again.
This issue's cover was a rarity: It's an ad, as they all are, but we decided to make the entire cover match the background color in order to make it look more like an illustration. It's still pretty obviously an ad, but it looked more attractive. Along with artist Al West, I also redesigned the table of contents with this issue; it would appear close to this for the next decade.
The late-shipping comics controversy continued to generate comment — and my first letter-column controversy. Columnist Brian Hibbs stepped beyond his usual column to lead off the letters section with a detailed record of how late Continuity's comics had been. It was one of three letters we ran responding to Neal Adams' defense of the company in the December 1993 issue; I sent them to Adams, who responded in the same issue. Pleading guilty to the shipping difficulties, he also said that he was standing to take the criticism in our pages, despite his company's sales represented a small fraction of the late material costing retailers money. "I'm going to get some calamine lotion!" he said at the end of his response. I thereafter looked to temper the "Dialog" section a little more: controversies filled pages cheaply, but often belabored points already made in the first page or two.
The late-shipping crisis continued to move distributors, as we reported that Capital City had tightened its late product window yet again to 45 days, while Diamond cut its "grace period" to 30 days.
The panic over whether Blockbuster Video would compete with comics shops continued, with Comic Book Retailers International's New York chapter's Dec. 7, 1993 meeting noting an autograph sesssion by Defiant's Jim Shooter at a Blockbuster. Members of CBRI's Delaware Valley chapter complained there were far too many comics available in too many locations outside the Direct Market for the consumer base to absorb.
The CBRI Northern California chapter discussed that mater as well. "The activities of outside interests (card dealers, video chains, etc.) in pillaging the comics market when times were good — way back last summer — and abandoning the comics field when times got tougher" was noted in the group's meeting. Distributors' cultivation of the trading-card market and its retailers was denounced.
In his regular column, Hibbs decried the advertising in distributor catalogs, which had become laden wth card inserts and other features unrelated to ordering. "The first thing I do each month when I receive the catalog is I start tearing out pages," he wrote. It wasn't a problem that would go away any time soon.
Preston Sweet offered a "Cheers and Jeers" column for 1993 (after the TV Guide column of the same name), with his Cheer of the Year went to the International Association of Direct Distributors for its program reimbursing retailers for their rack purchases. Jeer of the Year going to Valiant and Image for Deathmate, a crossover event plagued by lateness.
Bruce Costa provided a column on placing comics-related stand-up arcade video games (like the X-Men and Simpsons) inside stores, dealing with issues of loitering and traffic control that arise around them.
Mike Tickal of Iowa's Oak Leaf Comics contributed a piece on offering free-comic coupons to move excess stock. A guest column by Steve Ginsberg of Claude's Comics of Pennsylvania made a series of dire predictions for the market, again focusing on Blockbuster, Walmart, and other outside competitors. And the final column from Bruce Webster in his "professionalism in the comics industry" series called for publishers to label adult content in their comics.
Scott Haring, gaming columnist, promoted attendance at the upcoming GAMA (Game Manufacturers Association) trade show; Wizards of the Coast is mentioned in the piece but not Magic, which would transform the whole business in 1994.
Dave Sim provided the Punchline column closing out the issue, a postscript to his Campaign '93 Cerebus event. A fan of the series as a teenager, I was hyped to get the column into the first issue where I was making all the calls of what appeared — thought I regret including the ghosted version of the campaign logo which appeared behind the type, which made it a little hard to read. I was still figuring out what effects worked and which ones didn't.
Market Beat: Comics retailer sales reports for January 1994
Even more than our expanded focus on games, the defining feature of my tenure on Comics Retailer is almost certainly the market reporting, and, specifically, "Market Beat."
The idea of interviewing retailers about what they were selling was not new; it'd been done in magazines previously. Doing it in Comics Retailer was the idea of publisher Loescher, who also came up with the name; the look of it, taking advantage of the magazine's color and its graphic design department, was mine, as was the format of the questions.
I had done regional market reporting for the lumber trade magazines I'd worked for, calling sawmills and wholesalers; I'd always thought there was a more visual way to present that material. The Market Beat grid did that. I'd also learned from that experience that I really didn't care for making the calls myself, because return calls invariably interfered with whatever I was editing. But I knew, too, that it could be done by a freelancer working from a list of survey questions, freeing me up for more complex stories. In one of my few cases of nepotism, I hired my high school comics-fan friend of longest standing, Robert Leever, to handle the calls for the first year. The first batch of fourteen reports was a regional smattering, based on a list of phone numbers we'd sent him — the selection in the first report seems to lean a little more toward the West Coast, which is where he was located.
Eventually, interviews would give way to retailers filling out insert cards in the magazine, producing an incredibly low-cost source of content, especially necessary as the page count increased. Here, for informational purposes, are the charts as they appeared:
The specific reports, based on calls placed in early January, are a bit of a mixed bag, with lines like Malibu's Ultraverse getting both positive and negative verdicts. It would be a while yet before the reports would go more generally negative. There are also some lighter bits in there: the "Good promo, ah gah-ron-tee" header in the Louisiana report about Gambit is a reference to celebrity cook Justin Wilson, then more widely known from a series of commercials.
Graphically, the section — which would eventually annex a third of the magazine, via other categories would change little, with the exception that the boxes would later resize to fit the amount that retailers had to say.
The little state icons were a happy find in 1994, thanks to a clip-art CD-ROM in the art department — though the lack of ready-made Canadian province and overseas country icons would be a headache later on. My one lingering regret was that I insisted on putting stars on the map icons to indicate where the stores were located. That was a blunder, because sometimes we got their positions wrong, either through error or something getting jostled in the page-layout software. Countless were the complaints from retailers over the years that the stars were in the wrong locations. I eventually ran a box warning that the maps were not to be used for aviation purposes!
Next: When this series continues, "Marvel Mart" sets off a chain reaction that turns distribution upside-down. Until then, we'll hop ahead to a summer 1994 event...