25 years ago: Marvel tries to launch a mail-order store — and ignites the Distributor Wars

 Find listings for this this catalog on eBayTwenty-five years ago today, shoplifters struck a comic shop. Spider-Man entered, foiling the crooks — and declaring, after it was all over, “This shopping thing is way too dangerous!”

It was a silly bit of advertising copy, included in an eight-page catalog insert that appeared on March 7, 1994 (or March 8, in some stores) in arriving copies of X-Men Adventures Vol. 2, #4, a Marvel comic book that tied in with the Fox TV cartoon. It wasn’t unusual for a comic book to include a catalog insert; Gold Key had run them in its comics decades before, and Mark Jewelers insert variants are something many collectors of 1970s Marvel comics prize.

The difference was that this catalog, appearing in a small percentage of Marvel’s March-shipping copies, was for its own merchandise outlet, called “Marvel Mart.” And with the bubble comics market of the early 1990s just beginning to deflate (as described in my retrospective series here), it immediately became the focus of retailers’ anxieties — and, in many cases, fury.

Retailers in the period had been fearful of many different kinds of storefront competitors, including Blockbuster Video, which had been rumored to be interested in comics. (Coincidental timing: as of today, that chain is finally down to one location.) Retailer worries surrounding Marvel had often centered on the possibility of Marvel getting into retail itself, with its own chain stores. But Marvel launching its own mail-order merchandise outlet was seen as no less a threat. The internet wasn’t a retail competitor, yet, but catalogs were booming, as were TV home shopping channels. Mail-order was a big deal.

The Marvel Mart catalog that appeared first in certain copies of X-Men Adventures and later in Amazing Spider-Man #389, possibly among others — included (as my article at left, from Comics Retailer #26, described) offers for individual comics, trade paperbacks, and back issue runs, including Marvels #1-4 and Daredevil: Man Without Fear #1-5. (At least two versions of the catalog are said to exist; several loose copies are available on eBay.)

Retailers objected immediately and vehemently to the whole idea of the mail-order outlet — not to mention Spider-Man declaring that shopping in a comics store was dangerous. But that wasn’t all. The inclusion of the catalog in comics they had bought to resell had many retailers feeling that they were being made instruments of their own demise — the catalogs increased the weight of the comics, even, which made shipping more expensive for the distributors. One retailer shipped his Marvel neon sign back to the company with an angry note. Another reported sending (rather melodramatically) a nail, “dipped in the ‘blood’ of the Direct Market.”

Diamond Comic Distributors faxed a bulletin to its accounts warning them of the presence of the catalog. “We are extremely disappointed at Marvel’s apparent lack of concern for its most viable market: the direct market retailers and distributors who provide a solid financial base for their current business operations.” While praising Marvel’s other outreach efforts, Diamond said the Marvel Mart program had “serious implications for retailers, distributors, and the entire direct market distributing system.”

With criticisms mounting, Marvel soon reacted, apologizing for what it called a test-marketed effort from its Corporate Marketing Department. “We did a lot of things badly,” said Matt Ragone, Marvel’s VP for the Direct Market on March 18. Marvel canceled inclusion of the catalog in further copies. “Marvel takes seriously its mission  to bring as many people into the circle of comics and comics merchandise buyers as humanly possible,” he said, and the catalog effort was in that spirit — but Marvel put the kibosh on the whole thing.

The episode had raised retailer ire, but its longest term effects may have come instead from the anger expressed by another distributor. Comics Unlimited, a regional distribution operation, opened its April 1994 newsletter to retailers (part of which is seen at right) with a broadside against Marvel by owner Walter Wang, calling the inclusion of the catalog “at best insensitive, and at worst deliberately insulting” — and while he did not call for a boycott, he advised retailers “to try to reduce the importance of Marvel comics sales in your store” in a number of ways, including promoting other publishers and doing less co-op advertising with Marvel.

Marvel strongly objected to such advice coming from a distributor, whose job, ostensibly, was to represent its products favorably. After a series of communications, Marvel discontinued selling comics to Comics Unlimited on May 18, saying later that the fundamental distributor relationship “was severely damaged.” Unable to continue without Marvel, Wang sold his company to Diamond on May 29.

Marvel would leave its relationships with all distributors following its Dec. 28, 1994 purchase of Heroes World Distribution — an event that led to either the collapse or exit of all comics distributors but Diamond from the market. And while that purchase may have been prompted more by other factors — including investor Ronald Perelman‘s acquisition spree and the speed with which the Direct Market distributors made possible the rise of Image — buzz from behind the scenes has long suggested to me that this first break with a distributor may have set the stage for all the later ones.

If Comics Unlimited was the first casualty in the Distributor Wars — and in some measure, it was — then Marvel Mart’s part in comics history thus looms a bit larger than a simple side-business gone awry. Recriminations were flying at all levels in the crashing comics market of 1994; for a publisher, buying a distributor and going exclusive had the effect of removing one of those levels entirely. In Marvel’s case, it worked for exactly 21 months; by the time it returned to open distribution, Diamond was the only player left.

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