Diamond Comic Distributors: a brief history.

I was going to write an article about an obscure superhero this week, but then I heard the news that DC is teaming up with Walmart to start selling comic books.

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Walmart is going to start selling 100 page anthology titles for $5 starring Batman, Superman, the Justice League, and the Teen Titans in July.

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Personally I find this pretty exciting, partially because I’m a fan of anything that gets comic books into the hands of more people and expands the public profile of the medium that I love.  While some people may question my enthusiasm for supporting a mega corporation that engages in some of the shadiest business practices ever, I can assure you that Walmart is a step up from the current state of affairs.

For those of you who know what I’m talking about, yes it’s going to be one of those articles that confirms what you probably already know and yes, there will be much anger and rage.  For those of you who don’t, let’s delve into the history and reputation of the biggest distributor of comic books: Diamond Comic Distributors.

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very brief history of comic book distribution.

In the early days of the comic book industry, comic books were distributed like newspapers to newsstands and drug stores.

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It was a good place for comics at the beginning, but the system had three big problems.  For starters, comics suffered from the reputation of being cheap and disposable entertainment that wasn’t worth a whole lot of attention, so books tended to be shipped and sold in very poor condition by people who had no idea what they were talking about.

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Second, if a book didn’t sell well, the seller could rip the cover off of the book and return it to the publisher for credit towards the next order, which was very bad news for a publishing industry that survived off of very small profit margins and was perpetually going out of business.  And finally, the stranglehold that newspaper distributors held on getting a comic book out to the people allowed for censoring bodies like the Comics Code Authority to step in and impose their will on content.

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If comics didn’t have this sticker on them, then distributors wouldn’t move the comic, ensuring that the comic would make nothing.

All of this started to change in the 1960’s with the rise of the underground comix scene.

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The comix scene was a network of alternative, underground, and controversial creators and artists who disliked the rules imposed on the comic book medium and protested by creating some of the raunchiest and explicit material I’ve ever seen.

No, I’m not showing this to you, go find out yourself if you want to learn more.

Naturally, no big newspaper distributor would sell this kind of stuff, so the creators created their own small time distribution models in places like San Francisco, where their comics were sold out of head shops and weed dispensaries.

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Things would come to a head in 1972 when comic book dealer, convention organizer, and fan Phil Seuling,

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approached publishers with an idea.   He would create a new distribution model where purchases were no longer returnable and where shops and retailers could order the specific number of books that they wanted, something that was unheard of at the time.  This idea, coupled with the fact that Seuling could offer retailers a discount if they bought a certain number of books, would lead to the decline of the newsstand model and the rise of the specialist comic book store.

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For a while this new system was a success.  Now, comics could be bought and sold faster, cheaper, and by people who knew what they were talking about and what they were doing.

And it only took two decades for all of it to go wrong.

The rise of Diamond

In 1982 a Baltimore comic book store owner by the name of Steve Geppi,

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took over the sales accounts and warehouses of defunct comics distributor New Media and another distributor named Irjax.  He named this new company Diamond, after an imprint that Marvel had created for non refundable comics.

Mr. Geppi’s new venture quickly became one of the largest comic distributors in the United States, mostly because they actually knew what they were doing and were one of the most efficient operations in an industry.  Most of their rivals either went bankrupt due to poor business management, or were bought out by Diamond in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

By the mid 1990’s the comic book distribution business was dominated by three players: Diamond,

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Capital City,

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and Hero’s World.

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In 1996 Marvel Comics, who was enjoying its position as the largest comic book publisher in the world and riding high off of a massive sales boom in the late 80’s and early 90’s, decided to buy Hero’s World and make them the sole distributor of all of Marvel’s titles.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty clear that Marvel was being a jerk during this whole ordeal so I’m not passing too much judgement on Diamond for what happened next.  Long story short, Diamond managed to outbid Capital City and become the exclusive distributor for DC Comics,

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and Dark Horse Comics,

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which made the largest comic distributor in the United States even bigger.

The Marvel/Hero’s World deal failed miserably.  Hero’s World didn’t have the infrastructure and ability to handle nationwide distribution for the world’s largest comic book publisher and folded after less than a year of business.  Out of options, Marvel went to Diamond cap in hand,

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and Diamond became the sole distributor of the entire American comic book industry.

If all of this sounds sketchy as hell, you’re right.  In 1997 the Department of Justice launched an anti trust investigation looking into Diamond.

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However, in 2000 the DOJ ceased their investigation, believing that further investigation was unwarranted since Diamond only controlled the distribution of comic books but not the distribution of all books.

Which doesn’t seem very fair at all.

The current state of affairs, or why Diamond is bad for business

Despite the fact that the Feds didn’t find anything wrong with Diamond’s business practices, it’s pretty clear that Diamond is a monopoly and certainly acts like it.

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That’s what Diamond is now.

Since there is no competition to keep Diamond honest and promote fair business practices everyone has suffered and everyone has a reason to dislike Diamond.

Retailers dislike Diamond for their poor customer service, late shipping of orders, and sloppy business practices.

You can read a store owner’s own troubles here.

Seriously, I have a friend who owns a comic book store (who shall remain anonymous) who has told me that several colleagues still have to mail checks to Diamond every month in order to pay for orders.

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Mailing checks…in an age where everything is paid for online.

But retailers aren’t the only ones who suffer, publishers and creators suffer as well.

If you’re a small time comic book creator and you want to get your book out to stores and in front of prospective buyers than you better get really good at cold calling, because Diamond won’t even consider selling your book unless you can do at least $2,500 worth of business.

Sure, this is great news for bigger publishers who don’t have to worry about too much competition and can sell their books at a lower price point by offering bulk discounts, but even Marvel and DC have problems.

There was an infamous incident in 1986 where a comic book called Miracleman showed a graphic scene of a mother giving birth.

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There was some negative backlash against the scene, and Diamond responded by encouraging retailers to drop the title all together.

If this sounds like the echos of the Comics Code Authority, you’re absolutely right.

Quite a few creators have taken notice and aren’t very happy with the current state of affairs.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a page from a Spongebob comic book that was given out during Free Comic Book Day.

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So, that’s the way things are now.  Will this deal between Walmart and DC change things for the better, or is it simply an interesting footnote in comic book history?  Will this usher in a new era of comic book popularity, or are we simply trading one monstrous corporation for another?

Only time will tell, but I for one am going to be watching the future of comic books very closely.

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Comic book Showcase: Wytches

First and foremost, my apologies for not posting anything last week.  I just started a second job and I’ve been busy adjusting to that.

Second, happy Father’s Day!

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A lot of cultures and countries have a day or two where parents are honored more than usual, and yesterday was the day Americans do it, mostly by buying manly things like ties and tools.

Now, I’ve made it very clear that I’ve found it difficult to write a blog entry about some obscure superhero after a holiday that celebrates parenthood.  There are two reasons for this.  First, one of the core values of parent hood is keeping your children safe and the inherent violence that superhero stories require,

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would probably make any self respecting parent cry.

This segues right into the second problem with parenthood in comics.  It’s a well known fact that comic book parents have a nasty habit of dying or being absent from the equation.

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You can’t have parents worrying about their offspring if they’re completely removed from the equation.

So, instead of talking about an obscure comic book superhero from the 1980’s, I thought it would be nice to honor Father’s Day by sharing one of my favorite horror comics with you guys that talks about parenthood: Scott Snyder’s Wytches.

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Side note: This comic came out in 2014, so it’s fairly recent but not recent enough for nobody to have read it, and it’s written and drawn by two well known comic book creators and has garnered enough of a reputation to be optioned as a movie.  I’m going to assume a lot of the people who read this blog have either read it or heard about it, but in the mean time,

SPOILERS AHEAD!

About the comic

Wytches is a six issue limited series that was published by Image Comics in October of 2014.

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The comic was drawn by British artist Jock,

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and written by American artist Scott Snyder.

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Both these guys are fantastic creatives with resumes a mile long, but if I had to draw attention to one part of their careers it would be their contributions to DC’s Batman.  Jock for his artwork,

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and Scott for what he’s added to the mythos, such as the Court of Owls.

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What both Jock and Snyder are very good at is creepy, horror imagery and that all comes to a terrifying and amazing forefront with Wytches.

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The story follows a father named Charlie, his wife Laura, and their daughter Sailor as they move to the small town of Litchfield New Hampshire.

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The reason why they moved was due to Sailor being mercilessly bullied by another girl,

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right up until the girl had an unfortunate “accident”, which led to people believing that Sailor had killed the bully.

Unfortunately for the family, the town and surrounding forest are home to some thing ancient, dark, and horrible: wytches.

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These aren’t creatures of magic, or even human.  These are hunched, twisted, menacing apex predators who live underneath trees and cook humans alive before eating them.  They have some sort of ancient science that can grant boons to anyone who wishes to gain their favor, but they demand a sacrifice in exchange.

This is done by spraying people with a green liquid that marks them as “pledges” and throwing them into a hollowed out tree where the pledge gets dragged down to their lair and eaten.

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Really horrific stuff.

The story is about the family dealing with the wytches and trying not to get eaten.  To say anymore would spoil some of the fun parts of the plot, so all I’m going to say is that you should read it.

Themes and meaning

So why am I talking about a horror comic on the day after Father’s Day?

Well, the importance of family and the things that parents will do to protect their children is a major theme of the story.

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Sure, there’s the obvious issue of Charlie trying to save his daughter from the very real monsters that want to eat her.

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But it goes deeper than that.

Charlie spends most of the time he has with his daughter trying to help her deal with her anxiety and what I can only assume is a pretty bad case of PTSD.

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There’s actually a really gut wrenching scene near the end of the book that’s a flash back to Charlie snapping at his daughter for what he perceives as weakness.

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This is contrasted with his wife, who wants to forget everything and start over.

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She has her reasons, but to talk about them is something that I don’t want to spoil.

Wytches is an expertly written, incredibly well drawn, and horrifying modern parable on the dangers and fears of modern parenting and I would actually go as far as to say that it would probably make a very good Father’s Day gift.

Assuming your dad likes this sort of stuff.

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Comic book showcase: Fish Police

I did some thinking over the Memorial Day weekend and I came to the realization of just how different this blog is going to have to be.

Talking about superheroes from the 1940’s was much easier than talking about comics from the 80’s.  For one thing, there were more resources and easier access to scanned copies of books from the 1940’s.  Plus the business was much newer and simpler back then with the centralized distribution through newsstands and a small group of publishers, the lack of censorship from the Code, and less media to compete with for viewers.

But then again, if it wasn’t for the wild and kooky business practices of the 1980’s I don’t think we would have had anything as bizarre as Fish Police.

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Origin and Career

Fish Police was created by comic writer and artist Steve Moncuse, whose image I cannot find.  He first started Fish Police as a self published title under the name of Fishwrap Productions.

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This lasted for eleven issues until it was picked up by a small indie publisher called Comico in 1987.

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Comico is the kind of publisher that this blog was built for and you better believe this will not be the first time we talk about them.

Fish Police is a comic about Gil,

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Gill is a hat wearing, hard nosed, gun packing detective who allegedly used to be human and now solves fish related crimes in a sort of film noir style, complete with an authority figure that’s had enough of his loose cannon ways.

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One would assume that it would be easy to solve a murder when everyone is “sleeping with the fishes”.

The comic even continued the film noir tropes by including a dame named Angel,

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who gets Gil mixed up in a strange drug case involving her uncle but that’s all I was able to find on that.

So what happened?

Everything was hunky dory for 17 issues until Comico went bankrupt in 1986 after trying to distribute their comics directly and through newsstands.

The comic was almost immediately picked up by Apple Press,

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That lasted for a few years until 1991 when Apple let the series go.

Despite the comparatively short print run and carousal of publishers, the idea still had some life to it.  In 1992 Steve Moncouse and artist Steve Haulk launched Fish Shticks, a six issue series that told some new stories and was more gag focused than the original.

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Also, joy of joy and wonder of wonders!  They made an animated tv show!

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Hanna Barbara (you know, the Scooby Doo guys) adapted the comic into a regrettably short lived animated show that took a much darker and hard broiled (preferably with a nice white wine sauce and lemon) turn than the comic.

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For God’s sake, the show had Tim Curry voicing a shark lawyer!

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Which is funny considering that this wasn’t even close to his weirdest role.

The cartoon was created as an attempt to compete with the new and hip show on Fox The Simpsons,

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but since you probably know all about The Simpsons and next to nothing about Fish Police, it’s safe to say we can guess what happened.

The show only lasted 6 episodes, which I am sure you can find online if you look hard enough.

The series has continued to live on in reprints.  Marvel reprinted the title in the early 90’s and IDW reprinted the story as late as 2011.  Plus, there was a new Fish Police story that made an appearance in Dark Horse Presents in 2013.

Fish Police was a story that could have only gone as far as it did in the 1980’s.  It was a self published book that managed to make it all the way to prime time television before dying a painful death wrapped in newspaper.  It was quirky in all the right ways and i love it.

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Although, I am disappointed at the lack of fish puns I was able to fit into this article.