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: The Flaming Carrot

You know what?  I think it’s time to take a break from the Golden Age this week.

The Golden Age of Comics was an age of ridiculous comic book characters and a “well let’s just throw things against the wall and see what sticks” attitude, which is the main reason why I started this blog in the first place, but I’d like to branch out and see if there might be other characters that could be just as ridiculous and crazy.

Sure, we’ve talked about comic book characters from different time periods before, but there has to be something there that’s crazy, bold, and…

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oh hello, where have you been all my life?

Screw tradition, this is the Flaming Carrot.

Origin and Career

The Flaming Carrot made his first appearance in a small comic called Visions which was published by a convention called the Atlanta Fantasy Fair in 1979.

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A bit of context here: the early 1980’s were a time when the independent comic book scene was really starting to take off.  Creators were often ditching the big publishers of Marvel and DC to self publish their own stuff or with smaller publishers who were much more generous with their checkbooks and willingness to share credit.

For a bit more context, this was the time period that gave us the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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The Flaming Carrot comic would later be self published through a company called Killian Barracks Press and then find different homes through various publishers over the next thirty years.

He was created by comic book author and illustrator Bob Burden.

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The hero was meant to be a parody of superhero comics at the time.

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he got his powers by suffering from brain damage after reading 5,000 comics in a single sitting.

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Just goes to show you, comics are bad for you and will rot your brain.

How did his head turn into a carrot?

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Don’t ask such stupid questions.

The Carrot lived in the fictional neighborhood of Palookaville in Iron City.  He didn’t have any superpowers but he would often win the day through grit, determination, and sheer dumb luck.  Also, he had a toy chest of gadgets to help him along with a gun, which he used without hesitation or remorse.

His enemies were equally ridiculous, as you can see below.

You’ll notice that a lot of the interior artwork is in black and white.  It was like this to cut down on art and printing costs.  Believe me, I know.

Over the course of his career, the Flaming Carrot developed a cult following and became pretty popular.  He even found some time to create a team of working class heroes known as “The Mystery Men”

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We’ll touch on that later.

So what we have here is an independent creator, publishing a black and white comic, that parodies super hero stories, and is self published without any help or support.

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Can’t imagine why I would relate to something like that.

Side note: did you know that we actually have another web comic up and running?  It’s called “Questing 9 to5” and it’s on our Tapastic account which you can find here 

So what happened?

It’s actually kind of difficult to pinpoint the exact time and moment when Flaming Carrot ceased publication ended.  Despite its success as an indie hit, it ceased being an ongoing title when issue #31 was released in 1994.

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The hero would make various appearances in one shots and crossovers over the course of the 1990’s, including a crossover with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1993.

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Sadly, this did not make it into the show.

In 2004, the character was picked up by Image Comics and four more issues were published.

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His last appearance was in 2006 and to this date, Bob Burden hasn’t published anything else.

Thankfully, Flaming Carrot was just crazy enough, and just popular enough, to garner attention from Hollywood, and in 1999 Burden helped create a movie based around Flaming Carrot’s teammates.  The movie was called Mystery Men,

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and it failed spectacularly.  It’s actually kind of sad really, the movie has some great actors who would go on to better things, so it was clear that there was SOME effort put into it.  Although, it had Dane Cook in it which was just…

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ugh.

However, there was one thing about the movie that has stayed with us and has gone on to pop culture immortality.

You know that one song by a band called Smash Mouth?  The one that was really REEEAAALY popular in the early 2000’s and everyone knew as “that song that plays at the beginning of the first Shrek movie”?

Yep, this is the movie where that song came from and why the introduction has a whole bunch of ridiculous superheroes…and Dane Cook.

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You’re welcome.

I’m going to level with you, Flaming Carrot is that kind of ridiculous cheesiness that makes comic books the unique and wonderful medium that they are.  He was a rough and tumble, blue collar, scrappy hero with the kind of gimmick that would make you roll your eyes and groan.

But it was very clear that there was a lot of heart and effort put into The Flaming Carrot, and although he was ridiculous, he was drawn proof the the wonderful and heartfelt insanity that could only occur in comic books.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Hand

This one is going to be a short one, but boy is it a weird one.

We’re all familiar with the idea of a giant hand that is used as a metaphor for controlling things.  The hit video game Super Smash Bros. has the “Master Hand” as a final boss,

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Marvel Comics has the super secret group of ninja demons known as “The Hand”,

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and many real life people love to claim that our lives and fortunes are at the whim of the “invisible hand of the market”.

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Yes, the hand is always there.  It’s big, it’s powerful, and it’s completely unknown to we small pathetic creatures.

But did you know that someone tried to take this idea of “The Hand” and turn it into a superhero in the 1940’s?

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Told you this was going to be weird.

Origin and Career

The Hand made his first appearance in Speed Comics #12 in 1941.

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The comic series was the first comic book title published by Harvey Comics, a relative newcomer to the comic book scene and a company that would become famous for licensed titles such as Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich.

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Fun fact: Speed Comics had been bought from a struggling publisher called Brookwood Publications and was Harvey’s entry point into comic book publishing.  Without this title, Harvey wouldn’t go on to become a major comic book publisher.

The character of The Hand was created by Ben Flinton and Bill O’Connor, two men who would go on to create the Golden Age version of the superhero known as The Atom.

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Unfortunately, both men would wind up joining the armed services in 1942, and while both men survived they did not return to comics after that.

In his first and longest adventure, the Hand doesn’t fight Nazis or stop saboteurs.  Instead, he stops a couple of card sharks from ripping off a casino.

He is introduced with no fanfare, no explanation, and no backstory.  He just appears and warns two men that they better watch themselves.

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The two men ignore the warning and begin to clean out the house.  The Hand warns management, who takes it all in remarkable stride and agrees to let the disembodied hand help him.

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I like to imagine that the hand belongs to some sort of cosmic being that is actually a child and is trying to act all grown up by helping people.

Why not?  It’s more explanation than the comic gives.

The Hand is also a capable fighter…and capable of phasing through walls.

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However, when the criminals attempt to stop The Hand by confessing, The Hand realizes that they will not be arrested or charged for their crimes.  So he brands them on the forehead so the world will know what they’ve done.

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Apparently, The Hand has never heard of hats.  Which kind of makes sense.

On a side note: this comic issue deserves special mention for the story that came directly after this one.  Since most comics at the time were anthologies publishing short stories of only a couple of pages, we got treated to this one.

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A kid taking out a head of state with a rifle and people being okay with it?  Boy the times really were different back then.

Anyway, The Hand would have one more story in the following issue of Speed Comics where he played the patriotic game and helped the F.B.I defeat some foreign spies.

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It was shorter, but had more action.

So The Hand was an established hero with a gimmick and a creative team behind him…

So what happened?

…and that was it, those were the only two issues that featured The Hand as a superhero.

It’s really not that surprising really.  The character was a small backup feature in a series that didn’t last very long and was published by a company that shifted focus away from original characters and into licensed stories.

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Plus, let’s be honest, the two stories that The Hand appeared in weren’t that exciting or good.

The Hand may have been a small time character with boring stories, but that doesn’t mean the concept wasn’t interesting or that he didn’t have any value.  Sure, the creature was a hero and had a sense of agency and purpose, but it always had room for normal people to step in and take over when the time was right.

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It appeared that The Hand was some sort of benevolent spirit who helped where he could and allowed normal people to do the right thing, and if that isn’t heroic I don’t know what is.

The Hand had potential, it would be a shame to forget that.