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 creators of Thanos.

So I saw Avengers: Infinity War over the weekend.

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The only thing I will say about it is that it’s one heck of a turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an epic way to cap off this giant experiment that Marvel and Disney have been running for the past ten years.

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Other than that, I’m not saying anything else about the movie.  The internet is filled with enough spoilers as it is.

No, today I want to do something different and talk about the behind the scenes history of big bad guy of the film, the villain who has been teased for the past five years: Thanos.

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The character is pretty simple.  He’s in love with the Marvel Universe’s personification of death and he attempts to prove his love by killing off half of the universe using the Infinity Gauntlet.

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He’s one of Marvel’s most powerful bad guys and a big part of the strange and weird cosmic stories that Marvel produced in the 70’s and 80’s.

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Sadly, Marvel’s cosmic stories were never a big seller for the company when you compare them to their mega hits like Spider Man and the X-Men.  Stories about characters like Ronan the Accuser and Adam Strange weren’t very popular, even though they’ve been getting more attention nowadays with the smash success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

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This is really sad since these are some of the weirdest, most bizarre, and high concept storytelling the company has ever produced, and most of this insanity was created by the other legend working at Marvel, and a long time favorite of this blog series: Jack Kirby.

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You know him, you love him, he helped create nearly every single superhero on the big screen right now, and he loved him some crazy far out aliens and space stuff.

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You can see a lot of his

design aesthetic on display in Thor: Ragnarok.

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While Marvel had Kirby to thank for some of the most fascinating and bizarre aspects of their superhero universe, he didn’t create Thanos.

Thanos was created by writer Mike Friedrich,

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and writer/artist Jim Starlin.

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Both of these artists have had long and storied careers at both Marvel and DC and came into their own in the 70’s and 80’s, reinventing what comics could do and giving us some of the greatest characters and stories today.

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Starlin in particular is the prince of the Marvel cosmic universe, and his resume is only dwarfed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby themselves.

He helped create Thanos,

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Drax the Destroyer,

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Gamora,

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and he reinvented other heroes which will probably be making appearances in future Marvel movies like Adam Warlock,

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and Captain Marvel (who has a long and interesting story that I’m not going to talk about here, but long story short he was created in the 70’s and was reinvented as a lady in the present day).

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Yes people like Kirby, Friedrich, and Starlin were some of the most prominent and successful names in comics in the 70’s and 80’s, and were responsible for many of our childhood favorites.

And they all hated Marvel with a burning passion.

Long story short, the mega publisher decided to continue the long and sordid history of comic book publishers screwing authors and artists over.  Kirby followed in the footsteps of hundreds of his Golden Age co workers and was famously screwed out of most of the credit and royalties of his work, watching as his co creator Stan Lee would go on to become the biggest name in comics.

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Starlin in particular hates Marvel with the burning passion of a neutron star.

 

So they decided to quit Marvel and move on to greener pastures.  Kirby would move to DC Comics and create the characters of New Genesis and Apokalips, the latter being home to one of DC’s most powerful villains: Darkseid.

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Starlin and Friedrich decided to create their own comic, an anthology series known as Star Reach.

Star Reach is an interesting bit of comic book history.  It may seem like the comic book scene is dominated by Marvel and DC, and for the most part that’s true, but there has been a long running independent comic book scene that really took off in the 1970’s with the work of underground super stars like Harvey Pekar,

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Art Spiegelman,

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and Robert Crumb.

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The independent “comix” scene has its own separate and unique history and you could write books about it,  but for the sake of time and simplicity all you need to know is that it was characterized by its own unique art styles, adult themes, and subject matter that was absolutely NOT for children.

Star Reach was a comic anthology that collected short science fiction and fantasy stories and shared and helped bridge the gap between mainstream comics and the independent comix of the time.

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The first issue was published in 1974 and fans described the book as a “ground level publication”, sharing the distinction and aesthetic with a similar European publication we know today as Heavy Metal.

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Perhaps it was the lurid material, or the crossover appeal bridging the gap between mainstream comic books and the underground comix scene, or maybe it was the famous names attached to the book.  Either way, Star Reach was a hit and had a pretty solid five year run.

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Also, it helped set off a boom of independent comic books published in the late 70’s and early 80’s which helped shape the pop culture landscape we know and love today.

You know what?  I think this might be the perfect segue into a new age for this blog.  Sure, the 40’s were a fantastic time for comic books and produced some of comics’ most endearing characters and crazy stories, but the late 70’s and 80’s had some pretty insane characters and were a pretty fascinating time for the comic industry as well.

All good things must evolve, and I think now might be the time to change it up a bit.

This’ll be fun.

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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Crowdfunded Comics that deserve more attention: The Kugali Anthology

So I thought the Black Panther movie was awesome,

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and if the box office numbers have anything to say, everyone reading this is probably thinking the same thing.

I’m willing to bet that the creators of today’s Kickstarter comic looked at the release of the movie and thought that now would probably be the best time to try and raise money for their project: The Kugali Anthology.

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The Kugali Anthology is a collection of comic stories and characters written and drawn by black creators, with an emphasis on creators from Africa.

The comic is being funded out of Britain, so any funding information is converted into American dollars.  At the time of writing this comic has currently raised $5,922 out of $13,782 and has 26 days left in its campaign.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kugalimedia/the-kugali-anthology?ref=discovery

Why I like it

Before we start I should make one thing incredibly clear, I am not an expert on Africa and I have no ancestral or familial ties to Africa.  Outside of a few close family friends and an extremely brief section of my school’s history curriculum, my knowledge of African history and culture is very limited.  I am simply writing as a very curious, and very white, comic book fan and tourist.

From the looks of it, this particular anthology is focusing on fantasy stories and folk tales.

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I will admit that I could be wrong, but even if I am, the very idea of having a magazine that brings more attention to creators and artists from Africa telling stories that are based in African culture and history is incredibly exciting and makes me very happy.

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What little I do know has been enough to pique my interest in Africa for a while and I find its history absolutely fascinating.  Africa is a vast,

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and incredibly diverse continent filled with larger than life places and people.  Stories about great kings such as Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire,

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the East African spice ports,

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and the life and exploits of Shaka Zulu,

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have captured my imagination and I have been trying to learn more ever since.

Heck, Africa is home to one of the first and greatest civilizations in Western history, a civilization that some historians devote their entire lives to studying.

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Again, I will admit that I am writing this from a place of relative ignorance but let me ask you this:  If my limited knowledge of Africa can demonstrate that the continent is more than a collection of unfortunate stereotypes, that there is more to it than poverty, disease, and violence, what do you think we could learn from people who actually live there?

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This leads me directly into my next point…

Why you should donate

Because the world is getting smaller and introducing people to entertainment influenced by different cultures just makes sense.  Plus, it can provide creators with a much needed infusion of new ideas and aesthetics.

I’m going to explain by picking on the fantasy genre for a minute.  To be clear, I love a good fantasy story but let’s be honest, the second you read the word “fantasy” your mind probably brought up images like this:

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or this,

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or maybe this if you’re a Japanophile:

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Sure, some creators have helped audiences branch out by introducing fantasy worlds that aren’t influenced by Medieval Europe or Japan.

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but European and pan Asian cultures are not the only places that have stories worth telling and interesting aesthetics.

Africa has so many stories, characters, and themes to offer the world and it’s high time that African creators took their rightful place on the cultural stage and shared their voices with the world.

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The Black Panther movie showed us that audiences are ready for stories that uphold the idea of a strong and confident Africa and that African themes and aesthetics can be a viable source of entertainment.

 

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Let’s take the next step and introduce audiences to the wonderful world of African comic books.

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Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kugalimedia/the-kugali-anthology?ref=discovery