First-Ever Meeting Between Comics Retailers
After my first meeting with the executives at Marvel Comics in the summer of 1979, I returned to Colorado full of hope and high expectations. That was particularly comforting because 1979 was not a very good year for comics sales. Marvel was still in the doldrums caused by the creeping withdrawal of Stan Lee from the day-to-day management of the company, and DC had significantly cut back it's line of titles toward the end of 1978. The other publishers were also faltering, as newsstand sales continued to plunge.
We felt these elements of comics industry weakness throughout Mile High Comics, as our sales of Golden Age comics from the Edgar Church collection slowed to a crawl, and our sales of more recent back issue comics generated by the mail order division that I had just purchased from Richard Alf were were essentially flat. Even sales in our four retail stores were slow. Were it not for the prospect of gaining the wonderful cash flow benefits of 30-day billing on our purchases of Marvel comics resulting from our becoming a Marvel distributor, plus that simultaneous 10% improvement in our discount, the outlook for 1979 would have been quite bleak.
It was within this context that I set about arranging the first-ever meeting between comics retailers and the executives at Marvel Comics. This came about because the one thing that was glaringly obvious to me during those first meetings that we held in May of 1979 was that, with the sole exception of Jim Shooter, the Marvel executive team knew almost nothing about comics, or comics fandom. Nancy Allen (who was at that time in charge of all of Marvel's advertising sales) drove this fact home to me when she asked me "how many separate stories are in each of the comics we publish? " When I informed her that most comics consisted of just a single story, which was often a part of a long continuing saga, she was amazed. She then readily admitted to me that in all the time she had worked for Marvel, she had never tried to read a single issue of the books they published.
I mention this particular anecdote, not to demean Nancy Allen (who later went on to a great marketing career including, I believe, helping to launch MTV), but rather to give you some perspective on just how difficult it was to communicate with the Marvel executive team. They had been hired by Cadence Industries President Sheldon Feinberg not for their comics knowledge, but rather for their specific skills in certain technical elements of the publishing business. Quite simply, were it not for Jim Shooter already having gained the trust of these people, my efforts to convince them that the comics specialty market was anything but a bunch of kookie kids with too much money, and not enough brains, would have been completely in vain.
Shooter had already been wrestling with how to educate the other Marvel executives about the comics specialty market ever since he was appointed Editor-in-Chief in 1978. One of the things we mutually agreed upon when we first met was that we needed to figure out some way in which to introduce the other managers of the company to the vast potential for sales that lay dormant in comics fandom. To achieve this goal of enlightenment, I proposed that Jim Shooter lead a Marvel team in a visit to the 1979 San Diego Comics Convention. My theory was that if we could just get them to see and feel the synergistic flow of positive energy resulting from having thousands of happy comics fans in a single environment that they couldn't help but gain enlightenment about the potential of the comics specialty market.
By 1979, the San Diego convention had been forced out of the beautiful old El Cortez hotel, and was now set up in the spacious downtown San Diego convention center. This was not the huge new convention center by the harbor that we currently occupy, but rather the much smaller convention center in Civic Center Plaza . I'm not sure of the total attendance at the con that year, but I think it was around 5,000-6,000, which would have ranked San Diego among the largest shows in the country. More important for my purposes was the management structure of the convention. While most other comics conventions around the country were owned by individuals, the San Diego convention had been set up right from the beginning as a Not-For-Profit Corporation, with a committee of dedicated fans running the show. This made it far easier for me to get permission to hold that first public Marvel meeting with retailers at the show, and to obtain a meeting room from the convention free of charge. I then spent a significant amount of my time early in the days of the show passing around flyers to the dealers attending the convention, letting them know the time and place of that first historic gathering.
The participants of that first Marvel meeting with retailers were Jim Shooter, Ed Shukin (Marvel's Marketing VP), and Barry Kaplan (Marvel's VP of Finance). Marvel President Jim Galton was also supposed to attend, but he canceled at the last minute. In the end, the three guys who were there proved quite sufficient. Shooter thrilled the raucous crowd of about 50 retailers who came to the meeting by promising to revitalize the entire Marvel publishing line (a promise which he kept beyond anyone's wildest dreams...). Shukin also made the attending dealers very happy by promising to initiate a massive marketing effort by Marvel targeted specifically at comics retailers. Kaplan said very little, but spent most of his time listening, and absorbing what went on during the spirited dialogs.
It is important for you to know that Kaplan was the top peckerhead at Marvel at that time, as none of the other Marvel executives could fund even a small project without his approval and cooperation. While Kaplan reported directly to Jim Galton, the two of them had to answer to Sheldon Feinberg, and Feinberg was not known to be particularly loose with the company cash. Convincing Kaplan that funding the new Direct Sales division that Shukin and Shooter wanted to create at Marvel was actually the single most important goal of that entire trip to the 1979 San Diego Comics Convention.
To be continued...
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