I'm sitting a lonely hotel room in the gray and gloomy Midwest this morning, waiting for the beginning of an antiques auction containing a few Golden Age comics later in the day. As with most auctions, I have no idea if this one will pan out. Simply put, it all depends on who shows up to bid against me. I lucked out a couple of months ago, and managed to score 1,200 low grade 1940's and early 1950's Dell comics at an auction in Colorado for pennies on the dollar. But that was only because no one else with comics knowledge attended that particular auction. I think my odds of success this afternoon are quite a bit lower, as this area has a great many knowledgeable comics dealers. Still, even after 37 years of buying and selling comics, having an even a remote possibility of scoring yet another great comics deal is plenty enough reason to temporarily lure me away from the sunshine and beauty of my Colorado home.
Upon reflection, I suppose that there is a lesson to be learned from this behavior that I'm manifesting. You see, the auction today only contains a couple of hundred comics, most of which I already have in stock. Once you've been bitten by the comics dealing bug, however, it becomes compulsive to chase after even more books. The thrill of unearthing yet another cool collection of older comics simply does not ever go away amongst those of us who have chosen this path in life. It is a passion that burns brightly, even after many decades of success have already provided the means to retire comfortably.
My thoughts have wandered into the realm of contemplating true passion for comics this morning, as a result of an interview that I provided yesterday to George. George is writing a book about the first 15 years of Image comics, and the impact that the creation of Image has had on the comics' world. Based on our discussion of that history, I think that George's book is going to be quite an interesting read. What I discovered during the course of our discussion, however, was just how much buried antipathy that I still harbor for the venal, conniving jackasses who ran the comics world during the late1980's, and early 1990's.
To explain my sublimated anger a bit, we first have to step back to that momentous period of 1987/1988. Ron Perelman had just purchased Marvel and fired Jim Shooter as editor-in chief, DC was riding high on the successes of the first Dark Knight series and Watchman, and First, Eclipse, and Dark Horse were setting the stage for the successes of many smaller companies over the next five years. While that is an extremely simplified perspective on the world of comics in that period, the basic facts are that the huge successes achieved by the Direct Market comic shops in replacing the sales of newsstands during the 1980's created an entirely new retailing environment. With double digit growth in sales occurring practically every year as more and more comics retail stores opened across the country (and around the world), it seemed as though the future of comics retailing was limitless. Particularly when you take into account that the new superstars of comics, such as Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane, and Alan Moore were just the leading edge of an entirely new generation of amazingly talented young comics artists and writers.
So what went wrong? In my own opinion, it was the "suits." The lousy goddamn !@#$% suits. I found myself flushed with rage yesterday as I discussed with George my recollections of all the conniving weasels in fancy tailor made suits who began appearing at comics retailing seminars during the mid-1980's, all determined to rip a bit of our flesh for themselves. Those jerks, strutting all about with their pretentious locking leather briefcases, had absolutely no concern about the future of the world of comics. They did smell the health and vitality of our business, however, and like all parasites, they strove to insert themselves into our system. Sadly, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, first inflating the comics business to ridiculous heights by the early 1990's, and then bringing everything crashing down during the dreadful period of 1993-1996.
The origins of the suits was mixed, with some coming from the world of International finance (such as Ron Perelman and his lackeys), while many others were trading card speculators who jumped from that sinking ship into the comics world during the late 1980's. There were also those who fancied themselves as astute private speculators. They could be found wandering the dealer's rooms of conventions, seeking to purchase rare items at advantageous prices. Of all the newcomers to the comics world, they ultimately made out the best, as many of them did eventually become hopelessly addicted to the comics themselves, rather than to just the monetary value that they represented. Oddly enough, by letting their passions win out over the avarice that initially motivated them to buy comics and original comics art, they ultimately succeeded at achieving their original financial goals. Ironic, but true.
In the end, however, it was the turncoats (if you'll pardon the pun...) within our own community who became the most damaging of the "suits." It's a bit hard for me to describe the comics world of the late 1970's accurately, as it was really rather small, but suffice it to say that those of us who began the Direct Market were a motley aggregation of nonconformists. Even Phil Seuling, who was arguably the most influential Direct Market personality of the 1970's, was never to be seen wearing a tie at a comics function. I can remember that Bill Shanes (now the VP of Marketing at Diamond) took enormous pride in those casual days at wearing only sandals, without socks, to business meetings. In those far more innocent days he referred to socks as "California Formalwear..."
Sometime during the mid-1980's, however, pretension began creeping into the wardrobes of comics retailers, distributors, and publishers. It became important to give the appearance of success, regardless of the reality. Some of this change was driven by a need to impress bankers and other financial backers, but a great deal also had to do with simply trying to give the perception of greater person strength. Now I'm not going to knock people's evolving personal wardrobe choices, as I found myself personally wearing much more in the way of western snap button shirts (originally designed to help you quickly disentangle from dangerous situations on a farm or ranch...) and bolo ties after I purchased my farm in Colorado, in 1990. What I will criticize, however, is the abandonment of passion that frequently accompanied these changes in personal attire.
Sadly, somewhere along the line during the late 1980's, a whole slew of comics folks became very, very greedy. Advancing the cause of comics became a secondary objective to them, while personal financial advancement became their foremost goal. While this change in philosophy may seem logical on many levels, it actually produced the opposite effect as intended. As these folks abandoned the cause of growing the comics market slowly and steadily through the creation of better products, and instead supported the financially lucrative short term agendas put forth by the outside suits, they began inadvertently strangling the goose that was laying the golden eggs. That's exactly how we got into the ridiculous situation of the early 1990's, when Marvel was publishing 135 dreadful issues a month (at double the cover price of just four years earlier), DC was "killing" Superman, and nearly every publisher large and small was engaging in the debilitating marketing of specious cover enhancements, multiple covers, and "limited" collector editions. Is it any wonder that the whole comics market eventually collapsed under the weight of this endless greed?
Having lived through both the age of innocence and the era of rampant greed, I try very hard to not remember paradise lost. I become endlessly bitter and angry just recalling how much potential we squandered during that awful period of 1988-1993. Had we instead grown the comics business at 10%-15% a year, nurturing and supporting the careers of emerging new creators, I think that the comics world today would be entirely different. Ultimately, however, market forces beyond anyone's real control took over, and everything went to hell in a handbasket. Only now, after a decade of almost no growth in nationwide comics sales, are we starting to see the market revive. What makes me most optimistic about our current future, however, is not just that we're seeing some growth today, but rather that the growth that we're experiencing is based upon genuinely good comics being sold to individual readers, most of whom are filled with a passion for comics. As I see it, that bodes very well for our collective futures over the next decade.
Returning to the subject of George's book, I want to emphasize that I only marginally blame the Image creators for the excesses of the early 1990's. While they did engage in any number of practices that caused some harm to the comics market of that period, they entered the picture late enough in the game that the die had already been cast. They added some fuel to the speculative fire, but only because the suits from without, and within, had already created the scenarios of greed that made the Image marketing efforts a tremendous success. The fact remains, however, that as I spoke with George yesterday afternoon about the birth of Image, it dredged from my memory the hopeless anger that I felt at that time at having our collective dream for the future of comics co-opted by the greedheads in their fancy suits. Upon careful and resaoed reflection, even after 15 years have now passed since those awful days, I still sincerely hope that they each burn forever in their own special hell. But that's just my passion speaking...
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