In the winter of 1945/1946, the apocalypse came to my hometown. I was born in Aschaffenburg, Germany, a city that was completely destroyed during World War II. As a "soft" secondary target (unlike nearby Frankfurt A. M., we had minimal flak defenses...) we were bombarded for months by the American 8th Air Force during the day, and then by the British Air Force at night. We then had the misfortune of being selected by Hitler to be one of his "Festung" (fortress) cities, with an SS division making a desperate last stand in the huge Medieval castle in the center of our town. While the destruction of our castle was but a minor speed bump in George Patton's blitzkrieg across Germany, his massive artillery bombardments, and savage tank assaults wrought utter ruination on any buildings in Aschaffenburg that had survived the bombings.
While it might logically seem that the end of the war in June, 1945 marked the point at which the suffering of our citizens ended, the worst was yet to come. It was during the bitter cold winter of 1945 that sickness and starvation killed as many, or perhaps even more, ordinary Germans than all of the allied bombings combined. It really doesn't get much play in the history books, but the forced mass migrations at the end of World War II resulted in millions of people having to leave their places of birth at the point of a bayonet. Oftentimes, they were only allowed to take with them what they could carry on their backs.
One of the largest forced migrations consisted of people who were of German descent being forced from areas that were annexed into Poland (taken by the Russians, at least in some measure, to compensate the Poles for their eastern lands stolen by Stalin in 1939...). The Czechs also purged their country of the "Sudenten Deutsch," of whom Otto Schindler (of Schindler's List) is the most remembered. The number one refuge destination of these DP's (Displaced Persons) ended up being the German state of Bavaria. That was because of the four administrative zones (British, French, Russian, and American) set up by the allies after the war ended, Bavaria was controlled by the Americans. With the economic infrastructures of the British, French, and Russians having also been destroyed during the war, Americans were perceived as not only being the least harsh in their administration, but also having the most resources. Above all else, it was commonly believed that in the American zone you could find food.
With DP's pouring into Germany by the millions in the Summer and Fall of 1945, the refugee organizations set up by the allies were quickly overwhelmed. With no food or shelter available to most of them, many DP's turned to crime. Most often, this involved stealing food from farmer's fields before it could be harvested. While this may seem relatively inconsequential as a crime, taking someone's food during those hard times could (quite literally) result in their children to starving to death. This was particularly true of the small urban gardens which a great many Germans still tend as a back-up food supply. With all ordinary supply chains destroyed by the war, anyone living in Germany in the winter of 1945 had to either rely upon food that they could somehow obtain from soldiers, or subsist upon what they grew themselves. Barring those two options, stealing food from others was the only way to survive.
I'm sure by now that you're wondering what this ancient history has to do with comics. Well, from my personal perspective, quite a bit. Even though I was not born until ten years after the great winter of starvation in Aschaffenburg, my grandparents and my mother absolutely scared me to death as a small child with horror stories from that ghastly period. As a direct result, I have patterned my entire life around the presumption that our economic system's health and vitality was a myth. As much as we all (if for no other reason than pure psychological necessity) ignore the fact that we could die at any moment, we also build constructs in our heads that the urban supply chains upon which we are so completely dependent will not fail us. As so frequently happens during disasters, however, it has become clear that we really do have no one to rely upon in times of crisis other than ourselves. As the people of New Orleans can fervently attest, even years after a destructive event, reconstruction of the institutions required for "normal" living can be painfully slow.
This story now brings us to the current economic crisis. Thanks to my early childhood indoctrination, I am looking at the playing out of our current events through the filter of the winter of 1945/1946. While the vast majority of Americans are far from any imminent danger of starvation, I do see a steady and pernicious decline in our standard of living. Unemployment is rising at a frightening pace right now, which certainly does not bode well for consumer spending in the coming months and/or years. As I mentioned in my last column, this current economic decline has shattered any delusions that I might have held about my own abilities to adequately prepare for such an unprecedented event. Yes, I have been stashing business assets for years (most notably over 8 million comics), and I have also taught myself the skills needed to grow food on the 32-acre organic vegetable farm that I purchased outright during the "good" times. As the worldwide economy continues to spiral downward in a seemingly endless fashion, however, I have been forced to seriously question whether even my once seemingly conservative investment strategies will ultimately succeed. But, with no other viable options at hand, I have to simply keep trying each day to reduce our remaining corporate debt, and to simultaneously continue to add to our asset base. In the final analysis, I do still believe we will be OK, presuming that things do not go completely to hell in a handbasket. The next couple of years are going to be a rough ride, however, and I think that those who have not been financially cautious over the past few years are going to find themselves in difficult positions.
Returning to the subject of comics, I have some seemingly conflicting bits of news. First, our Mile High Comics retail stores have been on a roll during the past three months. Our overall retail sales have increased by about 20% during this 90-day period, as compared to the same three months last year. The two main factors fueling this growth have been A) the failure of some competing comics shops in the Denver area, and B) cover price increases by the publishers. Neither of these two factors is a positive long-term development for the comics industry. On a slightly better note, our online retail sales of back issue comics and trade paperbacks grew from a -30% in October, to a +3% in January. Being ahead by three points over last year typically isn't much to brag about, but as compared with most retailers these days, it's quite a spectacular achievement. More importantly, I spent over $50,000 during January of 2008 buying highly desirable back issue comics at conventions, many of which sold immediately via our website. This January, my buying budget was zero. Suffice it to say, managing to achieve a small level of sales growth, without any significant inventory purchases, actually left me quite pleased. Clearly, the comics market is holding up far better than the rest of the economy.
As I stated earlier, I'm completely aware that this column is sending mixed messages. On the one hand, I think that everyone needs to think (at least in the furthest recesses of their mind) about the possibility of a potential economic apocalypse. As much as I personally might think that the new administration in Washington is on the right path, the s**t storm of troubles in the banking industry that they inherited from the Bush administration may well be too much for Keynesian pump-priming to solve. You can flood the economic system with all the liquidity that you want, but if ordinary people are too scared about the future to spend, the downward spiral will continue inexorably. It took fifteen years of effort for America to finally recover from the Great Depression of the 1930's, and ten years for Japan to recover from its "Lost Decade." I can now easily envision us needing a similar amount of time to completely recover (if we ever will...) from this current economic downturn. On the flip side, the modern comics industry was born during the Great Depression, and Japanese Manga sales were immense during the "Lost Decade." Taking those historical facts into consideration, I have some measure of optimism that the comics industry will survive the next few years, and may well prosper, even while the rest of the world economy is in tatters. Heeding the memory of my departed mother's words of caution, however, I think that I will also keep working on building up the topsoil on our farm, and pick up a few more boxes of ammunition. Just in case.
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Attn: Chuck Rozanski
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