Mile High II Collection Part VI

This week's column is chapter #6 of the story of the 1985 purchase of the Mile High II collection.

On the flight back home from New York, I had to wrestle with a severe moral dilemma. This huge accumulation of old comics was clearly something I desperately needed in order to validate the entire back issue mail order business I had built with the proceeds of the Edgar Church collection. The price was right, and I believed I could raise the money for the down payment, but I was still very conflicted about whether I should buy the deal. The reason for my hesitance was that I strongly believed that the books were very likely affidavit returns, and I had made it a personal policy up to that point to never deal in such books.

To explain, affidavit returns are comics which were originally sent to certain very powerful newsstand distributors on what is known as a "sale or return" basis. These comics were ostensibly put out for sale by these distributors, didn't sell within the allotted 30-day sales period, and were then pulled back off the newsstand and replaced by new issues. As a part of the contract that the publishers make with the newsstand distributors, all unsold newsstand issues were then supposed to be destroyed. In fact, most distributors are required to "strip" the covers (or the top third of the covers) off all unsold issues, and mail them to the publishers as proof of destruction.

Where this system went totally wrong was when certain very large distributors were able to make arrangements to simply send in notarized affidavits of destruction, rather than actual stripped covers. Books that were then supposedly destroyed were simply shipped out with a willing trash hauler, who then sold them into the secondary market, and split the money with the distributor. Joe Brancatelli wrote a wonderful expose of this practice in his short-lived INSIDE COMICS newspaper, back in about 1980. If I remember the details of Joe's story correctly, the FBI investigated the entire newsstand distribution system at that time, and there were indictments of certain players. It was strongly implied that the FBI believed that this entire process was all being run by elements of organized crime.

Soon after I read Brancatelli's circa 1980 article, I happened to meet with the VP of Marketing for a major comics publisher. One group of items I had kept from my 1978 purchase of Richard Alf's mail order comics business was a stack of carton labels that Alf had torn off of some unopened boxes of bulk books that he had purchased from a certain East Coast wholesale back issue comics supplier. This bulk dealer was so brazen about selling affidavit returns that he never even bothered to remove the original distributor shipping labels off of the unopened cartons of mint comics that he was dumping into the back issue market. Alf felt sure that these labels would be of great interest to the publishers.

When I showed my friend the comics executive the labels, he blanched, and asked me to immediately destroy them. He then told me a very complex story about having set up a "sting" at the Sparta printing plant the year before, where he had a plate change made in just the copies of books going to the distributor who's name and address were on the labels Alf had saved. He kept the information on the plate change completely secret, limited to only a couple of top Spartan Printing executives, and the pressmen. Soon after the books were released, he told me that he had a couple of big guys in suits visit him in his office. They placed copies of the specially marked books that had been shipped to the alledged affidavit returns distributor on his desk, and explained to him that they knew exactly how these books came to be different from the rest of the print run, and why he did it. They then suggested, very politely, that he never try such a marking process ever again. I have no doubt in my mind that this powerful publishing executive was terrified of ever crossing these very dangerous people ever again. He was warning me off of revealing my information not only to protect me, but also to protect himself.

In looking at the comics in the warehouse, I couldn't help but notice that the issues stopped at about 1979, right about the time of the FBI probe. When I asked, the seller told me that his father had made arrangements to pick up large quantities of comics every week from a certain very large East Coast newsstand distributor (who shall remain nameless...), and that this arrangement had been in place for decades. Given that there were quite substantial stacks of single issues in the deal, and that other boxes were completely full of issues that were mixed up, but that all came out in the same month, it seemed highly likely to me that these books were the fruits of some sort of affidavit return arrangement. Even more disturbing, I saw many instances where there were entire unopened case lots of certain issues of comics, where the distributor obviously never even put the books out for sale. I eventually discovered that the highest number of a single issue in the warehouse was 14,000 copies of one 12 cent cover price Marvel comic.

To resolve my ethics problem, I had a discussion with my good friend, Michael Hobson. Michael was then the Vice President of Publishing at Marvel. I explained the situation to him, pointing out that nearly half of the comics had originally come from Marvel, and that Marvel thus had the greatest potential legal claim to these books. I offered, if he wanted, to give him all the details on the warehouse. For all I knew, he might want to follow some course of legal action against the owners. To my surprise, Michael told me to go ahead and buy the deal if I wanted. He stated that as far as Marvel was concerned, there was no reasonable basis to pursue any legal remedies, if for no other reason than the fact that all the material was at least six years old, and that he believed that the contractual statute of limitations had run out. As far as he/Marvel was concerned, there was no point in me not buying the books, since someone was going to be buying them in any event. With Michael's benediction in place, I was now ready to go forward with making the deal.

To be continued...

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221



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