Evolution of the Direct Market Part VI

In last week's column, I explained how the back issue comics market was the overriding economic element of the late-1970's Direct Market. During that time, thanks in great part to the steady annual value increases reflected in Bob Overstreet's comics price guide, there was a growing faith that comics were becoming a "genuine" collectible. This improved perception of the potential future value of back issue comics is much of what made it possible for comics specialty stores to survive in what was otherwise a very harsh economic environment.

While it is ancient history for many people, I need to stress for clarity that the period of the late-1970's nearly saw the demise of comics publishing. The precipitous drops in newsstand sales that I mentioned earlier in this series more than offset the ability of Seagate Distributing to grow comics sales by shipping comics directly to comics shops. While the Direct Market comics shops did manage to transfer a great number of fans to themselves that otherwise had been purchasing through newsstand outlets, the harsh reality was that newsstand sales were dropping far faster than the Direct Market was growing.

In point of fact, the late-1970's was a period when DC Comics, without warning, suddenly slashed over 30% of their entire line in a single day (the infamous DC Implosion...). Clearly, the corporate bosses at Warner were not happy with the sales declines. Marvel was in equally dire straits. In 1980, Marvel President Jim Galton confided in me that when he was assigned two years before by Cadence Industries (the conglomerate that owned Marvel in those days) President Sheldon Feinberg to run Marvel, he was given only a year to straighten out the "mess." Before Galton was hired Marvel had lost a huge sum on an ill-fated television advertising campaign for PIZZAZZ magazine, which not only resulted in a change in senior management, but also a marked predisposition on the part of Mr. Feinberg to simply shut the whole thing down. Blessedly, not only was Mr. Galton a visionary (if sometimes cranky...) leader, but he also had the good fortune to have Jim Shooter take the editor-in-chief position soon after he took the helm. As I'll explain soon enough, these two talented men ultimately made the decisions that set the stage for the second "Golden Age" of comics.

While I'm on the subject of late-1970's comics history, I don't want to forget to give a big bucket of credit for the survival of comics to George Lucas. When STAR WARS was released in May of 1977, there was an incredible shortage of merchandising. In fact, the special magazines put out by Starlog Group, and the comics series produced by Marvel, were about the only licensed products that were released at the same time as the film. In the frenzy of consumer demand that followed, the large mass retailers were so desperate to sell clamoring fans something that they started offering people the chance to prepay for a package of STAR WARS ephemera that was not even going to ship until February of 1978! It was in this desperate environment that comics retailers were able to score in a big way. Not only did we have comics and magazines, but we also had black and white stills from the movie, actual movie posters (including huge six-sheet subway posters), lobby cards, posters, buttons, and bumper stickers. It is a little know fact that while finding the Edgar Church collection of mint Golden Age comics helped increase sales at Mile High Comics during 1977, sales of STAR WARS merchandise actually helped us generate far more income. Of even more importance was the fact that STAR WARS #1 sold over a million copies during its various printings, proving to all the comics publishers that there was still some life out there, if you could just find the right subject material. In my opinion, that was one substantial reason reason why Marvel and DC didn't just shut down during that dreadful year.

Returning to the topic of Seagate, by 1979, I was buying all my comics through Seagate as a subdistributor. The 50% discount I had fought so hard to get was no longer an issue, but the problem of constantly having to prepay Seagate owner Phil Seuling for all my comics was really beginning to rankle. No matter how hard I tried to manage our cash flow, it was always necessary to cut back on the Seagate order, especially during the slow months of September-November, and February-April. This was particularly galling because it meant we couldn't advance order for higher Christmas sales, or for tourist sales that always came during the summer. Since comics shipped 60 days after we ordered them, when we had good cash flow, we were always ordering for the dead seasons. This was completely nonsensical. When I complained to Phil about this problem, he told me it was the publisher's fault. This led me to start a letter writing campaign to Marvel in May of 1980. The goal of this campaign was to try and get some specific concessions from Marvel, including 30-day billing on our comics shipments. Little did I know, but this seemingly innocent letter writing campaign started a revolution that entirely changed the world of comics.

To be continued...

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

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