Origins of the Distribution System

Before I go any further with my telling of the story of the origins of the distribution system that eventually came to service the Direct Market comics shops, I want to backtrack for a moment, and provide you with a vital bit of history that flavors much of what eventually occurred during the 1980's and 1990's. This history begins with the dreaded Kefauver hearings in the US Senate (which explored the links between "lurid" comics and a myriad of social evils...) that did much to damage the comics industry during the mid-1950's. While it is well know that many comics publishers were forced out of business by the resulting bad publicity from those hearings, it is not so well known that another significant contributing cause of comics publisher demise was the rapid constriction of the comics distribution system from 1955-1957. Aside from the publishers who were forced to testify at the hearings, representatives of the national magazine distributors were also publicly harangued for providing the means by which the "evil" comics publishers were placing their sordid wares in the hands of the young and the impressionable. Rather than take any further heat, many magazine distributors chose to cut back, or completely eliminate, their distribution of comics..

In addition to those comics publishers who entirely went out of business, both EC and Marvel were devastated when their respective distributors failed. In EC's case, publisher Bill Gaines could obtain no new comics distributor, and was forced to cancel all of his comics titles, and switch over to just publishing MAD in a magazine format. Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was only slightly better off, as he was forced to sign an incredibly restrictive distribution deal with National Periodicals, the parent company of DC Comics. Under the terms of this dreadful 1957 deal, Marvel was only allowed to publish 8 titles per month!

While both Gaines and Goodman took huge losses on their comics enterprises during this painful period of the late-1950's, both of their companies ultimately survived, and prospered. In fact, I think it can be reasonably argued they they both eventually tremendously benefited from this short-term adversity. Gaines reaped fantastic rewards by focusing all of his energies on building a MAD empire. Martin Goodman didn't have one big title to save him, as his strategy over the years had always been to direct Marvel Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee to imitate whatever was popular at the other comics publishers at any given time. With the cutback to only eight publications per month (sixteen bi-monthly titles), however, the economics were simply no longer favorable for the imitation strategy. Marvel desperately needed to create a flagship title (with high monthly sales and revenues) to carry the bulk of the overhead costs of the company. This pressing need is what compelled Goodman to give Stan Lee the latitude in 1959 to begin experimenting in their small horror/mystery/sci-fi line of titles with a variety of possible new superhero characters.

When those experiments eventually led to such blockbuster titles as FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Marvel should have quickly regained its ability to control its own distribution destiny, but it did not. By the mid-1960's there were so few national magazine distributors remaining that Marvel still had no options for getting out from under DC's stranglehold. The other possible distributors either didn't carry comics, or already had comics lines they were promoting. That is why Marvel had so few titles until 1968, when Martin Goodman sold the company to a weird little mini-conglomerate called Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation.

The sale of Marvel is very significant because Perfect Film quickly morphed into a new entity called Cadence Industries. Cadence, in turn, managed to somehow gain control of Curtis Distribution (one of the "Big Seven") from the wreckage of the former owner, THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. While that story, in and of itself, would make an intriguing book-length tale, the important point for this history is that the acquisition of Curtis Distributing finally freed up Marvel to publish as many titles as they wished. The resulting flood of titles from the "House of Ideas!" may not have set any particular standard for excellence, but they sure pummeled DC's market share during the 1970's. I doubt not for a minute that the executives at DC rue to this day that they provided Marvel with that desperately needed distribution deal in 1957.

Fast forward only another 10 years, to 1980, and you find yourself at the beginnings of my story of the seminal stages of the distribution of comics into comics shops. Still smarting from their dreadful distribution decision of the late-1950's, the DC executive staff are now finding themselves being forced by the 1979 Irjax anti-trust lawsuit to drastically alter their distribution system within the rapidly-growing comics shop market. Having been witness to at least part of their decision-making process, I will guarantee you that their first priority was to not to screw it up again.

To be continued...

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