Pain & Ink

Creatively, comic books are healthier than they've ever been. So why is everyone rushing to bury the industry?

The latter is perhaps the most anticipated of DC's projects: The original book has constantly been among DC's best-sellers in the trade-paperback format, in which part or all of a title's run is collected and sold in bookstores and comic shops and, for the most part, kept in print indefinitely. In fact, DC pioneered the trade paperback (and, in some instances, hardback), which not only makes it possible for fans to purchase back issues at a fraction of the price, but also introduces the medium into every Barnes & Noble and Borders in the country. Talk to anyone in the comics business long enough, and they will tell you the same thing: Mainstream bookstores might yet save the comic book...if only they can get the titles out of the, gads, humor section.

"Stan and Frank's books have the potential to reach out and be things that are read for a long time," says Levitz. "Now, we sell Dark Knight and Watchman every day and every good thing we've done over the years, and that makes it a lot easier to attract new readers. By presenting our material in a book format, we think we're accomplishing several things. First of all, you're presenting it in a way that's more comfortable to someone who reads books and not comics. You're presenting it in a format where people don't have to shop for the material every week to keep up to date. And you're able to introduce that same material into additional distribution that reaches people who read -- bookstores."

The notion of collection comics in "respectable" formats continues on October 1, when Pantheon, a division of the Manhattan-based Alfred A. Knopf, will publish anthologies by Chris Ware (the 380-page Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth) and Dan Clowes (David Boring). This will be the first time either writer has been able to get into a mainstream bookstore -- which is a good thing, because of the 3,400 comics retailers in the United States, fewer than 700 have pre-ordered the books through distributor Diamond, according to Fantagraphics publicist Eric Reynolds.

Titan Comics, on Marsh Lane and Northwest Highway, 
is the rare comic-book retailer to carry a 
wide selection of mainstream and independent comic books. Such outlets are a dying breed.
Titan Comics, on Marsh Lane and Northwest Highway, is the rare comic-book retailer to carry a wide selection of mainstream and independent comic books. Such outlets are a dying breed.

One step forward, 10 steps back.

Comic-book fans live in a ghetto they did not create; they became a cult against their will. Not so long ago, purchasing a comic was as simple as buying a stick of gum or filling a prescription. Pharmacies and grocery stores and 7-Elevens once sold comics alongside magazines. When they disappeared and went underground, nobody complained -- nobody even noticed. The bastard was banished.Fanboys have little interest in the business of comics; they tell you how the Green Lantern got his powers, but not how retailers lost theirs, perhaps because the tale of "direct sales" or "direct distribution" is far more complex than any superhero myth. But direct sales is the answer to the question: Where did comics go?

Put simply, a direct distributor sells directly to retailers, which cannot return damaged or unsold comics to the publisher -- the way, say, a bookstore can return unsold novels or a grocery store can return month-old magazines that remain on the racks. Wal-Mart and 7-Elevens and other chains can still order through independent distributors, which take back unsold product, but few bother anymore because independent distributors ship their titles weeks late and don't offer the enormous discounts afforded specialty retailers. It's simply not worth the store's rack space: Kids just don't spend three bucks on a comic that takes 10 minutes to read. Better to stock the latest issue of Maxim than this week's Uncanny X-Men.

Most publishers, from DC and Marvel to smaller independent presses such as Fantagraphics and Oni, use a single distributor, Diamond, to sell their titles to comics retailers. They do so simply because they have no other option: The Maryland-based company is the last man standing in the distributor wars of the 1980s and '90s. It's such a monopoly that, last year, the U.S. Department of Justice looked into Diamond's sales practices and, according to Diamond's Roger Fletcher, came up empty.

The practice of selling directly to comics retailers began in 1972, when a New York schoolteacher named Phil Seuling approached DC Comics with a way of bailing out the sinking comics industry. Seuling, a fanboy who held conventions in New York, told DC he would buy the comics directly from the publishers at a hefty discount, then he would take the orders from retailers. As Steve Duin and Mike Richardson recount in their 1998 encyclopedia Comics Between the Panels, Seuling told DC he would assume the risk for selling the books, while DC would make 100 percent profit, since under his plan, retailers wouldn't be allowed to return unsold product, because they were receiving an enormous discount (35-50 percent off cover price, a practice that still exists).

Within seven years, Seuling had created a distribution behemoth called Seagate, which briefly resuscitated business. But his actions infuriated retailers and prompted lawsuits that eventually broke up Seagate's monopoly, but didn't stop hemorrhaging circulation.

Diamond is not the only distributor -- there are others, such as Coldcut and the aptly named Last Gasp -- but it wields by far the most power; it's the industry's Superman and kryptonite. Stephen Geppi, then a small Baltimore retailer, founded Diamond in 1982; by 1995, he had exclusive deals to distribute the biggest companies in the country, including DC and Dark Horse and Image -- and, when Heroes World collapsed, Marvel. As Roger Fletcher explains, Diamond is the exclusive retail agent for those four companies, meaning they sell directly to retailers but pay a fee to Diamond to get their books in stores. The other publishers use Diamond as the middleman.

Retailers place their monthly orders through Diamond's Previews magazine, a hefty catalog released at the first of each month that highlights titles two or three months before their release dates. DC, Marvel, Image, and Dark Horse receive, in Fletcher's words, "the lion's share of coverage" in Previews because of their exclusive deals with Diamond; each receives its own multi-page section every month -- complete with staff-written "reviews" that tout the coming months' "gems" and "stars." The other publishers are left to fend for themselves in the general "comics" section, which irritates the small houses trying to get retailers to notice their product. Fletcher shrugs off the criticisms, which he's heard often during his 12 years with the company. Hey, a deal's a deal.

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