Pain & Ink

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

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.

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.

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.

"The fact is, the market share for independent comics vis a vis superhero comics is the same as it was prior to Marvel acquiring Heroes World and Diamond getting exclusive arrangements with DC and the rest," Fletcher says. "I don't think the placement in Previews has to do with sales."

Says Fantagraphics' Eric Reynolds: "The conventional wisdom has been that Diamond is more stupid than evil, which is not to say the people at the top are stupid. At the lower levels, some of the customer-service people and account representatives don't have enough people who read the spectrum of contemporary comics, and they don't know to recommend other things to retailers. Alternative comics are so marginalized, and their staff is the mainstream audience -- superhero fans."

Perhaps it has taken a decade-long slump in sales to wake Diamond from its contented slumber. Even Fletcher says publishers need to begin distributing in more mainstream outlets. The days of the specialty stores might well be numbered, especially with online sales escalating each year (Diamond, in fact, owns two such outlets). And there may even come a time when Diamond will have to reverse its no-return policy, an unfathomable notion only five years ago.

"Never say never, but that's not the business we're in right now," Fletcher says. "Maybe that's in the future for Diamond and the industry."

Assuming, of course, there is one.

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Perhaps, as Scott McCloud and many others suggest, comic books will exist only on the Internet. Perhaps they will be sent as ones and zeros to your home, where you can print them out or, better yet, save them to your hard drive. Collecting goes digital; so long, boxes and bags. Maybe they will move to the bookstore, or maybe they will disappear altogether. The sky is falling, and not even Superman can keep it from crashing down around our heads.Do not tell that to Will Eisner.

Eisner, still creating at the age of 83, recalls when, during the 1930s and '40s, his colleagues sneered at their profession, insisting comic books were where grown men went to kill time before making a living as practitioners of fine art. Whenever he would insist that comic strips and books possessed the ultimate potential -- Think of it! Combining words and pictures to tell a complete story! -- they dismissed him as an uppity kid who ought to shut up and get serious.

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