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Thoughts on the Year Thus Far
posted February 6, 2005


This has been an exhausting first five weeks of the year for comics industry news. There have been so many potentially important stories in one month in 2005 that it's been difficult for any single entity to report all of it, or, really, for all of us working in concert.

The nature of on-line news provides very little room for a second look. On-line readers really seem to value immediacy. One frequently hears "I broke that story," while one rarely hears, "I provided what many feel is the last word." The desire to be first is so ingrained in our heads that I remember one person claiming to break a news story by virtue of having e-mailed word to some friends, an act surely closer to talking to someone in a parking garage than writing a series of articles for the Washington Post.

I'm an on-line reader, too. I'm just like everybody else in that I value being informed in a timely manner. My hope is that occasionally we can take a second look at some news stories, and try to come at them from a different angle, making news as well as breaking it. Here's my second look at a few big issues of 2005 thus far.

Did the CBLDF Dodge a Bullet?

It's interesting to note that CBLDF secured its victory over the US Customs Service at a convenient time. The US Customs case, in which the Fund threatened a vigorous defense of two comics as satire rather than as pirated material the way US Customs designated them, was settled just as a much larger case to be announced Monday is gearing up. Although it was an honorable defense of free speech principle, one wonders how much the new case will benefit by money and resources not being split into two trials. The counter-argument, one might guess, is that the Fund doesn't choose the timing of the battles, but the principles it wishes to defend and applies its efforts accordingly.

No Rooms in San Diego

This story erupted shortly after the convention's reservation system opened for 2005 business in early January. I think it is a non-story. After interviewing CCI executives Fae Desmond and David Glanzer about the perceived shortage of hotel rooms for this summer's big show, I passed on writing a longer story about it. But it tends to be one of those things that survives in blogs, commentary windows and chat rooms; I participated in one sort of related to this issue at the Great Curve blog just this morning.

I think why this became a brief hot-button issue is because many folks deeply involved in American comic books obsess over the San Diego show. The show has changed so much in recent years, with a great swell of attendance. As a result many of these people could not secure the exact rooms they wanted. But in fact, there was no shortage of hotel rooms in San Diego, or even convention-sponsored discounted rooms, at the time it was asserted otherwise. Plenty of rooms were still available through the con and through other services when I checked this past Monday.

The real issue here, dramatically underreported, is that smaller exhibitors are frozen out of the pre-selection process for rooms set aside by Comic-Con. Many have taken to finding alternate means of securing their rooms. This is important not in itself but in terms of an ongoing issue: whether or not the convention is becoming too expensive for small exhibitors. If the answer is yes, this could lead to significant changes in how the comic book industry participates in what is now its largest sort-of trade show. But that's something that can't be reported right now: it has to be tracked through July and then beyond. One to watch

Stephanie Fierman Hiring

imageI hope that just because the new Senior Vice President, Sales & Marketing at DC Comics Stephanie Fierman answered a few questions for Cliff Biggers at Newsarama -- a nice score by them -- means that interest in the nature of her hire and extent of her responsibilities has diminished. That interview displayed an odd lack of details even for that kind of thing. To read it, one might think Fierman was hired off the street with no expectations to do anything at all except apply her skill set to various issues Bob Wayne and Rich Johnson can't get to. That doesn't sound like the genesis of a senior staff hire to me. I still have a request out for media time with Ms. Firerman -- DC personnel has not been able to get back to me on when that might happen -- and hope that everyone else continues to pursue news about this important hire.

Highwater Books Goes Under

Earlier this month, the venerable trade magazine The Comics Journal released their report on last November's announcement that Tom Devlin's Highwater Books would close. The story featured an almost relentless emphasis on cartoonist confirmations -- not really complaints, except in one case -- that royalties were owed, that royalty statements were lagging behind, and that the company had difficulty putting out books due to a lack of capital. The story glossed over exactly just how common those things are among arts comics publishers, despite the question being raised, which might have placed the closure in a potentially less cruel and definitely much clearer context.

However, that interested me less than a reminder of a long-ago news story that Highwater had temporarily abandoned distribution through direct market giant Diamond Comics Distributor in favor of trying to make a go of it distributing their own books. Remember that? Devlin soon returned, although whether after a "few months" or more like a year and a half depends on whether you trust the Journal's story or Devlin's memory.

A central irony to this is that what Devlin was claiming at the time, that Diamond didn't in any way make alternative comics a priority, is such an accepted part of comics' conventional wisdom that critics frequently advocate against allocating anything but the barest of resources to feed the system as it now exists.

imageHere's an interesting question. If more alternative comics companies had joined Highwater, could they have banded together and forced at least some comic book shops to work with a second distributor? It's a nice thought, but the answer is almost certainly no. There's just not enough capital in non-major comics companies for them to take any kind of significant short-term hit in pursuit of potential long-term gain. Also, I think one little talked-about secret is that some alternative comic books might be ordered on the basis of momentum rather than the kind of retailer devotion that would take someone into a second catalog. These are sales that would likely be lost forever, which I don't think such companies could risk.

I like pondering the idea that a distributor could make a go of it if they worked a specific niche for hard to place books, such as offering books of this type on a returnable basis. But I sort of like to ponder that idea the way I daydream about the widespread distribution of personal jetpacks. The thought here is that most comic shops who already own this stuff would continue to buy non-returnable through Diamond because it benefits their overall, volume-related discounts but that some stores that didn't have the capital to invest in these books outright might be willing to rack some if they didn't have to purchase them first.

This would hardly work because retailers would probably not emphasize work for which they would make less money on a percentage basis than the Diamond material, there's even less of a reward for distributors for more work, alternative comics companies don't produce regular content of the kind that can support its own distribution network, and comics stores are by every measure not just disinterested in alternative comic books because they lack capital, but disinterested in alternative comic books because they don't care for them or feel they have little to no ability to sell them effectively.

Are We Being Too Mean to Stan the Man?

Finally, I think one thing that's interesting about the recent Stan Lee vs. Marvel news is how little relative attention is being paid to Marvel's role as potential giant Bad Guy compared to all the talk about Stan's fitness to lay claim to karmic justice via his contractually obligated percentage of Marvel profits. That may just be the perils of celebrity -- Lee is certainly a more compelling character than any of the current Marvel board or even Martin Goodman. But it's strange in a sense that comics people, myself included, drift to Stan vs. Jack as opposed to Jack vs. Martin, or just how sublime a money-hoovering operation Marvel has become to a certain group of people who are well-invested in the corporation.

The lobby of San Diego's US Grant, which isn't close enough to the action for some people; my photo record says that's Bob Wayne (please correct me if I'm wrong; Highwater Book's splendid Teratoid Heights.