Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

July 13, 2007

Is This The Biggest Story in Comics?

After the period in which people died in riots and political protests related to a series of cartoons, and before a potential radical shift at media companies that could hasten certain depressing trends in editorial cartooning and newspaper strips, I would suggest the story of right now is the ongoing comics and graphic novel boom, and, particularly, the nature of that boom and extent to which it benefits not publishers, entertainment company board members, Hollywood agents, or even an editorial class, but creative and retail communities.

My basic thesis is that despite measurable gains in the specialty Direct Market, the emergence of a traditional book market and even signs of a rapidly developing on-line market, a lot of the celebrated growth isn't wholly reflected in a beneficial way where it deserves to go most: the creators who make the comics, and those on the front lines of putting them into people's hands.

Moreover, analyzing the boom becomes tricky because while things may look good on the surface, many of the markets serving comics seem to be suffering from complications arising out of long-term dysfunction in the way comics are made and distributed. This makes the problem infinitely more complicated. Say there was business reform; it could be that long-simmering trends or deeply ingrained ways of doing things could lock into place an unfair market once held together by more rigorously punitive structures. So while I'm not holding out hope for a revolution, I can and will continue to press for a more reserved, brutally honest appraisal of who benefits and to what extent, and ask that you join me. We can at least be honest about that.

It's not all bad news. Some good news, some even great. But I think overall things have changed less for the people for whom a Golden Age should matter most. It would be ironic in a horrible way if comics were to emerge from its first six or seven decades as a brutal, bottom-line industry into a fuller artistic and even commercial flowering only to serve its creative community less effectively than when junk was king, when original art was destroyed rather than returned and people publicly denied working in the field.

It looks like re-orders specialist Cold Cut being up for sale stirred some of the same feelings in people. Not only did a company that somehow survived the years 1994-2002 announce its intention to sell to someone else, but no one seemed particularly surprised they would do so. Industries that grow by percentage points year after year in multiple markets tend to provide more opportunities for established business, not potentially fewer. Flush industries don't glumly accept business leaving the field as a logical outcome.


1) Retailer Chris Butcher recently thought out loud on some of these same issues. Click through the link here.

2) SLG's Dan Vado wrote to this site and forwarded an essay specifically on the subject of Cold Cut, which I'm reprinting below. I think his letter hints at some of the divides that have deepened despite the overall upswing in certain markets as well as the frustration many feel in trying to solve decades of stunted development from any one vantage point. Mr. Vado:
Hi Tom, I am probably going to post this on my blog, but feel free to put it wherever you might like as I may never get around to actually posting it.

This is more on the subject of your pondering about the industry and boom times more than it about Cold Cut. I have never seen the stratification of the industry as bad as it is right now. While, historically speaking, the business has always been dominated by the top two companies, there always seemed to be something of an audience left for everyone else. The comics business in general and the direct market in particular seems to have become a zero sum game, where gains on one side result in losses on another. One thing which I think is killing the direct market is a combination of non-returnability of unsold product and a dangerous reliance on pull-lists and the Diamond Previews. As it stands right now the retailer eats what he doesn't sell and has no incentive to take chances or even attempt to attract a wider and more diverse audience. The client base seems to be expected to always order out of this giant, ugly catalog two to three months in advance based on not much other than general listings and sample smaller than a postage stamp. We aren't really in a boom time, it's just that our standards of success have become lower as our expectations have been driven further and further into the dirt.

The one retailer who wonders about Cold Cut's lack of additions of new items to their catalog, well that guy needs to wake up and smell the rotting fruit because in this day and age of exclusives with Diamond where most promising new publishers give all of their business to Diamond BEFORE THEY EVEN PUT OUT A BOOK, well there just isn't much new of any real quality that will make it into Cold Cut's catalog.

While that sounds like a slam at Diamond, it's not, it's a slam at my fellow publishers. Cold Cut was taking a risk on doing reorders for lots of people and doing their best for a good number of publishers well before Diamond discovered the book trade and the need for exclusivity. Of course Diamond is going to ask for exclusives, why shouldn't they? But most publishers who jumped out of Cold Cut's catalog for a Diamond exclusive didn't even bother to ask about carving out a spot for Cold Cut. Diamond is SLG's bookstore distributor, and yet we still make our product available to Cold Cut. I insisted on that, same with Last Gasp. Why? Because Cold Cut and Last Gasp were instrumental in the success of many of our books like Milk & Cheese, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Lenore. Without Cold Cut, without the hard work put in by Mark, his former partners Tim and Cathy and all of the people who work for them, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac would have died on the vine. Cold Cut was the one keeping that book available to the direct market before Diamond even figured out that small press reorders were important and potentially profitable. I and all of our creators owe a lot to Cold Cut and I have this crazy thing about loyalty. Honestly, Cold Cut got screwed for what amounts to pennies.

Mark and everyone else at Cold Cut worked really hard for a lot of people who wound up turning their backs on the to get access to a sales channel that doesn't give a shit about what they do anymore than the direct market does. In all that I never read Mark go into any anti-Diamond screeds or call for lawsuits or anti-trust action. He and all his partners worked extra hard and showed nothing but class while dealing with an increasingly awful situation.

I have known Mark Thompson for almost 20 years, he is a class guy and I don't blame him one iota for wanting to bail on this shitty-ass business and devote his time to something better. If I were smarter and maybe had some skills which translate outside of this business, I might be following him out the door.

For now I think we'll leave it there.
posted 3:14 am PST | Permalink

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