By Dan Gearino
I’ve dealt with comic book shops, hobby shops, and game stores for the last fifteen years. It’s part of my day job, which sells products to these establishments. Good bunch of people, although I wish they’d order more often.
And as a former Zine publisher, I encountered these places years ago. However, there weren’t that many game stores around in my early days. A Fazebook forum of former and current Zine publishers mentioned this book. I was told it would inform the reader as to how comic books shops originated, when they thrived, and their near destruction in the 90’s. Intrigued I downloaded a copy from the Zon and began to read.
The best anyone can figure out is that the first comic shops started up on the west coast of the USA. On the eastern shores there were a few stores that dealt in old comics, but they were mostly used bookstores. Many of them accumulated a vast library of old comics as part of their trade.
As the book says:
There is some debate about where and when the first comics specialty shop opened, often turning on how you define “comic shop.” The store in Woodside, starting in 1961, was one of the first to publicly display comics as collectibles and sell them for more than cover price. The comics were protected with clear plastic bags, another innovation of the store’s owner, a pioneer of comics retail: Robert Bell.
Many more sprung up in California in the late 60’s. The first of these was Seven Sons Comics, which included Bud Plant as a co-owner. Although it didn’t last long, Bud Plant would go on to be a major distributor of indy comics and many other publications. I even sold him some issues of my old horror movie Zine, Fear of Darkness, in the early 1980’s.
By the early 70’s comic book conventions were an established fact. There, comic fans could meet their artist heroes and search for what they needed to fit collections. Some of the conventions would fade away, but others, such as the San Diego ComicCon would grow to immense proportions and become major events for the industry. Even GenCon, the largest gamer convention in the country started out as a small gathering of game enthusiasts near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Around 1973, an event took place which changed the way comics were distributed through-out the country. If, in 1970, you wanted to buy the latest Marvel spectacular, it meant a trip to a local drugstore or grocery. There you would find a spin rack with the latest offerings on display. If you couldn’t find the new copy of Metal Men, too bad. The entire distribution of comics was controlled, for the most part, by regional news distributors. You might see a hurried man going through the rack every week, stuffing in the latest offerings. He’d remove the ones that were too old or didn’t sell. It didn’t matter to the store owner, as he or she received credit for the ones that were returned. Those returns were supposed to be pulped.
Enter the New Word Comic Order by way of a schoolteacher named Phil Seuling. A comic fan and visionary, he almost lost his job after a convention bust for selling “obscene” comics. While on administrative leave, Seuling had a vision and pitched his idea to several men in the industry:
Here was the new business model: retailers could order comics from Seuling and get shipments straight from the printing plants, bypassing the old-line distributors. This meant the comics would arrive sooner than at other outlets, and in precise quantities.
The system would come to be called the “direct market,” because comics were skipping the middleman and going directly to the retailers. This was possible because the major publishers did their printing with the same company in Sparta, Illinois. The printer would collate the orders and ship them to Seuling’s customers, just as they did for hundreds of news distributors.
The new system had benefits and risks. Orders from Seuling had a greater wholesale discount than those from the old distributors, but also were nonreturnable. This meant that if a store ordered twenty-five copies of Superman and sold only five, it was stuck with the surplus. Also, Seuling required up-front payment with each order, even though the comics didn’t ship until months later.
This would turn into the preferred way of obtaining comics for the better comic shops in the USA. The system proved to be such a success, that Seuling opened his own distribution company, Sea Gate. He ran it full time until his death in 1984.
This is the key to the entire book, understanding how a new system of entertainment distribution revolutionized an industry. Before the VHS cartridges changed the way America watched movies, before the Internet made obscure films available at the touch of a button, direct sales changed the way comic fans received their treasured reading material. Gone were the days of praying that the local market might have that copy of Wonder Warthog. Now, your local comic store had every issue.
The book also contains an excellent overview of the comic shop network from the end of the twentieth century to the start of the twenty-first. The rise of collectible runs is covered in depth. As is the over-supply of limited issue comics which almost destroyed the market. Sometimes the death of one visionary turns the industry in unexpected directions. The book spends a lot of time on the ups and downs of a Columbus, Ohio comic book shop and how it was affected by market trends. This is an industry run by passionate people, not, for the most part, those who want to make a quick buck.
I give this book a strong recommendation if you want a good history of the rise of the independent comic shop.