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Trouble with Comics

Seven Funnybooks That Changed How I Saw Comics

Sometime this year, and I am not exactly sure when, I passed a milestone of having read comics for forty years. The first time I remember being given a stack of comic books was at the age of six, recovering from having my tonsils out. Ice cream and comic books in the recovery room — yes, America, our health care system has really deteriorated since 1972.

Over these four decades, some comics have blurred into obscurity to me. I am pretty sure that that first stack included Spider-Man and Archie titles, but I can’t pinpoint which particular issues they might have been. I suspect the Spider-Man was an Amazing Spider-Man in the 120s, but that’s as close as I can get it.

Other comics stand out in my memory like they came out yesterday. Some because they were so good, others because they were somehow significant in some way to my development as a comics reader. Here are the most memorable of those comics.

 

* Daredevil #181 - In the 9th grade, my best friend Donny and I shared a love of comics, and there was no comic we looked forward to more every month than Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil. Miller had begun drawing the book with issue #158, really started to cook art-wise around #164, and when he took over as writer with #168 (first appearance of Elektra, true believer) Miller began a long ramp up to the explosive, apocalyptic #181. I remember the cover blurb word for word — “Bullseye vs. Elektra…One Winss. One Dies.” And for once, it wasn’t just hype.

Bullseye had bedeviled Matt Murdock since, I think, #159 (back when Roger McKenzie was still writing the book), and the climax of this issue sees the assassin murder Daredevil’s first love Elektra in as brutal and final a manner as had probably ever been depicted in a Marvel comic up to that point. Elektra’s death, brief as it was (she was resurrected in Miller and Janson’s last issue together, #191), felt much more realistic and portentous than the usual superhero comics death, and although she’s died and come back a number of times since, no one could ever hope match the visceral gut-punch Miller and Janson delivered with this issue.

Additionally, with a few decades reflection, I’ve come to believe that this issue marks Miller’s absolute peak as an artist (his peak as a writer was either Batman: Year One or Daredevil: Born Again). After this, every comic book Miller drew seemed to be an exercise in experimentalism, or just seeing how far he could get his head up his own ass (culminating in the graphically bankrupt Dark Knight Strikes Again). These days I can’t find any interest at all in anything Frank Miller is involved with, which is amazing to me when I look back to Daredevil #181 and remember how very much it seemed like a new high for comics, and certainly a signal moment for Frank Miller as a writer/artist. 

 

* New Teen Titans #1 - To say I was a huge fan of George Perez in the late 1970s and early 1980s would be a colossal understatement. The only two comic books I ever subscribed to through the mail were Avengers and Fantastic Four, both at the time being regularly drawn by Perez. So when he moved to Marvel and overhauled Teen Titans with writer Marv Wolfman, I was all over that book from the moment the preview story appeared (in DC Comics Presents, I think?), and my interest really sustained itself for a good long while — certainly through The Judas Contract, which had the somewhat shocking revelation (for a DC comic of that era) that the 50ish Deathstroke was sleeping with the 15ish Terra.

If you were the right age and reading comics, it was almost impossible not to fall in love with Claremont and Paul Smith’s Kitty Pryde, or Wolfman and Perez’s Tara Markov. The difference was, of course, that Terra was designed from the get-go to turn on the Titans, and Wolfman’s long-term planning of Terra’s story arc struck me at the time (I was in my mid-to-late teens) as extraordinarily sophisticated for a superhero comic book. When New Teen Titans split into two titles, one in the regular format and one in the Baxter Paper format, I think my interest began to wane, and by the time Perez left as artist, I was gone too.

But for quite a few years, New Teen Titans was THE monthly superhero book, stealing a lot of thunder from Marvel in the fan press and in the minds of readers. These days the books seem hopelessly overwritten and the melodrama is all a bit much, but the truth is, those comics were written for 12 year olds, and as such, they provided an exciting, seemingly more mature look at what was possible within the superhero sub-genre.

 

* Reid Fleming, The World’s Toughest Milkman #1 - “78 cents or I piss on your flowers.” If that means nothing to you, you weren’t there, and I can’t help you. Literally the funniest thing ever published in a comic book, and that line sticks with me, all these years later. David Boswell was an outsider artist creating a comic unlike any other before or since, and Reid Fleming’s world needs to be experienced by everybody, everywhere. 

 

* Uncanny X-Men #137 - My first issue of Uncanny X-Men had been the one where Mesmero brainwashed the team and turned them into carnival acts, with Magneto showing up at the end in probably the most impressive full-page panel I had yet encountered — I mean, dude looked scary. I had very little clue who most of the characters were, but I was instantly engaged by Claremont’s writing (slightly better than Wolfman’s, but certainly as wordy if not moreso) and more urgently by the artwork of John Byrne and Terry Austin.

Although the team was around a few months after #137, this double-sized issue really was the climax of the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne/Austin era, with stunning superhero battles, heartbreaking drama (I was hugely invested in Scott and Jean’s relationship, for some pathetic adolescent reason) and a sense at the end that a genuine drama had played out and a price had been paid. I was fascinated a few years later when Marvel released the original version of the story in a Baxter Paper edition (also included in Marvel Masterworks: Uncanny X-Men Vol. 5) including a roundtable discussion among the creators and then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who had demanded that Jean Grey be punished for her misdeeds as Dark Phoenix. I never get tired of re-reading such Claremont/Byrne/Austin classics as The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past, and apparently neither does Joss Whedon, who pretty much borrowed those storylines whole for his TV shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse, respectively.

 

* Thor #337 - In my early years reading comic books, it was a fascinating process to learn to discern different art styles. Gil Kane and Vince Coletta were two I learned to spot almost immediately, one because he was so dynamic and skilled, the other because he turned almost everything he touched to shit. I’ll let you guess which is which, although it should be said Coletta Thor appropriately rustic natural blah blah blah BULLSHIT oh my, God, Colletta was a horrible fucking inker.

But anyway. Walter Simonson and Howard Chaykin I noticed both about the same time, from their work on DC books, and in Simonson’s case, especially on Manhunter with writer Archie Goodwin, which, just, there’s almost no words for how good their Manhunter was. Almost the perfect comic book story, regard in its time as a classic and it has only improved with age, a claim few other series from the 1970s can claim. So by the time I heard Simonson was taking over Thor, I was ready for some gorgeous comics. What I wasn’t ready for, had no idea I’d be getting, actually, was the wit and invention Simonson brought to the writing end of his writer/artist tenure on the book.

There was buzz on #337 from the moment it hit the stands, and I can remember having to search high and low to find a copy, I think, in a drugstore somewhere in Saratoga Springs. The book sold out fast, and for the first year or so, Thor became something it had never been, the toast of superhero comics readers everywhere. Simonson is a talent that has continued to grow in his decades in comics, never soured like Frank Miller or gotten too baroque for the audience like Chaykin has sometimes managed to do. Thor #337 was a big, dividing moment in 1980s comics. There was everything before, and there was everything after. 

 

* Nexus #1 - This one came seemingly out of nowhere. I had never heard of the publisher, the writer, or the artist. Even the format — oversized, like a magazine, for the first few issues, and black and white to boot — sent a message that Nexus was not your average superhero funnybook. But for all its more mature concerns — betrayal, obligation, fascism — Nexus felt very purely like comics, in the same way Lee and Romita’s Spider-Man did, or Englehart and Rogers’s Batman. If I could go back and whisper in Baron and Rude’s ears, I would say things like “Never use a fill-in artist,” and “Never renumber the book.” If, retroactively, I could make those things happen, I probably would always have kept up with the adventures of Horatio Hellpop and his wild gang of friends and enemies and frenemies. But no, somewhere what made this book got lost, and I lost track of it, and we’re probably both the poorer for it, Nexus and I. 

 

* Cerebus #1 (Counterfeit) - This was probably the single most significant single issue of my formative comics-reading years. In one weird moment, my interest in artcomix, my fascination with the Direct Market and my love of comics in general all came together. Cerebus had been gaining in popularity for a while — I think around this time it was in the mid-20s to mid-30s numbering-wise, and everyone was reading it. There had never been anything like it. I can’t remember if the Swords of Cerebus collections had begun yet, but the early issues were going for serious cash on the back issue market. A plot was hatched by unknown conspirators who went from one northeastern U.S. comic shop to the next, telling the same story to each shop about how they had stumbled across a stash of Cerebus #1s. (I know Roger Green will correct me if I get any of the details wrong here.)

It wasn’t long before the shops realized they’d been had, that the books were fake, and they were stuck with God only knows how many copies of Cerebus #1, The Counterfeit Edition. In a move that could never, ever happen today, my local comic shop, I believe with the consent of Dave Sim, offered up the fake #1s (with signage making it clear they were fake) for, if I recall correctly, ten bucks each. Later there would be guidelines that became known so buyers could determine if a copy was real or a phony, and these days I don’t have either, but I kind of wish I had held on to my counterfeit Cerebus #1, because in all my four decades of reading comics, I think that was the strangest and most surreal incident I can recall. And also the one that really clued me in that comic shops were businesses, and businesses obviously vulnerable to fraud and wrongdoing, at that. Previously I had just thought of them as a little slice of Heaven, right here on Earth.

— Alan David Doane

Marvel and DC Price Changes: Retailer Response #6

Marvel and DC Comics have announced that they are reducing the price of many of their titles from $3.99 to $2.99. I asked a number of comics retailers for their thoughts on the change, set to take effect in January of 2011. The following thoughts are from Jevon Kasitch of Electric City Comics in Schenectady, NY.

How will the price change affect your store?

I don’t think the change will have much direct effect on Electric City. People seem to have budgets, and spend X dollars per week, and add and drop titles to fit that amount. As prices went up they shaved books they enjoyed less and kept shaving until the budget worked. If prices go down, we’ll see the same dollars just spread across more piece sales. A zero sum game in general.

How do you think the change in pricing will affect the buying habits of your customers?

As I said, I think folks will re-add some titles to fill in the slack in their budgets. This means they may sample more, and be more inclined to try a mini-series if it looks interesting. We found that $3.99 was over the “wow, that costs a bit much” mental line that people had, and sales often were stopped by that voice in their head. Overall I think it will make it a bit easier to sell a book to someone.

What changes do you think this move is likely to result in for the direct market?

For the market as a whole it should bring piece sales up, which given the dismal numbers we’ve been seeing would be a plus. Having a larger number of viable titles makes for more room for that surprise hit to pop out from. For that new writer to be heard, etc. Over all I feel it’s a healthy move for the direct market.

A healthier move would be for both Marvel and DC to chill out on the number of titles published per month and cut line-size down to more manageable numbers. Fewer books of high quality would be welcome. A lot of what’s being shoveled out the door every month is crap, and the customers know it. And they avoid it… And by extension they are super wary of all new projects. But this is a digression from your topic.

Thanks to Jevon for taking the time to respond to my questions.

— Alan David Doane

Marvel and DC Price Changes: Retailer Response #5

Marvel and DC Comics have announced that they are reducing the price of many of their titles from $3.99 to $2.99. I asked a number of comics retailers for their thoughts on the change, set to take effect in January of 2011. The following thoughts are from Christopher Butcher of The Beguiling in Toronto, Ontario.

In addition to what Peter Birkmoe offered, I’d say I’m probably going to increase our order numbers by 10%-20% across the board on DC’s ongoing series at the new price points, at least for the first two issues. I am anticipating a good measure of interest and curiosity in the price drop, but it’s really going to come down to the quality of the work to see if that consumer interest is maintained down the road.

It’s also interesting to note that the price drop is coming in January, historically the slowest month of the year for sales. I imagine that some retailers are going to see a combination of lower sales during that month, and a lower per-unit profit. Not a good match.

Thanks to Christopher Butcher for taking the time to talk with Trouble with Comics about this issue.

— Alan David Doane

Marvel and DC Price Changes: Retailer Response #4

Marvel and DC Comics have announced that they are reducing the price of many of their titles from $3.99 to $2.99. I asked a number of comics retailers for their thoughts on the change, set to take effect in January of 2011. The following thoughts are from J.C. Glindmyer, owner of Earthworld Comics in Albany, New York.

How will the price change affect your store?

There may be less resistance by customers in trying a new title or storyline.  Most customers are on a budget for their comics, and with $3.99 comics, now more than ever, people have been forced to choose titles to cut. There’s a big difference for the customer coming in with ten dollars and walking out with three comics instead of walking out with two comics. We need readers and we need to keep the price accessible.

How do you think the change in pricing will affect the buying habits of your customers?

Despite the content, a $3.99 book is nobody’s favorite.  I suspect the price drop is a move by the publishers trying to stave off a jumping off point for readers and to continue life support for the 32-page pamphlets, floppies, singles or whatever we’re calling monthly comics now.

What changes do you think this move is likely to result in for the direct market?

With all the talk of digital download, I see it as a move by Marvel and DC for commitment to the single issue format, with the hopes that it still has some life left in her.  Hopefully it will entice readers to try other titles and possibly preventing some from quitting from the hobby. With the money the big two make from movies and merchandising, they can probably afford the performance of single comics to be almost a loss leader.

Any other thoughts on the price change?

Although the price is dropping on most books, there is one fact that seems to be glossed over. With the price reduction, there is also a reduction of story pages. Two less story pages don’t seem to matter much to the people I’ve talked to in my store, they all said that it seemed to be a fair trade to pay a $1 less.

I’m also sure that publishers are now noticing that retailers are ordering much less product from them.  Sales on all comics are down and the smell of the ’90s crash is lingering in the air, so it makes sense for the publishers to make a move such as this. Now all they have to do is reign it in on some of the titles being released now.  I mean, how many Batman, Thor, X-Men, and Deadpool books do we need in one month anyhow?

Thanks to J.C. Glindmyer for taking the time to address questions on the impending price changes.

— Alan David Doane

Marvel and DC Price Changes: Retailer Response #2

Marvel and DC Comics have announced that they are reducing the price of many of their titles from $3.99 to $2.99. I asked a number of comics retailers for their thoughts on the change, set to take effect in January of 2011. The following thoughts are from John Belskis, owner of Excellent Adventures in Ballston Spa, New York and organizer of the Albany Comic Con (an advertiser on this site, it should be noted.)

As a small retailer, I unfortunately don’t see a price change as being enough to bring new customers in.  It will result in more smaller retailers having a difficult time making the dollar amount to qualify for the 50 % discount necessary for a retailer to bother carrying more DC comics. With no middle tier on the discount structure, it’s easier for smaller retailers to opt to find other products (IDW or Dark Horse, even Image) with a higher available discount than to bother carrying any excess DC comics, no matter what the price point may be. I see this as a loss for everyone, as larger retailers may order more DC, but rack sales being what they are, they will be bound for the dollar bin. If they keep their order the same, they lose money. Small retailers, who already are having trouble making the minimum order, will move to other product. It once again speaks to me as DC’s plan to be able to charge the retailer (who they consider the true end user) a premium, by way of manipulating the discount structure, and keeping the smaller retailer, who has to carry a certain amount of DC comics to keep his clientele happy, paying more for those comics. A 35% discount is an insult to a retailer, and can be achieved by anyone without a wholesale account being necessary. This may look good to retail customers, but in the end may well hurt retailers again.

How will the price change affect your store?

I will still order only what I will absolutely sell through, so I will in fact make less on DC comics.

How do you think the change in pricing will affect the buying habits of your customers?

I don’t think enough people will take a chance on titles they don’t already collect or consider buying. Add on sales have been decreasing every quarter for almost 2 years, and I don’t think that will change. Customers will be happy to pay less for what they already buy, however.

What changes do you think this move is likely to result in for the direct market?

Without the support of a middle tier in the discount structure, the direct market will either pay more for DC comics, or make less money with what they already can sell. I don’t see this price change as being significant enough to help direct market retailers, and may in the end hurt them.

Thanks to John Belskis for his response. More retailer responses as they come in.

— Alan David Doane
                                                           

Marvel and DC Price Changes: Retailer Response

Marvel and DC Comics have announced that they are reducing the price of many of their titles from $3.99 to $2.99. I asked a number of comics retailers for their thoughts on the change, set to take effect in January of 2011, and the first to respond was Robert Scott, the owner of Comickaze in San Diego, California (read my 2008 interview with Robert, also on the subject of comics retailing).

How will the price change affect your store?

I doubt it will have much effect on Comickaze.  We buy based on confidence in the quality of the product and the demand exhibited by our customers.  Most price objections we’ve heard are not really “price” objections, they are “value” objections and $3.99 became the straw that broke the camel’s back.  All publishers would do well to look at what they are delivering and increasing the value of the package in order to grow readership, rather than reaching deeper into the pockets of their fans to prop up their failing sell-through numbers. 

How do you think the change in pricing will affect the buying habits of your customers?

It’s possible that at $2.99 our customers may be willing to take chances with new series again; I doubt they will return to dropped series over this. If a customer dropped a book that went to $3.99, it was more likely it was dropped because they were no longer satisfied by it and now that the momentum of buying a series has been broken, they’re gone.  In other words, crap will not sell better at $2.99 than it did at $3.99, so if the only actual change here is price, I don’t expect a rush back to dropped titles.

What changes do you think this move is likely to result in for the direct market?

None.  This industry has never been really good at connecting cause and effect and I don’t see that changing now. And while I applaud DC for finally addressing consumer and retailer pricing concerns, I fear this may be more akin to closing the barn door after the horses got out.   And for the record I’m far more concerned over their mismanagement and closure of the Wildstorm imprint/brand and rumors that Vertigo is next and DC’s (and Marvel’s) resistance to marketing beyond the current DM customer and what this means to DM retailers continued ability to reach out to new customers who may not have realized that comics were much more than funny animals and superheroes.

My thanks to Robert for taking the time to share his thoughts on Marvel and DC’s pricing changes. We’ll have more on this subject in the days ahead.

— Alan David Doane