By Brandon Schatz, with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc
“From numerous conversations in the aisles of San Diego, messages on computer networks across the country, and letters and articles in the pages of many of the industry magazine forums, it is obvious to me that both the industry and medium of comics are presently at an ethical crossroads.”
These are words from Brian Hibbs way back in 1991 in an article called “Ethics & The Comic Industry”. Often marked as “Tilting at Windmills #0”, the piece was a scathing rebuke of the glut of predatory pricing and speculation that occurred in comics in the early ’90s. In it, he talks about retailers who are preying on “hot book” culture, selling comics at inflated prices to pull customers the day of sale and folks who are running around nabbing multiple copies of books as an investment for the future.
In 1991, I was six years old. I spent my free time working my way through Casper the Friendly Ghost digests, and attempting to get my cousins to share their Spider-Man and X-Men comics with me to no avail. I’ve been told by many in the business that my lack of “real life” experience with the history of this industry means I’m not allowed to speak authoritatively on it. Which is horseshit.
History exists and is documented for reasons — first and foremost, to learn from the mistakes and become better for it. I may not have been there, but like all those younger than us, I live with the consequences of older actions. I look on in horror as the darker bits of history continue unabated on a loop, both out in the larger world, and within the comic book industry. I sift through long boxes filled to the brim with the mistakes of the past and drift through stories from those who stood in line to nab whatever they could when Superman supposedly breathed his last.
History doesn’t just belong to those who experienced it — it belongs to those who live with the after-effects. This is why when folks see fit to scold me because I’m too young to know any better about this industry, I offer one stone-cold shoulder. Not only did they live through a crash, but they lived through some golden periods, where some folks in the industry were pulling down million dollar payments. Folks like Brian Hibbs tried to warn them that the culture was putting short term gains ahead of long term good. The industry crashed hard. When I arrived, I was pushing a medium that was pulling itself out of the muck, fighting for what once came easy. All of this, in large part, because of the industry’s reliance on regressive sales tactics and the quick dollars to be had in the speculative market.
You’d think those who lived through it the first time would know better and avoid such a thing from happening again.
You would be wrong.
THE ROAD TO OBLIVION
While some say speculation and the speculator have only just returned, well over a decade in the trenches says they never left. Retailers are quick to complain about the current wave of speculation that’s hit, but that’s more down to the fact that someone else seems to be effectively making money off of their dimes. In reality, we’ve all been contributing to this culture, providing fertile ground for such an explosion to re-occur.
In a market where story can be experienced in a collected edition or a digital download, the practice of inflating the price of single issues is wildly outdated. Yes, there is an element of supply and demand to it all, but both have been proven to be so easily manipulated that it takes very little to make a book “hot”.
In the early 2000s, Marvel managed to build a fervour by simply saying they were no longer doing overprints and would not be reprinting buzz-worthy single issues. A cursory look at sales records say that this had been a policy for quite some time, but announcing it surrounding such buzz worthy moments such as X-Force #116 dropping the Comics Code Authority stamp made for instant manipulation.
Over the years, Marvel in particular has proven to be quite adept at manipulating market pressures to get the results they want, going from the wild Jemas and Quesada days, to the more calculated post-Jemas era where moments like Captain America dying started pushing the superhero conversation into mainstream media once again.
While this was happening, retailers all played the game, many of us squirrelling away copies so we could “sell out” and cash in later. Saga comes out and is an immediate hit. Folks start streaming into comic shops, begging for copies. Some places mark it up immediately and make their money. Subsequent printings of the first issue end up selling for more than cover price when they’re released.
This leads to a short-lived era where people wander into shops scooping any Image #1 they can find. Kirkman had just become a partner and dumped a lot of money into the publisher, allowing them to offer big name creators up-front pay while developing books — which in turn meant the market was getting a lot of really good content from big name creators. The only problem? The way retailers and publishers approached the single issue market meant that readers weren’t sinking their teeth into these books. Most didn’t become aware of Saga until someone placed a collected edition in their hand. Meanwhile, we’re all putting these hot books up on walls, marked up for top dollar. People come in every week and think to themselves, once again… hey. What if I do that? What if I can get that money?
It never ends. It never ended. Star Wars #1 blew a hole in the sales market and managed to move over a million copies — the first comic to do so since the heyday of the ’90s. Movies and television shows based on comics started cropping up everywhere, and suddenly first appearances of any character start shooting through the roof even more so than before. This started a wave of people hungry for every first appearance they can get their hands on, which runs the gamut from characters like Kamala Khan to Mosaic. The industry boils with these books, and then subsides. The cycle recurs, and it never ends. This, despite the fact that we have well-documented evidence that these practices nearly destroyed the industry before.
So why does this keep happening? And why has the speculator wave become bigger than ever as of a late?
The answer, is two-fold. But first, a detour.
HALF OF US DEAD
Have y’all heard of a man by the name of Fritz Haber?
He was a man who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1918 for his work in developing a method to synthesize ammonia out of the air, using nitrogen, called The Haber-Bosch Process. It’s this process that sustains the food base for the equivalent of half the world’s population — which is to say, without it, half of us wouldn’t be alive today, and many would have starved to death long ago. Neat, right? Well, as it turns out, this whole process requires enormous inputs of oil — which is to say, half the world’s population’s ability to eat is literally tied to a resource that we know to be depleting incrementally faster than it will ever be produced, which is to say nothing about the folks who are currently starving anyway, because we built and maintain structures by which billionaires are allowed to exist. What’s more: Haber was also the dude responsible for developing the poison gases deployed in World War I (most notably, chlorine gas).
What does this have to do with comics? Well… not much, beyond a fairly extreme metaphor. The world sucks and sometimes the processes we design to save ourselves — along with the people who design them — are also the ones to doom us. This idea applies to comics in the way that the direct market was built, and the people who would exploit it.
I ended up stumbling across this line of thinking while reading an article on sktchd.com (subscription required, but recommended) regarding an app out there called Key Collector.
The app itself has caused a lot of discussion in retailer circles with just as many folks extolling its virtues as there are decrying the app as a destroyer. Over at SKTCHD, proprietor David Harper did a deep dive on the app, and talked with the man behind developing it to get the “how’s and why’s” down of it existing. (NOTE: At the time of this publication, Harper has opened up free access to the linked article.)
For those who (mercifully) don’t know about the app, it is designed to let you know what books are hot, and offers different tiers of information for the free version, and the paid version. This past summer, use of this app reached a fever pitch and caused a run on many different books in comic shops, both to the chagrin and joy of various comic shop owners.
In the SKTCHD article, app creator Nick Coglianese stated that he created the app after stumbling upon a “Shangri-La collection” — which is to say, he went to a place with shockingly underpriced key issues, and proceeded to make regular inquiries until that shop’s proprietor gave him access to a warehouse filled with longboxes, which he scoured. Having found what he wanted, Coglianese left, as the article states “with a mountain of treasure and the foundation of the Key Collector Comics app idea.”
The bulk of the article goes on to document a man who sees the app as a helpful resource rather than a burden, and I don’t doubt that outlook. No one truly wants to believe themselves to be a villain in anything, despite our darker moments. That said, no amount of exploration of the app takes away from the action described as leading to the app’s creation: a man discovering a trove of items that he himself believed to be undervalued, who then took advantage before providing any resource.
In the end, I do not care about the supposed intent of this app. I truly don’t. I always trust a person’s action over their words, and I believe the action at the genesis of the app speaks volumes. Pragmatic? Sure. But it certainly doesn’t jive with the presentation of the app as a resource first, despite the creator’s assurances otherwise.
Now… I’ve been spending months trying to get this article to come together properly, and part of that came from the unintentional implication of equating Coglianese to Haber. If there is a metaphor to be drawn here, it is the fact that both men were pragmatic about their strengths in ways that seem to help themselves, over providing resources to others. I do not believe Coglianese is a man who truly wants to pump chlorine gas into the comics industry. But he’s doing it anyway.
The effect of this app is irrefutable and damaging. One only needs to take a look at what the comic industry barely survived back in the day, and the behaviour it encourages today. That said, there’s another part of this wildly extreme metaphor that I want to explore — and that’s the idea that the direct market is functioning as its own Haber-Bosch Process, enabling this behaviour, and writing certain doom.
It is one thing to foster a process without realizing it will cause irreparable damage to a society. It is another thing to have lived through that fact and continue to enable the same process.
The direct market is, in many ways, a poisonous place. While I am thankful it was created, the very system that once saved, now continually poisons — and there is no denying that. The amount of people who fought hard to put it into place, doesn’t change this fact. The distribution of it all is broken. You can see that as so many other retailers talk about the terms of purchasing from traditional prose book channels that boast free shipping and returnability, while Diamond does not. (Certain publishers might, for select products, but Diamond does not.) You can see it in the way that this system allows publishers to exploit the inability to return and build products designed to prey on the “fear of missing out” — never truly having to deliver on those promises due to a lack of immediate consequence in the form of unsold product. You can see it in the way this all swirls to produce a system wherein the retailer, wary of past indulgences, cuts low, and a publisher produces more variety to compensate — stretching both thinner and thinner.
You see the speculator rise as a result of a broken system — not so much the poison, but a symptom of something slow-acting — exploiting easily broken and manipulated supply and demand to create… well… where we are now.
The industry is in an incredibly bad place, one that it outright refuses to address because, at this point, it can’t without confident change, and very few are willing to step forward with that confidence. For some, it is because they need the current structure, poisoned as it is, to survive. For others, it is because they truly don’t care. They’ll either be done before it all comes to an end, or they’re helping administer the poison and exacerbate the symptoms.
One thing is for sure: we all see doom on the horizon, just as we have before. As retailers? There’s a good chance, if we don’t do something, at least half of us will die. Again. And for all the bluster of how speculation is destroying the industry? It isn’t a case of anything, so much as it is the effect of the process. It is pragmatism. It’s Haber wandering off to build poison gas because some folks are pragmatic about circumstance, to the detriment of others.
The trick is whether you choose to be part of the next bit of evolution, or an agent of poison, and a collaborator.