Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Gem of a Day – Part 2


Steve Gives Us a Personal Tour of Geppi’s Entertainment Museum


You’d think hitting a few imaginary home runs with one of Babe Ruth’s 1927 bats might be the capper for the day. Nah.

We could have spent days checking out the treasures in Steve Geppi’s office but he was eager to give us a tour of his pride-and-joy museum.

Somewhat reluctantly, Herman Rush and I followed Steve to his car. We drove from Diamond’s Timonium, Maryland headquarters to Baltimore, specifically, to Camden Yards, where Oriole Park, M T Bank Stadium and Geppi’s Entertainment Museum are located. There are also restaurants and upscale shops in the complex, plus two other museums.

At that time, Steve was a part owner of the Baltimore Orioles, so he could park in the special reserved area right outside the ballpark, close to the museum. Groovy.

I had been to the museum once before, to attend the spectacular Opening Gala Steve threw on September 7, 2006, the day before the museum opened to the public. What a party! I still have the invitation. It came in this box:
Here’s the box opened. Yes, that’s a black tie and a “champagne bottle,” filled with glitter, resting in a bed of paper straw mixed with glitter:

There was also an engraved invitation, which is in some file somewhere. I’ll show it when I come across it. Here’s a better shot of the champagne bottle:
There was a Who’s Who of comic book people at the party, as well as celebs from other fields. Somewhere, I have a great picture of 6’7” me and 6’8” Mike Richardson, Master and Commander of Dark Horse, flanking somewhat less-tall Steve. I also have some great pix with Bob Overstreet, Chuck Rozanski, Paul Levitz, and other industry leaders, plus assorted geniuses and what have you. I’ll find them someday.

Anyway….

Naturally, the party-goers swarmed the place. Though it was crowded, especially around the most “wow” of the exhibits, being a head taller than most, I got a fairly good view of everything. My poor girlfriend mostly saw a wall of humanity between her and the goods. Lots of people there that night. It was the place to be.

Merely getting a decent view is faaar different than being given a guided tour by the man who built the place on a fairly quiet, un-crowded day.

I can’t begin to describe what we saw. There was a political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin, which Steve said was the first of its kind, worth millions. Disney memorabilia, items from TV shows and movies. And toys! Examples of every great toy I’d had as a kid. A Davey Crockett coonskin cap. A One-eyed, One-horned, Flying Purple People-eater mask.  Everything else you’d expect—Silly Putty, Super Balls, Slinkies, Hula Hoops….

The one thing that was missing, and I called Steve on it, was a Zorro Sword.  When Zorro became a fad-hit in the 1950’s, a toy sword with a chalk-holder tip was the rage. You could make Zorro’s “Z” on walls or whatever with your sword! So hep! Steve knew about Zorro Swords and was on the lookout for one. I wonder if he’s found one yet.

Once, I spent an afternoon in Ray Harryhausen’s home, which was filled with models he’d created. I had the same sense of wonder there, but it was focused on the stop-action animation movies he’d done effects for. At Geppi’s museum, it was overwhelmingly broad and vast.

Steve recounted the adventures he’d had acquiring many things, some of which were as remarkable as the items themselves.  He explained that if he found an item he was bent on acquiring, even if it wasn’t in great condition, he’d buy it. Then, if a better specimen turned up, he’d buy it, sell the first one, trading up.

About so many items he said things like, “the original,” “the only one left,” “one of three in existence,” etc.

Geppi’s Entertainment Museum is a blast for anyone who had a childhood. Or ever enjoyed a movie or a TV show or any popular culture at all. For folks like us, you and me, it’s heaven. Highly recommended.

Fans of opera, abstract expressionism and 16th Century Intellectual Satires may be disappointed.

Our last stop was the museum gift shop, where Steve loaded us up with freebies.

Among the ones I was given was this:
Pretty cool.

Time came to go. Steve drove us to the train station. Pretty much exhausted but abuzz with ideas, Herman and I made our way back to New York.

One thing that occurred to both of us was to create a virtual, online tour of the museum with clickable, drill-down-able information about the exhibits. Many other ideas of ways we could work with Steve, and he with us.

However….

Right about that time, the sub-prime mortgage crisis was hitting its stride and the general economic collapse was collapsing thunderously.

The effects were devastating to a lot of people. Two of the richest people I know—and I know some rich people—lost everything and are now as poor as me.

Steve apparently weathered the storm, and I’m sure Herman Rush did.  But there must have been some impact, if, as I’ve been given to understand, Steve sold his interest in the Baltimore Orioles. Steve loves the Baltimore Orioles.

Whatever.

Steve and Herman apparently became interested in or consumed by other matters. Nothing ever came of our meeting or the grand dreams Herman and I had on the way home.
But, it was a gem of a day.

Here’s the brochure I picked up:
Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article on Geppi’s Entertainment Museum:
NEXT: Items of Interest – And Gary Gygax

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Gem of a Day


Lost Weekend

Sorry I didn’t manage to post anything over the long Thanksgiving weekend. I had some pay-the-bills work that had to be done and it took longer than expected, as everything always seems to.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, I am very thankful for your kind donations, which have enabled JayJay the Blog Elf to devote the time it takes to do all the technical work on this thing. Being computer/Internet unskilled, I literally couldn’t do it without her.


Onward!

I promised a review last week. Iron Man has been one of my favorite characters since back in the days when transistors seemed new. The plan was to do a review of Iron Man the movie and also a current Iron Man comic book, but I haven’t had a chance to watch the movie yet, and JayJay and I have been waffling about which Iron Man comic book to analyze. We’re hoping to find a good one that gives me the opportunity to cover some new ground. Suggestions welcome. It doesn’t really have to be an Iron Man book. Should be Marvel. Not by Bendis. Let’s give him a break.


A Gem of a Day

First This

I’ve expressed a less than glowing opinion of the Comic Book Direct Market here recently, which I think, as things stand, is a major impediment to the comic book industry.

I also said that the advent of the Direct Market back in the mid-to-late seventies saved the industry, and for many years was a Godsend.

These days, the Direct Market is down from an all-time high of, I believe, 18 distributors to one: Diamond Comic Distributors. Diamond slowly out-competed-to-death or bought up all the rest. Diamond is the very linchpin of the Direct Market.

And founder and principal Steve Geppi is Diamond.

The current, depressed state of the comic book industry, the current stifling limitations one-channel distribution places upon it and the desperate thrashing around by publishers to survive until some new way to effectively sell comics medium entertainment develops are not Diamond’s fault. Certainly not Steve’s fault.

We, the comic book industry, got where we are honestly enough (if occasionally stupidly).

The comic book industry has few friends as good as Steve Geppi.


A Trip to Timonium

I spent most of September 11, 2008 with Steve Geppi and Herman Rush.

Sometime early on during my DEFIANT days, I was introduced to Herman Rush by Jack Hyland, a partner at McFarland Dewey & Co., the same investment banking firm that helped me get DEFIANT funded.
(ASIDE: Jack Hyland is one of the best and brightest human beings on the planet. I will tell stories about him, McFarland Dewey and all we went through together sometime soon. Here’s a tidbit about Jack: he wrote a book about his grandfather called EVANGELISM’S FIRST MODERN MEDIA STAR: The Life of Reverend BILL STIDGER. It’s not a religious book. It’s a penetrating look at an innovator who, in the early-to-middle part of the 20th Century, embraced emerging media, technology, marketing and publicity to revolutionize his field. It’s a window into the remarkable times Stidger lived and worked though: the Great Depression, Prohibition, the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II. It’s fascinating. I recommend it, and not because Jack’s a friend.)
Evangelism's First Modern Media Star: Reverend Bill Stidger


Herman Rush is an amazing man. Among his accomplishments, he served as Chairman of Columbia Pictures Television, he ran Coca-Cola Telecommunications and he was one of the original Executive Producers of The Montel Williams Show.

Sometime soon I’ll tell you about the time Montel Williams called me up to yell at me….

Anyway, Currently, Herman chairs the Board of Trustees for the Entertainment Industries Council, and is the owner and President of Rush Associates, Inc., multi-media developers and consultants. He lives out in the Los Angeles area on a big piece of land—I guess it’s proper to call it a ranch—where he keeps a menagerie of groovy critters including a doylt of pot-bellied pigs.
One of the most interesting things about Herman to me is that he bought all of the old Filmation animation cels, warehouse and all, as I recall. He sold a lot of them. I’m not sure how many remain.

Speaking of Filmation, sometime soon I’ll tell you about my experiences with Filmation founder Lou Scheimer sometime. Great guy.

Anyway, in 2008, Herman and a partner were working on developing an Internet business that I guess I’d describe as the ultimate entertainment/popular culture portal. He was interested in a comic book component. Naturally. Which is why mutual friend Jack Hyland introduced us. Herman thought that I could be the key player for the comics portion of the site and a contributor to many others, given my diverse creative and management experience. I think he imagined something like what I’m doing here, but on a grander scale—not just me and one measly Elf—involving more contributors and more content.

He also wanted to meet Steve Geppi. Naturally. Steve is not only a major figure in the comic book business, he’s a leading historian, collector and authority on all things entertainment and popular culture-oriented. He owns and runs Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, at Camden Yards, which houses what must be the best collection of pop culture-related items and memorabilia in the universe.

So, I called Steve and arranged a meeting.

I met Herman at Penn Station in New York. We took the train down to Baltimore and a cab to Timonium, Maryland, where Diamond’s headquarters are located.

Steve’s assistant, super-Sammi ushered us into his office.

Herman and Steve seemed to hit it off. Steve was impressed by Herman’s credentials. Herman was impressed by Steve’s.

If you don’t know Steve’s story, here it is:
Steve gave me a couple of magazines in which there were articles about him:
Steve’s office is a trip, by the way. It’s big and posh, yes, but it’s cluttered with stuff. Priceless stuff. Strewn about among other priceless stuff. Leaning up against the walls, furniture or the front of Steve’s desk. In piles here and there.

“What’s that?” You’d say, pointing at a painting partially hidden.

Oh, that, Steve said. He pulled it out and explained. It’s the original painting for Disney’s Snow White movie poster.

Lost among many other brilliant, one of a kind, irreplaceable, pieces of movie poster art.

“What’s that?” A Windsor McKay original? A Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge painting? A Richard F. Outcault Yellow Kid strip?

You betcha.

None of these items were in any danger of being damaged, by the way. All were quite safe, carefully placed and gently handled. It’s just that there were so many of them they were parked here, there, wherever, presumably awaiting more comfortable quarters.

After much talk about the possibilities inherent in working together, Steve and Herman had gone about as far as they could pending more thought, research and work on a proposed plan, Steve said, “I have some interesting things in the closet, here. Do you guys want to see?”

Sure.

Steve took us inside his office “closet,” which is bigger than my apartment.

Steve, if I recall correctly, once owned the first drawing ever made of Mickey Mouse, a concept development piece:
  
That art now resides in the Walt Disney Family Museum. But, Steve had other irreplaceable, related items, including the storyboards for the very first Mickey Mouse animated short, Plane CrazyPlane Crazy and another Mickey Mouse short, The Gallopin’ Gaucho preceded Steamboat Willie, but never got distribution.

Wow. 

Steve showed us many fantastic things. Among his proudest possession were several books collecting original art birthday cards for William Randolph Hearst created by the cartoonists syndicated by his King Features. Each one was clever, brilliantly conceived and, of course, had amazing art.

Contributors included Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Billy DeBeck (Barney Google and Snuffy Smith). Many more. All the great King Features creators of that era were represented.

I saw a bat leaning up against the wall in a corner. “What’s that?”

A bat Babe Ruth used in 1927, the year he hit 60 home runs, said Steve. Ruth used only eight bats that year. This was one that survived.

I asked Steve if I could touch it. Sure, said he. I picked it up. Took a few gentle cuts with it.

The amazing thing was how light it was. I expected a Richie Allen-type 40 ounce bat, or better. Nah. It seemed small and very light. No way it was more than 34 ounces. He hit 60 with a toothpick?

I was in awe. Cool.

I got to swing Babe Ruth’s bat.


TOMORROW: Steve Gives Us a Personal Tour of Geppi’s Entertainment Museum

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving with Don Perlin’s Father


Good News!

The President has pardoned JayJay and me!
JayJay and Jim having a Happy Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving with Don Perlin’s Father

I guess I saw Don Perlin a few times during my early days at Marvel, when he occasionally came into the office to deliver the art for an issue of Werewolf by Night. I was associate editor then, around 1976.

Werewolf by Night was cancelled in late 1976. So, Don was out of work.

About the same time, Ghost Rider needed a writer and an artist. Editor in Chief Archie Goodwin gave me the writing assignment. I had done some save-the-day, last-minute scripting earlier on the series when Gerry Conway and others failed to deliver….

When Don called Archie to see if there was any other work for him, Archie referred him to me. Don called me and I said, yes, I had a gig for him. Later, Don told me he was praying for “anything but Ghost Rider.” Don didn’t want the hassle of drawing motorcycles.

Don came in to the office to find out his new assignment. I said Ghost Rider. He said thank you.

Other than David Kraft, who rode a Norton Commando, I was the only Marvel guy who had motorcycle experience. I’d owned several bikes, including a Yamaha TX750, the fastest four-stroke produced in 1973. And I had skills. I could ride. I could pop a wheelie in fourth gear and blow the chrome off of a Harley, or any other bike. Except a Kawasaki 750 two-stroke. But, Kaws, unless you thoroughly gusseted the frame, had so much torque that under full throttle the frame would warp, the back wheel wouldn’t follow the front and the next thing you knew, you were doing an endo. I had a friend with a Kaw 750 who did a 70-MPH flying dismount when his back wheel headed east while his front wheel was pointed north. He narrowly missed the bridge abutment. Spinning to a stop on his back, he was saved by his thick leathers.

But I digress….

When Don showed up at my office to get the first plot, I was ready for him. I had bought a model of a chopped Harley and had paid one of our staff colorists, Andy Yanchus, who had once worked for Aurora (a producer of model kits), $35 to build it. Andy was a genius with models. If I had tried to build the thing, well…that would have been an atrocity.

I gave the model to Don for reference. He seemed pleased.

Anyway, I tried to psych Don up, convince him we could do something special with the character. Didn’t have to. Don always gave his best to everything. Right away he had ideas. The few issues we did together were great fun. Working with someone who gets it, who is enthusiastic, who cares, who contributes…well, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

I’ve told this story before, but one night, very late, wee hours, Don called me, all excited, to say that he had an idea for a character that he wanted to insert into a story—Brahma Bill! Wha…? Brahma Bill?  Whuhhh….? I said, sure, all right, whatever, and went back to sleep.

That was Don. Always enthusiastic, always trying to contribute, always creating. Brahma Bill turned out to be great fun to write. Don had a knack for creating characters, both headliners and interesting supporting cast.

Though I was soon replaced by writers who had more time, Don was the lynchpin for keeping GR alive. 

When I was promoted to Editor in Chief at the beginning of 1978, I had my first look at the master rate sheet—everyone’s page rates.

Don Perlin was Marvel’s lowest paid artist. By a long shot. $35 a page for pencils. A similarly low rate for inks. At a time when top rates were far more than double that.

Well, that didn’t seem right.

Don had been passed over for rate increases for years. I suspect it was because he wasn’t the squeaky-wheel type. He wasn’t an ass-kisser. He was an older guy. He wasn’t one of the young crowd who hung out after work, so he was easy to overlook, and he’d been overlooked. Young punks with a fraction of his chops started at rates higher than his.

My theory regarding rates was this: The factors in setting rates should be:
  • Quality of work
  • Creativity, that is, how much they contribute
  • Length of service in the industry
  • Length of service to Marvel
  • Reliability, cooperation, timeliness and professionalism
  • Popularity
Don was deserving of far more than he got.

I gave Don a substantial raise the moment I was able to. I gave him raises every chance I could get away with it until he was in proper territory, one level shy of the top, John Buscema.

I was just trying to be fair. Don appreciated it.

We became friends. My girlfriend and I would occasionally go out to dinner with Don and his wife, Becky. He adopted me, sort of. Don started inviting me to family functions, his daughter’s weddings and such. He has four daughters, I think.

The more I got to know Don, the more I loved him. He is a great guy. He became my “Unca Donald.”

I went to several daughters’ weddings and receptions. One of them was held at his home in Brooklyn. I was invited, but everyone else there was family. I didn’t really know anybody except Don and his wife, and they were busy playing host and hostess.

There was this old guy sitting by himself on the couch. No one else seemed to be interested in him (or me), so I went and sat by him. He was Don’s father. I’m sorry that I don’t remember his first name, but from the moment he introduced himself I addressed him as Mister Perlin.

No one else seemed to be interested in talking to him. I guess they had already heard all his stories.

I was a stranger. A new audience.

I spoke with Don’s father for a while. He asked me where I lived. I said Madison and 38th.

“Manhattan! Then you could come and visit me!” he said. 2nd and 19th. The Cabrini hospice.

I didn’t know what “hospice” was. Just lucky, I guess, that I had never come across that word at that point in my young life.

I promised him I would come and visit him.

Later, I found out what “hospice” was. The old guy was dying.

Weeks passed. I was working long hours. I didn’t have time for a haircut, much less to visit anybody.

Then, Thanksgiving came. I had to appear at a convention the next day, but for Thanksgiving day, I could enjoy a rare day off. Groovy.

My plan: Goof off. Watch football. Get turkey from the deli downstairs. Be a slug. I had a late date with a girl for post-T-Day drinks. Wha-hoo-hoo!

But, I remembered that I had promised Mister Perlin that I’d come and visit him. If not then, that day, when?

How long did he have?

So, I got myself ready, went out, found a store that was open, bought a nice box of Godiva chocolates and marched down to Cabrini.

I think Mister Perlin was stunned to see me. He gave the chocolates to the nurses. They were pleased.

There were 35 hospice residents on that floor.

I was the only visitor.

Thanksgiving Day, and I was the only visitor. For anyone there.

Mister Perlin “shared” me with the other patients. I spent time talking with them all.

I had planned on spending maybe half an hour there, then going home to watch some oblong ball, but I wound up spending the day there.

Mister Perlin urged me to stick around. He said that his son, Donald had promised to come. I should wait for him.

Mister Perlin insisted, as did the many others for whom I was the only visitor, that I stay for Thanksgiving dinner. I did. For an institutional dinner it wasn’t bad. And the company was wonderful. I cherish that time.

After dinner, Mister Perlin regaled me with stories of his youth. He had been in the rag trade. He reminisced fondly about the heady days when double-knit was introduced.

Don called to talk to his father. Don apologized, said he couldn’t make it to visit. You know, the kids, the grandkids, all the chaos. Mister Perlin said it was okay, and by the way, that nice, tall young man had come to see him. He put me on the phone.

Don thanked me.

After that, Don and I were brothers, I think. Twins, he used to say.

Mister Perlin died shortly thereafter.

Very sad.

Some time later, Don insisted on coming to work with me at VALIANT. He did great work with me. I think his pencils on Solar: Man of the Atom were amazing. He made tremendous creative contributions to that and everything else. He had a hand in the creation of many characters: Rai, the Geomancer and Archer and Armstrong and more. He helped train the young artists. He was wonderful. We couldn’t have done it without him.

Some time later, I was forced out of VALIANT.

Don despised the criminals who had stolen VALIANT from me and hated the weasels like Layton and Hartz who served the criminals. They, and their bosses wouldn’t have approved of his hanging around with me, and he still needed the gig there, so Don would meet secretly with me, for lunch, or invite me discreetly to his home. He swore that as soon as I started something new, he’d be there for me.

But, VALIANT books were then selling huge numbers. Don started making a lot of money on royalties and such. He started getting lots of invitations to conventions and appearances. His work had always been great, but for the first time since I knew him, he was getting proper recognition for it. He was a star!

One evening, months later, he invited me over. We went out to dinner, then went back to his home for coffee. I was in the process of starting up DEFIANT. Almost ready to begin.

He wouldn’t say so directly, but I could tell he wasn’t keen on the idea of walking away from the well-deserved success he was enjoying to join me in another (risky) start-up. Though, I think if I had pushed him, he would have kept his promise.

I didn’t push him. I figured it was about time he got his due.

I pressed on without him. 

That was the last time I saw him for a long while.

Years later, after DEFIANT had gone down thanks to a spurious lawsuit by Marvel and a catastrophic collapse of the market, among other things, I was starting over yet again. I had a new company, Broadway Comics, in partnership with Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video Entertainment. Though I hadn’t seen him for years, I invited Don to our launch party. He came. Everyone was glad to see him.

He seemed a little worried at first that I had some grudge against him, or thought ill of him for not sticking with me. Nah. He was my Unca Donald, and I always wanted whatever was best for him, no matter what.

He said, as always, that he and I were twins, but he was the better looking one, and I said, as always, that I was the smart one.

I love Don. And his father was a wonderful man. I’m glad he had a great deal of success and made some dough at VALIANT. I’m glad someone I like did.

Anyway….

Thanksgiving always brings Mister Perlin to mind.

And my favorite Uncle.

Happy Thanksgiving, Don. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
Don Perlin  (photo by JayJay Jackson)
NEXT: Dunno

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comic Book Distribution- Part 3

First This

One more thing about mass-market distribution….

The other day, while making a point about digital piracy, Nick Yankovec said that “…most of the stuff available is overpriced and not good enough.” 

Yep.  In response, I said this:   
I think I've been pretty clear in all my rants that "not good enough" is the main problem with comics today. Price and other concerns exacerbate the problem.
(…)
Quality is key. 
November 18, 2011 6:47 PM

People in and around the comic book industry, and especially creators who aren’t knowledgeable about the business side, often blame poor sales on bad distribution. 

I attended a Friends of Lulu meeting some years back at which the main thing being discussed—as is often the case—was the poor and declining sales of comic books, in that instance, especially those by, for or about women. Every one of the several dozen people in that room agreed that the problem was distribution. Except me.

People said the usual: If only the books got “out there…!” Why can’t there be a comic book rack in every Starbuck’s? The books should be at checkout counters everywhere! Why aren’t there more bookstores selling comics? And why are they so badly displayed in the ones that do sell them? Toys R Us!  McDonald’s! Etc.

As the one and only person in the room who knew much about distribution and had experience dealing with all manner of channels of distribution, I finally spoke up. I started to talk about the difficulties.

To sell at the checkout counter you have to pay for the “real estate,” and that’s some pretty expensive real estate. You have to “buy the wire,” that is, the racks. You have to service those racks with your own field force or a jobber—the store personnel aren’t going to take proper care to see that your books, and only your books are in your racks. That’s why the National Enquirer back then had a field force of well over a thousand people. Compare Curtis Circulation, National Distributor for Marvel and many others, which had around half a dozen field reps.

Selling into Toys R Us or any big retail chain is difficult and expensive, usually involving the creation of dumps or other displays. They demand special, deep discounts. They demand special packaging. They set strict conditions for delivery. Then, the charge-backs start. Delivery came an hour late, not during the specified window? Labels on the boxes not placed correctly according to their specs? Displays don’t match specs you were never given? They send you bills for things like that! They squeeze you dry. Hard not to lose money…unless your products blow out the door. Then, after a while, they might start treating you better.

I never got started on Starbuck’s, bookstores, McDonald’s, etc….

The Friends of Lulu more or less shouted me down. Then, people who didn’t have a clue went back to expounding about the vast numbers of new readers that could be had if only the publishers weren’t too stupid to pursue their wonderful ideas about getting the books “out there.” They preferred their fantasies. They had no interest in reality. Didn’t want to hear it.

So, I skipped ahead to the part they really didn’t want to hear. To interest vast numbers of new readers, comics would have to be a lot more accessible and a lot more entertaining—in a word, better.

Shouted down again. They were all very sure that the comics they made, their favorites and almost all comics were plenty good enough. Millions of people would love them, if only they got out there! It was a distribution problem, plain and simple.

That sort of thing happened a lot. If a bunch of creators and/or other interested parties got together anywhere and the subject of poor sales came up, bet your pristine mint Amazing Fantasy #15 the consensus would be that bad distribution was to blame.

I hate to break it to some Friends of Lulu and many other comic book creators and others, but comics with impenetrable, convoluted, incoherent, badly written, banal or outright dumb stories and/or indecipherable or just plain bad art—sadly, that means most of them—are not going to sell millions of copies.

Distribution could be better, of course. Better distribution might do some good. But, comic books aren’t going to succeed in the big, wide world as long as they’re not good enough.

In answer to a comment some time ago, I wrote the following: 
The comic book industry today is rife with creators who don't know their craft -- creators who are in love with their ignorance and defiantly cling to their destructive self-indulgence. That's the greatest reason for the decline of the industry. It's not poor distribution, lack of promotion or anything else. If there was a comic book shop on every street corner with big neon signs, people still wouldn't buy un-entertaining, impenetrable, rehashed, derivative masturbatory crap.
Ill-conceived storylines, reliance upon "shocking" or sensational events, dependence on gimmicks and marketing ploys, oppressively derivative material and the dearth of new ideas are all evidence of visionless, clueless creative leadership at the top and untrained, clueless (though often very talented) creators on the firing line.
It's really not the corporate execs. Yes, they want to generate revenues and increase shareholder equity, but almost without exception they have no idea of how to make that happen and, therefore, rely upon the comics people, from creative management to the troops.
Whether Aunt May dies or not isn't the question. If she dies, does it mean anything beyond a brief sales spike because collectors/speculators think they'll be able to make a profit selling the book later? That is the question. Back when, Stan and company won our hearts and minds. I cared about Spider-Man and the other Marvel characters as though they were friends. I cared every time Aunt May got sick. That's what good creative work does.
Sometimes I think that unless you're around my age and you experienced the total involvement we, the readers, had with Spider-Man and the other Marvel peoples' lives -- yes, they seemed more like people than characters -- back in the early 1960's, courtesy of Stan, Jack, Steve, Dick, and many other creators who had a clue, you just can't grok what it should be like.
If we as an industry now routinely created wonderful, compelling works, if comics were as good as they could be and ought to be -- and as clear and accessible as most TV, movies, books and other entertainment media offerings -- the audience would find us. Just as the audience found a wonderfully well-written property in a genre that had pretty much been confined to the fringes before, Harry Potter.
I stand by that.


Fish in a Barrel 

In the mid to late 1970’s, the comic book Direct Market started to evolve.

The story of its origins is told better than I could ever tell it, starting here:

I differ from Chuck Rozanski’s accounts only in details, which are in the big picture, of no consequence. To wit, I believe that I was present for his first meeting with President Jim Galton and, in fact, played a part in making that meeting happen.

Whatever.

The Direct Market, embraced by Marvel and soon thereafter by DC, began to flourish.

Galton offered me responsibility for Direct Market sales. He wanted me to oversee a new, Direct Market Sales Department.

I declined. I said that the Direct Market business should fall under the Circulation Department’s purview. The creative stuff was plenty for me to deal with.

Ed Shukin, V.P. of Circulation came to me afterwards and sincerely thanked me. He said I’d saved his job and given him a future.

Ed, who knew the magazine distribution biz, but knew little about comics content-wise, or much about the budding Direct market, soon hired a Direct Market Sales Manager, a new position approved by Galton. His first hire for that position was Mike Friedrich. He vetted his choice through me. It seemed okay. Mike had done some publishing and knew the Direct biz inside out. Good choice, I thought.

Mike was good, but had a downside.

I had sold Galton on the idea of publishing graphic novels in a trade paperback format, inspired by what I’d seen in Europe. Mike and others had earlier come up with the same idea. Mike had a finished graphic novel, Elric, left over from his publishing days, ready to go. Galton embraced the graphic novel idea.

At a meeting—Galton, Mike Friedrich and me—Mike asked Galton to be put in charge of Marvel’s graphic novels. Right in front of me, he was trying to poach a piece of my job. Mike turned to me and said, “I don’t want your job, I want your future.” Ask him. He’s an honest man, he will confirm this.

Galton, who despite his egregious flaws, was a proper businessman said, “Jim makes the books. You sell them.”

I insisted that the first Marvel Graphic Novel should feature a Marvel character, and so it did. The Death of Captain Marvel. For the first time, a character died of natural causes. Cancer. Author Jim Starlin’s father was dying of cancer while he was creating this book. Did you know that?

That book still brings tears to my eyes. My father died of cancer, too.

Elric became the second Marvel Graphic Novel. Friedrich stupidly tried to manipulate the Direct Market into supporting Elric, in which he had a stake, while actively militating (pun intentional) against G.I. JOE, which he didn’t like.

As a result, Friedrich was fired.

Ed Shukin hired Carol Kalish as Mike’s replacement. He was feeling more confident by then, so he didn’t consult me. When I learned that Ed hired Kalish, I pointed out to him that she was known as a Marvel-basher. She’d written scathing denunciations of Marvel for trade magazines and fan magazines.  He sort of shrugged it off.

Kalish did a lot of good things. One of the best was her cash register program, which helped comics shops get cash registers so they wouldn’t have to be making change out of shoe boxes.

The Direct Market boomed. Here is one of Kalish’s reports:

Interestingly, the Direct Market did not seem to be cannibalizing the newsstand market. 

Don’t get me wrong, the newsstand market was limping along around breakeven. I wrote about that HERE. But, it had been going like that before the advent of the Direct Market. And, it was nonetheless accounting for the great majority of comics sold.

What seemed to be happening was this: The Newsstand market, with its many tens of thousands of outlets (around 75,000, I think) served by the 400+ ID Wholesalers in North America was continually bringing in new readers. Some of them became enthusiasts and found their way to the comics shops. But new newsstand buyers kept turning up to replace them.

Titles like G.I. JOE, Transformers and Star Wars helped attract new readers at the newsstands. Most people, especially kids, didn’t know or care who Iron Man was, but every kid knew G.I. JOE. Sooner or later, a kid with a Snake Eyes figure in his pocket was bound to pass a spinner rack somewhere. 

The newsstand cast a wide net. It funneled wannabe collectors into the comics shops. In a way, the spotty, unreliable, inconsistent nature of newsstand distribution was a good thing, because someone who just had to have every issue was more or less forced to seek out a comics shop.

Copies printed for the newsstand elevated the total print run and brought down the unit cost. Larger print runs amortize the fixed costs over more copies, making each copy cost less to produce. (Generally. Of course, if the print run is astronomical, the savings level off due to replating costs, etc.) So, because of the newsstand portion of the run, the Direct Market copies cost less per book, and were therefore more profitable!

Newsstand sales also raised our total circulation, which enabled us to charge more for advertising space in the books.

Given the economies of scale and other benefits the newsstand provided, it made sense to remain in that market even if we were only breaking even there. Even if we were losing a little money!

At the end of 1980, Marvel published the first regular comic book that was sold exclusively through the Direct Market, Dazzler #1. It sold 428,000 copies. (The story of Dazzler is HERE.)

After that success, many more Direct-only offerings were published by Marvel and others.

As the Direct Market boomed, increasingly it became the focus at Marvel. It was a low-margin business, yes, but it was firm sale, and it was pretty easy to target Direct Market consumers. We knew what they wanted.

It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Kalish loved it. Direct Market success meant success for her. She pushed hard to make it our main business. She wanted it to be our only business. The Direct Market was her turf. 

But all Marvel was my turf. I felt that we needed the newsstand market. That, if we became completely dependent on the Direct Market, we’d wind up in the same position as when we’d been entirely dependent on the newsstand market. Up the creek without a paddle. Screwed. Helpless. At their mercy.

I spoke with Marvel’s newsstand sales manager, Denise Bové. Denise was in charge of our dealings with Curtis. Like me, she felt the pendulum had swung too far. So did our Curtis account people.

We came up with a number of support-the-newsstand-distribution ideas. I suggested, for instance, doing a newsstand exclusive. Why not? You know the Direct Market shops would go to their local ID’s and buy copies anyway. It would be a big hit for the ID’s, and maybe the retailers they served. And great PR in that market. Maybe get them interested in comics again. A little.

That would have been in 1986. At that point, I was engaged in daily battles with the President and the other owners of Marvel. The board of Cadence Industries, as “Cadence Management, Inc.” had taken the company private. It was owned by the seven of them at that point. They got rid of one along the way, and then there were six. 

Anyway, they were trying to sell the company and were far more interested in the bottom line tomorrow than what was good for the company in years to come. Companies like Marvel are sold for a multiple of cash flow, so every penny of profit mattered. My battles with them had to do with things like their eliminating the pension plan, drastically reducing healthcare and other benefits…more on that someday.

Defending my troops, and for that matter, all the non-owners had not made me popular with the owners. They couldn’t get rid of me because I was a “key man,” but they weren’t inclined to go along with anything I wanted.

Kalish vehemently opposed a newsstand exclusive. She vehemently objected to any support of any kind for the newsstand. She claimed that the Direct Distributors and shop owners would see any such things as betrayal, rise up in anger and retaliate against Marvel. Why not just hand the Direct Market over to DC?

The Direct Market was easy money, quick money, sure money to the brass—not that any of them had ever set foot in a comics shop or even opened a comic book. To them it was about moving the units and collecting the cash. Might as well have been widgets we were selling. But, they knew the Direct Market was shooting fish in a barrel. Why jeopardize that?

Circulation V.P. Ed Shukin, both Kalish and Denise’s boss, kept his head low and his mouth shut. He knew which way the wind was blowing upstairs.

So, Denise and I lost and Kalish won.

I was gone from Marvel not too long afterwards, so, it was my problem no longer.

Kalish passed away in 1991, but ultimately Marvel arrived where she wanted it. 

And that’s where we are now.


NEXT:  Man in a Can - Another Review

Friday, November 18, 2011

Piracy, Real and Virtual

Tue Sørensen commented:
Great and interesting reading as usual, Jim. All this talk of the mob makes me wonder how things are today. Is there still a mob with significant influence on many aspects of show business (under which I include comics) or did all that fade away a few decades back?
Anonymous said... "The fact that pretty much every comic ever published from 1938 up to yesterday can be downloaded for free right now has got to be having some kind of impact on the industry. I'm surprised anyone is still denying this."
But is this a good thing or a bad thing? With easy availability, a lot of new young people are bound to discover a lot comics that they otherwise never would have seen (both old and new), and some of them will surely hang around as fans and collectors and be drawn to the print versions. 


ANSWER:
Regarding organized crime having an influence on show business: I do not think things are the same as in Bobby Cohen's heyday. I suspect mob corruption/influence is more street level these days, rather than all the way to the top. Less corporate, less big business, more drugs. The bad news at the top has more to do with corporate raiders, financial predators and modern-version robber barons. Yesterday, I spoke with a very wise, high-net-worth person involved in entertainment and entertainment finance about this very subject. The legal (but reprehensible) and quasi-legal financial manipulations that go on are stunning. Financial pirates, not mobsters, are the problem. And not just in entertainment.

Regarding all comics being available free for download: I've heard both sides of the online piracy argument. The "it's good that things are available online for free because of the exposure" argument is predicated on that exposure motivating sales. At some point, somebody still has to buy something in some form if content creators/companies are to make ends meet.

I think the exposure thing works if the creators are established and big enough -- for instance, someone told me that INXS made an album available free for download and people bought the package anyway when it was released. Had to have it. The exposure theory also may work for new or unknown creators to build awareness so they can become established and big.

In either case, however, it only works if that which is given such exposure is a brilliant, compelling product that inspires the gotta-own-a-copy feeling.

And, don't forget, the whole team has to be brilliant. Great script with good-but-not-compelling art, or vice versa, won't cut it. Unspectacular coloring might sink your ship. Or, the writing, art, whatever must be so wonderful that it causes people to overlook the less-than-brilliant bits.

I'm all in favor of rewarding that which is excellent, so, fair enough, but ultimately, available-for-free makes the barriers to entry far more daunting and the bar for success incredibly high.

Available-for-free is happening right now, of course, and it is dramatically changing the business. Companies are struggling and/or dying. We're headed toward a new business model that's all about stars -- those who have already made it and are established, those who are brilliant on their first try, and those who somehow have the resources to try enough times to develop and become brilliant.

How many great talents facing that discouraging prospect wouldn't make the attempt, preferring to take their talents elsewhere? How many wouldn't be able to stay the course long enough? Therefore, how much wonderful entertainment would simply never be created? How much available-for-free wonderful entertainment that people were not quite compelled to buy as hard copies would quickly die? How many brilliant works that are niche-oriented rather than mass-oriented would not garner enough buyers from their limited bases to sustain them? Blah, blah blah, blah, blah.

At first glance, the "star system" seems righteous and fair -- let the stars shine. But, then, the business becomes about making stars out of creators/performers -- ay, there's the rub. Take one hundred equally brilliant creators. One labors at night after his or her day job, does something brilliant and bootstrapping it, with a dollop of luck, out of nowhere, succeeds. Ten do whatever it takes to get the backing from producing entities/companies, or luckily have the wherewithal themselves to produce. Propelled by PR, marketing, advertising and star-making apparati, three of them catch on and succeed. Seven fail anyway. 89 never get anything like a real chance.  "...all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas. Do you know the way to San Jose?"

So, what's the answer. Two main options, I think:

A)  As the music industry did, crack down on people who offer he free downloads and, more importantly, crack down on those who download the pirated works. The music industry went after Napster and others, but also went after individuals who downloaded pirated music. At the same time, the music industry made buying music online cheaper and easier, so, ultimately, it was simpler and less terrifying to just buy the tunes than it was to steal them.  Better to pay $.99 than worry about the FBI knocking on your door. Comics could do the same, but being a less powerful and prosperous industry, I doubt the companies have the resources or the will.

Or....

B)  Embrace the change. Go all-star. Produce nothing but brilliant, compelling, gotta-have-a-copy work. Make or develop stars, yes, but do so in an enlightened manner, as fairly, equitably, honestly and intelligently as possible. Go for or real talent, not flavor-du-jour or one-hit-wonder people. Use the small companies as your farm system,or start one of your own. Do not publish anything except the best of the best. Offer the products online first. Make them easily accessible, well-marketed and at prices low enough to make piracy less appealing. Offer perks and added value at your site to make downloading from there a better experience. Make the print packages excellent and beautiful, to make them extra-desireable as 3-D items. Include things that online downloads can't -- could be slipcases, small collectibles, things you can only get with the 3-D item. (Remember when British comics had a "spiff" attached to first issues and specials? Do they still?) To anyone who says that we'd have a lot of online readers for cheap and few people buying the expensive hard copies, I say that's about where we are now anyway, but we're doing it half-assed, wastefully and inefficiently. There's too much bad stuff produced that no one wants, even free online, much less in a four-dollar book. Too few all-star products that are popular downloads and generate significant sales of the print versions, and not enough effort devoted to them. Embrace the change, do it right.  

Of course, A and B are not mutually exclusive.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

VALIANT Logo Design Sketches

JayJay here. Jim is in the city all day today and hasn't gotten today's blog written. But when I was digging through old files yesterday, looking for those Marvel ad rate cards, I ran across some of my old logo sketches from our VALIANT days. I think I was able to do some ok designs in spite of Jim's direction. Heh.

In the very beginning of VALIANT we had a lot of discussion about the cover design and wanting to give the covers a distinctive look. I don't think I have any of those very early cover designs, but there were many. Jim's final decision was to make every logo into a box at the top of the cover. At the time I was opposed it, but as usual he was right. In his way. We weren't winning any awards for graphic design, but you could spot a VALIANT book a mile away. Jim, the big picture guy, has consistently been able to see things on a whole 'nother level from most people, me included.

Here are some sketches for the Harbinger logo. We spent a lot of time refining that bird, huh? 

Early type explorations

The final logo
Here are three X-O sketches. I think we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted and I was just doing refinements at this point.
The final
I was in the process of creating the final artwork for this Geomancer logo when we were fired from VALIANT. I still have the incomplete art, so I think it was never used for anything. 

Jim should be back to the blog tomorrow, but... 
Shhh! Nobody tell him I took over!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Comic Book Distribution - Part 2


More on Newsstand Distribution

Mob involvement? Well….

Anytime you have businesses holding monopolies in certain territories, like the linen business south of Canal, or the poster “sniping” business (putting up advertising posters on walls and fences) in Manhattan, garbage hauling in the New York metro area, or the parking racket—did I say racket?—I meant industry, around New York…

…or the periodicals distribution business…

…the notion of mob involvement has to cross your mind.

The founder and patriarch of Hudson News, Robert “Bobby” Cohen, was famously “connected” and “involved” with organized crime. Once he copped a plea on twenty counts of bribery in exchange for being sentenced to probation instead of prison time 
Fun Fact: Bobby Cohen’s daughter Claudia was Ronald O. Perelman’s second wife. Perelman had control of Marvel for a while, of course. After I was gone, by the way.  
Claudia Cohen and Ronald Perelman
During the early days of the Direct Market, Marvel’s V.P. of Circulation, Ed Shukin, a long-term veteran of the magazine distribution trade, made it very clear to me that among those we dealt with on the newsstand distribution side there were some pretty nasty characters, and he was openly concerned about the possibility of violent reprisals.

At one point, I wanted to stop shipping to an ID that was blatantly screwing us. Ed dug his heels in. He said the owner there wasn’t someone you wanted to piss off. It wasn’t worth two broken legs. 
Fun Fact: Warner Communications executives Jay Emmet and Solomon Weiss were implicated in a racketeering scam. Weiss was convicted, but managed to avoid prison time. Warner, of course, owned DC Comics. Vince Colletta, who worked at DC Comics and seemed to know a lot about the matter told me that Weiss was “taking the fall” to protect someone higher up. There weren’t many higher ups. 
Fun Fact: Warner higher-up, CEO Steve Ross cut his teeth in the parking racket—I mean industry.
Fun Fact: Bobby Cohen was a long time business partner of Time Inc., which Warner, under Ross, purchased.
Steve Ross
Such a small world….

Additional reading:


A couple of interesting clips starring Manny Gerard, former executive of Warner Communications:



Anyway….

Someone asked if the newsstand distribution process I spoke of yesterday applied to non-comics periodicals as well as comics. Yes, with a few notes:

Big Circulation Magazines

Big circulation magazines have a lot of clout. They get much better treatment by the National Distributor, which reallyreallyreally wants their account and loveslovesloves having a Forbes, Marie Claire or People among their offerings.

Local Independent Distributor Wholesalers (ID’s) need the big-circ titles. The retailers they serve would scream if they couldn’t get Elle or Parenting, and remember, ID’s are usually monopolies in their areas, so it’s not as if a news dealer would have an alternative source. ID’s have to play more fairly with big-circ titles because the threat of being cut off by a GQ means something.

Besides, ID’s can make money honestly with big-circ titles!

The thing is, big-circ magazines make most of their money selling ad space. Expensive ad space. Often hundreds of pages per issue. They could give the magazines away, or charge very low cover prices, but they don’t, because then, what would be in it for the National Distributor, the ID’s and the news dealers? The cover price is primarily for their benefit.

Smaller Magazines

No news dealer is going to go ballistic if he or she can’t get Cricket or Watercolor Artist. National Distributors and ID’s treat the small circulation magazines with the same disrespect as they do comics, and just as cheerfully rip them off under the affidavit return system.

However, small magazines, which tend to be special interest publications like Pick Up Truck or Wizard also make most of their money selling ad space. So what if the ID’s cheat a bit on their affidavits? Any money coming in from newsstand sales is almost a bonus. Or at least, they don’t need total support from newsstand revenues.

The people who run ID’s aren’t stupid. They have a pretty good idea of the minimum sell-through percentage they can lying-ly report that will give them the greatest possible rip-off margin without killing the periodicals they’re screwing. They tend to report sales that are around break-even levels for the small magazines unless sales really are worse than that. Got to keep the victims alive so you can keep stealing the money from unreported sales and such, as described yesterday.

Naïve people and beginners in publishing tend to think of “their” National Distributor as being on their side—as a force for good that will help protect them from those unscrupulous ID’s. That’s what the National Distributors hope they’ll think. That’s what they try to convey.

But, nah, not so.

Think about it, who are the people sending the National Distributor checks every month? ID’s. The National Distributors are on their side.

The National Distributor is like the guy who bumps you in the subway, so another guy, the ID can pick your pocket.

All right, time for a disclaimer: Not all ID’s are unscrupulous. Maybe. I guess. Probably some are honest. Or fairly honest. Probably.

Comic Books

I don’t have a current advertising rate card for Marvel or DC, but a few clues tell me that they probably don’t make a whole ton of money on ads. First of all, comics have a very small amount of ad space to sell relative to most magazines. Second, ad rates are governed by circulation. It’s too long a lecture for today, but…you know anyway. Few readers, few “impressions,” means low ad space revenues. Comic book circulation figures are low and the cover prices are painfully high. To me, that means the companies are living off of copies sold, not ads.

Here’s another thing. While I was Editor in Chief at Marvel, 1978-87, the ad sales people, at President Jim Galton’s behest, waged a campaign to upgrade the ads. “National ads only” was the mantra. They got rid of mail order ads like the ones for X-Ray Specs and Broken Finger Key Chains. They made a concerted effort to go after movie ads, bicycles, sneakers and other national products. We creative types did our part by building the total number of copies sold substantially.

You know what? It was a Catch-22. We were selling so many comics, and therefore paying to print so many comics that if you factored out the cost of printing a page with an ad on it, it cost more money than we could get for the ad!  

I’m doing this From memory, now, but the following is close if not exact: I believe it cost in the low $20,000’s to print an ad that ran in all 12 million-plus Marvel Comics one month, but the most we could ever get for a page was $18,000. The reasons we couldn’t get higher rates were many—advertisers realized that the comic book buyers tended to buy multiple titles, they didn’t like our demographics, etc. Still, it was better to have the eighteen grand than not. We had to print 32 pages per issue anyway.

Then, Marvel Comics lived off of copies sold, and I’m pretty sure it does now. Same with the other comics publishers.

So, the cheating by the ID’s had a greater impact on the comic book biz than it did on other periodicals publishers.

The advent of the Direct Market changed everything. 


JayJay here. I dug out some old Marvel ad rate cards that I designed in 1987. Here they are for your perusal. Perhaps if anyone has a current Marvel ad rate card, they could post a link for comparison. 
Marvel Rate Card 1987
Click to enlarge
Marvel Mail Order Rate Card 1987

NEXT:  Fish in a Barrel, for Sure, I promise