My Monthly Curse by Phill Hall #9 – Taking Apart A Guinness World Record

Phill Hall used to be the News editor for Comics International before launching the PDF comics magazine Borderline before abandoning comics altogether. Now, however, he is going to look back on it all for Bleeding Cool.

I know you’re all eager to find out what happens next in the X saga, but we need an aside. We’re not going far. In real terms we don’t even leave the same office.

Marvel had broken all previous Direct Market sales records with Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man. The total sales ended up in excess of 3million copies, making it at the time the biggest pre-ordered comic in history. It was June 1991 and Marvel was about to eclipse that pre-order figure by over a million copies. The first X-Men spin-off The New Mutants was a successful comic in its own right, yet it hardly had the jazzy name for this exclusive team of junior X-Men. The title lasted an impressive 100 issues and would have lasted 100 more had Marvel decided it was to be replaced by a new cutting-edge comic named – X-Force.

[A brief aside: just over a year before the termination of the New Mutants title, Marvel unveiled a new, dynamic young artist called Rob Liefeld; he helped create a character called Cable, who was, in effect, from the future and was an older, wiser, nastier version of a character that hadn’t even been born at the time of all this happening. Cable’s introduction, in New Mutants #87 was one of the hottest comics during the entire period of the speculator boom. It retailed for about 75p, but by the height of X-mania was retailing for up to £50. It was one of the most talked about comics of the early 1990s. It was a piece of shit that looked like a poor fanzine strip compared to the great artists of bygone years, yet it was never out of the news for one reason or another.]

X-Force (marketed the X-Men’s understudies) was ordered in excess of 4million copies (including reprints) and is quite possibly the best example of nerdism from the 1990s. The reason for this is simple, X-Force #1 came out in 5 different versions, except it didn’t. It came out, poly-bagged, with a trading card included. Each of the 5 different trading cards was of one of the members of the new X-Force team and there was a bonus card – of the ambiguous character Deadpool. The different trading card was the only variation; everything else about the package was identical – the comic was the same, the packaging was the same, the only thing different was the picture on the trading card. The fans bought them like shares in a stock market boom. I ordered over 500 copies of this little gem and sold 400 within a few days of release; over 70 people bought all five comics with the different trading card. Some bought an extra copy to open and read, while leaving five unopened copies for the future! I stood behind the counter of my little store, in my little town and watched the shoppers go gaga.

In all fairness, what makes X-Force #1’s success even more amazing is that it was essentially, as far as art and story were concerned, a piece of shit that a 10 year-old could probably have put together better. Marvel even put the thing back into print with a variant cover, which in reality was far more rare than any of the other versions (the reprint has a small 10,000 run, compared to the 4 million others, It’s therefore a far more collectible item if you apply the same logic as is applied to 50% of the comics that end up being sought after).

Because of the quirks involving the cover date of most US comics, X-Force came out in the June with an August cover date – this was designed originally to allow the newsstand comics to have more shelf life. The problem with this policy in the Direct Market is if a comic hasn’t sold inside one month, it probably won’t (and then, by default, becomes one of the many back issues, with a higher price and less chance of it being sold – ostensibly, because most retailers were idiots). Despite a comic’s cover saying August and appearing in June, the Direct Market means that you have to order your stock in March – three months in advance! That’s two and a half months before the thing even goes to print. You remember how I said that I was just scratching the surface of the problems faced by the retail side of the industry? Well here’s another that will have people wide-eyed in disbelief. Not only do the retailers have to order the comics three months in advance of release, until the late 1980s most retailers had to pay for their orders before they received them! That isn’t all, if you didn’t get what was advertised in the sales catalogue, tough shit. You pay your money, you get shafted with no recourse.

That changed a little, but in reality it is still as bad in many ways – publishers now offer limited Sale or Return on product that arrives not as advertised, but trust me returning comics is like trying to put Humpty together again. The Direct Market allowed the major publishers to effectively abolish the practice of Sale or Return. They factored out most of the risk to themselves and the distributor. The retailer was left with having to ‘guestimate’ what extra he would need – every month! If a new title came out, because there was no sale or return options, a retailer had to order blind. A retailer might know his customers better than his relatives, but he can’t make them buy something – he can only presume to believe what they will buy – some exact science, huh? But that isn’t where the problem ends; because the retailer has to order so far in advance he has to guess how many copies of issues #2 and #3 he’ll need – ordering blind again, before he gets any idea of how sales will settle into an average. Does he order the same quantity for #2 or does he cut back? Most cut back, hence why, ironically, in actual terms most issue #2s are considerably more scarce than #1s.

Before we even think about the ramifications, think about the support the publishers and distributors give the retailer. There is a new launch – there is no Point of Sale and if there is it has to be paid for by the retailer – “We’d like to give you the privilege of buying from us materials which will help us make more money,” is what the publisher is saying and the retailer has to agree. Well, he doesn’t have to, but his business is selling comics.

There is a new launch – there are no preview copies in existence. If you are lucky there might be a plot synopsis, maybe even some designs by the artist or even a dummy cover, but you can’t really judge a book by its cover in literature and the same rule applies here.

There is a new launch and you over order by 25, 50 or 100%; you still have to pay the bill by the end of the month or you get no more comics. Yes, you could argue that this is business and everyone is taking a risk, but essentially what was created by comics publishers and entrepreneurial distributors was a way in which the comics store retailer shouldered the responsibility of the success or the failure of the industry. Until 1993 there had never been a national or international advertisement campaign to encourage people to read comics. In fact Batman: The Movie was the biggest bit of advertising DC-TimeWarner ever did, but it didn’t really ever touch on the history of the character. Comics benefited from a knock-on effect.

The retailer has only the word of the publisher and the publisher isn’t going to say, “Order sparingly, we think this is or might be a dud” are they? And rightly so, but you would have thought that in a modern retail environment the producer would have come up with a better and fairer way for the retailer to sell its wares?

There was also another factor to take into consideration. Comicbooks were no longer Marvel, DC and a handful of other lesser-known publishers. In the intervening years between my departure and return to the fold, comics publishing houses sprung up all over the place. The Direct Market allowed smaller publishers to compete with the big boys and this was viewed as one of the first real positive kickbacks from the DM. Now there was Dark Horse Comics, Comico, First Publishing, Eclipse, as well as even smaller houses producing one or two titles. Creators who couldn’t get comics deals were self-publishing, but in a far more professional way, with exceptionally high production values. The market had much to choose from and hardly any of this growing number of independent comics could be ordered on the strength of someone actually having seen it to assess its worth. Now the comics shop owner not only has to be a theoretical mathematician, but he needed to be able to assess what his needs were from a list that is now as long as a country mile. With Marvel, DC and Charlton you had maybe 60 comics a month in total, by 1990 there were 500+ comics coming out every month, and where some of the list above disappeared into bankruptcy, comics publishers were like the mythical hydra – as soon as one went down two more appeared in its place. It is easy to see why comics became a target for the speculator; with so many titles available, not every hot comic would be seen immediately, but they would exist.

With Marvel’s intended ‘X-Men X-plosion’ having gotten underway with pre-orders higher than Marvel could have ever have wished for on X-Force, Marvel solicited Uncanny X-Men #281, like UXM #94 this was effectively a new beginning, a new start, a new #1 (of sorts). Orders came in and they were the highest for a non-#1 comic ever. In fact, orders rivalled that of Spider-Man #1 and only fell short of X-Force because of the lack of gimmicks for this particular X-launch. Retailers all across the UK and US who had ordered in excess for X-Force and had seen the gamble pay off big time, now applied the same aggressive ordering attitude to UXM’s relaunch. Actual sales were far better than could have been expected even without Chris Claremont’s name attached, but that wasn’t to be seen for a few months yet – when things settled down. Two months after the soliciting of X-Force #1, Marvel also offered its retailers a brand new X-Men book – called simply X-Men it was to be written by Chris Claremont (hurrah!) and drawn by the current artist de jour Jim Lee.

Lee, a Korean-American, was another artist to bring a completely new style of comics art to the industry. He was influenced by many of the greats of the Sixties and Seventies, but also found inspiration in Japanese manga comicbooks and European styles, obscure stuff often overlooked by the average US comics reader. Also with Jim Lee came his friend and fellow artist Whilce Portacio (a Philippine whose real name was Ursuerro Barrento). Portacio had also worked for Marvel before, but like Lee, never on such a prominent title. While Lee was drawing and co-plotting the new X-Men comic, Portacio had drawn and co-written UXM #281, with comics writer and former X-Men alumni John Byrne. Byrne had been hired ostensibly as the Claremont clone for UXM. Both comics were solicited in the same month and this was to ultimately have profoundly bad ramifications for retailers.

Not content with just advertising these new X-Men books, Marvel did something it had never done before in all its years of publishing. Shortly after the first issue of X-Force went on sale, with orders already in for the new X-Men launches, Marvel contacted distributors and retailers and basically appealed to their sense of greed. “See? We told you X-Force would be a huge hit. We bet you never expected it would be better than imagined? How many will X-Men #1 sell? How many will the new Uncanny X-Men sell? Have you ordered enough to meet the demand?” Some shrewd people in Marvel’s sales department saw that demand was outweighing supply exponentially. Once the initial orders for both comics had been tallied up UXM was 3million and X-Men #1 was just over 5million. By the time Marvel reminded everyone how successful X-Force had been and threw in some more bulk discount rates at larger retailers, orders exceeded anything ever seen anywhere in the world.

X-Men #1 was pre-ordered to the tune of 8.5million copies. The world’s retailers almost doubled their initial orders. You’d think this was a good thing. You’d think if retailers had that much faith in the product it surely couldn’t fail? But there was a sting in the tail, a really bad one.

Spider-Man #1 with its massive sales for the five variants issues had swept comics fans off their feet. X-Force #1 with its blatant sales gimmick (and first introduction to trading cards to many people) had swept away the previous year’s record holder. Uncanny X-Men, arguably, did best of all because it was released in (initially) just one standard comics format. But the ultimate was X-Men #1. The sales gimmick this time around was quite inspirational – but, with hindsight, only in a way that can be compared to cavemen discovering fire – they knew they were onto something but people were going to get burned in the learning process. X-Men #1 was released in 5 different versions and would ship from the printer on weekly intervals. Four of the five versions would have interlocking covers that put together formed one giant montage. The fifth edition would be printed on glossy paper, have the highest production values Marvel could use at the time and would retail for twice the price. X-Men #1 was a double-sized introduction issue. Issues #1a to #1d were $1.95 and #1e was $3.95. With the exception of the covers there was no difference between #1a, #1b, #1c or #1d. The only difference in #1e was that it was glossy and featured a foldout cover of #1a-d’s cover images. They were the same story repackaged in different covers. That was it – 1a was the genuine, all others were effectively reprints. That was the gimmick that would revolutionise sales and buy me my Porsche.

Can you guess what happened?

The week #1a came into the shop it was like a feeding frenzy at the zoo. I had over 10 boxes full of just one comic, when my standard weekly delivery normally consisted of 2 or 3 boxes with everything in. I had people three deep at the counter buying five copies of this first issue. We sold 75% of them in the first week. #1b arrived a week later and you could see the tumbleweed sweeping across the shop floor. #1c and #1d were even worse and #1e was an unmitigated flop. I had a cellar full of X-Men #1s. I knew of fellow shop owners that had even more. Despite this being the most popular comic of all time it probably only sold about 3 million in total. More than half the orders sat rotting in retailers’ backrooms or store cupboards. I heard tales of the comic being used to light fires, even as toilet paper! Who would you blame? Who was responsible for this humungous waste of paper? Well, it was obvious. We were.

Then it was time to pay.

The problem was very few people took enough money to cover their orders. Just about every retailer in the US and the UK took a bath on this comic. The problems started when about 30% of the comics shops owners realised they didn’t have enough money (cash flow) to pay their bills and their ‘friends’ the distributor and publisher were hovering over them like vultures on a rotting carcass.

This is where I come back into the tale, but we need to rewind a year or so…

Next week: Hall – champion of UK retailers and a meeting with Marvel.

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