Diamond is forever, Comics are not: Mousa the 14

Intro to Geek Stuff for Non-Geeks: Diamond is Forever, Comics Are Not

     Greetings class, welcome to Geeky Stuff for Non-Geeks. Today I’ll be introducing you to one of the biggest boogiemen in the comics industry: Diamond Distributors.

     Yes, yes, I am aware of how completely dull it is to talk about something as uninteresting as comic distribution. The very word “distribution” would’ve put me half asleep if I wasn’t so bloody invested in this. But this is important, especially since if one has even a passing interest in comics, they may as well learn why it’s so hard for you to get into them. I mean besides the long serialized storytelling format and gigantic continuity of superhero comics, the monthly floppy model being atrocious, people finding better content in webcomics, and- well...those are lessons for a different time. This is about why the comics aren’t getting in front of your eyeballs. So let’s find an easy way to get into this… Hmm...

Ah ha, of course, I know exactly the way. It’s obvious really. Let’s talk Superheroes!

     These days it’s almost impossible to escape superheroes. They’re in our movies, television shows, cartoons, what have you. I don’t particularly mind, they’ve been my lifelong special interest. I’ve been creating, drawing, and writing original superhero concepts all my life, I’ve wanted to break into that entertainment industry. I love it all, and am happy that movies of superheroes have become part of the pop cultural landscape. Love or hate them, they’re here to stay and they’re making the big bucks. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the source of all this glorious media: Comic Books.

            Despite superheroes being all the rage these days, superhero comics are barely part of the cultural conversation. If you ever have an opportunity, try asking some random non-geek people how many Marvel movies they’ve seen versus how many Marvel comics they’ve read. You will find that is probably one of the most disproportionate ratios you will ever see. Even I got my interest in superheroes from the wide variety of animated adaptations growing up before I had even owned my first ever Marvel comic.

     According to Box Office Mojo, the premier website for any movie news that involves money, Marvel Studios’ hit 2018 blockbuster event “Avengers: Infinity War” made over $2.03 billion worldwide. That is approximately more money than I will ever see in maybe 10 lifetimes.

            “Infinity War” is part one of a two-part finale, the culmination of a series of 18 films doled out before it over the course of a decade. This rich and extensive cinematic universe draws its content from the rich and extensive comic book universe of Marvel Comics. A comic universe that spans 70 years if you want to start from when their first characters (The Human Torch and Namor The Sub-Mariner) in 1939 were introduced, or 50 years if you start from 1961 when Timely Comics changed their name to Marvel Comics with the debut of The Fantastic Four.

            With such close ties, one would think Marvel Studios’ idea mill, Marvel Comics, would be seeing the same sorts of profits as the movies. Surely, when the movies make bank, so must the source. One would think incorrectly. In fact, one might say that there is little impact the films have on who’s buying and reading comics.

        So, exactly how many people have bought and read comics. According to the comics research resource, Comichron.com, and the statistics provided by Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc., the highest amount of comic orders by comic shops in the United States in 1996 was approximately 11 million overall, 5 million for Marvel. By March 2018 we reached about 6 million overall and a little over 2 million for Marvel. The Marvel movies have been making bank every year after the rousing success of 2008’s Iron Man. And yet here we are in the present day and Marvel has actually been selling less comics and comic sales overall are going down! Strange, isn’t it?      

     This is why it’s always important to read the fine print. The quoted statistics aren’t number of sales directly to consumers. That data does not exist. The sales numbers are books ordered by comic shops. And only by comic shops. And the only distributor with statistics to draw from are Diamond Distributors.

     There is only one game in town. Distributors lived, distributors died, and nothing would ever be the same as Diamond bought its way to monopoly. This sounds a little bit like a conspiracy, but you can get the news from the horse’s mouth. It’s not like they’re hiding it, you can find the whole sordid history on their website or as they like to call it: “30 Years of Service & Success.”[1]

·         1982: “Takes over operations of New Media Irjax’s Boston and Tampa Distribution Centers” and officially becomes Diamond Comic Distributors.

·         1988: “Diamond establishes a national presence with the acquisition of Bud Plant.”

·         1990: “Diamond acquires selected assets of Seattle-based distributor Destiny Distribution and takes over the operations of Oregon’s Second Genesis.”

·         1994: “Diamond acquires selected assets of New York-based distributor Comics Unlimited, Ltd.”

·         1995: The other major comics companies, Dark Horse, DC Comics, and Image Comics saw which way the wind was blowing and signed exclusive deals with Diamond.

·         1996: “Diamond acquires selected assets of its largest competitor, Capital City Distribution.”

·         1996: This isn’t on Diamond’s timeline, but Marvel Comics tried to hold out on being part of the Diamond Empire and briefly had their own distribution service going on called Hero’s World Distribution. That clearly didn’t last. [2]

·         1997: And back to Diamond’s life story, Marvel also signed an exclusive distributor deal with Diamond.

 

If this sounds like Diamond acquired every major comic distributor that could be considered even remotely competitive, that’s because they had. With this absolute power, Diamond could do whatever they wanted, and what they wanted to do was a lot of shady business practices. While it’s difficult to find out shady practices, especially in an industry no mainstream media outlet would deign to take seriously, it’s a bit of an open secret amongst the communities of comic fans and independent comic creators that Diamond is, in fact, the worst. And there are few independent comic creators that have as much combined firsthand experience and business acumen as Charlie “Iron Spike” Trotman; creator of acclaimed webcomic “Templar, Arizona” and owner of independent comics publisher, Iron Circus Comics.

            Spike, alongside co-hosts Amanda Lafrenais and Kel McDonald, speak candidly about their experiences in the comics industry at various stages of success on their podcast “Dirty Old Ladies.” Spike has experienced nearly every comic distribution method under the sun and she elaborates on Diamond’s distribution model in their episode Distribution.[3] In summary, Diamond deals in the “direct market” where they sell to comic book stores directly.  Comic stores basically have to guess how many comics they think they’re going to sell. This is unlike the normal book retail models, which involve getting the books, selling them, and then returning the ones that didn’t sell. These, usually small and local, comic book stores can effectively be stuck with piles of comics they can barely move, usually consigning the merchandise to clearance bins.

            So for independent creators, this means that comic book shops have less incentive to try to order comics that are new or come from up and comers. They want guarantees, they want sales! They can’t waste what little shelf space they have with all this stuff nobody’s heard of. Which means that some little nobody from Middle Of Nowhere City in Podunk state are probably gonna get almost no orders. So if Comic shops barely want you, Diamond has no incentive to take you. Besides, they have exclusive deals with media giants like Marvel and DC and all of the other small comic companies have to get in line. So indie creators can’t move their merchandise in the only mainstream distributor in town. So now you gotta do it all yourself. Good like, little indie!

This direct market nonsense also means there’s no way to find an accurate model of comic sales. Because the only true data that exists is how many books did a store order from Diamond. All other information about how many of a certain kind of book reaches the hands of readers is dust in the wind. No one knows how much of what actually got sold. No one knows how many people are reading what and why. No one knows the demographics; ages, races, income levels, locations, sexes, orientations; no one knows a bloody thing. This is genuinely bad capitalism, and capitalism is already pretty damned but if you’re going to do this thing at least do it properly. To sell comics better you gotta be able to accurately measure your audience, find out what’s actually selling rather than what might be selling.

In case my point wasn’t clear, the entire model has left both comic makers and comic stores in a stranglehold, in the tyrannical grip of Diamond.

            People love superheroes these days, many may even want more superhero content. Many may even want to look into more of the material that spawned their new pop culture farlings. But regular monthly comics aren’t easily found, they’re rarely being distributed to bookstores and newsstands. Instead they’re being sent to comic book shops for retail. And comic book shops never have been, and continue to not be, hotbeds of mainstream foot traffic; one can barely convince the average movie goer on the street to go out of their way to small specialty comic stores. Have you seen these places? Sure there are nice ones like Fantom Comics in Washington, DC, Butt for every one of those, there are like ten more worse stores. Stores that fit the very cliche of comic shops; shady dirty cramped stores with very few people. I mean who wants waste time out of their busy day to go to some corner for a store that sells your typical monthly comic

            As a superhero fan I’m almost getting everything I want. My favorite characters have big budget movies and television shows as far as the eye can see. But as a comic creator and enthusiast, I am only seeing the origin of my favored heroes slowly dwindling. There are a lot of factors that are causing this to happen, not just distribution. It’s immature and ridiculous to pin the blame on a single entity for all the woes of an entire industry. Nevertheless, while Diamond Comics Distribution, Inc. isn’t killing the comics industry, they’re definitely tying it to the railroad tracks after all the other parts of the industry took care of the kidnapping.

[1] https://www.diamondcomics.com/Home/1/1/3/597?articleID=117735

[2] http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales.html

[3] http://dirtyoldladies.libsyn.com/episode-14-distrobution

Mousa the 14