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Black and White and Dead All Over Print
Written by Gary Groth   
Tuesday, 11 July 2006

from The Comics Journal #277

The reader should note that this was written in mid-1987 and that all topical references are from that period, etc. Don't feel badly if you're not old enough to remember any of them. It was a polemical piece, not a news story (don't bother complaining about my bias), but Dirk Deppey felt it was informational enough to fill in our succinct history of the direct-sales market during this period.

In his introduction to "Suicide Club," in reference to my calling the black-and-white boom/bust "an unmitigated disaster," Dirk writes that "hindsight demonstrates that it wasn't nearly as calamitous as Groth made it out to be at the time." In fact, I think Dirk is wrong and that it was every bit as calamitous as I intoned -- both for what it was as well as for what it portended. It represented a sea change in the direct-sales market to the detriment of alternative comics, which was in the process of building a readership -- moreso than the "sheer havoc," to use Deppey's term, that followed in the '90s.

One of the reasons I was in as high dudgeon as I was in this essay is because this was the first time in the history of the direct-sales market when this level and intensity of greed-crazed behavior surfaced. Prior to this, all the independent players, even those who considered themselves pretty slick operators, were penny ante babes in the woods compared to the turbo-capitalists that would rampage through the '90s -- and even the corporate behemoths Marvel and DC were still in the process of consolidating their marketing muscle in the mid to the late '80s.

The direct-sales market was still in its infancy, and although it was even then owned by Marvel and DC, it hadn't quite become the juggernaut of stupidity and vacuousness that it would become in the '90s. We are talking degree here, admittedly, but a degree that's significant. In the early-to-mid '80s, the publishing field could be broken down into roughly three categories. There was, of course, Marvel and DC. Secondly, there were a handful of alternative publishers --Fantagraphics, RAW Books, Kitchen Sink, Renegade Press, Last Gasp, a few self-publishers such as Dave Sim and the Pinis-- committed to the proposition that comics was an art form and devoted to publishing work of arguable aesthetic merit, and who were pushing against the ethos of commercial comics. Thirdly, there were new, independent publishers who saw an opening with the more level playing field of the direct sales market (as distinct from the age-old newsstand market) and tried to compete with Marvel and DC on their own turf by publishing superhero comics or ersatz superhero comics: First Comics, Pacific Comics, Eclipse, et al., who all had their eyes on the main chance. They were hipper than Marvel and DC, more youthful, more energized, more upscale, but they were clearly interested in manufacturing commercial comics in the traditional four-color format that imitated Marvel and DC. Publishers such as Fantagraphics published the majority of their comics in black and white because they were being written and drawn for a smaller, more discriminating readership and their sales couldn't warrant the extra money it cost to print in color. Thus, black-and-white comics were initially generally recognized as high falutin' art comics, safely marginalized by distributors, promoted by more adventurous retailers (who may have lived through the undergrounds) and bought by a new generation of readers looking for greater sophistication or experimentation. (There was obviously some overlap between the readers of mainstream and alternative comics, more or less, depending upon the comic: More mainstream comics readers read Cerebus than Love and Rockets, for instance.)

The color comics published by mainstream wannabes sold better than black-and-white comics generally because they were appealing to Marvel's and DC's fan bases, but still, the bulk of the "independent" color comics were mostly middling sellers, reasonably profitable at least until they became unprofitable, but never enormously so.

It took the unexpected success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to start the gold rush. The Turtles were first published in '84, and prompted the boom in black-and-white comics publishing, theretofore the realm of modest-selling alternative comics. It wasn't until '86 or '87 when it became widely known that the Turtles were in the process of making their creators millionaires, which is to say that Eastman and Laird fulfilled the failed promise of Siegel and Schuster, resulting in a whole new generation of "independent" creators with more righteousness than talent who thought they too could strike it rich by creating and, more importantly, owning, banal characters. This sense of entitlement was further exacerbated in 1988 when the Creator Bill of Rights (authored by Scott McCloud, et al.) debuted. Since independent cartoonists with integrity and talent already understood their rights and avoided working for unscrupulous publishers who would abscond with them, this document appealed mostly to mainstream artists who were bucking for more rights from Marvel and DC, and an array of amateurs who thought of themselves as mavericks -- you know, like Eastman and Laird -- and potential millionaires. Careerist motivations took precedence over the love of art in the alternative realm, so in 1987 you had the twin disasters of a declining market for alternative comics -- due to the B&W bust -- and a proliferation of untalented entrepreneurial artistes entering the market in droves.

It's true, as Deppey makes clear, that the direct-sales market in the 1990s was one long train wreck, but the actual effect this train wreck had on the art of cartooning was negligible; it depends on whose ox is gored as to how you evaluate the respective catastrophes. Alternative publishers' sales took a nosedive across the board in '87 and '88 as a result of the black-and-white bust. A comic that sold 6,000 in 1985 would sell 3,000 in 1988. Prior to this -- say, between '78 and '86, the market for alternative titles, always small, was at least slowly growing and building a readership. The exploitation of the black-and-white comics market by greedheads who tried to manipulate it into a collector's market and those who tried to take advantage of the subsequent feeding frenzy succeeded in driving sales down on individual titles by 25-50 percent.

It was this precipitous drop in individual title's sales in the late '80s that caused publishers like Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics to suffer financial hardship in the '90s. It became financially untenable to stay in business when sales that were already only marginally profitable dropped across the board. Fantagraphics made up for this by publishing a porn line beginning in 1991. Kitchen Sink tried to solve the same problem by allying itself with Kevin Eastman's Tundra, which had already lost $14 million in three years publishing alternative comics, and when that failed (through a series of outside investors, which also failed), Kitchen Sink died ignominiously in 1997.

The "sheer havoc" of the '90s that Deppey describes in his historical essay affected mainstream comics sales almost exclusively; the comics shops that went out of business as a result of the upheavals were not stores that sold alternative comics. The sale of individual alternative comics titles, such as they were, stayed pretty stable throughout the '90s, and the market even increased at least enough to accommodate the greater number of comics and graphic novels from new publishers like Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf and Alternative. Moreover, the generation of independent cartoonists that emerged in the late '90s were far more promising, artistically speaking, than those behind the black-and-white boom and the self-publishing movement of the late '80s. Alternative comics took the biggest hit as a result of the black-and-white boom/bust in the late '80s, whereas it was Marvel, DC and Image who took the biggest hit in the '90s. (The distribution infrastructure imploded as well, of course, but that's a different argument.) The relative, respective disasters of the late '80s and the mid-to-late '90s could be evaluated largely by whether you feel like crying more for alternative comics being set back in the '80s or the declining profit margins of Marvel, DC and Image in the '90s.

- Gary Groth, June 2006

(The following essay was originally published in TCJ #116, July 1987)

The bloom was off the rose in December [1986] or, if you were slow about it, January of last year [1987]. What rose, you ask? The most sacred and cherished rose in America: the belief that the American public will consume limitless quantities of useless garbage.

This idea ran afoul of a very basic economic reality: you cannot shovel shit into a finite market forever. The profiteers who jumped on the black-and-white comics-publishing bandwagon within the last year learned this when the black-and-white comics market collapsed. (The ripple was felt in the market for color comics and other formats, too.) From December through April at least, publishers have reported a drop in sales from 15 to 50 percent across the board. (That means even comics you may have thought were rock-solid have suffered.) The sales of some black-and-white comics may have plummeted even more dramatically over the four or five month period. The cause of the glut and subsequent collapse was partly greed and partly passivity on the part of "publishers," distributors and retailers. One must wonder why, with all the breast-beating of the distributors and the ballyhooing of the innumerable trade shows held all year, there wasn't a single mechanism within the entire infrastructure of the direct-sales system that could have foreseen or mitigated the disastrous economic collapse. Part of the explanation is that the infrastructure's primary purpose is to create a self-perpetuating consumer frenzy at the expense of any responsible or even sane sense of proportion.

The crash began as a boom and the boom was in black-and-white comics. You would've had to have been particularly inept to publish black-and-white comics in 1986 and fail. As nearly as I can piece it together, this is what happened:

Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles was a black-and-white comics phenomenon, outselling every black-and-white comic preceding it, including the previous champ, Elfquest. The Turtles was originally a parody-of-sorts of Frank Miller's Ronin and nobody knows why the parody outsold the book it parodied. The most plausible theory I've heard is that speculators, a notoriously slimy lot, realized that the press run of black-and-white comics was consistently smaller than that of color comics. Since the market value of a comic is at least partly based upon its scarcity, it followed that a comic that printed 10,000 to 15,000 copies will be scarcer than a (color) comic that prints 100,000 to 200,000. So speculators descended upon black-and-white comics, previously anathema to speculators because of their minority status, and started buying multiple copies. Multiple copies may mean three copies of a title or 300. No one knows. This probably took place in the late spring of '86. A few comics achieved a success similar to that of the Turtle Boys (Fish Police, for instance). Here's where it gets interesting and where the delicious irony sets in. The speculators' scheme was to buy up huge quantities of black-and-white comics because there were fewer copies of a black-and-white comic printed than that of a color comic. But, if the speculators themselves were driving up the print runs, from 10,000 or 15,000 to 50,000 or 100,000, they were cutting their own throats because the audience for black-and-whites was never that large to begin with and it wasn't likely the audience would grow exponentially just because a gang of speculators started buying up tons of the stuff.

This only goes so far in explaining why any configuration of ink on paper, placed between two irrelevant covers and badly printed in black-and-white, would sell. If a relatively small gang of speculators had instigated this lunacy, reason would tell us that it couldn't last; they would wise up and slow down their purchasing or get into some other line of exploitation -- become arbitragists or something. But, the boom not only continued, it skyrocketed. Here's where the consensus theory ends and the Groth Theory begins.

At some point during the speculator frenzy, some weird, inexplicable consumer contagion took over and buying black-and-whites became something of a fad. So, your average fan got hooked on the idea of buying B&W comics, collecting them for no other reason than that they were collectable -- not unlike collecting seashells, except that there were more B&W comics than seashells on any seashore.

This sort of psychologically-induced faddishness can't last forever. It's a little like the hula-hoop craze. Americans are nothing if not bored easily and kids are bored easiest of all. At some point -- my guess is around September or October of '86 -- they got bored. They realized that most of this black-and-white crud was unreadable, that it was ugly and amateurish -- even uglier and more amateurish than what they were used to -- that there was simply too much of it to collect and hoard, and worse, that it was no longer fun -- fun being the only reason to buy anything -- so they went back to buying Marvels and DCs, which were at least easier to keep straight. The boom was over. The jig was up.

But the Groth Theory holds that the retailers didn't know it was over -- or didn't want to believe it was over based upon my sub-theory that no retailer wants to believe a consumer frenzy is over and dead. Positively delighted at their ability to shovel so much crud across their counters, retail stores kept ordering mountains of this garbage -- the rodents, the parodies, the ninjas -- until their shops were bursting with the junk. And at some point they realized that the crud was no longer moving. Now, understand that retail stores must order books three months in advance of the book's shipping date. So that, if a retail store owner only realized this stuff wasn't selling two months after it in fact stopped selling -- not an unreasonable amount of time for many retailers to realize what's going on in their own stores, given the business and observational acumen of many retailers -- and had committed himself to buying vast quantities of this unsaleable garbage for another three months based upon the irrational proposition that his customers will continue to buy rubbish forever, he would have five months' worth of unsaleable, unreturnable flotsam cluttering up his store.

The black-and-white boom might have been over in August; it could've taken retailers until October to recognize this fact; and orders by retailers for books shipping in December and January reflected this panic.

You may wonder why retailers didn't simply stop ordering the dreck and maintain healthy orders for the quality titles or at least the titles with a provable track record -- Cerebus, Love and Rockets, The Spirit, etc. My guess is that a) retailers were broke and b) they still wanted to milk the market for everything it was worth.

Most comics retailers work on a tight financial budget; that is, they are under-capitalized and rely on week-to-week cash-flow to pay their bills. They must constantly move products in order to generate cash to pay for next week's or next month's books or otherwise sharply curtail the amount of their purchase from distributors. In this instance, the cash they would have theoretically generated was sitting on their shelves in the form of unsaleable crap. All they could do was to stare at it and bemoan their lack of judgment. This puts the retailer in the ridiculous position of being unable to fill the demand for books readers actually want to read because he literally cannot afford to buy them from his distributor. Mr. Retailer had to work with what capital he had left, which resulted in any number of ugly scenarios: if he had no capital left, he went out of business -- as an inordinate number of retailers did in the last six months; he may have cut back orders dramatically because he didn't have the capital necessary to buy his standard order; he may have paid his distributor late or not at all, which in turn forced distributors to pay publishers late or not at all. The domino was in place and it was an unmitigated disaster for distributors as well as retailers.

The disastrous consequences, incidentally, included the following: retailers going out of business owing distributors money; retailers paying distributors late; distributors, in turn, paying publishers late (by as much as 90 days); publishers paying creators late; good books suffering along with the bad when the market crashed in December and January; and a general demoralizing scramble for cash by everyone involved in an attempt to cover just enough of his bills to squeak by. Glenwood Distributors has gone out of business, owing vast sums of money to publishers (another blow to legitimate publishers and the creators who are published by them) and although the glut and subsequent collapse may not have singlehandedly put them out of business, it certainly contributed to their demise.

And the reason all of this happened, in a nutshell, is because mobs of amateurish, opportunistic publishers flooded the market with an avalanche of junk that, instead of being rejected out of hand by distributors and retailers who, one would presume, set certain minimal standards for what they sell, was embraced wholeheartedly.

Granted, comics publishers don't have much to boast about when it comes to maintaining artistic standards, but the standards for comics publishing hit a new low, if that's conceivable, in 1986. Retailers may have been at fault for not exercising even the most modest degree of judgment in ordering these artistic travesties, but even worse were these publishers who schlepped into the direct-sales market with all the enthusiasm and integrity of purpose of a particularly seedy brothel greeting the debarkation of the fifth fleet. Any potential profiteer who smelled a buck in comics crawled out from under the muck and started publishing like mad. Regardless, mind you, as to whether what they published was any good, because the idea of imposing standards of quality was either ignored altogether or applied so ignorantly and capriciously as to have been worse than useless.

I shared a panel discussion at a London comics convention last September called "State of the Industry" or "State of the Art" (the two being equivalent in barbarous times) with Chris Claremont, Tom DeFalco and Gil Kane. We were asked to open the panel by summarizing our opinion of the topic under discussion. After describing the then-current black-and-white boom (or, more accurately, amplifying Gil Kane's description), I went on to say something like this:

"Although the free marketeers will tell you that this boom in publishing activity proves the health and prosperity of the marketplace, what it actually proves are two propositions: the direct-sales market's insatiable appetite for junk, and secondly, the entrepreneurial opportunism of anyone in the U.S. over the age of 12." This appealed to English skepticism at unbridled economic exploitation, but Claremont immediately took umbrage and asked me if I was saying that these comics shouldn't be published, to which I replied that of course they shouldn't be published, that they were crap and that the less crap in the world the better. This was interpreted as my denying these new schlockmongers the right to publish, the implication being that I was an elitist or a fascist or something even worse.

But, Claremont missed my point, which was not about rights but about obligations. I'm fully aware that we Americans are militant about exercising our rights, particularly when there's a buck to be made by so doing. But, it's not inconsistent to criticize the abuse of certain rights while simultaneously defending the constitutionality or abstract correctness of the rights themselves. Americans have been congenitally obtuse about the obligations that parallel the exercise of rights; obligations, after all, require scrupulous self-examination and a commitment to communal as well as private values and these considerations are clearly irrelevant to exploiting market trends. (Edmund Burke: "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites ... society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters." Clip and save for future reference, particularly with regard to the current censorship brouhaha.)

This anarchic climate in comics publishing, unrestrained by such civilizing considerations as artistic standards, is the direct result of the value-neutral position struck up by moral nincompoops masquerading as professionals, as well as the logical result of the prevailing commodities mentality. All this talk of standards may sound irrelevant to the poor bastard sitting behind the cash register in his comics shop, watching droves of the young, the innocent and the culturally underprivileged plunking down cold, hard cash for mediocrity and pap, but I assure him it is precisely to the point. If creators, publishers, distributors and retailers had even a marginal comprehension of -- not to mention a love for -- artistic and cultural values, the crap would have been kept to a minimum; the creators' consciences wouldn't have allowed them to write and draw this dreck, the publishers wouldn't have published it, distributors would be too embarrassed to distribute it and any retailer who prides himself on what he sells wouldn't have let this crap sully his store. But, the prevailing attitude is one of complete closure to any values but those of the marketplace, and if you argue otherwise, you will be told in short order that all values are infinitely subjective -- except for the exchange value of money. Money is objective and any idiot can (and does) understand its objective value. In other words, the argument abrogates any responsibility a person has to engage his conscience in fulfilling his responsibility to himself and his public as a thinking, moral human being.

I realize this is a potentially dangerous proposition. Mr. Publisher or Mr. Retailer could, after thinking on the subject long and hard, come to the conclusion that Buckwheat Comics is a much better book than the pornographic Omaha the Cat Dancer and act accordingly. Philistinism could run amok, as it does with so many right-wing advocates of suppression and censorship, under the guise of moral rectitude, but in the long term it is preferable to promote an ethos of informed moral and aesthetic standards than to allow human conscience to atrophy because of its repeated capitulation to an amoral, abstract economic system.

There are any number of weasely reasons as to why retailers aren't more selective in what they choose to sell. Here are some of my favorites:

Weasely Reason #1: If I don't carry every comic being published, I'll be a censor.

Answer: No, you won't. Despite the weeping and whining going on in the pages of the Comics Buyer's Guide about censorship, your refusal to carry certain comics does not constitute censorship. Only the State can censor you or your customers. You may be suppressing the dissemination of certain comics you don't stock, but it is not only your right but your civic obligation not to carry books that breach the threshold of morality you find acceptable. The criteria you use in deciding not to stock a comic might be criticized as stupid, capricious and irrelevant, which is why it's probably wise to err on the side of freedom over suppression.

Weasely Reason #2: I pride myself on being a full-line store. I want to carry everything.

Answer: A full-line comics store is a bad idea for two reasons: a) it is virtually impossible and b) it is undesirable. Impossible because the retailer will probably go bankrupt: as a result, as has been proved recently, and undesirable because there is nothing virtuous about selling lousy books. I don't know a single full-line bookstore, record store, video store, jewelry store, clothing store or anything-else store in the world. Do you?

Weasely Reason #3: Maybe there's a lot of bad comics out there, but some good comics have come out of this publishing glut.

Answer: As if to say without the glut, the good comics wouldn't have been published. False premise. The handful of truly superior comics most surely would have been published and could have been published without the ensuing economic catastrophe by established alternative publishers or by two or three new publishers with an eye for quality. Besides, this argument is only proffered by people who don't give a damn about quality, who might have something to gain by the excessive manufacturing of shoddy goods and who are casting around desperately to tout some good in the bad.

Weasely Reason #4: But everything is subjective. How am I supposed to know a good comic from a bad one? What I think is bad, my customers may think is good. Who's to tell?

Answer: You are a thinking human being with the capacity to tell good from bad, right from wrong, and it's about time you started doing so. If you admit to a complete inability to do so, you should probably be locked up as a moral incompetent and a social menace. While you should be as latitudinarian as your conscience will allow, this doesn't mean your private standards should be infinitely elastic. Would you, for example, proudly display and sell a comic espousing Nazism in no uncertain terms? If not, then you have a conscience and you may want to hone it so that you can make even more subtle distinctions in the future.

Weasely Reason #5: I can probably make a quick buck off some of these stupid comics, at least as long as the trend lasts. What's wrong with that?

Answer: You should have stopped reading this a long time ago. You'll never learn.

Although I have placed a large measure of responsibility for this mess on the heads of retail store owners, it is the publishers who were most reckless in pursuit of a buck. Some of them are probably young or näive or ignorant and don't know any better; most of them are opportunistic, exploitive, uneducable and incurably stupid, whose only perceivable goal is the scrambling for loot. (Hello, Solson, Americomics, Eternity, Wonder, et al.) These are manufacturers, not publishers; publishing a book is to them no different from manufacturing an industrial commodity. A book is seen as no more the result of a singular, living consciousness than that of a light bulb or a can of Coke or a roll of toilet paper; a book is simply a unit of production, part of the ongoing economic process with no more intrinsic value than its market worth. It's important to understand that standards only get in the way of the economic process; the publisher cannot in good conscience publish vast quantities of books if he imposes artistic standards on them. The talent that lives up to those standards simply doesn't exist in the necessary quantities. This is why publishers must either delude themselves into believing that their comics have some artistic merit or look upon them cynically as so much paper and ink. Some degree of self-delusion is probably essential since lip service has to be given to quality in order to sell the stuff (though I know publishers who don't bother to lie to themselves), but even to the most insensitive clod it should only be common sense that there is not enough talent to warrant the publishing of over 800 different titles in a single year (the figure estimated by the Amazing Heroes Preview Special #5 of the number of titles announced for the second half of 1987). Eclipse is the perfect example of the comics-as-sausage theory put into practice: the lower (or nonexistent) your standards, the more books you can produce; the more books you manufacture, the more money you make because your overhead is amortized and your unit cost goes down. It all makes perfect economic sense. It is in large measure the economic mechanism responsible for heaping so much crap on the market and it eventually creates a cultural climate that smells like a garbage dump.

Crap is the operative word here; I wish I could use a more high-toned euphemism, but I should like to emphasize that I am not making subtle aesthetic distinctions here; I am not criticizing the middlebrow for not being highbrow. The black-and-white explosion represents the dictatorship of pure, unmitigated crud -- and this observation comes at a time when many of us thought the status quo couldn't sink any lower or get any worse. Even the soulless professionalism that represented the standard this industry revered has fallen before the onslaught of amateurish junk recently foisted upon the market.

And even the best titles to have come out of the black-and-white explosion stand out because relativity has debased any coherent standard of appreciation; Concrete or Ralph Snart or Fish Police, to name a few of the better titles, look good not so much for what they are -- unpretentiously sentimental or cute with a little stylistic verve and a modicum of human feeling -- but for what they're not: grossly amateurish, humorless, abysmally crafted or blatantly unoriginal and clichéd. There hasn't been a single artist to come out of this ugly mess to approach the seriousness, lucidity, or originality of the Hernandezes, Spiegelman, Eisner, Boswell, Loebs, Friedman or, God knows, Crumb. There's not even the hint of such potential; even the best of the work I've seen is mired in formulaic thinking and adolescent humor.

The worst of it gives mediocrity a good name. For the most part, it consists of the usual gang of suspects, rounded up and trotted out the umpteenth time: sword-and-sorcery characters with big swords and small brains; huge-breasted warrior women with swords or guns; space opera of the most dismal sort; superheroes; anti-superheroes; anti-anti-superheroes; parodies and parodies of parodies; the standard litany of diluted genres -- detectives, urban violence, the supernatural, horror and the rest of the sub-literate rat pack -- all executed so shoddily as to make your average hack at Marvel, DC or Eclipse look like Shakespeare and Michelangelo by comparison.

If you think I'm being unduly harsh, let's take a quick trip down publishers' row and witness the kind of commitment these schlockmeisters manifest toward the noble profession.

Something called Silverwolf announced 19 different titles for release in January 1987 (including such titles as Fat Ninja, Stech, Thieves and Victim). Thirteen of the 19 titles were first issues. The most artistically insensitive cretin should understand the commonsensical proposition that 13 brand new titles cannot be published in a single month and retain even the semblance of quality. (Keep in mind that distributors looked upon this listing and cheerfully included it in their catalogs.)

Solson is another opportunist for whom quality is a matter of indifference or downright scorn. These are the pathetic boobs who publish Reagan's Raiders, an idiotic homage-of-sorts to a leader recently proven to be a dissembling incompetent. Just what the world needed, but they've published others as winsome: the racist Buckwheat Comics; The Rock Heads, Sultry Teenage Super Foxes (sounds like an Americomic, but it isn't); G.I. Jackrabbits; and The Amazing Wahzoo.

Opportunism? The unholy alliance of Gary Brodsky and Rich Buckler, who are behind the Solson line, serves as the very paradigm of opportunistic black-and-white publishers. According to Capital City Distribution's catalogs, Solson solicited three comics for August 1986 release and six comics for October. The market was looking pretty healthy around this time (i.e., they smelled sheep ready for the slaughter). Solson had to send their solicitations announcing October releases to distributors by early August, so naturally by December they were soliciting 12 titles. Not content with 12 titles, they solicited 16 titles in January, but 16 titles weren't enough to sate their avarice, so in February they solicited 22 titles (including Lifestyles of the Criminally Insane and Ninja Strike Force). Apparently, the frenzy had subsided somewhat, because by July solicitations they had dropped to a meager seven titles.

Solson makes companies like Americomics and Blackthorne look like Alfred Knopf (though Blackthorne, due less to editorial vision and more to the need to crank out product, at least publishes some classic newspaper strips such as Gould's Dick Tracy -- in abysmal formats, mind you, but at this point you can't get too picky.) Eclipse probably wins the prize for strip-mining a fragile market, though. We know Dean Mullaney will say anything under oath, but will he and Cat Yronwode publish anything under the sun? Apparently so.

The real tragedy here -- what separates Eclipse from the other schlockmeisters -- is that the company was founded upon certain artistic principles. They weren't principles I thought much of, but at least the company was obviously guided by discernible principles. Eclipse originally published graphic novels (or what passes for them) by upper-echelon Marvel hacks. Somewhere along the line -- and I think the exact moment occurred when Eclipse adopted all of Pacific's schlocky titles when that company went bankrupt -- Eclipse sold out, adopted Marvel as their spiritual mentor and instituted the assembly-line system of creative manufacturing for their four-color comics. Since then, they have become shrewd hustlers with a line of soulless, mass-produced color comics -- the kind Cat Yronwode would attack viciously in her old Comics Buyer's Guide column -- and black-and-white and 3-D comics, about which more later.

It would be funny if it weren't so tragic. I mean, it looks like Eclipse will publish anything that looks like it has even the slightest chance of turning a buck. It doesn't matter whether it's work plagiarized from Jaime Hernandez or Vaughn Bodé; it could be superhero schlock like Champions or Airboy or New Wave (a kind of New Universe, Eclipse-style); anything in 3-D (the current favorite being the 3-D Stooges); the loathsome Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters and other rodent-style books (like Guerrilla Groundhog); media tie-ins from role-playing games (Villains and Vigilantes) or money-making crap like Captain Eo, which conflates two mass-market icons of equally repulsive natures: Disneyland and Michael Jackson. Or standard T&A offal like Axa and Alien Encounters. (The whole point of Axa, by the way, as seen on virtually every page of the Ken Pierce reprint series distributed by Eclipse, was to contrive ways to rip the heroine's shirt off. Eclipse has announced that its Axa color comic would clean up its act with a PG version. In other words, the whole sleazy raison d'être of the strip has been skewered. If there's such a thing as corrupting the integrity of a sleazy idea, Eclipse has done it.) And, like good Americans, Eclipse regularly trots out its posturing love for the medium whenever it gets a chance, while concomitantly shoveling junk down the public's gullet. (This whoremongering approach to publishing, which would shame a more coherent mind, didn't prevent Cat Yronwode from recently attacking Dave Sim on moral and aesthetic grounds in the pages of Cerebus -- a better comic than anything Eclipse publishes, with the sole exception of David Boswell's surreal masterpiece, Reid Fleming. What David Boswell is doing in the company of these other comics is anyone's guess.)

Anyway, Eclipse wouldn't touch black-and-white comics until -- you guessed it -- the black-and-white explosion. In July 1986, Eclipse published one black-and-white comic (Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters); by October Eclipse had announced four titles; in November, six; in February and March, eight each; and by April, they had announced nine. Ty Templeton, whose own black-and-white Stig's Inferno was published by Eclipse (and was probably the best B&W from Eclipse up to that time), confirms my view that this flurry of publishing activity was so much unprincipled strip-mining. In an Amazing Heroes interview, Templeton said:

I don't think for a minute that Dean [Mullaney] wanted to publish [Stig's Inferno] until black-and-whites became really big. Because at no time did we talk about it and then, one day, out of the blue, he just called me and said, "We've cleared our schedule, we can do Stig." I think that's only because the black-and-white market suddenly looked hot. So I hope that he wants to continue doing it even though black-and-whites are dying out, because if the sales drop down to the point that nobody's making money, like they did with the Hamsters and the Koalas, he might suddenly go, "We-e-ell, this isn't the gold mine we thought it was."

From one of their own creators, Eclipse stands condemned.

Then, there is the Scott Rosenberg/Sunrise Comics and Games/Amazing/Eternity/Wonder/Imperial/Malibu axis, which is sort of the Mad, Mad, Mad. Mad World of comics publishing --cupidity and stupidity run completely amok among a cartoon cast of greed-crazed hustlers.

Apparently, sometime in 1986, Sunrise Comics and Games, a comics distribution company owned by Scott Rosenberg and specializing in hoarding hot or potentially hot books that will go up in value, decided to try to create some hot books of its own by secretly financing four comics publishers: Eternity, Wonder, Amazing and Imperial. (Secretly, one presumes, because it's on the gauche side for a distributor to enhance his speculating possibilities by starting not one, but four different publishing companies.) These companies turned out reams of comics in '86 (not a one of them any good, mind you). Rosenberg-Gate broke in January of '87 when Sunrise issued a press release announcing that he was behind these companies. Simultaneously, Sunrise Distributors sent a letter to their creditors (most if not all of whom are comics publishers), informing them that Sunrise was unable to pay certain bills owed and that such bills would have to be put in abeyance until the summer of '87 at which time Sunrise would do its best to start paying off the old invoices. Simultaneously, Sunrise Distributors -- or Scott Rosenberg, if you care to make the distinction -- financed yet another publishing company called Malibu Graphics. Rosenberg has claimed in recent accounts that Malibu, which has been financed continually after Rosenberg announced Sunrise's inability to pay publishers to whom he owed money, was not financed by Sunrise but by personal funds, thus attempting to disarm potential criticism from irate publishers who weren't keen on the idea of Sunrise/Rosenberg financing a competing publisher at the same time Sunrise couldn't pay them the money they owed.

Morally, one would think that Rosenberg would be obligated to use whatever private funds he has at his disposal to pay publishers whose books he bought and sold rather than to put such money into a fifth publishing company that will compete with the very publishers he cannot or will not pay; you may also question the morality of creators and whatever support staff Rosenberg is shoveling money to in order to keep Malibu afloat, who would knowingly take money that should rightfully be paid to other publishers to whom it is owed.

Rosenberg and Sunrise are now embroiled in a squabble with a half-dozen or more previous accomplices (including editors, marketing engineers, production studios, creators and God only knows who or what else) over the ownership of titles Rosenberg's companies had published. There are undoubtedly depths of Rosenberg-Gate that have not yet been plumbed, but here is an exquisite summing-up of one lunatic aspect of the Rosenberg publishing empire imbroglio as it appeared in an article from Capital City Distribution's Comic Dealer Newsletter:

The complexity of this situation can be illustrated by looking at Ex-Mutants, one of the most successful of the properties in dispute. In the past, it had been produced by Lawrence and Lim, in association with Campiti and Associates for TriCorp Enterprises, Inc., of Brooklyn, owned by Brian Marshall and Tony Eng. Orders for the book were solicited on behalf of Eternity Publishing by Mark Hamlin of Pied Piper Press. When the book was shipped, it was invoiced by Guaranteed Services on behalf of Eternity. Campiti then broke first with TriCorp and later with Eternity. If the question of ownership of this property goes to court, just deciding which court has jurisdiction is going to require a large amount of legal work and a major court ruling, since Campiti and Associates is a West Virginia company, TriCorp is a New York corporation, Pied Piper is a Michigan company, Guaranteed Services is a California company and Eternity Publishing is based in Boulder, Colorado.

To add insult to injury, Malibu has begun to publish a trade magazine called Comics Business, the purpose of which is to advise professional publishers, retailers and distributors on how better to conduct their business. This, mind you, from a publisher who is financed by a distributor who not only cannot pay his own bills, but who channels any extra money he can scrounge together into a publishing company that competes with the very people he cannot pay! And that's not all; the irony has another exquisite dimension. Recently, Comics Business solicited advertising and subscription dollars from the very publishers to whom its backer owes money. So that instead of Scott Rosenberg paying publishers he owes money to, the publishers he owes money to will be paying him! In short, Malibu (owned by Scott Rosenberg) is asking publishers who are owed money by Sunrise Comics and Games (owned by Scott Rosenberg) to give money to Malibu (owned by Scott Rosenberg). Is this a shell game, or what? Sunrise/Rosenberg financing a magazine that gives business advice is like Ivan Boesky offering a seminar on Ethics & Economics or Michael Cimino giving a six-week course (that takes 18 weeks to complete) on How to Bring a Motion Picture in On Time and Under Budget.

All of which goes to prove the abject and near-total failure on the part of professionals in the comics community to see the act of publishing, and specifically the act of publishing comics, as an institution of culture and not merely as another industrial process. The incandescent tragedy that has been underscored by all of this is that independent publishers (whatever that term means any more) have become indistinguishable from Marvel and DC; their commitment to comics as a potential literary form is nonexistent; and their view of comics as kitsch predominates. The corporate mentality that is endangering literary publishing nation-wide has consumed the smaller publishers, the insidious conception of comics as nothing more than units of product has become an internalized presumption by creators, publishers, retailers, distributors, not to mention speculators and collectors, and the result is the widespread whorishness we've witnessed over the past year, which was worse than the previously established norm and doesn't look like it's going to get any better.

The comics culture is a living subculture unto itself, and no one, however much he tries, can entirely divorce himself from the community in which he's most alive. I'm reminded of a recent observation by Alfred Kazin on Theodore Dreiser's art: "Dreiser's narrative gift was for showing the collective momentum as the very atmosphere in which we realize our individual being." The collective momentum of the comics culture is enough to cause one's soul to wither.

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