Brainiac On Banjo #081: The Crack of the Whip!

I mean to say that every day Is just another rotten mess / And when it’s gonna change, my friend / Is anybody’s guess / So I’m watchin’ and I’m waitin’ / Hopin’ for the best / Even think I’ll go to prayin’ / Every time I hear ’em sayin’ / That there’s no way to delay / That trouble comin’ every day • Trouble Every Day, Frank Zappa, 1966


People, including your feckless correspondent, have been predicting the death of the 32-page comic book pamphlet for many decades. It’s been an unsustainable model since the late 1950s, and sooner or later it was bound to catch up with reality. Us fans have been copping Sisyphus’s act for six decades.

Well, if you hang on long enough, most predictions kinda come true. This one hasn’t. Not yet.

Premature as they are, there have been conflicting reports as to when comics are going to resume publication and distribution, and how many comics shops are likely to be open – even with curb service. That’s putting the cart before the horse, but the comics racket has taken on the countenance of the buggy whip factory for a long time now. And, yes, they still make buggy whips, but I’ll bet you know far, far more comics readers than buggy owners.

Here’s the problem. Lots of store owners are not going to make it. They’ve still got rent to pay, they’ve probably got distributors’ bills to pay, they have no idea how to order their non-returnable product in the future because their customer base will shrink at least a bit and most readers won’t have as much disposable income for at least a while. The shopping strips from which many operate aren’t doing any better; lots of stores are bellying up.

So retailers are going to cut back on their more speculative orders. They will start by knee-capping the “independent” publishers. I’ve loathed that term for about forty years, but now it has become relevant. It is the retail community, and therefore, the readers, that are dependent upon the independents. If there’s competition in the neighborhood, all shops are likely to stock Marvel and DC. But if you’re a fan of, say, Penultiman or Rough Riders, you’ll go to the place that sells them.

If 25% of the stores close, and 25% of the customers either disappear or are disinclined to resume the depth of their pull list, that means that a comic book that sells, say, 5,000 copies a month might see sales drop to about 2,800 copies. That means the “smaller” publishers are likely to go blooie faster than you can say “AMC Theaters” and the aggregate income they provide to the stores will go up in smoke. That can make the difference between being open and being history. Eventually, those dominos fall upon Marvel and DC.

In turn, the distributors will get it in the neck. If overall sales drop as little as 15%, warehouse managers are going to have a tough time getting out of bed in the afternoon. AT&T and Disney might have deep pockets, but they now have 50% more lint.

But AT&T and Disney won’t care. As I’ve said before, they do not need the continued publication of new comic books in order to make movies and streaming shows, and those venues will continue to generate healthy merchandising opportunities.

To torture a metaphor until it confesses to the Lindbergh murder, what’s likely to kill the pamphlet is the crack of the whip. Comics retailing has been a marginal business since the year gimmel, saved from time to time by ancillary fads such as sports cards, POGS, and variant covers. Publishers reacted by shifting away from telling interesting stories to manufacturing endlessly redundant “events” that are nullified immediately by a reboot.

Maybe we’ve forgotten why we continued reading comic books in the first place. What the hell, we can get us a solid comic book story complete with capes any time we care to turn on the boob tube, and those stories are a lot less expensive than the half-buck a minute we spend reading nicely stapled pin-up art.

But I said “pamphlet,” not “comic book.” Yes, four bucks for a 20-X page story is a crime. Publishers should dress up as Harry The Horse from Guys and Dolls, a.k.a. Sheldon Leonard. The sequential art story form, which some trace back to caveman paintings, will not die.


But a whole lotta friends of mine, artists, writers, store owners, and distributors, are gonna have a hard time making ends meet for a while.

Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be in publishing. It’s always been a risky business. It’s not even a good concept. Today’s ubiquitous wires and tubes have done a great job serving the needs of the reading public, but I’m sad to say the old fogies who talk about how they only like the feel of a real book are first-generation descendants of those snooty Luddites who proudly boasted they never watch television. As Eldridge Cleaver said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Well, we gotta come up with a solution.

Anybody got any money?