"...are you experienced?"

Ethics and the Comics Industry                                             

September 1991

This is Tilting at Windmills #0. Its first appearance was in the 9/20/91 issue of Comic Buyer’s Guide, and then was reran in Comics Retailer #1, without the TaW tagline.

Rereading this really makes me feel old. I can see the beginnings of my writing "style" here, but some of my phrasings really make me wince.

Its really funny how much things have changed over the years (I’d nearly forgotten we once used a newstand distributor as backup, and who has thought of Comics Value Monthly lately?), yet in several fundemental ways things are exactly the same. Comics retailers still chase the quick buck, and magazines like Wizard still tout the monetary "value" of comics as at least equal to the entertainment content. We’re pretty fucking pathetic, aren’t we?

Actually, interesting side-note: I just realized, after all these years, that in the published versions Krause excised all references to CVM. Heh.

After this ran in CBG, I recieved a call out of the blue from Harlan Ellison. Never had spoken to the man before. "Is this Hibbs? Good job, kid." That call, perhaps more than anything else (well, ok, getting a check, and having a bully pulpit each month was attractive, too), was what gave me the drive to push Krause to let me do TaW as a monthly.

Not like it was a hard push, really -- there weren’t all that many people interested or capable of doing business writing on Comics....but I might never have thought of it as a regular gig if it wasn’t for Harlan’s push.

Here’s something funny, too (well, I find it funny, at least)...in that same first issue of Comics Retailer is a little squib in the "publisher news" section. "Creators form Image Comics". Hm, I wonder whatever happened to them?

Anyway, the point I wanted to make was this: here we are in the year 2001, and has much really changed from this article written in 1991? Yah, sad ennit?

By Brian Hibbs. Owner, Comix Experience
From numerous conversations in the aisles of San Diego, messages on computer networks across the country, and letters and articles in the pages of many of the industry magazine forums, it is obvious to me that both the industry and medium of comics are presently at an ethical crossroads. Most of the concern comes from ethical questions (not necessarily stated) about the nature of comic book speculation and pricing. From my particular vantage as a retailer, I can see several ways that the retail community can take positive steps to expand the consciousness of the medium as a whole.

Let's take a look at speculation with one of the best selling comic of recent years. Spider-Man #1 had a circulation of something like 2.5 million copies. How many people read comics in this country? No one knows for sure, but let's try to make a guess. If we take it that there are 5000 comic shops in this country (these are "official" figures) and that each shop has around 200 regular customers (and by regular, I mean customers who come in at least once a month. The figure of 200 comes from my customer base -- By industry statistics, my store is nearly dead-on average on a dollar value point of view, giving me some measure of justification on this point), this gives us 1 million comics readers. Note that this is a million readers of comics, not of Spider-Man. This means that every person who reads comics bought 2.5 copies of this comic on average. If this isn't ludicrous enough, remember that not every person bought even one copy. This probably brings the average purchase to 5 copies or more.

Seeing that it's obvious that anyone who wants a copy of this comic more than likely has it already, how can it possibly have skyrocketed in price? The answer lies in the twin facts that the people who set the back issue values of comics are the people with the most to gain from higher prices, and Most people do not truly understand the principal of a price guide.

Aren't back issue prices created by supply and demand? Well, in most cases, yes. I don't think that any one would claim that most Silver and Golden age prices are inflated, because these comics are actually scare in high grades. You just don't see to many mint copies of Fantastic Four #1 lying around. There is a reason for this. During the Golden age, and the beginning of the Silver age, no one had any clue that comics could be worth anything as a collectible. The copies that do exist in good condition of these comics are primarily in the hands of people who love their collection, and who won't part with their copies unless they must.

After the publication of Overstreet's first price guide, people perceived an implied appreciation in monetary value, and started buying multiple copies of comics as an investment. A interesting idea, but to pick the good investment, you must be able to tell what the public is going to want, before they do. And if you can do it, than probably most other people can do it too (more true today than ever before), thereby making your investment worthless.

Once a businessman sees that people are willing to buy multiples of a book, because it is "hot"(i.e. is liable to sell well in the first place), you can bet your life that he is going to do anything he can to convince you that you should buy it. It's in his best (short term) interests to generate that cash. The qualifier there, of "short term", is at the heart of the ethical quandary that we will explore momentarily.

Can anyone reading this name any "hot" comic that retained it's value after, oh, let's say 5, years? How about Howard the Duck #1? Was about $20, now you're lucky if you can get a buck or two for it in any reasonable amount of time. Ditto for Amazing Spider-Man #252. Same thing goes for New Teen Titans #1, early Giffen Legions, the Batman's with "Death in the Family", and every other "hot" book of the past.

Every week these days I get someone coming in with boxes of multiple copies of "hot" early 80's comics to sell, and I won't (and can't) offer them much more than salvage rates. Why? Because I already have multiple copies in the back room gathering dust! Have no doubt, you will be seeing copies of Spider-Man #1 in the 25 cent boxes before the turn of the century, when the "investors" end up dumping them on the market.

Have no doubt, either, that many stores have dozens and dozens of copies of Spider-Man #1 sitting in their back room right now. Then why, you ask, are they selling them for $5-10 apiece? Obviously, there is no supply and demand conflict. They have more copies than they can sell. But, from a purely business point of view, it makes a limited amount of sense.

You see, most comic shops get their comics at 50% off the cover price. This basically means that after they have sold the first half of the shipment, everything else is profit (and before any lectures me on things like holding costs of unsold merchandise, or missed cash flow opportunities, no need. I'm merely trying to show how the average retailer thinks), so that even if sales volume drops to 1/10th of the speed that it was, by selling a comic at twice the cover price, you actually appear to be making three times the profit that you would have (although it's actually one third of the profit you would have made had you sold it at cover price).

I even know of a store that charged $3.50 for Ghost Rider #15, the day it came out, to people who had signed up for it weeks in advance! This guy evidently thought he was making a killing (and he was - Short term! - of a 400% profit), but his customers were pissed, Having to pay the price because most other comic shops had sold out, and it was to late to do anything about it.

(Parenthetically, I just spoke of "having" to buy a comic. Of course, no ever has to buy a comic, at least not of the sense of having a gun being put to your head, as the folks at Marvel comics are always pointing out. But, part of the joy of comics is the sense of community. When everyone (the publisher, the retailer, and the fan press) implies that you are "missing out of the excitement", by not have all of the variant versions of a particular title, and your young and impressionable, than you're likely to buy everything you are given.)

"But," the Capitalist cries, "we're only giving them the choice of what to buy. If they choose to be foolish, and waste their money, that's not our problem." Unfortunately, this is a short term decision.

It's the Ethical difference between short term and long term that has created the buying patterns of the comics industry. In short term thinking, you make as much money as you possible can off the consumer, by any means, and that's the end of the relationship. But the long term view recognizes that the consumer is a customer, that they must receive full value for their dollar, and that the relationship is a lasting one with far-reaching possibilities.

Note that I'm am not trying to imply that the retailer is the actual cause of this state of the industry. The consumer, as well, is at fault, for allowing himself to be led. I put the question to all reading this: What possible reason, besides the pursuit of money, is there to buy more than one copy of a comic? There is no need to read more than one copy, so why get it?

Comics should be a medium of entertainment, not of avarice. When I put Ghost Rider #15 on my shelves, I noted it's popularity immediately. I limited sales to one copy per person (unless you reserved more before the order deadline), although few of my regulars even wanted more. Consequently, I had copies for sale the next day, unlike most shops in town.

Virtually every person who bought the comic after that had two distinguishing features: One, they were people whom I had never seen in my store before, and Two, they tried to buy every single copy on the stands.

Imagine that for a moment. After their normal stores sold out (more than likely to two or three people buying huge stacks - maybe even the same people!), they run around to every store trying to buy every copy they can get their hands on. I had one guy, who, after being told that it was one copy per person (not just day), actually hired bums and winos to come in and buy copies for him!

All these people, who do nothing less than try to drive the price of a book up, so they can make a killing. Of course, the short term retailer sees this, and pulls remaining copies (or if he manages to get a reorder, the new copies) off the shelves, so he can be the one making a killing.

After I sold out of Ghost Rider #15, I called my Newsstand distributor, and ordered every spare copy they received. I put them out at cover price (and realize here that from the newstand, although they are returnable, I only receive a 30% off the cover, meaning I'm actually making less profit then the other books on my racks), and had them up until two weeks ago. A long term retailer realizes that not every one of his customers comes in every week, and makes sure that there are copies available for them when they do arrive.

A long term retailer realizes that the good will you receive, by having a "hot" comic available at cover price for someone, pays off in not only a sale today, but a sale next month, and the month after that, and so on.

Capitalism does not have to be rapacious. I freely admit that I want as much of my customers money as I possibly can get, but I want to know that they received value in exchange. This is why they continue to give me their business.

As far as price guides go, I think that they may be the single largest problem the industry has. Unfortunately, few people seem to realize that they are (at best) guides, not bibles. Part of the problem is that, despite any disclaimers, most people regard printed statements as fact. Most stores in the Bay Area seem to price comics by Comic Values Monthly. CVM is (in my opinion) an exercise in ludicrousness. Prices escalate there sometimes by 50% a month. But because it is printed, the consumer regards it as fact, and accepts the retailers use of it. I know of some stores that change their prices monthly, based on CVM, regardless of whether the book has sold at the earlier, lower price. Do they actually sell these comics? They must, eventually, or they wouldn't still be in business. But let's look at two examples why it is bad for the industry.

First, Do you remember the craze after Superman #50 came out. Man, oh ,man, comics are getting mainstream attention -- Articles, and TV stories all over the place! But we blew it. `cuz when John Q. Non-comics-reader comes looking in the average comics store to find a copy (assuming he isn't repelled by the clutter, dirt, and "ambiance"), he sees that it's $10 (Thanx CVM!), promptly spins on his heel, and never enters a comic shop again.

Non-collectors (that's almost everybody else in the world) do not understand how a comic that was released last month can possibly be worth more than six times the cover price today. And they'll never give it another chance. Those casual readers now don't have a chance to ever become a fan.

Second, How much do you think that Ghost Rider #15 (or Spider-Man #1, or X-Men #1, or Legends of the Dark Knight #1, or Silver Surfer #50, or....) will be worth five years from now? My guess for the Ghost Rider is $3.00, but let's be charitable and say $4.00. Now hardly any dealer will give you more than 50% in cash (and some will only give 25%) That means that the comic that you paid $1.75 for is worth $2.00 in actual money now. What kind of investment is this?

But you'll find a private collector, you say. Fine, but your time is worth something, isn't it? Even if you only value yourself at minimum wage, if it takes you longer than a 1/2 hour to find a buyer, you'll lose money.

So how does someone who now finds out that their "hot" collection isn't worth what they paid for it? I'll tell you -- they quit buying comics altogether. Now sure, from the short term point of view, it doesn't matter, because there's always a new load of suckers down the bend. But the long term recognizes that you want the current group of customers, as well as tomorrow's. I actively encourage my customers not to buy doubles, because I know that they will get burned.

Ethical choices must be made on all levels of the industry. We must all continue to encourage and foster the growth of positive, creative values from consumer, to retailer, to publisher, to creator.

One way or another, comics is coming into it's own as a big business. Whether we screw everyone else to get our piece of the pie, or work harmoniously to create a lasting structure, we must choose, every one of us. It has been said that "there's no room for sentiment in big business". We are perhaps the only big business that was created by fandom, for fandom. As a reader, as a retailer, as creator, you have tremendous power. Use it ethically, and we will all be the better for it.

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