Comics vs. coronavirus: Comics industry shut down for the first time in almost a century



An extended pause by the biggest publishers could spur comic creators to pursue new projects and accelerate a shift away from comic book stores. Here, the cover of Batman Giant #4, which was expected in stores this April 1, 2020.
(DC Comics)

Bart Beaty, University of Calgary

Last week, the producers behind a number of comic book-derived movies and TV shows announced delays for their franchises: release dates for Wonder Woman and Black Widow were pushed ahead, while The Walking Dead announced that COVID-19 had made it impossible for the show to complete work on the current season and that the finale was being delayed.

But what of the comic books that spawned these blockbuster franchises?

On March 23, Steve Geppi, CEO of Diamond Comic Distributors, announced the closing of the distribution system that holds a near-monopoly on the circulation of comic books in North America. He cited a number of problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic: comic retailers can’t service customers, publishing partners are having supply chain issues and shipping is delayed. He wrote his “only logical conclusion is to cease the distribution of new weekly product until there is greater clarity on the progress made toward stemming the spread of this disease.”

New Comics Day has occurred every Wednesday since the creation of the direct market in the 1970s, as die-hard fans rush to buy new books before spoilers pop up online.

But no longer: This week, for the first time in more than 80 years, no new comic books will ship to shops, and production is on hold into the foreseeable future. No previous global event — not the Second World War, not 9/11 — has previously shuttered the comic book industry.

To understand how this single decision could transform the operations of comic book publishers owned by Disney (Marvel Comics) and AT&T (DC Comics), among dozens of others, as well as comic production, consumption and culture, one needs to understand how the status of the comic book has shifted over the past century.

Bygone newsstand days

As Jean-Paul Gabilliet, professor of North American studies at Université Bordeaux demonstrates, the comic book form emerged in the 1930s as a promotional giveaway for department stores and gas stations before it migrated to the newsstand as a part of the larger magazine industry.

Despite some fits and starts, the format took off based the success of Superman, created in spring 1938, and the many imitation superheroes his popularity spawned as comic books became a staple of the newsstand. Circulation grew during the war, and exploded shortly after as new publishers initiated new genres like crime, romance and horror comic books.

By 1952, the peak year for comic book sales in the United States, comic books were a formidable cultural presence. But the rise of television, changes to the magazine distribution system and criticisms of the industry by public figures led to an industry-wide collapse of sales. Comic books limped through the 1960s as a cheap disposable form of entertainment for children, found on magazine racks that catered to parents.

By the 1970s, the American comic book had lost its status as a mass medium. At the same time, a rapidly growing network of used comic-book dealers began to spring up at flea markets, conventions, bookstores and eventually specialty stores that catered to a devoted set of comic collectors. The growing fan network presented a life raft to the industry.

1970s turning point

The turning point, as American writer and reporter Dan Gearino points out in his history of comic book stores, came in 1972 when a convention organizer named Phil Seuling convinced the major publishers to wholesale new issues to him on a non-returnable basis.

Stan Lee, standing, publisher of Marvel Comics, discusses a ‘Spiderman’ comic book cover with artist John Romita at Marvel headquarters in New York in January 1976.
AP Photo

This appealed to the publishers, who were accustomed to routinely over-printing comic books by the hundreds of thousands to supply the inefficient system of mom-and-pop corner stores that retailed their work. Seuling’s model shifted risk from the publisher to the retailer, who ordered product on a non-returnable basis, but it facilitated the growth of a network of thousands of comic book shops across North America.

For more than two decades, comic book shops were supplied by a network of regional wholesale distributors that served specific geographic regions based on the location of their warehouses. This changed at the end of 1994 when Marvel Comics bought Heroes World, the third largest distributor.

Marvel meets Diamond

American writer Sean Howe’s history of Marvel Comics details how, in July 1995, the company made their new subsidiary the exclusive supplier of their market-leading product, reducing income at the other distributors by a third. A scramble ensued, with Geppi’s Diamond securing the rights to DC Comics and Image Comics, the next two largest publishers after Marvel. Other publishers quickly fell in line, signing exclusive deals with Diamond and bankrupting the regional distributors.

When Heroes World proved incapable of supporting Marvel’s needs, the company folded in 1996 and Marvel joined forces with Diamond, the only other distributor still standing. That same year, the Bill Clinton government began investigating Diamond as a monopoly. But the government dismissed the case in 2000, finding that the new company was not monopolistic because comic books were only a small part of the overall publishing industry.

Marvel comics impresario Stan Lee, centre, poses with Lou Ferrigno, right, and Eric Kramer, left, who portray The Incredible Hulk and Thor, respectively, in ‘The Incredible Hulk Returns.’ They’re pictured here in Los Angeles, Calif., in May 1998.
AP Photo/Nick Ut

The situation remained largely unchanged for more than 20 years. Diamond is the exclusive dealer of comic books to the a network of thousands of comic book stores who have continued to order on a non-returnable basis. Until now.

‘Pencils down’

The consequences of Diamond’s decision are immediate and wide-reaching. In closing their warehouses to new product, publishers have alerted printers to stop. Comic book freelancers recently began tweeting they’d received “pencils down” messages from publishers curtailing production.

Communication to comic book retailers, creative personnel and fans has been haphazard as the large publishers scramble to plan for an uncertain future. Many are concerned about the growing digital footprint of comic book publishers.

Since 2011, most comic books have been released to comic book stores and in electronic format to consumers through platforms like Comixology (a subsidiary of Amazon) on the same day.

Archie Comics has announced the company will release some April titles digitally. Here, the front cover of an edition of ‘Archie vs. Predator II.’
(Archie Comics)

With a protracted closure of the distribution system, publishers like Marvel and DC could continue to move forward with electronic sales, which would inevitably bolster that end of their business at the expense of their retail partners. Archie Comics has announced that they will release some April titles digitally.

If several months passed with electronic sales but no physical comic book sales, it’s uncertain that those printed books would ever find an audience. An extended pause by the biggest publishers, on the other hand, would undoubtedly spur comics creators to pursue new projects either online or through the book trade.

This could accelerate a shift away from comic collectors’ habitual buying that take place comic shops as establishments that foster unique social relations, as described by Benjamin Woo, associate professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University.

While comic books sales proved remarkably resilient during the 2008 financial crisis, if the current situation breaks readers’ buying habits for a few months, they might never return in the same way.

This is a corrected version of a story originally published on March 30, 2020. The earlier story said Diamond Comic Distributors made an announcement March 24 instead of March 23.The Conversation

Bart Beaty, Professor of English, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

America’s postwar fling with romance comics



With over 100 issues, ‘Young Love’ was one of the longest running romance comics series.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

Michael C. Weisenburg, University of South Carolina

Last year, comic book enthusiast Gary Watson donated his massive personal collection to the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina.

As the reference and instruction librarian, I’m tasked with getting to know the collection so I can exhibit parts of it and use the materials for teaching. One of the great pleasures of assessing and cataloging Watson’s collection has been learning about how comic books have changed over time. Sifting through Watson’s vast collection of 140,000-plus comics, I’m able to see the genre’s entire trajectory.

Before World War II, superheroes were all the rage. Reflecting anxieties over the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the march to war, readers yearned for mythical figures who would defend the disenfranchised and uphold liberal democratic ideals.

Once the war ended, the content of comic books started to change. Superheroes gradually fell out of fashion and a proliferation of genres emerged. Some, such as Westerns, offered readers a nostalgic fantasy of a pre-industrial America. Others, like true crime and horror, hooked readers with their lurid tales, while science fiction comics appealed to the wonders of technological advancement and trepidation about where it might lead us.

But there was also a brief period when the medium was dominated by the romance genre.

Grounded in artistic and narrative realism, romance comics were remarkably different from their superhero and sci-fi peers. While the post-war popularity of romance comics only lasted a few years, these love stories ended up actually having a strong influence on other genres.

Romance comics’ origin story

Though today they are most famous for creating “Captain America,” the creative duo of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby launched the romance comic book genre in 1947 with the publication of a series called “Young Romance.”

Teen comedy series like “Archie” had been around for a few years and occasionally had romantic story lines and subplots. Romance pulps and true confession magazines had been around for decades.

But a comic dedicated to telling romantic stories hadn’t been done before. With the phrase “Designed for the More Adult Readers of Comics” printed on the cover, Simon and Kirby signaled a deliberate shift in expectations of what a comic could be.

While most scholars have argued that romance comics tend to reinforce conservative values – making marriage the ultimate goal for women and placing family and middle-class stability on a pedestal – the real pleasure of reading these books came from the mildly scandalous behavior of their characters and the untoward plots that the narratives were ostensibly warning against. With titles like “I Was a Pick-Up!,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and “The Plight of the Suspicious Bridegroom,” “Young Romance” and its sister titles quickly sold out of their original print runs and began outselling other comics genres.

Issue #1 of ‘Teen-Age Romances’ (St. John, 1949).
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

Other publishers noticed the popularity of the genre and followed suit with their own romance titles, most of which closely followed Simon and Kirby’s style and structure. By 1950, about 1 in 5 of all comic books were romance comics, with almost 150 romance titles being sold by over 20 publishers.

The rage for all things romance was so sudden that publishers eager to take advantage of the new market altered titles and even content in order to save on second-class postage permits. Second-class or periodical postage is a reduced rate that publishers can use to save on the cost of mailing to recipients. Rather than apply for new permits every time they tested a new title, comics publishers would simply alter a failing title while retaining the issue numbering in order to keep using the preexisting permit. To comics historians, this is a telltale sign that the industry is undergoing a sudden change.

One striking example of this is when comics publisher Fawcett ended its failing superhero comic “Captain Midnight” in 1948 with issue #67 and launched its new title, “Sweethearts,” in issue #68. In this case, the death of a superhero comic became the birth of a romance comic.

Issue #3 of ‘Bride’s Romances’ (Quality Comics, 1953).
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

With so many new titles flooding newsstands and department stores, the bubble was bound to burst. In what comic book historian Michelle Nolan has dubbed “the love glut,” 1950 and 1951 witnessed a rapid boom and bust of the romance genre. Many romance titles were canceled by the mid-1950s, even as stalwarts of the genre, such as “Young Romance,” remained in print into the mid-1970s.

There was the brief popularity of the sub-genre of gothic romance comics in the 1970s – series with names like “The Sinister House of Secret Love” and “The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love.” But romance comics would never approach their brief, postwar peak.

Gothic romances – like this issue of ‘The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love’ – had a brief run in the 1970s.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

A brief boom, an enduring influence

Among collectors, issues of romance comics are less sought after than those of other genres. For this reason, they tend to go under the radar.

Romance comics, however, featured work by pioneering artists like Lily Renée and Matt Baker, both of whom worked on first issue of “Teen-Age Romances” in 1949.

Baker is the first-known black artist to work in the comic book industry and Renée was one of comics’ first female artists. Prior to working on “Teen-Age Romances,” they both drew “good girl art” – a set of artistic tropes borrowed from pinups and pulp magazines – for several titles. Their work in both genres exemplifies how earlier pulp magazine themes of desire and seduction could readily be applied to newer genres.

‘But He’s the Boy I Love’ was one of the few romance comic to feature black characters.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

After the “love glut,” sub-genre mashups nonetheless emerged. For example, cowboy romances were briefly popular. Later, in response to the civil rights movement, Marvel published the 1970 story “But He’s the Boy I Love,” which was the first story in a romance comic to feature African-American characters since Fawcett’s three-issue run of “Negro Romance” in 1950.

Even after romance comics largely fell out of fashion, the genre’s visual tropes and narrative themes became more prevalent during what’s known as the “Silver Age,” a superhero revival that lasted from 1956 to 1970. Titles such as “Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane” often borrowed heavily from romance for their plots to generate intrigue and tension in the hopes of driving up sales.

Issue 89, in which Lois marries Bruce Wayne, is a prime example of such marketing techniques. Issues such as these were often situated as “what if” narratives that offered readers speculative story lines, such as “What if Lois Lane married Bruce Wayne?” Though they’re generally thought of as separate from the superhero canon, these love stories show that comic book writers had internalized the main narrative techniques of romance comics even if the genre itself was in decline.

But other comics didn’t merely use romantic themes for the occasional gimmick issue. Instead, they made the love lives of their characters a central plot point and a fundamental aspect of their characters’ identities. Comics such as the “Fantastic Four” and the “X-Men” rely heavily on the heated emotions and jealousies found in group dynamics and love triangles.

Take Wolverine. Presumably tough and stoic, he’s so enamored of Jean Grey – and so envious of her love interest, Scott Summers – that you could argue that unrequited love is one of his primary motivations throughout the series.

Thanks to romance comics, even stoic superheroes got bitten by the love bug.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.]The Conversation

Michael C. Weisenburg, Reference & Instruction Librarian at Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Beano and Dandy artist Dudley D. Watkins made generations of comic fans roar with laughter




David Anderson, Swansea University

You may not be familiar with the name Dudley Dexter Watkins, but chances are you will recognise his art. Half a century after his death, the work of the talented British comic strip artist and illustrator is as well known, and as much loved, as it has ever been. Characters such as Desperate Dan, who Watkins illustrated for The Dandy comic, and Lord Snooty for The Beano, have remained favourites for many years, their silly antics and predicaments now kept alive by other artists.

This summer, a trail of outdoor statues has been placed across Scotland featuring one of Watkins’ most popular creations, Oor Wullie, who appeared alongside The Broons in The Sunday Post newspaper from 1936 until Watkins’ death in 1969.

Born the son of a lithograph artist in Greater Manchester in 1907, Watkins was just a few months old when his family moved to Nottingham. It was there that his artistic talents were first recognised. Encouraged by his father, Watkins took up a place at Nottingham School of Art. His first opportunity to see his drawings in print came soon after. The chemist Boots, where Watkins worked in the window display department, published his cartoons and illustrations in staff magazine The Beacon.

By 1925, Watkins had moved to Scotland where his work caught the eye of publishing house D.C. Thomson. Aged just 18, he joined the Dundee-based company, an employment that would last more than 40 years. During this time, Watkins created some of Britain’s most iconic comic characters.

In his first decade with Thomson, Watkins worked on a group of boys’ weekly action papers known as “The Big Five” – Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur. These publications experimented with the comic strip format and focused on sport, school and war adventure stories. Watkins produced many of the front covers for The Big Five, and contributed comic strips to small format supplements that accompanied The Rover and The Skipper.

In 1936, when Thomson produced a supplement to The Sunday Post named The Fun Section, the spikey-haired, dungaree-clad Oor Wullie and the close-knit working-class Broons family were born. Written in Scots dialect, the capers of these characters, drawn weekly by Watkins for more than three decades, still feature in the newspaper today.

The look of these characters has changed little since their first appearance. It is this sense of regularity and reassurance that still arouses nostalgia in generations of readers, fuelled by an inexhaustible range of associated books, clothing and other merchandise.




Read more:
The Sunday Post: how Scotland’s sleepiest newspaper silenced the detractors


Spurred on by the success of The Fun Section, Thomson released two new comics for boys and girls: The Dandy in December 1937 and The Beano in July 1938. These launches brought into being some of Watkins’ most recognisable characters including Desperate Dan, Lord Snooty and Biffo the Bear.

Based on an idea by editor Albert Barnes, cow-pie-eating Desperate Dan, one of Watkins’ most enduring creations, debuted in the first issue of The Dandy. In the black-and-white half-page strip, Dan is seen purchasing a horse that promptly collapses under the cowboy’s considerable weight. Watkins apparently based Dan’s super-sized square-jaw on Barnes’s own chin, and Dan’s exaggerated toughness – he shaves with a blowtorch and shoots a bullet through his hair to part it – personified the robust humour of The Dandy.

Watkins’ peers acknowledged his rare talent. He was said to draw at lightning speed, effortlessly encapsulating the wit and wonder of his distinctive comic characters. Such was the importance of Watkins’ work, he was exempted from active military service during World War II and instead served as a war reserve constable in Fife. In 1946, Watkins began signing and initialling his published work, a privilege afforded to only a few comic strip artists in those days (it also ensured his loyalty to Thomson following attempts by a rival publisher to lure him away from Dundee).




Read more:
How The Beano survived war and the web to reach its 80th birthday


Wartime paper shortages forced The Dandy and The Beano into a fortnightly publishing schedule, but by the 1950s not only had Thomson returned to weekly editions of these comics, it had launched two other, tabloid-style, publications – The Topper and The Beezer. Watkins was tasked with illustrating the front cover characters, introducing Mickey the Monkey and Ginger to a new generation of humour comic fans.

A prolific artist, Watkins’ output extended beyond his Thomson portfolio. Inspired by his Christian faith, he often led Bible discussions and delivered illustrated talks on religious themes to children at the Church of Christ in Dundee. In his spare time, he also drew strip cartoons for Young Warrior, a children’s paper published by the Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade.

Watkins died at his drawing desk in 1969, aged 62. His artwork, particularly his early strips in comics and annuals, have become increasingly collectable, connecting with current trends for childhood nostalgia. While many fans still display the same affection for Watkins’ characters that they felt as children, the way in which we experience comic strip art alters as we grow up. While as children we simply loved how the drawings captured tongue-in-cheek humour, as adults we are able to view with a more mature appreciation the creative endeavour gone into producing them.

Watkins’ work, and his dedication to it, is still highly impressive. Considered a quiet, pious man during his lifetime, Watkins’ lasting fame rests on the high-quality comic artwork and illustrations to which he devoted so much of his life.The Conversation

David Anderson, Senior Lecturer in Political and Cultural Studies, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.