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That time Dazzler outsold Superman or: The rise and fall of the direct market

Was the direct market good or bad for business? Is the answer the same today?

Fred Van Lente
Price: Check on Amazon

That’s right, in a time when DC’s Superman was selling 235,000 copies on the newsstand, Marvel’s first direct market exclusive title, Dazzler, sold 400,000 copies of its first issue in 1981. And of course, as we know, everything went smoothly from there!

Except for Marvel’s partnership with Heroes World Distribution, a small company that couldn’t handle Marvel’s giant catalogue which, following the Image exodus of Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlene, led the now-dominant-again company to a mind-blowingly low marketshare of under 20% in 1996.

As writer Fred Van Lente and artists Ryan Dunlavey and Adam Guzowski show in Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for All #4, things change fast in the comics biz, and the successful players adapt and change. The creative team makes a convincing case that collectibility and the advent of the direct market saved the comics industry when price hikes made floppies unprofitable for newsstands.

But will brick and mortar stores continue in the digital age, or are they today’s newsstands? Van Lente argues they can and will persist if they change their product enough, focusing on the comic as a “physical artifact,” something less disposable and more revered. This has already happened with collected editions, but the book channel already does better than your LCS at that ….

Even if the direct market does go away, there will always be comics. Digital is here to stay, and the ease of distribution means anyone can make a comic about anything and get it out to people all over the world, in a parallel but better fashion to the black and white boom of the 1980s. And when comics were once the bane of the classroom, many educators now see their “dual coding” of words and pictures as a valuable memory tool, making the industry’s once greatest enemy its possible 21st century savior!

Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for All #4 also has a great discussion of online piracy that stops short of blaming it for a smaller modern market, but still heavily implies such, a contestable point. And an important story that many would be interested in, the swooping in of Ike Perlmutter and Toy Biz to save Marvel from bankruptcy, is glossed over in a single panel. That story is somewhat unrelated to the focus of this issue, but it’s a bit of a cheat to dangle that carrot in front of readers if it won’t be followed up on.

Overall, Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for All #4 is another fun and informative installment from the masters of educational funny books. Dunlavey doesn’t get to have quite as much fun as usual with the visuals when dealing with these abstract concepts, and Van Lente lets a little more editorializing into his script than normal, but it’s still good dirt on an important part of the comics industry, something anyone who wants to rant about the evils of non-returnable stock or how this or that is killing comics must read to question the conclusions that they probably came to before having all the requisite facts in front of them.

Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for All #4
Is it good?
It's an entertaining look at maybe the most important part of the comics industry. Required reading for anyone who wants to talk about sales, distribution and the futures thereof.
Succint telling of the rise (and fall?) of the direct market
Great discussion of online piracy
Hard to draw abstract concepts
Little bit of editorializing at times

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