The Tail That Wags the Dog: The Impact of Distribution on the Development and Direction of the American Comic Book Industry
David K. Palmer
This chapter explores the production of culture as represented by comics work. It explicitly recognizes the diverse inputs of the larger network which ultimately delivers comics work (i.e. graphic narratives in a variety of formats) into the hands of readers, the ultimate consumers of the work. This network of individuals and organizations fulfills a number of vital tasks that directly influence the finished work and its viability in the marketplace. Some of the contributions of that network are traditionally overlooked and are not fully recognized by consumers or, indeed, even by scholars of comics work. One of these necessary but routinely disregarded roles is that of distribution. The role of distribution is often ignored or minimized because it is not customarily viewed as a creative activity, especially in the context of an industry which views itself as “artistic” or “creative.” Distribution is considered to be a mundane activity, and its profound impact on the success (or failure) of comics work is therefore easy to overlook. Comic book historians can better understand and
D.K. Palmer (H)
University of Nebraska at Kearney, Kearney, NE, USA
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 235
C. Brienza, P. Johnston (eds.), Cultures of Comics Work,
Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels,
interpret the full richness of the American comic book industry and its history by explicitly incorporating a more thorough investigation of distribution into their analyses. To make the role of distribution in the production of comic books as culture more visible, this chapter applies the notion of constraints on the production of culture developed by Richard A. Peterson (e.g. 1982, 1985) to an analysis of a number of pivotal events in the comic book industry. This analysis is augmented by also integrating concepts from strategic management, especially those of Michael Porter (1979, 1980).
Fundamentally, the American comic book industry revolves around a commercial transaction: someone purchases a comic book (whether as a physical printed object, or, more recently, and increasingly, as a download). The purchaser need not be the eventual reader; he or she may be, for example, a parent making a purchase for a child or a library adding to its lending collection. Both parties willingly enter into a mutually beneficial transaction, and each perceives him or herself to be better off than before the transaction. The purchaser has a comic book that was desired, and the seller has money that will contribute toward staying in business and continuing to create comic books, or pay to have them created. Of course, in order to facilitate that transaction a great deal has taken place “behind the scenes.”
In a brief primer on how the industry works, comic book writer, historian, and blogger Mark Evanier (n.d.) explained in broad strokes that “there are three aspects to what a comic book publisher must deal with,” notably finance, editorial, and printing. According to Evanier, finance represents the publisher and the processes and arrangements involved with financing the undertaking and, importantly, shouldering the risk. Editorial involves the creation of the “content,” or purchasing the “content” from the creators. Editorial produces the “cultural” artifact that people typically identify with the industry. This is often the focus of scholars as they examine comic books. Finally, printing is the “physical mass reproduction” of the content. Of course, the content (e.g. original artwork) exists separately from reproduction and has its own market (Weist 2000); it is a viable topic for study in its own right, but one beyond the scope of this chapter. However, as a publishing industry, the reproduction and sale of the content is the critical consideration, as the industry would not exist without reproduction and sale. In the twenty-first century, the concept of printing has broadened with the advent of digital delivery of content, but the point remains that providing multiple faithful reproductions is still crucial.
The comic book as a cultural artifact is certainly influenced by the three aspects Evanier (n.d.) described. Regarding editorial, the impact of this aspect on the production of culture is obvious, as this is where the content is created. The impact of finance is less obvious, but due to publishers and consumers’ willingness to pay for certain types of content (e.g. superheroes) as opposed to other types of content (e.g. romance), it influences what creators are willing to expend time and effort producing. Printing influences the final product by constraining what is physically possible. For example, computer technology has made a greater palette of colors available for more reliable and nuanced reproduction than was possible with four-color offset printing technology in the past. Newer technology has opened up formerly constrained possibilities, and artistic expression has evolved accordingly. Thus, in direct and indirect ways each of the aspects Evanier describes influences the production of culture represented by comic books.
The primary concern for most purchasers, whether readers and/or collectors, is having the comic book in their hands (or on their screens). Despite its crucial role in the commercial transaction, the actual mechanics and logistics of “how it got there,” which is the essence of distribution (and retail), is of less concern. Evanier (n.d.) did mention distribution as a fourth aspect of comic book publishing, but did not elaborate on it further. Although seemingly taken for granted, and despite its mundane and invisible aspect, distribution is critical to understanding what ultimately gets created, printed, sold, consumed and studied. Fundamentally, how, where and when something is made available for purchase influences who will purchase it. In turn, who could conceivably have the opportunity to purchase a product influences what will ultimately be produced and supplied to the retailers. For example, if, in some alternate universe, comic books were only offered for sale in beauty salons catering to women, then publishers would likely produce comic books of interest primarily to women and generally not of interest to men (who would rarely be exposed to them).
Additionally, when considering distribution, a “chicken and egg” dilemma arises: Which comes first, the product or the distribution channel? Will publishers (editorial/finance/printing) produce comic books without a way of distributing them to potential customers? On the other hand, would anyone spend the resources and take on the risks of creating a distribution network before there is ample product to move through it and, thus, generate the revenue necessary to pay the bills? Distribution and the opportunities it affords for purchase are major antecedents of editorial and financial (and, by extension, printing) decisions.
While mundane, distribution remains a critical aspect to consider in the production of comic books as culture. It is the process that links the creator of a cultural product to whoever ultimately consumes and experiences it, although producer and consumer may never physically encounter each other and personally interact. Without facilitating this transaction, commercial success would be impossible. Furthermore, without commercial success, the production of culture (in this case comic books) would be vastly different and possibly greatly diminished, and would be in danger of disappearing.