The Direct Market
By the 1970s and 1980s, the traditional publishers of Code-approved comic books reached a crisis point (Dallas 2013; Gabilliet 2010; Palmer 2010; Sacks and Dallas 2014). Sales had been dropping for decades. One of the key contributing factors was the loss of traditional outlets (e.g. newsstands, “mom and pop” corner stores, cigar stores) as they closed and were replaced with larger shopping centers and supermarkets, which had followed families (and, importantly, children) to the suburbs from urban centers. Of the remaining outlets, many stopped carrying comic books because there was no longer any profit in selling them at their established low prices. Arguably, it cost more to put them out on display than they generated in revenue. Valuable shelf space was devoted to products with better margins (Palmer 2010). Another factor, reflecting Porter’s (1979, 1980) notion of substitutes, was the abandonment of comic books by many children for television (Dallas 2013; Gabilliet 2010; Palmer 2010; Sacks and Dallas 2014). However, at this stage of the industry, barriers to entry for new competitors remained relatively high in that distribution through the traditional newsstand channel required large print runs (and costs), usually on the order of hundreds of thousands of copies of a single title.
Another important development in the 1960s was the emergence of a thriving “fandom” which organized conventions and forged links with industry professionals, sold back issues and used comic books to each other, published newsletters, and engaged in early comics scholarship (Schelly 1999). By the 1970s, this group had grown to the point where it had an impact on the industry in the form of an influential “buyer.” This group was overwhelmingly male and particularly interested in superheroes, fantasy, and science fiction. It was also older, for example, older teens and young men—older relative to the presumed audience of children. Its influence was magnified by the relative decline of other audiences (e.g. young children, women). This group did not view comic books as disposable but instead as desirable and sometimes expensive collectibles. Publishers began to target material at this audience (Dallas 2013; Gabilliet 2010; Palmer 2010; Sacks and Dallas 2014). Additionally, many of the creators (e.g. writers, artists, editors) then entering the industry came from the ranks of fandom. As older creators retired, their replacements reflected the interests of fandom and a corresponding narrowing of content and genres (Gabilliet 2010). As per Porter’s (1980) Five Factors, it can be seen that for the first time in the history of the industry a segment of the buying public had “organized” and was exerting increased influence on what was produced.
To serve the growing market of dedicated fans, stores appeared which catered to this market by selling both new comic books and back issues in support of a thriving collectibles market. At first, these stores were in large urban centers, but eventually they expanded to smaller communities. Typically, they were stand-alone stores, independent of larger retail chains, and were often founded and staffed by knowledgeable fans. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, this “direct” distribution channel, which was independent of traditional newsstand distribution, ultimately came to be the dominant model for the industry. One consequence of focusing on this narrow segment of a once diverse market was that comic book shops generally carried a limited range of genres, which, in turn, did make good strategic sense given the tastes of the niche audience of buyers (Dallas 2013; Gabilliet 2010; Palmer 2010; Sacks and Dallas 2014).
As the direct market changed the economics of the industry, it became possible for publishers to prosper with much lower print runs. Titles with sales in the tens of thousands became profitable, where in the past, under the old distribution system, sales in the hundreds of thousands had been necessary. With one of the major barriers to entry (i.e. high entry costs for large print runs) removed, industry structure (Peterson 1982) underwent a major transformation as many new publishers and creators flooded into the market. No longer beholden to traditional newsstand distributors with their fears of possible government intervention and public protest, comic book publishers could again experiment with content while ignoring the restrictions of the Comic Code. In pursuit of sustainable niches, there was an explosion of experimentation, and a greater diversity was evident in the comic books (e.g. Cerebus the Aardvark, Elfquest, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), although it should be noted that those diverse offerings still converged on the constrained demographics of the traditional clientele of comic book stores: male, late teens and older (Dallas 2013; Gabilliet 2010; Palmer 2010; Sacks and Dallas 2014). Again, the opportunities afforded by a change in distribution were amply reflected in the culture produced.
Essentially, in the course of a decade or so, the industry shifted from having a mass market focus to having a niche focus. By the 1980s, the majority of comic books were sold through the direct market (Dallas 2013; Gabilliet 2010; Palmer 2010). In many ways the aspects of the industry represented by finance, editorial, and printing (Evanier’s tripartite description of the “core” industry) had remained basically unchanged, but distribution and retailing had undergone a radical transformation, one which had a profound impact on the content of comic books. Arguably, the innovation that was the creation of the “direct market” saved the industry, but at the cost of abandoning large swaths of the potential audience (e.g. young children, women). Without clearly understanding the factors articulated by Porter (1980), such as the influence of buyers and new entrants, as well as suppliers (e.g. popular creators with increasingly loyal followings) and increased industry rivalry within the only niche now available, an understanding of the transformation of content through the 1980s and into the 1990s is incomplete.