All In Black and White For A Dime
Bob Hughes 4/25/91
in Amazing Heroes #203
Perhaps more than any decade since, the Thirties were a
America needed heroes. The Great Depression put millions of Americans out of
work and seemed like it would never end. With no television, and even no
electricity in many parts of the country, America turned to reading for its
entertainment. Often the reading material of choice was a 9 1/2" by 7 1/2"
magazine, approximately 128 pages in length, and printed on the cheapest paper
then known to science. These were the "pulps" (as opposed to the "glossies"
Saturday Evening Post or Life). For one thin dime, the same price as a Saturday
matinee, you could get a week's reading pleasure, as well as several
until the cheap animal glue binding disintegrated and the book fell apart.
usually featured a mixture of long and short stories, usually composed on a
single theme, some featuring the same characters from issue to issue. In
new characters would re-enact the same old plots. By 1941, the price of these
periodicals had gone up to 20 cents. By 1950, they were up to a quarter. By
1960, they were gone. What happened? Where did the pulps go and what
lesson can comics fans learn from their demise?
According to Jim Steranko there may have been as many as
titles on sale at any one time. Something for every taste was available. Every
genre was covered, from Firefighters, to Speakeasy Stories, Twice-A-Month
Love Book, Black Book Detective, G-8 and his Battle Aces, Weird Tales,
Marvel Tales, Amazing Stories, The Shadow, and Doc Savage. The majority of
pulps were westerns, the direct descendants of Beadle's Dime Novels of the
1850's and 60's, and the earlier "penny dreadfuls" and "shilling shockers" of
In many ways, pulps fulfilled the same reader desires as
disposable action/adventure or melodrama with black and white
characterizations and easy, predictable resolutions. Some have said that comics
replaced the pulps, yet they coexisted for 20 years. I believe other economic
factors doomed the pulp magazines and that those same factors continue to
affect the future of comic books. These economic factors are what determine
what magazines are distributed, and how.
It can be argued that the fate of the pulps was decided
as long ago as
1939. It was then that Pocket Books released the first American paperback
reprint (Lost Horizons, in case you're interested). Published by Robert de
and half - owned by the prestigious Simon and Shuster publishing house, Pocket
Books offered a wide variety of reprints of hard covered books, at a super low
25 cent cover price. Originally de Graff tried to sell these inexpensive
substitutes for "real" books through book stores and through the Sears and
Roebuck catalogue company. However, it was not until 1941, when he signed
contracts with the magazine wholesalers to distribute his paperbacks to
newsstands across America, that they caught on.
Prior to this point, writers had two possible outlets for
magazines and expensive hardcovers. Hardcover sales were reserved for
"serious" books. "Popular" fiction died a month or so after publication, when
the newsstands returned all unsold magazines to the publishers, or more likely,
ripped off the covers, returned those, and threw the magazines away.
Paperbacks provided a new outlet, not only for the
writers, but the
readers - complete (not serialized) works at magazine prices. They also had
permanence. Since paperbacks weren't dated, even those that newsstands did
return could be shipped elsewhere. A returned magazine was scrap paper.
Paperbacks stayed on the racks for months, until they sold out or fell apart,
were often reprinted. Publishers were able to develop a backlist of proven
sellers. Reprintings of these titles were guaranteed 100% sell-through, and
provided the profit cushion the publishers needed to take a chance on new
By 1950, paperback houses began competing with the
companies for established authors, offering bigger advances and substantial
royalties. Many famous writers left the "prestige" publishing houses because
higher paperback income allowed them to finally quit their day jobs.
However, most of the new paperback writers formerly
worked for the
pulps. Writers who had never done anything but short stories were now called
upon to produce novels. So many SF writers mined their pulp files for
recyclable material that a special name ("the fix up") was created for novels
were in reality groups of short stories strung together with bailing wire.
Asimov's classic Foundation Trilogy is actually nine disparate short stories.
Robert Heinlein spent a good part of the fifties adding a few thousand words to
old short stories and repackaging them as novels. Virtually everything of any
value that had been printed in the pulps was now re-issued to feed the voracious
demand of the new paperback market.
Fittingly, most of the new paperback publishers were also
the pulp wars. Magazine publishers and distributors, looking for a solution to
the magazine return problem, flocked to the new format. Curtiss Magazines,
publishers of the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal, formed
Bantam Books in 1945. At the same time that he was proclaiming that "Dell
Comics are Good Comics", George Delacorte was making millions off of Grace
Metalious' steamy Peyton Place. Dell would drop out of comics entirely by the
mid 1960's, devoting all its energies to the lucrative paperback business.
Fawcett Publications, which in addition to its comic book
line fronted by
Captain Marvel and his relatives, also published True Confessions and
Mechanics Illustrated, became the first paperback publisher to concentrate on
original works rather than reprints from hardcovers. By 1952,
making so much money from Gold Medal paperbacks that their comic book
business began to seem a petty annoyance. Captain Marvel had made millions
for them in the forties, but they'd had to fight continual legal battles with
National Comics over alleged copyright infringement. Fawcett settled out of
court and dropped not only the Captain, but their entire comic line of western
and TV - related properties. They saw their future in other markets.
Other magazine publishers hoped to join the trend.
publisher of Eye, Swank,
and hordes of crossword puzzle books, as well as sixty
to eighty comic books a month, began Lion books in the mid-fifties and cranked
out 300 - 400 paperbacks without notable success. When the Lion Books
imprint folded in 1959, he turned back to his comics and began working on a
clone of one of his biggest competitor's hottest new series. If Goodman had had
better luck in the book business, there might never have been a Fantastic Four,
or any other Marvel Comics.
By switching to this new format, the former pulp writers
publishers were able to sidestep
the impending magazine massacre. The Fifties
were a major disaster for magazines in America; not only pulps and comics, but
nationally prestigious weeklies like Colliers and many others folded. One of
causes for this was the new influx of paperback books. These paperbacks went
into the same space on the newsstands that magazines used to: more paperbacks,
fewer magazines. On top of that, Americans were moving to the suburbs in
record numbers and switching their retail shopping habits. The corner
newsstand and neighborhood store began to fade out of existence in favor of the
The disappearance of the newsstands disrupted the
distribution chain and
one by one magazine distributors began to fold, dragging down publishers by
not paying their bills. Atlas, Leader, and American News all went under.
American had distributed almost 50% of the magazines in the country. Their
collapse in 1957 was the death blow to the pulps, and almost killed the comic
book industry also.
The paperbacks escaped this fate by finding a new mode of
the bookstore. Between 1960 and 1980, the number of bookstores in America
increased from 1400 to 14,000. Despite television, reading seemed to be more
popular than ever.
Although the pulp writers and publishers were able to
adjust to the new
market by repackaging their wares, the comic publishers were less successful.
The new book stores were not interested in the hassle of handling magazines,
particularly such low profit ones as comics. Unable to break into the new
bookstores, comics had to resort to other techniques to survive. The baby
boom and the Batman TV show provided a major boost in reader interest during
the Sixties, but that interest had to contend with dwindling retail outlets.
when Batman was selling close to a million copies a month, DC still had to print
twice that many to take into account those copies that were thrown away at the
end of the month to make room for the next issue. Smaller publishers couldn't
get distributors to even display their titles and so didn't survive. All
Sixties and Seventies publishers searched for a way to either: 1) stop seventy
percent of their comics from being returned after one month, or 2) print them so
cheaply they could afford to throw away two for every one sold. They tried
different sizes and different page counts in order to get more newsstand
exposure. They pushed subscriptions in order to bypass newsstands altogether.
They also tried to find new sales outlets, often bagging two or three comics
together and selling them in toy stores. They pioneered new cheaper (and
worse) printing techniques and introduced poorer and poorer grades of paper.
Finally, a unique solution was offered from outside the
industry. Phil Seuling, a comic book dealer from New York, made his living
selling the very out-of-date comics every one else was throwing away. He went
to DC and said "You sell me your books for 10% less than everyone else and I
won't send any back to you, ever." From this deal blossomed the entire direct
sales industry. Comic books were now sold in specialty shops all across the
country, many located in those very shopping malls that had destroyed the
newsstands. Dealers bought their comics outright from the publisher. The
publisher knew exactly how many he was going to sell before he printed them,
and the dealer knew he would eventually sell every copy he bought, with a
markup for his trouble on the ones he kept the longest.
It looked like a good plan but, like any pyramid
business, it eventually
collapsed on itself. The unsold comics the publishers couldn't get rid of were
still there, only now the retailer was stuck with them. The theory had been
the dealer would know what his customers wanted and order accordingly.
There would generally be just enough supply to meet demand. But soon the
dealers found themselves buried in unsalable-at-any-price comics , caused by an
incredible influx of new publishers jumping on the bandwagon of guaranteed
sales. Unable to meet the COD on new shipments, dealers drove publishers into
bankruptcy, as the nightmare of the Fifties returned.
The publishers dream of guaranteed sales vanished as
dealers cut back
sharply on orders. Many only ordered as many copies of a title as they could
pre-sell to steady customers. Since dealers could no longer risk stocking
depth, those titles that rose in popularity soon were commanding back issue
prices 10-50 times higher than cover. The newly volatile market attracted
speculators whose only interest in comics was cornering the market on some
item they imagined to be scarce. Phil Seuling's solution to the distribution
problem had turned into a nightmare for publishers, dealers, and readers, all of
whom found themselves in danger of being priced out of the market.
The problem, as always, was an inability to adjust supply
demand. Either there was too much supply, in which case publishers prospered
while stores drowned in unsold merchandise, or there was too little supply, in
which case retailers made a fortune on back issue speculators, and publishers
went out of business due to low initial sales.
Creators weren't happy either. The direct market had
tremendous changes to the comic business. No longer just work-for-hire
stooges, creators were now paid royalties. Unfortunately, declining sales made
those royalty agreements worthless.
Now, if you had created the Amazing Gxmppgh!, it might be
satisfying to you to know that Gxmppgh! #1 was making a 1000% profit for
speculators all across the country. But you wouldn't be getting any of that
money since the publisher had only been able to pre-sell (and therefore print) a
minimum number of copies. Furthermore, sales on later issues would not
necessarily increase because potential new readers wouldn't want to start a
in the middle when they knew they couldn't afford the beginning. This
lack of backstock would be doubly frustrating because the outrageous prices
being charged for the book would attract media attention, bringing non-fans into
comic shops looking for your title and not finding it.
The media attention lavished on projects like Dark Knight; the new Robin,
Superman and the Ninja Turtles created new interest on the part of the general
reading public. Unfortunately, those people only discovered these projects
they were sold out. The general audience that the industry had to leave behind
in order to survive was now looking for its product, only the product was gone.
The obvious solution to this problem is the same one the
publishers hit on in the Fifties. Paperback reprints. Publishers have recently
figured out that this is an even better deal than direct sales comics. You can
start off with a small print run so you don't lose your shirt choking on
find something that sells and then reprint it over and over and over again.
of all, because they look like books (and carry the same retail profit that
do) you can finally break into the book market. Already there are an
uncountable number of such reprint collections available from all major (and
some minor) comic publishers. They range from 48 page graphic "novels" to
books which run several hundred pages in length. They are kept continually in
print, allowing publishers to continue to satisfy demand and allowing the
rewards for continued popularity to go to the creators through royalties, rather
than speculators through outrageous back issue prices.
Fannish acceptance of such reprints has so far been
because the collector's mentality developed by years of functioning in a
magazine environment makes them think they have to buy one copy of each new
version of the same product. Once they get out from under this shibboleth,
however, they will realize the tremendous economic advantage they gain by
moving into the paperback market. No longer will they be required to buy
everything that comes out on the day of release, or risk paying speculators
prices. They can behave like the fans of "real" books, and wait for the
budget their purchases, and buy only what they can read. They would be
content to know that the other items would still be there, at cover price, when
they got around to them.
The number of pulp magazines still published today can be
counted on the
fingers of two hands. The number of paperbacks is beyond comprehension.
this transformation took almost thirty years, it may mean that the handwriting
is on the wall for those 32 page newsprint pamphlets we've come to know as
comics. I won't miss them. Will you?