In the late 70s and early 80s, there were two major comic book companies, Marvel and DC. There were others. Dell was still around but they were called Gold Key and their product was sub-standard, to put it mildly. Mainly reprints of junk. Their market was “stoned idiots” and “harried mothers who needed that brat to shut the hell up for five minutes”. Charlton was still going but just barely and they were fruitlessly chasing the same market segment as Gold Key. DC swallowed them up and that’s the reason for Watchmen. Harvey was putting out kid’s comics like Richie Rich, about an annoying boy billionaire and his wacky shenanigans and Sad Sack, about a useless recruit and his wacky shenanigans (All you Mad Men fans think “Scout’s Honor”, only not as clever) and Hot Stuff, about a demon who was best friends with Casper the Friendly Ghost, for some reason. And his wacky shenanigans. Archie enjoyed its hey-day in the 70s, pretty much locking up the girl comic book fan market. (Jughead had, like, three comics dedicated to his “adventures”, at one point. All he ever did was act like a glutton. And for the record? It’s Veronica, all the way. Betty Cooper is CRAZY, man. Veronica is just petulantly evil but Betty is INSANE. All good fan-boys know this.)
But in the late 70s and early 80s, the wind shifted. Maybe it was the aging of the audience – people were reading comic books well into their teens and even twenties and if you were lucky, you knew a couple of guys in their forties (they were pretty much always guys) who remembered early Marvel of even the EC Era of the 50s as if they were yesterday. This ‘new’ audience wanted stories that were NEW, that weren’t just recycled formula and bait-and-switch trickery. Maybe it was DC’s continual mis-steps and fuck-ups or Marvel’s disorganization and blatant pandering to fan-service and self-referential bullshit but a sense came that these twin monoliths could be challenged. These filthy four-colour pamphlets, hated by librarians and routinely destroyed* because it was “just a comic book” were becoming a viable business and a creative wonderland for the daring and the reckless. (*The reason Action Comics #1 is so valuable, more than a million dollars when last auctioned, is because it’s so RARE. Most of them went to paper drives during the war or right into the garbage right after they’d been read.)
Pacific Comics started with two brothers and a mail-order comic book shop in 1971. By 1981, they were publishing Captain Victory by Jack Kirby, Groo the Wanderer by Sergio Aragones and Starslayer by Mike Grell. (Dave Stevens also debuted the Rocketeer there. If you wonder why Betty Page is so popular (ESPECIALLY WITH ME), it’s because Dave Stevens had a crush on her (DON’T WE ALL) and made her into Cliff’s girlfriend, thus reviving her for a new generation. See? COMICS! THEY’RE GOOD FOR LEARNIN’!) Pacific Comics also redefined the rights of the creator (otherwise, they never would have gotten Kirby). The creator OWNED THE RIGHTS to his own creation. No more work-for-hire bullshit, no more “I sign over the rights to Superman for a hundred and thirty bucks and you do whatever you want with him”. That era was over. (Well, not really. But this was the first time any publisher bothered to try offer the rights to the creators.)
By 1984, Pacific was gone. They tried 3D comics, giving Ray Zone his first big gig. They lured the elusive and reclusive Steve Ditko onboard, they published early work by important artists like John Bolton and Art Adams but they sank. They couldn’t compete. Marvel and DC raided their catalogue and their creative staff (Marvel’s creator-owned line, Epic, published Groo. DC mostly got a bunch of new interns) and that was that for Pacific Comics.
First Comics had an audacious idea, to make comic books that adults would actually want to read. They prided themselves on being edgy but responsible, realizing that little kids could read (some) of their comics (preferably not American Flagg!). They published Nexus, Grimjack, Jon Sable, Freelance. They too, embraced the Pacific Comics model of creator-ownership and so Mike Grell (Sable), Tim Truman (Grimjack) and Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!) to this day own their characters. (I think. I’m not a lawyer. I know I’m not a lawyer and I know I don’t know copy-right law, especially American copy-right law. But I’m pretty sure.)
First was done by 91, which is when the whole comic book industry took a power-dive into the toilet like Ewan MacGregor in Trainspotting. Seriously, it was disgusting and a time best forgotten. *Ahem!*
Then there was Eclipse. Dean Mullaney and Cat Yronwode published the American edition of Alan Moore’s Miracleman (originally Marvelman, based on Captain Marvel, who was owned by DC, whose actual name was owned by Marvel. It’s a long, boring, confusing story. It was also Alan Moore’s introduction into the legal fuckery that goes on behind the scenes in publishing. Not his last taste of it, either.) They had Airboy, a public domain hero from the 40s that they updated and revamped for a modern audience. They published some important books, like Real War Stories (about American malfeasance in Latin America, which was happening concurrently) and Brought To Light, a rare, out-of-print Alan Moore Bill Sienkewiz collaboration about the history of the CIA, as told by a drunken American eagle Uncle Sam, swilling whiskey in a tropical bar somewhere. (Trust me. You’ll never happily step into a swimming pool ever again, knowing how many pints of human blood it would take to fill it up. And how very many “swimming pools” are on Uncle Sam’s butcher bill. Alan Moore knows the score. Master of the Metaphor.)
Eclipse suffered a flood in 1986 (how Biblically ironic) and lost a huge amount of artwork and capital. Dean and Cat got divorced (ditto) and by 1994, they were done. Todd MacFarlane bought what he could (and then fought over the rights to Miracleman with Neil Gaiman for 20 years, until – go figure- Marvel Comics picked up Miracleman, once they settled and the ink was dry. I told you it was a long, stupid, boring story.)
These were the first of many. These were the birth of the comic book store, where all they had was comic books – new ones, old ones, fancy ones on the walls. You couldn’t reliably buy Captain Victory or Jon Sable, Freelance at a news-stand or a smoke and gyp shop. (DC pretty much controlled magazine distribution with if not an iron grip, then the roughest velvet you ever felt.) If you wanted these comics (and others. And I’ll needlessly remind you that I wanted ALL THE COMICS), you had to go to a comic book store.
So, naturally, I did.
COMING SOON – COMIC BOOK SHOP ETTIQUETTE EXPLAINED