HEAT VISION

The History Behind DC's Comic Book Distribution Changes

The publisher is creating a new distribution network for print comic books.
Gary Frank/DC
The publisher is creating a new distribution network for print comic books.

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same — at least for the comic book speciality market. DC announced Friday that it will start using alternate distribution to get comics to stores by the end of April, ending an exclusive arrangement with Diamond Comic Distributors after more than two decades. The move offers a curious flashback to the origins of the so-called "direct market," which sees comics shipped to comic shops around the world. 

As part of its new distribution model, DC will be dealing with two distributors, Lunar Distribution and UCS Comic Distributors, each taking half of the U.S. and Canada. (Lunar will take the western half of North America, with UCS taking the eastern half, essentially.) Both newly created companies, Lunar and UCS are outgrowths of existing mail order retailers, respectively Discount Comic Book Service and Midtown Comics. (Midtown also handled DC's subscription orders for some time and currently handles Marvel's subscription service.)

The transition from retailer to distributor isn't anything new for the comic industry; in fact, it goes all the way back to the first specialty comics distributor. Sea Gate Distributors was created in 1972 by New York comics dealer and former teacher Phil Seuling, after he made deals with four publishers — DC, Marvel, Archie and Warren Publishing, the company behind Creepy and Vampirella — to bypass traditional newsstand and magazine distributors and instead ship directly to retailers from the printer.

On the face of it, this was a win-win for both retailers and publishers; the former would receive product on a more reliable and faster basis than previously, while the latter would have guaranteed sales, as shops had to pay for these comics up front and could not return them to publishers. 

 

No surprise, then, that the so-called "direct market" proved increasingly successful during the 1970s, especially as a hunger for genre entertainment grew, fed by movies like Star Wars and Superman the Movie and television shows like Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk and The Six Million Dollar Man.

Across the decade, the number of comic book and fantasy genre stores in the U.S. went from the low hundreds by rough estimate to around 1,500, each served by Seuling's Sea Gate, thanks to the deals he'd negotiated with the publishers. It couldn't last … and a lawsuit for anticompetitive practices, brought by competing distributor Irjax Enterprises against Sea Gate and the four publishers it dealt with, made sure that it didn't, opening up the market and allowing publishers to deal with other distributors — including ones like Bud Plant Inc., which also made the move from retailing to distribution.

In a case of supreme irony, Irjax Enterprises, the company that sued Sea Gate to break up a monopoly on comics distribution, would eventually become Diamond Comics Distributors, a company which had held a virtual monopoly on comics distribution until DC's announcement Friday. "The more things change," remember …?

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