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The Lost Year: Exclusivity War months from 1995-1996 now online

Saturday, November 27, 2010

by John Jackson Miller
In place of this week's Flashback Friday, a much more expansive look back on the past. With the help of T.M. Haley, I'm pleased to announce the expansion of monthly sales rankings into a tumultuous stretch of history: 1995 and 1996, the period of the Exclusivity Wars in the comic-book Direct Market.

I've written in more detail about the period before. When Marvel took its direct market comics distribution to its own distributor, Heroes World, in July 1995, it was no longer possible to look at a single distributor's rankings to see a real top-seller list. This posed a problem for anyone tracking on the outside, because Heroes World did not publish unit sales charts the way that Diamond Comic Distributors and its top competitor, Capital City Distribution did. This remains a problem — while I have nearly enough data to create unified charts, I feel it's important to get some of the materials I do have online now.

So what we have now is a bifurcated track for individual months: pages before September 1996 come in two flavors, Diamond and Capital. All rankings for Diamond have been added back to January 1995, so we now have complete coverage of the period when retailers had to have both a Diamond and a Heroes World account to carry Marvel and DC. I also have online the Capital City rankings for January 1995, so you can see the difference. For Capital, I have the actual number of copies that Capital sold, from files rescued from the distributor after it ceased operations; for Diamond, I just have an estimate of what the order index number may amount to. I expect to refine those estimates and unify the charts at a later date.

As you can see, the Capital list is much longer than the Diamond list; Capital published close to a Top 600 list at the time. For that reason — and also because its market share was smaller — I expect that the other nine Capital monthly tables from 1995 will take longer to get online, whereas I expect to have February through August 1995 online for Diamond relatively soon. There are no Capital unit sales records from after October 1995; thereafter, it only reported dollar sales for the few publishers it could still carry.

On that score, it is worthwhile to note that, because of the fact that not everything was available from all publishers, you shouldn't judge much from the individual distributors' lists. The Diamond lists have no Marvel books at all, obviously — but they also over- and under-represent at times the performances of some publishers. Diamond captured all the sales of DC, for example, in months where a retailer could still order its competitors' titles from other distributors. A quick thumbnail sketch of what was available from whom in what ship months:

July 1995
• Marvel only available from Heroes World, beginning this month.
• DC only available from Diamond and Capital City, beginning this month.

September 1995
DC only available from Diamond, beginning this month.

November 1995
Dark Horse only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
Broadway only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
Coppervale only available from Capital, beginning this month.

December 1995
Image only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
Acclaim only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
Gemstone only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
Wizard only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
Kitchen Sink only available from Capital, beginning this month.

January 1996
Crusade only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
London Night only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
Viz only available from Capital, beginning this month.

March 1996
Sirius only available from Diamond, beginning this month.
Chaos only available from Diamond, beginning this month.

May 1996
Viz backlist returns to Diamond.

June 1996
Archie only available from Diamond, beginning this month.

July 26, 1996
• Diamond buys Capital. Viz and other publishers return to Diamond.

April 1997
Marvel returns to Diamond. Heroes World folds.

That's all the major moves that I can find records for, but there were almost certainly more; the announcements came like drumbeats. I recall joking at my San Diego panel in 1996 that "I hadn't seen so many college kids signing contracts since the NBA draft." Perhaps an inadvisable comment, given the publisher and distributor speakers present — but it certainly was a frenzy, and as you can see, the tempo of events quickly went against Capital, following the San Diego 1995 announcements that Image, Dark Horse, and Acclaim were going exclusive with Diamond.

Capital wrapped up Kitchen Sink, Viz, and James Owen's Coppervale, but there weren't many players left; Fantagraphics, much courted, held out. Other publishers simply signed agreements saying they'd continue selling to a particular distributor; Diamond touted a few of those "supply agreements" in its magazine. (Capital also got a comics-market exclusive with TSR, the game company, but that firm was having troubles of its own; Wizards of the Coast bought it on April 10, 1997.) I'd actually forgotten Archie picked a side, but it was all but over by then.

As to the performance of the comics industry in the period, there is not much good to say. Diamond owner Steve Geppi said in the summer of 1995 he believed there were 6,400 comics shops; that was down from 11,000 at the beginning of 1994, and it would drop closer to 4,500 by the end of 1996. Credit, easy to get in the boom days of multiple distributors, tightened considerably, as both Diamond and Capital spent 1995 shrinking their extensive warehouse and trucking networks. (Heroes World, meanwhile, was fighting to get up to speed as a national distributor for Marvel — which it never really succeeded at, hence the return to Diamond.)


On the product side, the audience for super-hero comics continued to shrink as 1995 went on — with bright spots in the dead quarters of 1995 and 1996 coming from two then-novel events: "Age of Apocalypse" in early 1995 and "DC Versus Marvel/Marvel Versus DC" and Amalgam in the winter of 1995-96. But the latter suggests just how complicated keeping track of sales in this era is: retailers could only order DC Versus Marvel #1 and #4 and half the Amalgam books from Diamond. The other half required a Heroes World account. And because DC solicited the Amalgam week separately in order to preserve the surprise, its sales from the last week of February 1996 are counted with March. Whew!

So, again — it's a complicated time to write about, and there's more work to be done to get a complete picture. Don't assume because the 1996 grid shows a bunch of Spawn issues at #1 that it was the top-seller for the year; I suspect Uncanny X-Men still outsold it. But this is a big step forward in developing the archives, bringing it to a full 15 years of monthly reports. And more to come...

UPDATE: The remaining Diamond months from 1995 have been added, so the entire year is now online here.

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