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John Jackson Miller and other pop culture archaeologists interested in comics history.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

End of an era: Comics Buyer’s Guide, 1971-2013

by John Jackson Miller

The last issue, #1699.
Today, F+W Media announced the closure of Comics Buyer’s Guide after the publication of its 1,699th issue (March 2013). The magazine, which began life in the basement of a comics fan in 1971 was for many years the largest marketplace for comics sales by mail — as well as being the leading news source for many fans during the weekly portion of its run.

Quite a lot about the history of comics, both as a hobby and as an entertainment medium, can be seen in the pages from its 42-year history. It was a history that was filled with highs and lows and quite a few changes. Some changes were caused from external events; others, from moves by its owners.

It isn’t my intent to tell those stories now — there are a number of posts that could be written telling some of those stories, and I expect to at some point down the road. But now, just at the announcement of its cancellation, I hope to provide some broad perspective on the magazine.

"Daring! Original! Inevitable!" #1, 1971
It certainly played a major role in my life, both as a collector and as a publishing professional. A regular reader of the publication since 1984, I went to work for CBG’s spinoff retail publication Comics Retailer (later Comics & Games Retailer) as editor in late 1993. I would be involved at one level or another with Comics Buyer's Guide ever after, as a contributing editor, as a managing editor, as editorial director for the division and later the company — and, finally, after I left in 2007 to write full time, as an outside columnist. The magazine has been there in one way or another in my life for nearly 30 years. But it existed long before that.

The Alan Light years (1971-1983). As noted, Comics Buyer’s Guide began life when Alan Light, then 17, launched his own trade newspaper, The Buyer’s Guide for Comic Fandom, in February 1971. Fandom was in full swing, then, with Robert Overstreet’s first Comic Book Price Guide just published. Fanzines were providing most of the mail order connections for comics collectors, and Light’s addition was crafted as an ad-zine, charging $30 for its full-page ads. The circulation for the broadsheet newspaper was 3,600 copies, and subscriptions were available for free to requesting readers. (Ads in that first issue included two different copies of Amazing Spider-Man #1 — for $11 and $4 respectively!)

The Buyer's Guide #100
The “TBG” — as people referred to it, despite the article already being in the acronym — shifted from bimonthly to monthly with its second issue. Editorial content was scarce in the early issues (although later regular Mark Evanier did have a column in the fourth issue). With artists including Klaus Janson and P. Craig Russell providing some of the earliest covers, circulation topped 4,000 in early 1972. With issue #18 (Aug. 1, 1972) it went biweekly. That issue included the publication’s first convention photo feature, on the 1972 New York ComiConvention. (I indexed the first hundred or so issues years ago for the CBG website; while it lasts, you can find it here. Russ Maheras, artist on many of the early covers, provided all the scans and cover index.)

As TBG became a bigger and bigger production, Murray Bishoff joined Light as an assistant — and the magazine brought in the couple who would become synonymous with it in later years: Don and Maggie Thompson. Sometimes (and in my view, rightly) regarded as the “George and Martha Washington of comics fandom,” Don and Maggie had produced one of the first comics fanzines in 1961 and had continued in their own publication Newfangles (seen here). The Thompsons had first appeared in TBG #14 to continue the fan awards they’d started in Newfangles — and Light brought them in as columnists in #19 (Aug. 15, 1972). Their “Beautiful Balloons” column would run in alternating issues for years after that.

There’s a reason why alternating issues were usually often the only place you could find editorial content in the early TBGs. It was only there at all because with the Dec. 1, 1972 issue (#26) TBG stopped being free and became a paid subscription publication — $2 for 23 issues. By changing from a requestor publication to a paid one, the Postal Service required that advertising could fill no more than 75% of the magazine’s pages. Since the auditing period back then was two issues, Light chose to run all ads in one issue, and with the next being half editorial. So #26 included regular news sections, including “Now What,” by Bishoff.

And there was a lot of content. Golden Age creators like Bill Everett were eulogized. Marvel’s expansion in the early 1970s was covered. Articles on attempts to censor comics appeared as early as 1973, with a piece on Direct Market pioneer Phil Seuling’s arrest for selling undergrounds. Coverage expanded when the publication went weekly with #87 (July 18, 1975), adding media topics. A movie called The Star Wars (sic) was announced as a Christmas 1976 release in TBG #97 (Sept. 26, 1975). San Diego Comic-Con cofounder Shel Dorf would later provide one of the only fandom interviews with Harrison Ford for TBG.

An original Frank Thorne cover, TBG #106.
Big news stories appeared throughout the 1970s. Superman creator Jerry Siegel spoke out in fandom for the first time in a piece that ran in TBG #105 (Nov. 21, 1975), “The Victimization of Superman’s Creators.” (The issue, seen above left, had an original Jack Kirby cover.) The magazine aggressively covered the drive to get pensions for him and Joe Shuster, and was able to announce their settlement in #113, two months later.

The advertising base continued to grow — now including Steve Geppi, today of Diamond Comic Distributors, whose testimonial ad for TBG ran in #71 (Mar. 1, 1975). As a result, the newspaper continued to expand — some issues had as many as four folded over sections — with the Thompsons’ column expanding to take up nine full pages of the newspaper by 1976. (The largest issue of TBG was #190, the July 8, 1977 issue, which ran 148 pages, including a 52-page catalog from Mile High Comics.) And pure entertainment features were added, with Fred Hembeck launching his Dateline cartoon.

Walter Koenig, featured on #201.
The industry was changing quickly, with editorial upheaval at Marvel, runaway cover price inflation, and troubles in the newsstand market filling many columns. News of layoffs at Charlton reached readers in 1976. TBG #257 (Oct. 20, 1978) reported the publication of Cancelled Comics Cavalcade, a consequence of the DC Implosion. But with its circulation topping 10,000 copies in 1977, TBG was also reporting on the nascent comics shop market, its ads connecting start-up distributors to start-up retailers. Seuling’s first ad introducing Sea Gate Distributors appeared on the back of TBG #207, the Nov. 4, 1977 issue.

And the newspaper had long provided a venue for smaller publishers to reach readers. Underground publishers Rip Off Press and Last Gasp began advertising in 1973, and many more alternative publishers followed. Jack Katz’s First Kingdom was featured in 1977, one of many indie spotlights to follow. (People advertised to sell and find all sorts of things — including subscriber Walter Koenig of Star Trek, who was looking to expand his button collection.)

TBG #237, 1978, on the Spidey TV show
The 1970s TBG also covered collectors’ issues, including the price spikes on early “hot comics” like Conan #1, Howard the Duck #1, and Red Sonja #1. It also warned of the publication of the first counterfeit comic book, a version of Eerie #1, in 1976. (CBG would also later warn of the Cerebus #1 counterfeit among many others.)

As the 1980s began, TBG had really grown into its role as more than an ad sheet. Cat Yronwode had taken over Bishoff’s news column with TBG #329 (March 7, 1980), renaming it “Fit to Print,” and a lot of players in what would be the modern Direct Market were in place. But after publishing 481 issues comprising 33,000 pages, Alan Light, then just 29, decided he’d had enough. He sold the publication to Krause Publications of Iola, Wis. 

The Don and Maggie years (1983-1994). Krause was owned by Chester “Chet” Krause, who, like Light, had started his own magazine from his kitchen table — Numismatic News for coin collectors — in 1952. The company had acquired or started several publications in other collectibles fields, and determined to follow that model in comics. That meant turning TBG into Comics Buyer’s Guide — putting the comics word up front — and it meant hiring Don and Maggie Thompson as its coeditors.

#483, the second Krause ish. "Comics" was added to the logo
The first Krause issue, #482 (Feb. 11, 1983) was a shock for some. The folded-over newsprint publication had much higher production values — and as with all Krause publications, handwritten ads were typeset by the production staff. (This earned the derision of one reader, who said he could no longer tell which sellers were idiots by the quality of their ads.) The every-other-week editorial thing went away, with each issue now 25% editorial. A paid classified ad section was added, often running many pages. Yronwode, Hembeck, and other features were brought into the new CBG. The word "comics" was added very gradually to the logo, growing in weight and size every week.

#547, from the second Krause year, 1984
Included in that first issue was a new feature: “Comics in Your Future,” a highly detailed week-by-week listing of what was shipping. It would run for more than 20 years, before switching to the magazine’s website.

The Thompsons added “Oh, So?” a letters-column feature that was populated by fans and creators alike. Erik Larsen was one of the writers in that first column; and over the course of the next decade-plus, John Byrne sent dozens of letters that were published. Don also began the "Comics Guide" review column, continuing the review work he'd done in "Beautiful Balloons" in TBG.
The ballot, as it appeared in comics.
The Thompsons also immediately revived their fan awards, which had started back in Newfangles. The first CBG Fan Awards issue ran in CBG #500, the Jun. 17, 1983 issue. (Frank Miller was the big winner.) Fan Awards ballots would appear in comics from Marvel and many other publishers, with award ceremonies at Chicago Comicon for many years. The program — which, yeah, was also a way of getting prospective subscribers’ addresses — was getting something like 5,000 votes mailed in at its 1990s peak.

CBG was, in fact, part of a two-pronged entry into the comics field for Krause in 1983. Alex G. Malloy, Neil A. Hansen, and Richard Maurizio packaged a first issue of a newsstand magazine, Comics Collector, for Krause. Krause gave the title to the Thompsons to edit thereafter, and while the magazine only lasted 10 issues, the price guide included in it would later form the basis for Comics Buyer’s Guide Price Guide magazine in the 1990s, the CBG Checklist and Price Guide book series, and the Standard Catalog of Comic Books series. 

#575, one of the theme issues
CBG, meanwhile, prospered thanks to subscription efforts and direct market distribution, with circulation topping 20,000 copies by the late 1980s. With the Thompsons at the helm, CBG continued to report on industry news. Expansion in the Direct Market brought more rounds of speculation, such as the run on 1984’s Amazing Spider-Man #252 (with the black costume) and 1986’s Dark Knight Returns #1. The many failed attempts at Spider-Man, Batman, and Watchmen films provided lettercol fodder. Censorship remained a major topic, following the Friendly Frank’s case and creators’ attempt to stave off a ratings system. The debate over Marvel and Jack Kirby’s artwork filled many pages. And the top-selling issue of the 1980s was 1987’s issue reporting Jim Shooter’s departure from Marvel.

CBG #866, 1990
The ease with which the Direct Market made self-publishing possible made the publication an important vehicle for a plethora of new publishers. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 was first advertised by its publishers in CBG #542 (Apr. 6, 1984) for $2 postpaid, and CBG followed with reports throughout the black-and-white comics glut that followed in the mid-1980s. The Thompsons promoted many up-and-coming creators, with Don later evangelizing for Jeff Smith’s creation Bone in the early 1990s.

Theme issues for international, Golden Age, and media-related comics appeared in the first Krause decade, as did many new columnists. Tony Isabella, who had written for the original TBG, started a regular presence in the 1980s, as did Heidi MacDonald, now of Bob Ingersoll wrote a legal column. And Peter David, who first appeared as a Marvel representative in CBG’s pages, started his “But I Digress” column in CBG #871 (July 27, 1990); he would serve as the inside-back-page columnist ever after.

The new tabloid size in 1992
By the early 1990s, the comics industry was amid the biggest boom of its history, driven by speculation and the availability of easy credit from comics distributors. CBG reported that annual sales in 1991 were $475 million — including the newsstand; that figure would reach $850 million in 1993. (By contrast, the Direct Market alone in 2012 had sales of $475 million, with the wider marketplace bringing it north of $700 million — in today’s dollars, that is.) CBG reported on one boomlet after another, from the bagged Spider-Man #1 and 1992’s “Death of Superman.” The magazine switched to a tabloid in 1992 for easier shipping, which opened up the cover again for art. And after reporting on distributors and their conferences for many years, CBG spun off all business material into Comics Retailer in 1991.

As the comics glut reached epic proportions with more than 500 comics coming out a month, the Thompsons famously editorialized for restraint. CBG issues ran over 120 pages many weeks — still running at a 75/25 ad-to-edit ratio — stuffed with ads from comics dealers. With Wizard starting to attract readers, Krause tried to improve the salability of the magazine by publishing the issue as an upright single-section tabloid, with a color cover. But many comics shops refused to carry CBG because of the perceived competition from its ads — a problem that would harm it greatly later on.

Wisconsinite Brent Frankenhoff joined the staff as Don’s associate editor in September 1992, and publisher Greg Loescher hired me to take over Comics Retailer in November 1993. (On Don’s behalf, Brent had previously mailed the rejection letter for my sole previous submission to CBG, a comic strip; I would rib him over that fact for many years. They were right to reject it, of course — no cartoonist I!) But by the end of 1993, the comics industry was on the brink of a historic collapse.

#1077, from 1994
And sadly, Don’s health was failing, too. He continued to write his review column from a hospital bed in late 1993, and kept up a busy schedule into 1994. Very busy. I have to say I have never seen anyone work as hard as Don Thompson did. He was in the office at all hours, working on those gargantuan papers. He died in May 1994 at 58, having reviewed more than 10,000 comics in his career; his and Maggie’s work together had appeared in 739 issues of the combined magazines.

CBG #1074 (June 17, 1994) was hours from going to press when Don died; somehow, Maggie managed to get an obituary and remembrance note in that issue. The first condolence note across the fax machine came from Neil Gaiman. There were many, many more.

The Maggie years (1994-present). Maggie soldiered on, dealing with what had become by that point an enormous weekly newspaper. The editorial computer system was an unholy disaster of a thing — an ancillary product of, no joke, a chemical firm — and the copy was still, in those days, being pasted physically on layout boards. Brent and I resolved to help, and we did — as did Michael Dean, who was brought on later that year. Mark Evanier signed on as a columnist, helping to fill some of the pages.

#1257, cover by Jim Steranko and J. David Spurlock
The problem, of course, was the same one everyone in comics faced. The business model for CBG used page and advertising budgets based on past performance. After the fall of 1993, the comics industry was on a downward trajectory that was not going to improve until after 2000. In the meantime, retail accounts vanished, taking a chunk out of the newspaper’s ad and single-copy sales. Since ad pages determined the number of edit pages in those days, subscribers saw less of CBG in their mailboxes.

With the Feb. 23, 1996 issue (#1162), CBG reduced its trim size to a smaller tabloid; becoming less newspaper, and more magazine. I worked on that redesign (and another one in 2001, each coping with the changing availability of pages). The Internet began chipping away the direct-mail market for collectible comics, and that, too, cost editorial pages. Finally, at some point, the 75/25 rule was dropped, with a 60-page minimum page count instituted.

#1277: One of the best articles, and covers
That meant a change in the size of the newshole — an increase, the first in a long time. It also meant that much more of the value of the magazine would be in its editorial content. This was a challenge for the publication, as its editorial budget had always been paltry: many contributors in previous years simply wrote for free, whereas the existence of new competitors like Wizard had raised the price of content. The internal staff — which later on at different times included Joyce Greenholdt, Nathan Melby, James Mishler, Jason Winter, and Ray Sidman — began generating a lot more original content. CBG included much coverage of the gyrations of the distribution market in the 1990s, and Marvel’s bankruptcy; censorship made its reappearance with the Planet Comics case. Later, a news-capsule deal was struck with Newsarama, whose Matt Brady had gotten his start writing for Comics Retailer. Michael Doran and Matt contributed many pieces over the years.

The 1990s and early 2000s thus saw a lot of experimentation — some of it, admittedly, chasing whatever genre the ad staff saw potential promise in. While there was always a separation between advertising and editorial, there were fishing expeditions into manga, games, and toys. (The only artifact of the game foray is that 1995’s CBG #1116 became the highest-selling issue of the magazine ever, including in its polybag an exclusive card for then-white-hot Magic: The Gathering.)

CBG passed Dell Four Color's issue count in 1999.
More luck was had following something closer to the core mission: CGC, and the rise of auction houses in the early 2000s. It became apparent, however, that nostalgia was the major unifying factor in CBG’s readership — as typified by popular columnist additions Craig “Mr. Silver Age” Shutt and Andrew “Captain Comics” Smith.  The magazine also continued to cover the comics resale market, adding Mile High's Chuck Rozanski as a columnist.

The missing piece, however, was the Internet. CBG had weathered the ups and downs of the hobby by being one of a stable of collector’s magazines at Krause. Unfortunately, this safety in numbers tended to make it tougher for a single magazine — one serving early-adopters — to offer a service that the other magazines did not have. Opportunities to acquire or host major comics sites operating today had to be passed on, because of a lack of infrastructure or resources.

#1499, an example of the return to news covers
And the competition that proved most damaging to the magazine came not from Internet news sites or other magazines — but rather, eBay. It struck directly at the weekly shopper model, wiping out the classifieds. It was this, among other things, that led to the end of the newspaper format in 2004. Krause had been sold to a private equity firm in 2002 and merged with what is now F+W Media; in 2004, with the private equity firm contemplating another sale (which happened in 2005), CBG abandoned the weekly shopper model to become a monthly magazine. For the first time, it was almost fully dependent on single-copy and subscription sales.

That redesign was assigned to me, and as I wrote in a CBG column a few years ago, it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do. The history of the magazine was formidable, as were the expectations of the readers. I had asked what percentage we could be allowed to lose and make the changeover work; the answer was one in three.

#1595, August 2004, the first magazine issue
Fortunately, we didn’t go anywhere near that — I think the number of people who canceled that first summer was in the single digits. The reason was in part because then-publisher Mark Williams committed to giving the staff, for one year, the same number of pages that would have been in a month of weekly issues. For a year, no issues had fewer than 240 pages — and the second monthly issue, #1596 (September 2004) was the largest ever, at 292 pages. The “big chunk” model had enough room to pursue the three directives the staff had been given: directing one third of the publication toward new comics with lots of reviews; one third toward older readers, with nostalgia pieces; and one third toward collectors, with a price guide section that drew upon actual transactions, digitally culled from — yes, our old nemesis eBay. That was part of a strategy supporting the Standard Catalog of Comic Books line, which the staff had recently started. We threw everything we could find into the monthly magazine.

The new format also allowed CBG to do something it hadn’t been able to do before: purchase original art covers. All those covers in the 1990s, almost all, had been promotional pieces. With CBG finally in a format where Barnes & Noble could carry it on the main shelves, what was on the cover mattered. Mark Patten and David Campiti helped the magazine acquire cover art. In 2005, CBG also finally got its own website, I developed the initial version of it, one of my last acts before moving on in the company (which I left in 2007). Jim Johnson, John Petty, Brett Weiss, and Michelle Nolan came aboard as contributors.

In the end, the redesign bought another eight years, and just over a hundred issues.

At 292 pages, #1596 was the largest issue.
Brent, who had been promoted to full editor of CBG when Maggie (now Senior Editor) cut her workload at the end of 2007, worked with designer Shawn Williams to put together a nice package each month. The 240-page deal lapsed, and the number of pages was slowly allowed to come back down to balance the books. Color pages became black and white, glossy paper became newsprint, and the price guide was dropped altogether. My own column eventually was, too, although I had taken up residence here at Comichron by then.

While the comics business today is doing fairly well, the magazine business has long been in far worse shape, and while there is still a market for the right magazine model (Alter Ego, etc.), there evidently wasn’t another evolution left in CBG. The staff received news of the cancellation just after the new year. Issue #1699 had already gone to press, so there will be no anniversary issue, nor acknowledgment in the magazine. The last thing in the magazine is, as always, a column by Peter David, who suffered a stroke at the end of 2012.

#1697 (Jan 2013), completing 42 years
I expected such an announcement sooner, as FW/Krause had already folded Comics & Games Retailer and the much more lucrative Scrye several years ago; still, I am deeply saddened to see it come to pass, both for the history of comics and for the friends and neighbors who worked there.

Maggie Thompson continues to blog on her website; her Twitter feed is @ThompsonMaggie. I’m working with her on a number of comics research activities. Maggie will also be blogging for Comic Con International's new Toucan blog. Brent’s new Twitter feed is @BFrankenhoff, and I know he’s going to stay active in the field as well.

There is no digital archives of CBG, beyond the DVDs produced for the last few years. Krause did not own the rights to many of the columns that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, and excising that material would have been impractical. Lone Star has a huge assortment of back issues available.

As a reader in high school, CBG gave me a sense of community; as an editor, it gave me the chance to talk comics with thousands of people at once, and to advance some of my historical interests. The magazine changed my life, and I know that it touched others as well.

Update: Maggie's blog post appears here.

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Joe "FlyCoJoe" Field said...

Great piece, JJ.

Sad news on the passing of the first real "hitching post" for comics. Sure, there were zines before TBG, but Alan Light's little paper that could was the major connection between passionate fans.

I'll always be grateful to Don & Maggie for allowing me to write some news and features for CBG in the '80s--- before I was "in the business." My first by-line announced the collaboration between Stan Lee and Jean "Moebius" Giraud on the Epic Silver Surfer two-issus story.

And I'll always fondly remember my time as a columnist at Comics & Games Retailer, working with editors Brent Frankenhoff, James Mishler, Don Butler and you. It was in those pages that Free Comic Book Day was born.

As CBG ceases publication, its legacy will live on!

Nik said...

I remember fondly discovering CBG around the Krause takeover -- for a 12-year-old comics nut it was like finding nirvana. I still remember my old comics shop owner giving me a stack of old issues he was tossing out and devoueing them! In its heyday CBG was one of the best comics mags ever and always had a far friendlier feel than Wizard etc. very sad to see it go!

John Jackson Miller said...

Thanks, Joe. I've tried to keep the fires burning here!

Philthy Alfred said...

I can't even begin to express how much I learned from Don and Maggie Thompson,during the 'Thompson Years' I read each issue TWICE I don't believe any two people ( besides my parents ) have had a greater impact on my life.

I got my first issue during the late 1970's (1977?) at the El Cortez during The SAN DIEGO COMIC CON and remained a reader up until recently when my life took a turn for the worse and I let my subscribtion lapse.It was a heck of a run.

You will all be missed.

-Alfred Huete

James Van Hise said...

Well this is no surprise. Page counts in CBG during the last 2 years have averaged less than 60 pages. I even told them 2 years ago that it was obvious the magazine would fold because at 60 pages it wasn't very appealing to subscribers any more, nor to comic book stores to carry. Its problems obviously began years ago when they started slashing the magazine's budget. Mark Evanier had been a regular CBG columnist for years, and in gratitude they cut his payment from 2 cents a word to one cent a word, which he considered insulting and so he dropped his column. I know for a fact that there were subscribers who didn't renew when Mark stopped writing for them. In the 1990s, after Don Thompson died, CBG stopped reporting on any comics news which might make the comic book industry look bad. Marvel's bankruptcy problems were covered by printing Marvel press releases. CBG stopped reporting on publishers that owed money to writers and artists. The letters column, which used to be a clearing house for professionals to air their opinions on the industry, became just another fanzine lettercol with nothing of significance. When a major independent publisher in Florida was months behind paying contributors and was clearly in deep trouble, CBG reported nothing. Even when that company folded after months of public acrimony, CBG just published a squib saying that the company had folded, with no recounting of what led up to it. CBG had made itself inconsequential years ago. 20 years ago The Comics Journal had regularly criticized CBG as being an uncritical cheerleader for the comic book industry. While I didn't believe it was true then, that is exactly what CBG became in the last 15 years. CBG had become so meaningless that there was nothing left to miss. I feel like CBG really ended years ago. In the 1980s when it was weekly, each issue was eagerly awaited to see what the latest important industry news was. That had stopped even before the internet supplanted it. CBG chose its own path to oblivion. I miss the CBG of 20 years ago, not what it was in the past 5 years when it was a pale shadow of what was.

James said...

I had subscriptions to the Buyer's Guide in the early 70s when Alan Light was running it; someone could do a nice collection of all the covers by the greats of comic art that ran tabloid size.

John Jackson Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Jackson Miller said...

James Van Hise, I mentioned above that a number of things were attributable to moves by the front office. Mark's situation, though the real numbers are different from what you suggest, was one of them -- and I regret just about everything about it. There were things that couldn't be stopped, but I would still try to handle my part a lot differently, today, had I the chance.

I don't know that the magazine ever reported much on deadbeat publishers; the Thompsons were pretty adamant about not touching rumors. More footwork journalism developed when a bigger place was made for it in the budget -- and certainly, we covered the business calamities of the 1990s ad infinitum. We ran most of the business stuff in Comics Retailer, which was where it belonged, but there were some pretty extensive pieces in CBG as well, especially in 1994-96. We were actually getting complaints about too much business coverage, believe it or not.

I freely admit that CBG survived as long as it did by being the biggest of big-tent publications -- so many pages were always committed to this feature or that, the deep dives on subjects would up relegated to theme issues. It was pretty much only in the last decade that the magazine settled on a single niche -- nostalgia -- where there were some really long-form pieces. But the economics of a niche within a niche were clearly not working for the owners.

Randy @ WCG Comics said...

Nice tribute and overview to the CBG -- thanks for your history as someone who was an insider!

John Jackson Miller said...

Thank you, Randy -- one of the pleasures of the job was meeting all the cool folks out there in publishing.

Alan Light said...

Thanks, John, for this good retrospective. It seems like another lifetime ago, another person actually, who founded and published TBG. Months go by went I don't even think about it, but today is a sad day for me. But everything ends. What a great run it had. - Alan Light

John Jackson Miller said...

Very true, Alan. Thanks for starting it all -- it changed lives. Please stay in touch!

Jack Dumpert said...

I'm not sure when I started subscribing but it was sometime just before Allan Light passed the reins to the Thompsons.
Somewhere along the line I learned from a direct mail solicitation I received from Krause that CBG was offering new subscriptions for an annual rate a few bucks less than the renewal rate. I wrote to the magazine to complain that it was unfair that I. a long time subscriber was charged more for a subscription than a newbie subscriber. I wrote that I wouldn’t renew unless I got the same price as new subscribers got. I received a reply that pointed out that renewal subscribers got a valuable premium, the CBG calendar. It went on to grant me a renewal at the new subscriber rate but let me know that I was not going to get the calendar. I already had a calendar so that was OK with me.
In subsequent years rather than hassle it I just sent in the new subscriber form ever year. I always used the same name and address and I always got the introductory rate.
While it’s been evident for some time now that CBG’s demise was imminent, it’s still a sad moment.
Thanks JJM for a fine reminiscence.

Unknown said...

Very nice read John. Like many others, I'm saddened to read of the demise of CBG/TBG.

Despite all its' failing, as a younger comic fan, I always looked forward to each issue arriving in the mail. I was a very early subscriber - I "subscribed" during at NYC convention (an early Creation Con maybe, or a Seuling con, not quite sure - it may very well have been my first convention in fact) at which I believe Alan or Murray had a table.. In those days TBG was offered "FREE FOR LIFE," and being new at this comic collecting thing, I thought that was a pretty good deal.

I heard it said that the size of comic fandom was estimated to be about the size of the subscription list of CBG - since clearly anyone who was a comic fan had to subscribe to it (of course, prior to that the same thing was said about RBCC, an even earlier adzine that TCB impacted in much the same way ebay and the internet did to CBG). I enjoyed the early columns (did a little bit of advertising myself), was surprised by the sale to Krause and the remake (I remember vividly reading the first Krause issue thinking and being nostalgic for the "old" Alan Light ear TBG), and not all that crazy about the conversion to magazine format which is about when CBG lost me completely as a reader.

I've owned a comic shop for over 20 years and we sold CBG for a number of years early on, dropped it for reasons I can't recall, and then tried a couple of year ago to carry it again to see if there was any interest from my customers. There wasn't. After awhile I was only me taking an issue home. I stopped carrying it again about a year ago.

It was fun while it lasted...

Dan Veltre
Dewey's Comic City
Madison, NJ

ray said...

Nice article John,
I remember fondly getting CBG each week and bringing it to work and read it on my break.

I remember vividly the day I had plucked it down only to see the headline of Don's Death.

I wasn't a fan of the Monthly Format as there were already too many of those but it was palatable at first. Over time, however I noticed months worth of CBG piling up unread as fewer and fewer of my favorite Columnists were still there.
the final nail in the coffin for me was when they stopped giving us access to the Magazine Digitally with our Sub. this is a fairly standard practice with magazines and being asked to essentially pay twice for a Magazine that barely had content I felt I NEEDED to read just didn't make sense.
I allowed my sub to lapse about 4 years ago.
I browsed an copy on the shelf last year and was stunned to see how thin it was.
I wish the best for everybody associated with CBG.

Ray Feighery
Seattle, WA

John Jackson Miller said...

Thanks, Ray. The delivery of the digital versions was something they were never really set up to do very well -- for a long time it was sort of a Rube Goldberg thing. I will say that even if all the resources in the digital world had been made available earlier, I am not sure it would have stretched out the timeline that much. Too many of the publication's original missions had been subsumed by other outlets.

Robert Beerbohm said...

Nice overview of the evolution of Alan Light's brain-child. I write here as one who got #1 from Alan's initial mailings to regular advertisers in GB Love's RBCC. My first full page type ads for vintage comics ran in #3 #4 #7 and over time I committed to weekly display advertising for many years up till Oct 1996. When I stopped, Jim Felhofer, then ad manager, told me there were only three of us left doing weekly display ads for vintage comics. My understanding is J&S out of New Jersey was the last guy doing ads of that nature as the internet phenom took its toll.

Once TBG went weekly it blew its competition out of the water supplanting Rocket's Blast*ComiCollector (RBCC) out of the water as the main center of the known comics collector universe. Some of us spent the bucks to get it over night mail to scarf at the adverts for vintage old stuff.

I fondly remember getting one of those over-night via USPS issues in, spying an ad from Joe Koch listing quantities of X-Men 96 at $1 each. This was when the Byrne issues were just starting to make an impact and bringing droves of former as well as new readers back in to collecting, seeking out comic book stores to keep up with new issues. There was a running joke soon thereafter a comic book store could carry nothing but X-Men and do well.

Cash flow off the speculative nature of the business back then saw X-Men accounting for 90%, one did not 'need' anything else. Sad but basicly true. By X #117 my former firm Best of Two Worlds was ordering 10,000 per issue.

Any way I called up Joe that sec, found he had 800 copies, bought them all, bank wire drafted the bucks, he got them into UPS that same day.

The following week the UPS was delivering the boxes and he asked me who this Joe Koch fellow was. I replied, "Oh, so? Why?"

He said Koch had been calling the Oakland UPS office trying to stop the shipment and have it reversed. Seems when "normal" delivery of CBG arrived, he was getting all sorts of calls on those X-Men #96 and had zero copies left, having sold them all out to me.

I called Joe asking him what was up. He had not tuned in to X-Men yet at that point, but he was now -:) We had already been getting $10 a copy in Berkeley. He asked me if he could buy some of them back, and i felt guilty enough to mail him back 100 copies for what I paid him for them.

Fond memories abound racing thru each issue keeping on top of the back issue market TBG < CBG gathered each week. Hours and minutes were key, the overnight sub was hundreds of dollars a year, but well worth it in retro-spect for along time.

On the comics business history research front I launched in 1994 following deciding not to live inside a "cave" any more after 22 years of brick & mortar store fronts, I wish to commend Don Thompson who printed every single missive I ever sent in in that department.

Half a decade ago a friend contacted me to see if I was interested in receiving a complete run from #1 up out of his garage. He was moving and no longer would be able to store such materials. I readily said yes, his run lives in my warehouse now, I use the issues for research in conjunction with near complete runs of The Comic Reader, RBCC (complete back to #18), Nostalgia/Comics Journal (back to Dallascon Bulletin #1), and many other myriad start-ups i have recollected. Most all of my original runs of these zines destroyed in a Feb 1986 warehouse flooding the same week end Eclipse Comics was washed down the Russian River some 43 miles north at the time.

From a perspective of 45 years in this hobby now, those of us trying to deal paper in a digital age remains a growing challenge. I commend CBG for lasting as long as it did. We shall all be using Star Trek type Tri-Corders soon enough.

John Jackson Miller said...

Thanks -- that is a very nice remembrance. There aren't many complete collections, to be sure. Alan's collection that came to the warehouse in the sale was missing several issues, and some issues were missing sections. I indexed it all once.

I think you're right about J&S. It's hard to believe there was once a roomful of people typsetting all of those ads. I'm going over to pay a call on the office shortly -- first time in years, but the last day for everyone there -- to adopt some archival material before it all vanishes. A sad day.

In the end, everything goes away. I regret the acrimony over the years, Bob -- as what happened with Peter recently shows, life's too short. But it's heartening that so many people are still interested in the title's past -- it was a lot of work by a lot of people.

John Freeman said...

Great retrospective and useful pointers on wider issues facing the comics press and industry

Unknown said...

Really nice piece (thanks to Scoop for passing along the news and the link.) I was also one of those 13 yr olds who grabbed on to CBG #1 as an alternative to RBCC and others (anyone remember Stan's Weekly Express?), which Light's tabloid almost immediately replaced. Two years later my dad had business in the Davenport/Quad Cities area and I tagged along to meet Alan Light, by then an accomplished publisher who was probably only 4-5 years older than me. He even gave me a couple of original fan illustrations that he had published (each of which I still have). I still have probably every issue up through around 1979 or 1980. Lots of memories pouring thru every copy both for the articles, the wonderful covers, and filling in back issues that I probably would never afford if I were going about it today. Thanks, Alan.

Kirk G - The Thrifty Rocketeer said...

I remember vividly one fan (cum comic publisher) sending in a letter to Don and Maggie, pleading for them to declare his comic "hot", as it was an instant greenlight to success. True to his request, Don responded by printing the letter in O'So with a declaration that the comic was "hot". Sales never picked up. Guess you needed something else besides an quality! I got a kick out of Don's response and have never forgotten it.

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