If you’re anything like me then you can remember what it was like buying comic books in the 70’s. I could buy them nearly anywhere. Sometimes I find myself in conversations about the actual experience of comics shopping back in the day and my younger friends are stunned. Comics were available almost everywhere. These days the distribution model we use is called the "Direct Market". It was around back in the 70's and 80's but wasn't nearly as prevalent.
The direct market essentially means that as a retailer I buy comics from a wholesaler, in this case Diamond Comic Book Distributors, and then I sell them to you. You don't really have other options because publishers have exclusive deals with our distributors.
You don’t really have options on where you get your comics if you don’t have a comics specialty store near you or if you lack a store you approve of (ladies, you know what I mean, don’t you).
Currently Chicago is full of comic book retail stores. If you can identify a neighbor as either a hipster or a yuppie or a yuppie hipster then you live in an area with a comic book store. This has certainly not always been the case -- particularly if you happen to have been reading comics during the 70’s and 80’s on the Southside of Chicago -- but it got pretty close to it I bet.
As sources of comics dried up due to exclusive sales rights from wholesaler to retailer, comic book specialty shops would pop up all over Chicago, although many would die out due to an industry wide speculation-based crash in the 90's.
Note: You can find all sorts of info on what happened during the speculation crash if you do even cursory googling.
I’ve added a map to show the various places I bought comics when I was a kid. This was my regular rotation of spots from 1977 when my family moved back to Chicago from Houston, TX to the early 90’s when I moved out of my parents house. I want to show you the sheer abundance of sources I used to have even on the Southside of Chicago. I needed all of these places because since everything I had access to was provided to me by newsstand distribution not every place carried every comic I may have wanted.
This Avengers comic is one that I actually bought at a newsstand at O'Hare Airport after one of my Houston to Chicago treks as a kid.
- The Newsstand Dudes on 79th st. carried Avengers, Batman, Superman, The New Teen Titans, Defenders, Fantastic Four and Worlds Finest.
- The Korean Lady with the Ladder on 73rd st. carried Justice League of America, Green Lantern, Flash, Jonah Hex and The Mighty Thor.
- The Woolworths of 79th st. carried Mad Magazine, Hot Stuff, Moon Knight, Dr. Strange, Marvel Team Up, Marvel Two in One and Richie Rich.
- The Middle Eastern Hostess Merchants on Lake Park carried Iron Man (especially when he was drunk), ROM the Spaceknight, Captain America, GI Joe, and the Uncanny X-Men.
- Bob’s Newsstand in Hyde Park carried all of the above plus Heavy Metal Magazine.
- The Old Cats on Stoney Island carried the Firestorm - The Nuclear Man and most importantly, the Legion of Superheroes, which was...is STILL my favorite (ask to see my tattoo if we ever meet).
I know that at any given time many of these places carried the same comics but to my young mind it was a treasure map and I had to do all of this roaming of the land in order to get what I needed. I did know that not everyone carried every title as I got crazy looks when I asked for the Legion at Woolworths or the Teen Titans from the Korean Lady. It might have been enough that she let me use her ladder. The hunt for my comics made me fall in love with them every bit as much as the adventures inside them did.
There was still a direct market back then. The point of it to comics collecting fans was that you knew that employees at a comic book shop would be more interested in protecting your comics for you. Buying a comic at a newsstand or grocery story meant you were running the risk of your comic not being in near perfect condition when you discovered it sitting on a shelf. While all of my local people kept me happy as a clam, they didn't really care if the comics were a bit dinged up.
You may notice some pretty far out spots on my map. Those are Larry’s Comic Shop, formerly of Rogers Park and All American Comics which at the time was called Amazing Fantasy Comics. Those were the nearest Comic Book Specialty stores to me. They also had the added bonus of carrying comics by companies other than DC and Marvel, like First Comics, Comico, Eclipse and others. For me this would go a long way towards expanding what I thought comics could even be. Some of my favorite comics creators now worked on books for those now defunct companies and are still examples I use when talking to people about elevating their artistic game for comics.
Even though I’m a part of the industry now, I believe that here are less people coming up loving comics as much as I did because the distribution model changed and has cut generations of readers off.
I’m saying that if you look around your home, car, cube, man cave, office, kitchen, or tree house, you’ll find a thing you dig that you have always had access to without much effort. As I write this, I feel like what comics fans went through is something like what happened to fans of smoking cigars in public: once you could do it on the street, but now you need to find a special cigar smoking lair. My contention is that the industry needs something else. It needs comics of some variety to fall from the sky or at least be seeded about in laundromats and at dog parks.
I've long advocated a model that involved cheaper paper, all ages stories and wider distribution. This could be supported by comics specialty shops by our expertise and love of comics at the next level.
Does anyone want to hang bags of comics on dog park fences with me?