Thursday, July 2, 2009

105. State of the Thrillunion

In November 2001, we come to prog 1270 and this very nice cover by Ashley Wood, spotlighting Psi Judge Anderson. The contents are mostly the same thrill-starved batch as what I talked about last week, with a multi-part Judge Dredd story by John Wagner and Ian Gibson being by far the high point. In fact, I think I think I said all that needed to be said about this underwhelming run of stories last time, so I should find something else to talk about this week, especially since this will be the last blog for a month. So let's talk about 2009 instead.

2009 was the year when it became incredibly aggravating to be a 2000 AD fan in America.

When next I write, the big San Diego Comic-Con will have come and gone, and 2000 AD is expected to make another appearance. Theirs is typically a low-key one, just another small publisher among the hundreds of small publishers who join the mob at America's biggest show. Yet I think Tharg and the droids have had a few years to gauge the crowd and see what needs to be done to make a splash and do what's necessary to get noticed and sell the comic to the potentially enormous local audience. I have not seen it yet, but I understand that there was an editorial note in a recent issue affirming that it is high time that 2000 AD make a concerted, deliberate effort to successfully crack this country's tough market. No more relying on co-publishing tricks or partners: it's time to do the job right.

Unfortunately for 2000 AD, the market - that is, the "direct market" of comic shops which buys in their product from the monopolistic morons of Diamond Distributors - has proven itself steadfastly uninterested in 2000 AD for more than twenty years. The market is currently bloated with everything from overpriced superhero soap operas to expensive hardcover collections of anything with a grain of nostalgia attached. (Did anybody else's heart sink when they learned that the new Bloom County series from IDW was coming at fifty bucks a pop?) In this economy, Rebellion needs every possible ally in getting shops to order their stuff.

Before I get too overwhelmingly cynical, let me just point out that, when 2000 AD is firing on all cylinders, as indeed it's done all year, it is better than any other comic book. Period. Some completely fantastic stories have appeared in the title this year: Pat Mills and John Higgins' Bourne-on-amphetamines thriller Greysuit, Wagner and Ezquerra's unbelievably cool Strontium Dog epic "Blood Moon," more insane pirate action in The Red Seas by Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell, Rob Williams and D'Israeli knocking it out of the park in Low Life, more jawdropping stuff in both Nikolai Dante and Judge Dredd which remain utterly essential reading, plus excellent work from newcomers Lee Carter, Al Ewing and Tony Lee, and an amazing strip in the Meg: Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil's brilliant Insurrection. And that's just in the year's first four months.

And granted, I was awfully disappointed by that Sinister Dexter book I spoke of last time, but the reprint line, overall, is easily the best in the business.

Maybe one day we'll get to see all of it.

2009 was the year when Diamond finally, inarguably, dropped the blasted ball. They've always handled their monopolistic position with all the grace of an asthmatic walrus, but this was the year they fell completely apart, and Rebellion is one of those publishers who've really been on the receiving end of the shit taco. Some months ago, Diamond announced that they had to be more competitive, and would be dropping several titles and publishers which failed to meet minimum order requirements. Well, that's understandable, and it stinks to be a low-seller, as many well-meaning publishers who've been running afoul of the new policy have unfortunately been learning. Some forthcoming collections from Rebellion didn't make the cut, although the publisher has been disappointingly tight-lipped about it. I understand Diamond's not running a charity and don't begrudge them having to cull non-sellers in order to stay afloat.

But must they be so incredibly incompetent about it at the same time?

Earlier this year, Diamond moved their facilities to a bright and shiny new warehouse in Memphis with a super-awesome new computerized cherry-picking machinearybop which should have made delivery of product to stores more painless and efficient than ever before. Well, I think every retailer east of the Mississippi can tell you that's been a laugh. There's not a store in the country that hasn't had orders delayed or cancelled since the new system went in. For 2000 AD, the result has been a complete, unmitigated disaster. Last year, indeed for the last several years, American shops have been getting their progs two weeks behind the UK. There have been occasional hiccups, and issues that show up a month or so late, but what's happened this year has been unprecedented. The old conventional wisdom was that Diamond might occasionally hiccup with 2000 AD because they had Wolverine to ship, but this year, with shops getting X-Men spinoff miniseries in random order, even that excuse is no longer valid.

Never mind that the old two week gap is sitting right now as six, of the 21 issues published between January and May, four issues (1627-28, 1634 and 1636) have yet to arrive. The year's first issue (1617) finally showed up ten weeks after the next. Shops went two months without a single prog before seven non-consecutive issues showed up the other week. All this as Diamond attempts to transition to a new way to sell the comic in America, with four issues polybagged together. (We should know in the next week or two whether this is actually going to work. Maybe we'll get two or even more of the missing progs while we wait, but the "June 2009" pack, retailing for $18, is supposed to contain progs 1638-1641. A July 2009 pack is said to cost $22.50 for five issues, and the August 2009 pack is $18 again.)

Meanwhile, apparently low orders for earlier editions have prompted Diamond to decline a number of forthcoming graphic novels. Sadly not solicited for American stores are: the third volume of Button Man (already out in the UK), a hardcover collection of ABC Warriors: The Volgan Wars Book One, the complete black-and-white Flesh by Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli and others, and the first volume of Defoe, also by Mills with art by Leigh Gallagher. This is while Diamond has yet to ship three collections that they already have solicited: The 86ers and the second volumes of Ace Trucking Company and The VCs. Maybe they'll turn up in the next week or so.

And before you ask, this isn't just my retailer. I've asked around at three stores in Atlanta which carry the comic and the trades (unfortunately for subscribers only at two of the stores) along with readers in other cities and they're all in the same head-against-wall boat, all thanks to this dimwit distributor.

Fortunately, there are other options. Rebellion offers a subscription service, bypassing the direct market entirely, or you can buy the progs digitally from Clickwheel for a third less than the retail cost. I've been shelling out for occasional Clickwheel copies myself just so I can read my progs in sequence, and if the "magazine pack" solution doesn't fix things, then I'm going to go digital-only in 2010. I'd hate to lose the print copy, but Clickwheel's convenience and excellent customer service makes up for the disappointment of arriving at my comic shop (which is the freaking best in the United States and should never, ever elicit the emotion of disappointment) and finding Diamond screwed up again. On the other hand, who knows what 2010 holds? Clickwheel is indeed wonderful, but still very small, and last month's announcement of a forthcoming "iTunes for comics" called Longbox has completely sucker-punched the established Clickwheel, particularly with their plans to offer comics for only 99 cents each.

Obviously, the autumn's going to have me comparing prices between British sellers (Forbidden Planet, Amazon, etc.) to get the four or more books that Diamond does not wish to sell in the US. Maybe that's what 2010 will hold: buying the comic from Clickwheel or Longbox, and then getting print editions only of the material compiled in book form, all of it done over the internet and bypassing comic shops entirely.

That's far, far from ideal - and I'd honestly much rather give Bizarro Wuxtry my money than any other retailer in any country - but maybe, after twenty-plus years of 2000 AD scraping by with its infitesimal market share, it is time to bypass the stubborn, inefficient American direct market for something sleeker, leaner, and not beholden to the bozos at one warehouse in Memphis. Maybe it's just nostalgia and an irrational love of print editions that's keeping me wanting the print editions right now.

At any rate, while this entry seems pretty grumpy, I do wish the very best of luck to the gang at Rebellion at San Diego. I hope hundreds of new fans come back from the show with mindblowing graphic novels and things, and that they find the experience of following 2000 AD in the second half of 2009 nowhere nearly as aggravating as in the first half. It's a headache, which following comics should never, ever be, but it's worth it since 2000 AD is that damn good.

With that, we'll leave it for a month. As you know, I'm doing this reread with my kids, and they're off to the Bluegrass State for a three-week stay with their mother. Normal service will be resumed in August. Splundig vur Thrigg!