Musings on the History of Comics Publishing & Distribution

The history of comics publication and distribution has been exhaustively chronicled (recorded) in the annals of funny book lore by scholars much more learned than I, but with the advent of digital comics and all that shift implies, I want to take a look at where comics have been, and how that might inform where they might go. I think this reflection will reveal a connection between format and distribution, that the ever-changing standard of comics, be they floppy or binary, has ample bearing on the way consumers access these goods .You know, or I’m just blowing smoke out my ass. Stick around for the ride and we’ll see!

I looked at a few texts for this little synopsis: The Comic Book History of Comics by Ryan Dunlavey and Fred Van Lente, provided by my lovely instructor Dianna Baldwin, and Of Comics and Men by Jean-Paul Gabillet, recommended by the ever knowledgeable Randy Scott of the MSU Special Collections. While admittedly hardly expansive, these two titles provide a nice introduction to the history of comics publication and distribution in America.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? Have no ear, I’m certainly not going to recount the entire history of this incredible enterprise, that would just feel redundant. However, I do want to talk about some of the tings that I gleaned through my reading of these specific texts. First, I was to talk about Harry Donenfeld, a man who may have single-handedly jump-started comics’ national expansion out of the New York area. Then I want to talk briefly about the format of comics back then, and briefly relate that to today. Definitely not an overwhelming task, but something I hope is both concise and informative.

What I have to say about this gentleman really comes from one book, Jean-Paul Gabillet’s Of Comics and Men, which I suggest you all go read. I know that I had heard Harry’s name in the past while reading other histories of comics. He first worked for, and then became co-owner of DC in the late 1930s. The guy was a businessman first and I feel like he was the ultimate “classic” salesman. According Jean-Paul, Donenfeld “laid the groundwork of the distribution networks that enabled comics magazines to spread out of  New York, their original trading area and eventually to reach the mom and pop stores of the smallest American town.”

Now I think it’s important to say that comics, at least reprinted comics, were absolutely nothing new at this point in 1937 and 1938. However, from what I understand, Donenfeld went out and marketed a whole new product, the comic magazine. This was something like Action Comics, like Detective Comics, original material outside of the control of syndications. At this point in time DC was both a publisher as well as its own distributor. So this Harry fella, this salesman, must have gone out and met up with smaller distributors close to DC’s routes, and talked to them about carrying his material. From there he must have gotten access to their client base, seen where they delivered, gone out, and sold the idea of comics to those folks. And these retailers bought them! And then other comics publishers and distributors followed in his footsteps. Can we say that Harry brought comics to the masses? I’m definitely going to have to do a little more research, but it’s a fascinating idea.

To cover my butt here, and to avoid sounding like Donenfeld was the Second Coming, or in comics’ case the First, it should be noted that what he was pedaling was not an entirely new product. It was an evolution, and thus was probably much easier to sell than if he were giving them something that looked remarkably different than illustrated pulps or the Sunday funnies.

The next point I just wanted to touch on quickly was the format of comics before the rise of the Superman in 1938. The history of comics shows an incredible amount of experimentation before creators and publishers settled on something more or less universal. In 1849  Journey to the Gold Diggins by Jeremiah Saddlebags was 5.5 x 8.75. In 1911 Mutt & Jeff was made at 5.75 x 15.5. Charlie Chaplin, found in 1917, was 9 x 16. We also have Eastern Color creating books at half the tabloid size, 7.5 x 10. As we can see, the advent of comics was rife with experimentations on form, something that we can see today in the emerging digital comics market.

Unlike in the early days of comics, original material in the digital age has never been hard to come by. As a matter of fact, this present age has actually worked opposite the genesis of comics. There was virtually no original material in the beginning. Comics publishers were just looking for an easy second return on their initial investment. Then, when the public got tired of the old stuff, and when a few entrepreneurial spirits had ideas of their own, comics really took off. In the 90s, when the Internet exploded, there was almost no way to reproduce completed comics in an efficient way. Technologically speaking, it just wasn’t feasible at that point, so people started making crappy webcomics.

These webcomics came in every shape and size. Artists went wild, utilizing the magic of digital devices to transform comics for this new age. The Internet was flooded with original content, and it wasn’t until relatively recently (~5 years) that the big publishers started digitizing their libraries, allowing for that second return on their initial investment. However the important thing to remember is that theirs is absolutely no accepted format for digital comics. Heck, digital comics are still segregated between “web” and “digital,” with web comics written strictly for the Internet crowd (oftentimes adapted specifically for the new viewing dimensions of computer screens, while digital comics are often electronic versions of print comics. Obviously there’s a little room to play with those distinctions, but I think they’re fine for our purposes.

Right now, as you read this, comics are evolving. They are growing and adapting to new devices, new ways of seeing, reading, and viewing. We are at the cusp of a grand new epoch, but this isn’t entirely unexplored territory. The industry began in very much the same way over a century ago. Hopefully we can learn something from history and help facilitate the process.


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