News flash: DC Comics has cut ties with Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. Yes, I hear the yawns. Most people don't know how comics get to where they buy them, nor do they care. But in this case, it turns out to be important.
Here's why: Diamond has had a virtual monopoly on distribution of comics to comic shops since the mid-1990s. But while Diamond was closed during the coronavirus shutdown, DC Comics announced it would continue to distribute through two new distributors it helped create. Then last week DC announced it would continue with these distributors exclusively, cutting out Diamond entirely.
"To say that I am seething with rage right now is a total understatement," wrote Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics in Denver.
"This is such a disgusting and ill-timed move," wrote Mike Wellman of Atomic Basement in Long Beach, Calif.
"This is a declaration of war," wrote Dennis Barger of WonderWorld Comics in Michigan.
"What?" I hear you say. "I thought monopolies were bad things! Shouldn't everyone be pleased that there will be more competition?"
Short answer: No. The comics industry operates on a shoestring, where the fall of a single domino can cause untold havoc. And its weak link has always been distribution — the very thing DC's move subverts. Also, the two new distributors are outgrowths of retail stores with large mail-order businesses, meaning they were and are competition for all the other comic shops — who have just become their customers.
Ominous, eh? Nobody summed up this point of view better than Eric Stephenson, publisher of Image Comics, in a tweet: "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it."
That famous quote is particularly apt in this situation. Because not only does the industry have a history of distribution catastrophes, this specific catastrophe has happened before.
Scene: early 1990s. There are a number of comics distributors, including No. 1, Diamond; No. 2, Capital City; and No. 3, Heroes World. But then, much like DC today, Marvel decided to go exclusive with one of them (Heroes World). The result was carnage. With everybody but Heroes World losing the No. 1 publisher — roughly 30-40% of the market — the other distributors scrambled for what was left, offering sweetheart deals to other publishers (notably No. 2 DC Comics) to sign exclusive deals.
A number of distributors and even some comic shops went belly up. By 1997, the last distributor standing was Diamond. Marvel (and all other publishers) meekly signed with them. And that's how Diamond became a near-monopoly.
So yes, it's still a fragile food chain. Of course, maybe nothing will result from Diamond losing the No. 2 publisher. On the other hand, maybe the entire system will collapse, and comics will become digital only.
My guess is that something in between those two extremes will happen. But the history isn't promising.