4 Nov 2008

Four-Colour Yesteryears: The Day The Earth Stood Still - The Changing Face Of Marvel's UK Distribution in the Seventies, Part III

In Four-Colour Yesteryears we delve back into the past to look at periods, events and creators that helped shape the medium.

By Rob N

Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

Pt 3: The Rise And Rise Of The Comic Shop

The new distribution deal was playing havoc with the hobby of collecting US comic books in the UK. It was no longer possible to rely on local newsagents to supply the comics that you needed. This sort of thing had happened briefly in the mid-Sixties when a countrywide dock strike had prevented US titles from reaching England for a couple of months, but that was a one-off thing. Now collectors had to face the fact that many of their favourite titles were no longer available locally.

Even when a title was on the official distribution list, it might still vanish for a time for no apparent reason. Collectors had to put up with X-Men switching to non-distributed status for issues #102 to #107 and #121 to #122 (for years after those issues would be very rare and very expensive to obtain in the UK, though plentiful in the US). To this day no one really knows why.

The various mail order dealers stepped in to the market by offering an import service for US Marvels. This was the earliest example of comic shops (the one or two that actually existed at the time) and mail order dealers setting up a separate distribution service from the newsstands. They could provide you with the titles that you had missed from W H Smiths because Ricky Keverne in class 3B got there before you did (and, in my experience, he often did…) and, more importantly, the titles that weren’t distributed in the UK at all. And they would be available three months before the UK would normally have got them (thanks to the primitive airmail system at the time). But like so many things in life, it wasn’t going to be cheap. The average price was somewhere in the region of 300% of the newsstand. 24p as opposed to an 8p cover price. Or in modern terms, £6 a comic instead of £2.

The new distribution deal also marked a significant change to the format of the comics themselves. In the US the Marvel titles had a banner strip along the top that read ‘Marvel Comics Group’. The UK copies had a different banner strip that read ‘Marvel All-Colour Comics’ and a UK specific price in place of the cents displayed on the US copies. The different banner heading was to make it clear to confused newsagent owners that these weren’t the black and white reprint titles, though you would have thought that the different size and paper quality, not to mention that one title was in colour and the other wasn’t, would have made that blatantly obvious to begin with. An unforeseen consequence of these variant covers was to give UK distributed comics an apartheid status across the pond. Even to this day, UK copies with UK printed prices are viewed as ‘second best’ and not proper editions. Some US collectors even go so far as to consider them ‘reprints’, despite the fact they were printed on the same presses, at the same time as the US ones. Typically, UK sale editions of Marvel titles fetch approximately half to two thirds of the regular price from back issue dealers, if they’re interested in them at all.

Looking back now on the period, the most significant effect in the long term was the empowerment of specialist mail order dealers and SF/comic shops who were able to supply product no longer available in the old fashioned distribution model of newsagent stores. It would still be a long time before comics disappeared from the newsstands, and the market moved over exclusively to specialist stores, but essentially the seeds of change were sewn in mid to late 1974 when Marvel cut back and regulated its import titles for the first time.

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