The Comics Journal #169 (1994)

I read this while watching my wonderful little five-year-old, Leah, play in the water at Silver Lake Park in Everett. She had a great time and made a little friend that she hung out with the whole time. I’m always jealous of the ease little kids have in making friends. "Do you want to play?" one says to the other and they’re suddenly inseperable.

This issue of TCJ came out during what many long-time readers think of as the dark age of comics, 1994. Comic sales peaked in 1991 or 1992, and by 1994 it was clear that the industry was in decline. The combination of intense speculation in the field, a distributor war, Marvel flooding the market, the wrestchedly-handled death of Superman (he got better), and variant covers all conspired to create a perfect storm in which the bottom dropped out of the comics market.

 We tend to forgot now that not everything was gloom and doom. This issue’s feature interview is with Neil Gaiman, and he was experiencing nothing but success. Gaiman’s run on Sandman was showing that there was a market for intelligent, thoughtful comics, and DC bent over backwards to make Gaiman happy working with them. They ensured Gaiman that they wouldn’t assign new creators to the book after he left, and gave him a percentage of all merchandise even though there was nothing compelling DC to do so. Gaiman helped blaze the trail for the companies to respect their creators more fully. Interviewer Gary Groth tries to pin Gaiman down about DC treating him badly, but Gaiman is very clear that, at least in his experience, DC was a good company to work with. Even in the midst of this seeming dark age for the industry, major precedents were set to help the creators rather than the publishers.

Perhaps more interesting to me is an article in the "Newswatch" section that describes the merger between Kitchen Sink Press and Tundra Comics. Tundra was a spectacularly ill-fated comic line created by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creator Kevin Eastman in the wake  of the Turtles’ runaway success. Since Eastman and his partner Peter Laird owned the Turtles lock, stock and barrel, they made money hand over fist from the characters. Eastman decided to spend his money creating a comic book line like none that came before. Tundra would be a line that treated creators right, that paid them nice advances without firm deadlines, so comics could be done when they were ready. Tundra would do away with editors, since the editors only interfered with the work of creators. Tundra was all about the work, not about the company. Eastman had deep pockets, so the line could handle some adversity.
 
And adversity was what it had. Tundra launched in an era when the giant-selling books like Youngblood and Spawn cast very long shadows, preventing a new line from getting any traction in the marketplace. Also, the lack of a coherent vision for the comics line worked against the line. Readers just didn’t know what Tundra was all about, and that kept the line from thriving. On the creator side, things were even worse. Creators would get their huge advances and then never deliver the finished work, or would deliver work so substandard as to be unreleasable. The line committed to running too many series, making production and solicitation a nightmare. Bad investments were made, anger rose, and the line flamed out in a storm of recrimination, frustration and bad debt.
 
Kitchen Sink, on the other hand, always seemed like an extremely well-run company. There was always a touch of class around Kitchen Sink Press. The company started in the ’60s publishing standard underground books, but by the ’80s Kitchen Sink was well known for their reprints of The Spirit and Steve Canyon, wonderful original series like Megaton Man, Kings in Disguise and the horror anthology Death Rattle. Kitchen Sink even had an agreement with DC to co-publish Batman comic strip reprints. Kitchen Sink seemed like a company that had a terrific business plan. It was a steady and dependable line in every way.
 
Like a kindly man touching a leper, as soon as Kitchen Sink touched Tundra, it started to fall apart. It didn’t take long for the line to collapse and then go under. Tundra had taken another victim. You have to wonder what Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink was thinking when he agreed to all this turmoil. Was he hoping to finally make real money selling comics, chasing the eveer-fading collectors’ market? Was he a dupe of Eastman’s overly ambitious plans? Or did he want to support a company that conformed to his old hippie ideals? For whatever reason, the two companies went belly up in ’94, leaving unpaid bills scattered to the winds. Tundra lost Eastman an astonishing $14 million. I doubt the entire comics market in 2005 is much larger than $14 million. Oh, and Eastman sold his share of the Turtles to his partner Laird. Of course, now that he’s not a part of it, the Turtles are back in the stores and on TV. Can Eastman have any more bad luck?
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