The comics industry’s shift to direct market distribution was transformative on nearly every level, and its effects — for both good and ill — are still being felt some thirty-odd years later. The protracted and painful collapse of the old newsstand distribution model was symptomatic of a broader decline in the periodical business, though most painfully felt in the realm of funnybooks, which depended on volume to make up for lower per-unit profits. In a time of retrenchment, rising costs, and slipping sales, they just weren’t worth the effort for most vendors anymore.
As insiders pondered whether the Big Two would be able to survive this existential setback (among several others), the direct market presented a golden parachute by moving the primary locus of sales to dedicated shops run and frequented by funnybook enthusiasts. Limited returnability (if at all) for unsold product shifted risks onto individual retailers, in exchange for having a lock on — or at least limited competition within — their local markets.
The change in retail venues essentially bypassed the content restrictions put in place by the Comics Code Authority, allowing DM-only offerings to tackle more “adult” (in multiple meanings of the term) subject matter with reduced risks of public outrage or official sanction. It also gave greater exposure to smaller publishers whose offerings couldn’t or didn’t make it to newsstands yet were now racked next to Spider-Man and Batman at what was usually the Only Comics Game in Town (and Every Neighboring One).
This alone might not have been enough to staunch the bleeding, but the development unfolded almost conterminously with the rise of the speculative back issue market. As much as “Biff! Bam! Pow!” news articles have been accused of damaging public perception of the comics scene, far more harm has been done by the “local dude sells old comic for $10,000” variety. The X-Men and New Teen Titans mania of the early 1980s had hit fever pitch, with high-demand back issues selling for crazy money. The fever rapidly spread past the Big Two’s offerings, where early issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Comico’s Robotech comics becoming sought-after “investments,” if only for a very short while in most cases.
I was just entering my teens when above paradigm shift occurred, and I couldn’t have experienced it at a more perfect moment. The first direct market shop in walking/biking distance of my house opened in 1984, and the effect it had on my circle of geeky pals was mindblowing. One week we discussing the who the coolest X-Man was around the junior high lunch table, the next we were arguing the relative merits of Beanworld versus Nexus.
Early American forays into flipped-and-floppy manga, pre-Code horror reprints, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Killing Joke, Zot, Mr. Monster, American Flagg, Judge Dredd – an embarrassment of riches opened up to me just as my adolescent affections of “maturity” were kicking into high gear. It was a glorious time to be a comics fan, but it was wasn’t set up to last.
As the Big Two tried, fitfully and imperfectly, to push into the “mature content” realm of the indie publishers, so did the indie publishers made their own attempts to keep up with the dominant players with overprinted, under-demanded appeals to speculators, fly-by-night knock-offs of “hot” properties (see: the roughly one billion riffs on TMNT published back then), and ill-advised stabs at continuity crossover events…
….like the prestige-format Total Eclipse miniseries.
The project was Eclipse Comics’ 10th Anniversary answer to Secret Wars/Crisis on Infinite Earths, featuring the publisher’s small stable of superheroic franchises — Airboy, the Heap, Strike, the New Wave, the Prowler, and other forgotten footnotes.
They brought in Marv Wolfman — “Mr. Crisis” himself — to script the proceedings, which involved the stupidly named, ludicriously maned immortal assassin Zzed trying to end his ennui by DESTROYING THE UNIVERSE and everybody teaming up to stop him.
The five issues (and supporting one-shot featuring the Liberty Project) managed to check off all the boxes on the Big Crossover Event Checklist — rivals becoming allies, far flung objectives to be tackled with maximum melodrama, dense blocks of exposition, a SHOCKING PLOT TWIST, and a whole of of cosmological-philosophical wankery passed off as stakes-raising gravitas.
Oh, and Destroyer Duck, Beanish, and the Gaiman Era Miracleman all showed up to remind confused readers of what they could’ve been reading instead.
I can’t really fault Wolfman or artist Bo Hampton (whose work veers from outstanding to obviously rushed from panel to panel) for the Total Eclipse trainwreck. Creatively speaking, the book accomplished what it was supposed to do — pit a bunch of the publisher’s characters against a cosmic threat.
It was a mess, but so were Crisis on Infinite Earths and Secret Wars. The difference with Total Eclipse, however, is that it didn’t have the marketing muscle, brand identity or fan loyalty that DC and Marvel could bring to the table. The presence of Batman and Wolverine can gloss over a host of sins, but the same couldn’t be said about Aztec Ace or the Black Terror.
At the time of Total Eclipse‘s 1989 release, the company was having a tough enough time getting readers to care about most of the featured characters individually, much less within the context of a confusing, off-model crossover jam selling for $3.95 per squarebound issue. What was intended to spark greater interest in Eclipse’s properties served only as an epitaph for its fast-fading glory days…
…as well as a bizarre artifact of an equally bizarre era in funnybook history.