Armagideon Time

Roughly half a decade before the Great Chromium Crash, order the funnybook business experienced an equally significant — if lesser-chronicled — market correction which left plenty of shattered dreams and unsellable overstock in its wake. This earlier implosion was a consequence of the industry’s switch to direct market distribution over the course of the 1980s.

The move to direct market sales and dedicated funnybook retailers was both a lifesaver and boon for comics as an artform and a business. Not only did it keep product flowing to consumers as traditional outlets (i.e. newsstands) gave up on the medium, tooth but it also freed creators and publishers from the CCA’s draconian restrictions on content and allowed them to try their hands at more “mature” content. Nexus, adiposity American Flagg, Zot, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns — all groundbreaking works made possible (and economically viable) by direct market sales.

The increased democratization and shift to a more fan-based locus of distribution had their downsides, however. The funnybook biz has never been big on long-term thinking. As retailers’ shelves groaned beneath a glut of trend-chasing copycat titles (including roughly one trillion attempts to bite on the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and half-baked momentary darlings flared and fizzled, it became obvious that the center could not hold.

Most of the smaller local shops I frequented fell by the wayside, and even the ones that didn’t cut back on their inventories. I remember the back of the Newbury Comics store in Burlington being piled high with longboxes full of drek sold for pennies on the cover price dollar, and a short-lived shop next to the Wilmington arcade turning into a “who gives a fuck” rummage sale of over-ordered issues of Ex Mutants and Rock and Roll Comics.

The situation wasn’t helped by a rise in the speculative behavior which afflicts so much of comics fandom. The switch to direct market sales and increased insularity exacerbated these noxious tendencies by giving starry-eyed “collectors” a whole new crop of “hot” titles to flip for ludicrous profit.

The rise of smaller publishers and low print runs provided fertile ground for short-lived, hype-driven bouts of frenzy where the first issue of Comico’s Robotech: Macross Saga series could net you twenty bucks on the back issue market and Aircel’s The Adventurers

…briefly attained “wall book” status.

The majority of funnybook “fantasy” at the time fell into the retrograde virility of the Conan camp, the trippy revisionism of the Elric stuff, or the countercultural melodrama of Elfquest. The Adventurers, in contrast, pioneered the straight-up D&D approach which mirrored the banter, generic fantasy cliches, and laughable names associated with a gang of geeks gathered around a gaming table.

Consequently, it’s hard not to hear a d20 rolling a stat check or saving throw with every panel transition…

…or the nasal drone of a neckbearded Dorito-muncher with every fresh round of world-building exposition.

While the same formula has been applied to scores of funnybook/webcomic series over the past quarter century, it was something new and radical for game-and-comics geek set of 1986. My pal Damian, whose sense of imagination was essentially a charcoal rubbing of his latest mass media experiences, adored The Adventurers and shamelessly pilfered the series for material to use in his own tabletop campaigns. He wasn’t alone in this.

It also helped that The Adventurers looked good at a time when enthusiasm trumped artistic skill in the realm of black-and-white indie comics. The quality varies with the individual artists for the arc and issue, but generally sustains a solid John Buscema-meets-Erol Otus style which meshes perfectly with the intended vibe of the comic.

The Adventurers may not have been my cup of tea (as I was more than capable of half-assed reguritation of the same source material without need of an intermediary), but I can see why folks took a shine to it. It’s a shame it wasn’t allowed to cultivate its niche at its own pace, rather than be subjected to the stresses of being the NEXT BIG THING — complete with breathy fan press articles about how fantasy was going to supplant superheroes as the dominant comics genre — before fandom’s fickle updraft drifted off in search of another speculation-worthy target.

From “the future of the comics industry” to a footnote sans Wikipedia entry, the saga of The Adventurers was penned in the pathos-centric annals of Nobody’s Favorites.

5 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: Save versus deflation”

  1. Chris K

    Oh, God. Though I don’t think I ever actually saw a copy of this, I vividly remember it constantly turning up in those “HOT!” back issue ads that ran in Marvel & DC comics at the time (and, hey, remember when that was a thing?). And it always ran this screaming blurb “THE X-MEN OF FANTASY ADVENTURE!” (Attributed to, uh, some dude who has played D&D for 12 years!).

    And also, the second issue was apparently “FIRST ELF WARRIOR! VERY HOT!”

    I found it irritatingly crass at the time. Now I find it sort of charming. (Which probably says more about my deteriorating mental faculties than the merits of the venture. But still.)

  2. Mike Loughlin

    When I was 13, my older sister’s then-boyfriend let me borrow a few issues of Adventurers. I liked the art, which was nothing like the Marvel & DC output of the early ’90s. “Be careful,” he said of issue 2, “this issue’s worth, like, 30 bucks.” It was a third printing. I didn’t have the heart/ guts to tell him his estimate might be a tad optimistic.

  3. Matthew Johnson

    Ah, Aircel — the publisher that made Ottawa embarrassed.

  4. Snark Shark

    “briefly attained “wall book” status”

    I think it was because of those covers!

    “Rock and Roll Comics”

    There’s just WAY too many copies of the Warrant issue.

  5. LCB

    I’ll even admit to liking Adventurers sort of, though it started to experience a decline in it’s modest quality towards Vol. 2. I remember one local shop had a copy of the first issue with an alternative cover on the wall for $100. The black and white boom period is a source of fascination for me, partly because I keep coming across various titles and oddities from that time that are actually pretty entertaining – though a lot of it was junk, the half-baked product of amateurs, wannabes, hacks and hucksters it was truly a crazy time.

    As someone somewhere put it, people were practically breaking open their piggy banks in order publish their own versions of TMNT, their own Batman parodies, their own Daredevil parodies, their own X-men knockoffs, etc. whether they were amateurs with a dream or people who thought printing their B&W comics would lead to big $$$$$$$. “Black and white” was one of the selling points used to pitch these books to the public, it was just the thing because all of these publishers realized B&W was cheaper, though there were plenty of color comics put out by fly-by-night publishers during that same period of varying quality, again mostly crud.

    It was crazy times alright, I recall reading something on the period by someone who’d been in the comics publishing biz at the time, about how a secondary comics dealer called up a small publisher and offered to pay them for a 2nd printing of their recent hot title and sell them at premium prices as recently “discovered” 1st printings.

    And there were all sorts of mini-trends and fads during that period, Adventurers was pretty much the reason fantasy comics became the flavor of the month during that time, which was quickly abandoned when something else took the spotlight and garnered fevered speculation amongst the comics press.

    Even discounting the B&W crash and the Chromium crash there’ve been all of these mini-booms and busts over the years, centered around everything from “bad girl” cheesecake books to “action figures based on small press comics” proving that a lot of people never learn anything as you sift through your local comic shop and come across stacks of backissues of Sneering Girl With Back Problems Comix and some limited edition Nira X Cyberangel figures with transparent breastplate.

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