Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Marvel In Your Mailbox

It wasn't until the mid-1970s when I began spotting Marvel cranking up its own subscription service. At the time, dedicated comic book stores were still a ways off, and those of us who were getting our feet wet with comics collecting were forced to make the rounds at newsstands or the spinner racks at drug stores or mini-markets to pick up the books we wanted--locally covering as wide a radius as possible, in order to compensate for walk-in traffic that may have hit our spot(s) before us, or a particular vendor possibly not stocking a title or two on our list. Eventually, it made more sense to take advantage of some of the mail-order comics vendors who were popping up in the nested ads pages found tucked into our comics, featuring dealers who stocked in bulk and offered to pull, package and mail your monthly books to you, a method which seemed (you'll excuse the phrase) made to order for those who didn't have the time or perseverance to "hunt" for their comics, while also allowing buyers to get their books in as pristine a condition as possible.

If you went that route, you had to shop around for the most reliable company to meet your needs, and cost was definitely a factor in your decision since you had to consider shipping costs along with the sticker price of your books; there might also have been miscellaneous "handling" fees attached, since these vendors had to make sure their business made a profit. It also stood to reason these private vendors may not have been cut a deal by Marvel for buying in bulk--and like any distributor, they would have had to monitor supply and demand carefully and adjust the cost of their service accordingly. (Usually in the upwards direction.) And they weren't the only ones who had to keep an eye on things. I remember finding a vendor in Canada that provided good service, for awhile at least--and then there were unexplained delays that had me on the phone with them (on my dime, at that) more often than not, finally making it necessary to find another supplier.

When local comics dealers began popping up, a lot of that hassle became a thing of the past, since these shops also offered to maintain "pull lists" of the books you wanted. Each time you came in, your books were waiting for you, practically guaranteed; when the books arrived at the shop, those customers with lists received priority and had their books pulled and stashed immediately, assuring that even a book that was likely to sell out quickly would be in your stack whenever you made it into the store. To encourage a steady customer base, most of these stores also cut the buyer a deal and discounted the cost of your stack (usually around 10%, which wasn't bad and was pretty consistent with other such stores)--and since the stores wanted to remain competitive with each other, there were no other fees to deal with, which eventually became the kiss of death for mail-order vendors who began shifting much of their focus to back-issue sales.

Yet back in the day, when Marvel got their foot in the door and offered their own subscription service, it obviously put them in direct competition with independent mail order suppliers--though Marvel weren't necessarily the best choice simply because you were getting your books straight from the source. Clearly Marvel saw the value of advertising the fact that you were assured of getting each and every copy on your list, as opposed to taking your chances in finding them on your own; but despite the implication that shipments were timely, their mailings tended to lag behind their competitors, sometimes to the tune of weeks. (And since Marvel made no mention of shipping costs, the cause of delay was likely attributed to how efficient their operation was at collecting and packaging the books and getting them to the post office.) In addition, you had to sign up for a 12-month subscription for each book you ordered, a cost which you paid up front--which in turn forced you to keep a careful accounting of receiving the full year's shipment of every book on your list. On the bright side, the cost markup seemed reasonable; depending on the price of the comic at the time you subscribed, Marvel was making a 40-50¢ profit on each subscription, which was probably funneled into postal costs.

If you decided to wait until the '80s to become a Marvel subscriber, you were rewarded for biding your time since Marvel, like many subscription services, eventually found it necessary to offer enticements to its subscribers and forgo its profit in favor of a larger customer base. For instance, at the time that Dr. Doom was drafted into being a common sales hawker, the price of a comic was 50¢, which meant that each 12-issue subscription at $5.00 was saving you $1.00, a cost that Marvel ate (along with postal costs) in order to get your business. The good doctor's terms saved you even more if you subscribed to at least four titles, giving you one subscription at no cost.

In essence, Marvel's subscription service amounted to a method to drum up business. It was no doubt your best deal if you preferred to get your books by having them shipped to you, albeit with certain drawbacks that weren't present with independent suppliers. But with the proliferation of local comics retailers, and with those stores cutting their own deals with customers, mail order subscription services mostly went the way of the dinosaur domestically and in other parts of the world where such shops sprung up and thrived. Yet in their heydey, they certainly did their part to fuel the collecting bug that had bitten many of us, something which may also have waned with changing times.


googum said...

I miss when Conan was a de facto Marvel character...

johnlindwall said...

I know that I subscribed to some comics when I was a lad, for sure Spider-Man and I think I tried some DC also. I didn't do this a lot because the condition of the comics was terrible- the flat mailer would often get rolled or crumpled up by my postman. Also, we had Pacific Comic within bike-ride distance in the 70s so was lucky enough to have an LCS in the early days.

Comicsfan said...

Come to think of it, john, I believe I occasionally spotted a Pacific Comics ad in those nested classified areas. Right in your back yard, eh? Good for you!

johnlindwall said...

Yeah, that's right! It was started by a couple of teenagers, the Schanes brothers, in San Diego. They started by buying/selling new and back issues that they bought from canvassing all the newstands and 7-11s in their area. They advertised in the Comics Buyer and in those little ads in comics. They eventually opened (I think) three storefronts in San Diego. Later they ventured into publishing and were an early advocate of creator's rights attracting talent such as Jack Kirby and Mike Grell (two of my favorites!)

Anonymous said...

I had a great experience with Marvel's subscription service. I had three monthly ones, back in the early '80's. At that point I was fourteen or fifteen, and I had myself a paper route. I'd hafta go to the post office in our little town after school to pick up the bundles of newspapers, and also get the mail for my family, as so ordered by my mother. I had three subscriptions (which varied) so three times a month I got one of those little brown bombers mailed flat! (they had brown packaging)
Boy howdy! It was always a good day when I got my Conan or Avengers or whatever the heck else I was into at the time. It was an antidote to how much school sucked.
Ah, simple pleasures. Were we ever so young?
I love that ad at the top. I remember seeing that as a kid and not knowing who Captain Marvel was.


Comicsfan said...

M.P., I had a similar feeling whenever I'd order back issues and the package was unexpectedly dropped in my lap when I got home from school. (These were the days before you were able to track your package, of course.) What a treat to see those comics I'd waited for.