I come to bury Comics Buyer’s Guide, not to praise it.
The venerable comic book hobby publication ceased publication with its March 2013 issue. This was announced back in January and reaction was swift, heartfelt and fondly nostalgic. The consensus was that CBG was just not made for these times. The internet had robbed CBG of its usefulness, and the hobby had changed too much for Comics Buyer’s Guide to remain profitable.
And all that is true. However, mired in mourning, many writers have white-washed the history of CBG a bit. There’s more to the post-mortem than “’twas the internet that killed the beast.” In a day when several magazines about comics are thriving, we need to look behind the cover story to get to the real truth. I picked up the final issue of CBG, and I’m going to take a detailed look at it to see why it may have failed.
First, let me explain my credentials: I have been involved with Comics Buyer’s guide as a subscriber, an advertiser, the subject of a review, and a freelance contributor (once).
I signed up as a subscriber in the early 1980s, soon after the then tabloid’s founder, Alan Light, sold what was then THE Buyer’s Guide (to comic fandom) to Krause Publications, a leading hobby publisher. I’d actually sampled the Alan Light version and found it to be an unreadable mess of hand-written ads and bad fan art, with hardly any editorial content.
Krause had put Don and Maggie Thompson in charge, and cleaned up the layout to make it look professional, but CBG was still largely an adzine, 90% advertising from dealers all over the world. In the pre-internet days, this was how people bought rare collectibles, either by mail-order or in person, at shows. I was more interested in the behind the scenes goings on, which is why I’d been reading The Comics Journal and Comic Reader since the late 1970s.
Under the Thompsons, CBG introduced some great columns by people like Mark Evanier and Heidi MacDonald, plus they brought in some great fan artists who would eventually turn pro, but they also ran a lot of press releases as news items and strived not to rock the boat and offend any potential advertisers. Don and Maggie were beloved pioneers of comic book fandom, and they were a good, safe choice to make the fanzine seem more professional. “Safe” is the key word here.
They also ran reviews of comics, which were not quite so bland, but still left a bit to be desired for reasons I’ll get to later.
If you were a comic book fan who really wanted to know what was going on in the business, you bought The Comics Journal, which contained real, hard-hitting journalism, along with reviews and editorials that were often laughably pretentious and laboriously over-written. If their publisher wanted to release a Comics Journal companion, they could have just published a Thesarus.
Even back in the 1980s, Comics Buyer’s Guide lived up to its name. It was the publication that you bought if you wanted to buy comics. If you actually wanted to read them, or read about them, you’d have been better served elsewhere.
But still it was a popular and ubiquitous publication. Every comic book shop had a current copy laying around somewhere. It was weekly, and had a few pages of reading material spread out among the ad pages.
Because of its spot as the leading hobby publication (distribution-wise), when it came time to advertise CODA, the comic book I helped publish and edit back in the late-1980s, we spent all our money on rather expensive half-page ads in CBG.
The ad staff were great, supportive people, and they always gave us positve (yet honest) feedback on our book.
And then Don Thompson wrote a review of CODA.
When you create an artistic object, be it music, dance, painting, writing, or drawing, you develop a love/hate relationship with criticism. Constructive criticism is wonderful and helpful, even if it’s negative. However, when it’s clear that the reviewer gave your book a cursory glance, tossed it aside and hacked out a hatchet job…
…well that stings.
That was when I called our ad manager and expressed my concern that the magazine where we spent one-third of our total budget not only trashed our book, but did it in a manner which made it clear the reviewer hadn’t bothered reading it.
He put me through to Don. When I explained why I was upset, I expected him to hide behind journalistic ethics and say that buying advertising does not guarantee a postive review. I thought the review was unfair, but I would have accepted that.
Instead, I got yelled at for not enclosing a tear-sheet of my ad so that he would know not to trash our book. He turned it around to being my fault. I’d made him look bad to the ad manager of the book. I was a bit stunned, being more naive at the time. He was gruff, unprofessional and ended the conversation with “Send me the second issue with a tear sheet and I’ll give the damned thing a glowing review!’
My PR cherry had been busted.
We canceled our advertising contract and never sent another copy of CODA to CBG again. It turned out that Maggie Thompson was the kind, gentle, lovable and ethical person…and apparently opposites attract.
I got my revenge by drawing Don Thompson into a Spud backup strip in a later issue of CODA.
We never placed any advertising with Fantagraphics, the folks who publish The Comics Journal. They gave our book to their underground comics reviewer, who did not like it, but obviously read it before writing his review. We also received lots of positive press in another Fantagraphics publication, Amazing Heroes, which at the time was edited by Mark Waid.
After CODA, I let my subscription lapse to CBG, and watched as the excreble Wizard Magazine marginalized CBG and sort of ruined the hobby by priasing horrible artists and focusing on the speculators market.
A few years later, Melanie Larch and I started covering animation for The Charleston Gazette and found ourselves with a big story on our hands. Nickelodeon had fired John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy, from his show. John, for some reason, spilled his guts to us.
The story got so big, and had been covered in-depth so much in The Gazette, that we decided to shop an expanded version of it around to the comic book press. The Comics Journal already had a reporter on the story, so I decided, as a last resort, to pitch it to CBG.
It ran, which shocked me since CBG never really covered much in the way of controversies until they were safely over. Working with Don was the worst experience of my life as a professional writer. It took a year-and-half to get paid, and the check was for less than half of what we’d agreed on.
Chalk it up to experience.
The reason I’m sharing this all with you is so that you can determine for yourself what may be an obvious bias on my part. To me, the only surprise about CBG’s cancellation was that it took so long.
So I bought the final issue, and I can tell you a few things about it that might explain why CBG #1699 was the last edition of what, over the course of almost forty-two years, had mutated into comics’ most irrelevant magazine.
CBG is magazine-sized now, and had been dropped from weekly to monthly publication in 2004. It was downgraded to really cheap paper in 2009. The final issue contained a mere sixty pages, including covers, with twenty interior pages printed in color on white newsprint, and the rest printed in black-and-white on gray, low-grade newsprint. It retailed for $5.99.
Six bucks for a flimsy pamphlet is a bit much.
The first thing you notice when flipping through the magazine is how depressing it is. The logo is just god-awful. The cover design is both busy and ugly. Announcements about the next issue, which will never be published, are all over the book. That the book was killed just one issue shy of two milestones, issue #1700 and thirty years as a Krause Publication, shows either how unimportant the magazine was, or how much money it had been losing.
If you’ve ever walked into a department store which is obviously going out of business, with no new merchandise and sparsely-stocked shelves, then you’ve felt what it’s like flipping through the final CBG. They just hadn’t told the employees yet.
There are ads for CGC, the comics grading service which I detest. Basically, you send them a comic book. They grade it. Then they send it back to you permanently sealed in an airtight plasitc container to preserve their grade. If you ever want to read it, you have to destroy the container and get it graded again. It’s called “slabbing” and it makes as much sense as buying an ounce of gold, and having it encased in a block of cement for safe-keeping. CGC bought the expensive, color, inside-front-cover ad. Comics Buyer’s Guide had been a cheerleader for this tawdry scam since day one.
Let’s get on to the content. The cover story is a nice, bland puff piece previewing upcoming comics from the major publishers. It’s not bad, but there’s no information in it that wasn’t all over the internet two months earlier.
This is followed by a couple of nice articles that would be right at home as blog entries and part two of a 2012-in-review column by Tony Isabella, who will be coming to TriCon in Huntington in April. Then we get fourteen pages of capsule reviews of comics, many of which are months, or even a year, old. I write reviews, and the idea of reviewing reviewers is a little too meta for me, but there’s nothing here that you couldn’t find, in larger, more immediate doses, on the internet.
After that there’s five or six pages of market reports, which are basically enhanced advertising for dealers. The classified ads, which used to be the primary source of income for CBG, now take up one-fifth of one page. Then there’s a page and a half of convention ads, disguised as a “directory.”
“Oh, So?” the letters page, is a shadow of its former self, with guided conversations taking up most of its four pages. We get a little more Isabella, then three color pages presenting the ten favorite comic book covers of some guy I never heard of who just happens to have a new book out published by Krause, CBG’s parent company.It’s filler.
That’s followed by a nice, but extremely brief interview with Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead. Maggie Thompson contributes two pages of positive, happy commentary. The magazine wraps up with a reprint of an old “But I Digress” column by Peter David, that does not mention the stroke he suffered in December. (He’s doing much better now)
My gut reaction to CBG is regret that I paid six bucks for that.
It’s partly true that the internet rendered this magazine irrelevant. But to be honest, CBG hasn’t been relevant to the comics industry for about a quarter century now. This was a slow decline, and the demise of CBG seems more like a mercy killing. The most interesting material in this magazine will migrate to the web effortlessly.
There are still great magazines devoted to comics out there. The Comics Journal comes out as a book-sized annual. TwoMorrows publishes several magazines devoted to the people who make comic books, and is introducing a new one, Comic Book Creator, very soon. Future Pubs, the UK firm who put out slick, huge magazines that are sold in envelopes with freebies have a mag devoted to comics. The demise of CBG cannot be pinned solely on the decline of magazines in general. Plus there are dozens of well-done websites that are thriving and deliver up-to-the-minute news.
The saddest thing about the end of Comics Buyer’s Guide is that it won’t be missed.