Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Life and Death of The Comics Buyer's Guide

On January 9, 2013, I received word -- over the Internet, naturally -- that the Comics Buyer’s Guide would be ceasing publication this month, at the nerve-wrackingly-uneven issue number of 1,6999.  On January 12, 2013, I received that issue in the mail.  Word of the cancellation came after the issue went to press, so the issue itself said nothing about the publication’s end.  It merely set forth the usual contents of CBG at the time of its demise: A broad “news” article about comicst that would be coming out in 2013; columns about comics of the past; and reviews of comics and books that came out months ago.

All of which gives a clue as to why CBG finally ended, after nearly 45 years of publication: The Internet rendered it practically obsolete; and the decline of print put the final nail in its coffin.

To understand the impact of CBG’s demise upon me, you would have to flash back to 1978, when 13-year-old me succumbed to the temptation of the ads CBG’s predecessor publication, The Buyer’s Guide for Comic Fandom,  put in comic books of the era, and sent in an absurdly small amount of money to subscribe to what was then called TBG.  I say absurdly small because at that time, TBG consisted of a huge, multiple-section newspaper that came out weekly.  Each week brought a new piece of cover art (often by a comics professional; sometimes in full color); multiple pages of columns; news features; spot illustrations; comic strips about the comics world; and ads.  The ads, of course, were the reason that TBG subs were so cheap; they paid for the paper.  At that time, TBG was edited and published by Alan Light, who pasted up camera-ready ads (often handwritten) and columns for the paper.  The size of each issue varied with the number of ads sold for it; but usually there were plenty of ads.  Ads from comics shops.  Ads from budding independent comics publishers.  Ads from individual sellers of original art and comics.  Ads from Marvel and DC, promoting their comics.

I learned of independently- published comics, such as CEREBUS and ELFQUEST.  I learned of the then-hot comics creators, John Byrne and Chris Claremont and Marshall Rogers.  I learned more about the creators of the past who were still working in comics then -- folks like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Wally Wood -- and their places in comics history.  Since the subjects columnists such as cat yronwode, Terry Beatty, and Don and Maggie Thompson ranged afield of comics, I learned about such pop culture subjects as Buddy Holly’s music, John Wayne movies, punk rock, and classic science fiction.

When I went to my first convention -- the 1980 San Diego Comic-Con -- I learned about its details from an ad in TBG.  I even occasionally sent away for the exotic collectibles sold in its pages.  For instance, in 1981 comics writer Doug Moench placed a half-page ad selling original art from comics he’d written, at ridiculously low prices.  I bought a Steve Ditko Hulk page and a George Perez Fantastic Four page from him for practically lunch money.

As I maintained my subscription over the years, and then over the decades, changes set in.  In 1983, Alan Light sold the newspaper to Krause Publications.  It hired columnists Don and Maggie Thompson as the editors, renamed the paper the Comic Buyers Guide, and standardized the paper.  Now all features and ads were typeset, there were news items with headlines, and there was even -- gasp -- a table of contents and an index of advertisers, signs that the contents of each issue were more planned than thrown together.  It was around this time that my first professional publication credit appeared in CBG -- a trivia quiz, for which I received around $13.  (On the other hand, after that publication, whenever I met Don and Maggie Thompson, Don remembered my name.)

 This was when comic shops and independent comics were burgeoning, and CBG appeared to thrive as a weekly source for late-breaking comics news.  It also featured “O’So,” a huge letter column in which rivalries and disputes between comics professionals played out.

In the early ‘80s, CBG was apparently selling well enough to generate a spinoff: A regular-sized magazine, to be sold on newsstands alongside other hobby magazines.  It was pretty good, but I doubt it was a commercial success: It lasted only a few issues.

CBG’s core concept (and its editorial strategizing) was durable enough to bob and weave through several decades of changing comics and publishing landscape.  Although it kept its newspaper format and weekly publication schedule for some time, it shrank to half its previous height and increased its use of color.  Finally, in 2003, with the Internet supplying everyone with news faster than even a weekly publication could, CBG transformed into a comics-sized monthly magazine.  And incredibly, it survived like that for almost another ten years.  Not without sacrifices: When it ended, CBG was a thin publication, optimistic but with little to recommend it to young readers.

CBG’s ending was perhaps inevitable.  For more than 15 years, isolated comics fans have connected with fandom through the Internet, not the mailbox.  They don’t need a weekly print newspaper to learn the history of the medium; websites (along with a few select highly-focused magazines, such as ALTER EGO and BACK ISSUE) provide data at the click of a mouse.  Today’s fans would likely look at a messy 1970’s issue of THE BUYER’S GUIDE the way modern shoppers look at vintage Sears Catalogs: curiosities filled with hard-to-read prose and foreign products.

TBG/CBG served a purpose, and served it well.  The purpose fulfilled, it has moved on into history.  Farewell.

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