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.