Ghosts of Comics’ Past – Comic Distro

By | April 18th, 2022
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Multiversity’s history column is breaking format a bit this week. Instead of scanning multiple events from decades ago, I’m going to follow up on a recent event. Today marks the one-year anniversary of Comic Distro, a distributor with a revolutionary approach to supplying products. Where did it come from, how has it grown since its launch, and what future does it have?

The roots of Comic Distro stretch back to in 1979 in Houston, Texas, when founder Austin Osueke was born. His early years were spent making his own comics based on animation and comic strip characters, but he wasn’t introduced to comic books until him mom bought him a copy of “Uncanny X-Men” #283 in late 1991, right after he turned 12. Before long, he discovered “Wizard” magazine and was the target audience for the industry boom in the early 1990s. He dove into the hobby, enjoying superheroes, “Groo,” and “Maus” with equal pleasure. Like everyone else at the time, he was a Jim Lee fan. The formation of Image in 1992 made a major impact on Osueke, inspiring him to be his own publisher one day.

An equally influential moment from the same era was Osueke’s first experience with manga. Through 1992, Viz reprinted the late 80s Eclipse series “Xenon: Heavy Metal Warrior” in four trade paperbacks. That exposed Osueke to the original Eclipse publications, which were released in the standard comic book format instead of the modern, thicker tankoban format. As Osueke drifted away from superheroes later in the decade, manga kept him involved in comic books. Because of manga, he took a Japanese class in high school, where he was introduced to anime. He created Dragonball Z fan fiction and eventually shared some of his material with a comic editor at a local comic convention. The editor was encouraging, motivating Osueke to pursue the dream further.

Being the late 1990s and the era of the Dot Com bubble, it was natural for Osueke to combine the internet with publishing. While attending San Francisco State University for Business Management in 2000, he founded eigoManga, a website where he and his friends could share their manga-influenced material. The name translates literally as “English Language Comics,” and one of the biggest challenges Osueke and others faced was resistance to manga material by non-Japanese creators. Aside from incendiary comments from readers on message boards, eigoManga was also mocked by industry professionals at Viz.

Despite that, eigoManga persisted with high quality material and its best features found their way to print editions carried by retailers like Tower Records and Borders Booksellers. In 2005, a partnership with Devil’s Due helped them penetrate further into the comic market. Remembering how much he had enjoyed the format of “Xenon,” all eigoManga material was published in the standard comic dimensions and page count. Osueke continued to promote digital distribution methods, including a high-profile keynote speech at Anime Expo 2009 following a change in policy at Diamond Distribution that worried many indie comic creators. After touching on alternative distributors like Haven or SLG, and online platforms like Keenspot or Drunk Duck, he went on to describe a concept that would allow readers to buy a comic after reading a digital sample.

Over the years, Osueke watched, supported, and contributed to online distribution companies like Comixology and Crunchyroll. He gained publishing experience as he found ways to get eigoManga books into schools and libraries. He made industry contacts who shared his frustration with Diamond’s role as a gatekeeper for the direct market, controlling whose books would be available for purchase. He continued talking about the possibilities for online distribution at conventions. In 2021, he was ready to launch his vision as a new company – one that would offer other publishers an alternative to Diamond: Comic Distro.

At a glance, April 2021 doesn’t seem like an ideal time to launch a business. The Covid-19 pandemic was about a year old, and the Delta variant was emerging as a new worry. Vaccines were becoming widely available, but only about a third of the US population had received full doses. Inflation was starting to rear its head, although we were told it would only be transitory. Most people still felt this was the time to hunker down and play it safe. Then again, most people aren’t entrepreneurs.

Continued below

From another perspective, April 2021 was a great time to launch a comic distribution business. Diamond’s brief shutdown in Spring 2020 reminded everyone how fragile the direct market system was, as retailers and publishers who were otherwise able to operate had few or no options to get new product. DC quickly upset the status quo by leaving Diamond for two upstart distributors, Lunar and UCS. Six months later, Marvel switched from Diamond to Penguin, with IDW following soon after. Diamond, who had some financial issues prior to pandemic disruptions, looked to be on very shaky ground. Historically, the best time to enter an exsiting market is one of disruption, not one of stability.

With help from freelance tech support Kishan Dodiya, Osueke built a new online platform. With advice from retired bookstore owner Dianne Edmonds and toy distributor Paul Astwood, he developed a distribution model. Comic Distro launched as a print-on-demand system where publishers could upload versions of their material, and retailers could establish an account to buy whichever ones they wish. The comics were printed by Robinson Anderson Print and Fulfillment, the California company who had printed eigoManga material for many years. One of Comic Distro’s main advantages is that all of its titles are continuously available for order, and there’s no warehousing cost. Prices and printing details are all set by the publisher.

Out of the gate, Comic Distro offered titles from eight publishers, including eigoManga and Spoof Comics. A press release was sent to various media outlets, generating a wave of coverage from sites like Comics Beat and Bleeding Cool. The new distributor received a surprise less than a month later when TidalWave Productions joined the platform and made its full back-catalog available. Osueke had imagined Comic Distro as a tool for small or new publishers to get a foothold in the industry, so the support of a larger, established publisher like TidalWave motivated them to maintain and grow their model to support bigger partners. TidalWave also introduced Osueke to Toledo Global Services, a Canadian print-on-demand service that aligned with the distributor’s needs for its expanding business model.

After its launch, Osueke’s team initiated meetings with the Nigerian publisher Comic Republic. International publishers are one of the market sectors Comic Distro had been designed to appeal to, and Osueke was determined to show he could help them overcome the logistical issues of North American distribution. Comic Republic added its titles to the Comic Distro catalog in June, and the momentum kept building. In September, Comic Distro added Argentinian comic book publisher UMC Comics and surpassed its 500th item offered on the catalog.

One year into operation, Comic Distro now boasts over 600 comics from 24 active publishers. Their most successful products have come from genres outside the comic book mainstream, such as biographies. Their most popular item has been their Dolly Parton books from TidalWave. One of the unique features of Comic Distro remains its messaging system that allows publishers and retailers to communicate directly. There are currently 18 active retailer accounts, including some that are outside the comic-specialty arena. Comic Distro also has regular contact with over 40,000 book and comic stores, some of whom prefer to receive custom title lists instead of browsing the full catalog.

Osueke is pleased with how Comic Distro has performed so far, and plans for the future are simple and achievable. He wants to keep growing, and is planning to build a sales team to provide better service to both retailers and publishers. He’s also heard from a large segment of readers who would like to buy their books direct, rather than try convincing their local comic shop to open an account. That wasn’t an avenue Osueke anticipated, but it’s one he’s looking into. After all, helping others get what they want has been the basis for his whole career.

//TAGS | Ghosts of Comics' Past

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include annotations for "MIND MGMT", the Small Press Spotlight, Lettering Week, and Variant Coverage. He currently writes about the history of comic comic industry. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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