by KC Carlson
(Author’s note: This article is a behind-the-scenes historical piece about the early – and ancient – days of Direct Comic Distribution – so it’s pretty much one for all the process junkies out there – and I know you’re out there! For the rest of you who just read these columns for the (alleged) jokes, you are hereby advised to skip to the end, where I put the funny stories about poison, cockroaches, soda cans, and my mentor in my life of crime that never actually happened.)
I started working at Capital City Distribution (CCD) in January of 1982, less than two years after the company first started. CCD eventually grew to become one of the largest Direct Market Comic Book Distributors in the world, and it was probably one of the most exciting and interesting places to work during those early days when the workings of the comic book industry were changing virtually week by week. (Unfortunately, in the mid-90s, the big comic publishers chose to go exclusive with Diamond, leading to CCD’s eventual purchase by that former competitor in 1996.) I had previously met both co-founders Milton Griepp and John Davis when my friend and employer Herman Shiltz and I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, on occasion to help them unload and sort large collections (truckfulls) of comics that they had purchased.
Herman was working in a record store/head shop called Truckers Union when I first met him in either 1975 or 1976. I was a college student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, desperately trying to find a place to buy comics that wasn’t miles from the campus. Truckers Union carried underground comics but nothing mainstream, so I asked Herman why not. He replied that he didn’t know that mainstream comics even existed any longer, as he had not seen any in years. So I told him that I was a comics collector and that comics were still indeed being published, but that they were getting harder and harder to find. When I returned to the store the following week, Herman told me about encountering a collection of vintage Silver Age Superman comics while visiting his parents that weekend, which he had read and really enjoyed. He then told me that he wanted to try carrying mainstream comics in the store and asked if I could teach him more about what was available and what was good. So I ended up helping out and hanging out at the store on a regular basis.
I’m a little fuzzy about this next part, but I believe that Truckers was already getting an assortment of alternative lifestyle magazines through either WIND (Wisconsin Independent News Distributors) or Big Rapids Distribution, where John and Milton were working at the time. Eventually, they set up a comics account for Truckers as well. When John and Milton formed Capital City Distribution in 1980, I think that Truckers Union was one of CCD’s first accounts.
A Big Decision
At one of those unloading/sorting sessions in Madison, Milton informed us that he was looking for people to help CCD do an inventory of their back issue stock. I was available to help, so I traveled to Madison for several days to count comic books while crashing on a friend’s sofa at night. After inventory was completed, Milton then asked me if I was interested in a part-time job at CCD. I told him that I would love to join. However, I still lived in Eau Claire, and for me to make the move to Madison, I would have to have more than a part-time job. He replied that he was sorry, but that was all that was available at the time.
Frustrated that I couldn’t take the job, I was discussing this situation with long-time Capital City Comics owner Bruce Ayres, whom I had been buying comics from since the mid-70s (when I wasn’t in Eau Claire for college). He told me that his then-wife Sherill was starting a new fairly new mail order comic service called Westfield and suggested that maybe she also needed some part-time help. Between the two jobs, I could afford to move permanently to Madison. Bruce was right, and Sherill offered me part-time work at Westfield. Frankly, I was much more interested in working at Westfield as I really liked the people I met there (especially Sherill).
I called Milton back and told him about the Westfield job offer, which would allow me to take the CCD job after all. Miraculously, he said that CCD could now hire me full-time while also making it clear that he didn’t want me to work for both companies – perhaps feeing that it would be a potential conflict, as Westfield was a major account of CCD. Checking back with Sherill, I discovered that she regretfully could not afford at that time to take on another full-time employee, but she made me promise to contact her again if things didn’t work out with CCD. So, somewhat frustrated about how everything had worked out, but determined to make the best of it, I accepted CCD’s job offer.
At CCD, I started out pulling back issue reorders for their accounts, but as they slowly began to realize the depths of my knowledge about the comics industry (and my previous stint in distribution as a high schooler), they moved me into working the main part of their business – weekly distribution. Back then, New Comics Day was on Friday, but the physical distribution process actually began every week on Wednesday, when CCD’s truck would leave Madison, Wisconsin, to pick up the new comics in Sparta, Illinois, where – at that point in time – most comics were printed at World Color Press. The truck would generally arrive back in Madison sometime on Thursday afternoon, when the actual distribution process would begin. First up was the physical unloading of the truck.
The Yellow Zone is for the Loading and Unloading of Comic Books
Since the early CCD warehouse did not have a loading dock, the truck’s hundreds of boxes would have to be unloaded by hand. Prior to the actual unloading, someone would compile a tie-line, a complete listing of all of that week’s products that were to be distributed. From this tie-line, the floor of the warehouse would be pre-marked with the titles of the comics. Marvel and DC Comics were always on the front line of the warehouse floor. (They were the titles with the most copies to be distributed and take up most of the physical space available.) Smaller titles would be lined up – in order – behind the front line.
At first, the boxes of comics had to be carried (or if we had enough people at the time, “chain-ganged” down a line of people) to the point where they would be placed. Later, the bosses purchased some portable roller platforms, which allowed us to roll the boxes the length of the warehouse to where they would be placed in the tie-line by hand. The rollers were much loved as they saved a lot of wear and tear on backs and shoulders over the long haul.
Once the truck was unloaded and everything was in place, everything had to be counted and the boxes quickly inspected for damage. There was always some, as comics – especially in those days – were notoriously fragile, and many of our accounts were understandably sticklers on condition, because many of their customers were.
After inventory and inspection, we then carefully broke open the comics boxes and set up the tie-line on our long tables. These work tables were specially made from scratch, as they needed to be strong, long, huge, and relatively seamless once they were all lined up. They ran practically the full length of the warehouse. To start the inventory, we generally put about 300-400 copies of each issue of the comics on the tables – in order. This may sound like a lot, but most of the time the piles didn’t last long, and they would have to be restocked frequently. Here’s where the importance of the tie-line came in – when you ran out of a title, generally all you had to do was turn around, since more boxes of the same title were pretty much directly behind you, saving a tremendous amount of time in not having to physically find the box.
Zing Went the Strings of My Heart
Back then, the comics from World Color would come string-bound in bundles of 50. This was both good and bad. It was great for us as it made it much simpler to count, say 65 copies, for an account – grab a bundle of 50, and grab another 15 copies from another bundle, meaning we only had to count 15 copies instead of 65. (NOTE: It was always very important to remember to cut the string on any “broken” bundle, so it wouldn’t be mistaken for a full 50.) The string ties were also bad, as they were generally tied by machine at the presses and were frequently tied too tight – almost always damaging the top and bottom copies of each bundle. Occasionally, the bundles were tied much too tight, damaging several copies of each bundle, as well as possibly warping the entire bundle.
String-tie damage was hotly contested by retailers, distributors, and printers alike during the early years of the Direct Market. When upscale formats and better paper were introduced to comics in the mid-80’s (generally printed at places other than World Color), string-tie damage ceased to be a factor from those printers, as few of them used string ties. But it got to be such an issue with World Color that I believe that string-tie damage was compensated by the printer. It caused us lots of headaches in the warehouse. I tried to keep an eye out for badly damaged books, swapping them out for better copies from open bundles whenever possible, but larger accounts (who were ordering hundreds of copies of some titles), generally got sealed cases of 300 comics – all still string-tied, because with the volume of books moving through the system in a single evening, there was simply not enough time to inspect every single copy (or count out 300 individual copies by hand). So, accepting damage returns from our accounts (which probably didn’t make them very happy either) became a part of our weekly routine during our non-distribution days.
The order in which we packed accounts seldom ever changed from week to week (unless we added new accounts, which actually happened pretty frequently as the Direct Market was growing by leaps and bounds in those days). There was a strict sequence, mostly determined by how the comics were to be shipped. Always first were the accounts that used Air Freight, which at this point was sadly a necessity for West Coast accounts who want to compete with their competitors by having their comics on the racks on Friday – New Comics Day. (Eventually, the comics industry both improved shipping arrangements and moved New Comics Day to Wednesday to alleviate a lot of the craziness involved with shipping so much product in so short a time. Now everyone could have their new comics by the all-important weekend selling days, without bankrupting themselves with shipping costs. Ultimately, it didn’t exactly work out exactly like everybody hoped – but that’s another story!)
Air Freight went out first, because it had an actual set deadline imposed by the airlines. When these packages were done, they were loaded on a CCD company van and driven across town to the airport – a trip which included a 20 MPH hairpin exit ramp from one highway to another. I found out that was completely harrowing when I had to drive the route one night when the regular driver was unavailable. Having not driven cargo vans very often, I was quite surprised when my load (later estimated at about a ton and a half) suddenly shifted on me, and I went down part of the hairpin ramp tipped on two wheels. It was the first – and last time – I drove the van. It was, however, great experience for learning to drive clown cars at the circus.
Second, there were several UPS accounts that requested shipping to arrive on Friday, so they would have to be packed up and delivered to UPS before their cut-off time (somewhere around 8 PM). Early on, this required another cross-town trip, but later UPS opened a branch just around the corner from CCD, making this requirement much easier. Third was another van-load of stuff – CCD’s Minneapolis route. CCD had a number of major accounts in the Twin Cities (and along the route), so those orders had to be done fairly early, so the van could make the overnight trip to deliver comics by Friday morning.
These three groups included most of CCD’s largest accounts and virtually everybody who were to get their comics delivered by Friday (with the exception of one last group). By now, it was well into Thursday evening, and we had been working at a frantic pace (usually without a break) up to this point. But there was one more account to do before we could take a break – CCD’s largest single account, Westfield Comics. Thankfully, it was also the easiest to deal with, since early on, Westfield shared the same building as CCD. Which meant all we had to do was gather their books together in one place, and then they would move them across the hall with hand trucks. (Later, after they outgrew their warehouse, Westfield would come with their own van or truck to pick up their books).
While the Westfield crew were busy counting and preparing the new books for their own shipping, the CCD crew could finally take a breather. By now, it was midnight or later. The folks that had been working most of the day – and into the night – went home for the evening, as most of them would be required to be back Friday morning to spell the all-night crew – of which I was a member, at least in my early days at CCD. The rest of us, usually a small crew of 4 to 6 people, took a quick meal break and went back to work at a slightly more humane pace, pulling and packing the larger accounts that didn’t care about getting their books on Friday and would be shipped out via UPS in the morning.
But first we had to clean up the warehouse, which as you can probably imagine was a huge mess after the whirlwind activity of the previous several hours. Literally hundreds of empty boxes had to be either stacked for re-use as shipping boxes or collapsed for recycling. Amazingly, what was a warehouse relatively full of sealed boxes of comics a few hours earlier was now almost completely empty, as the remaining comics were stacked on the sorting tables, and the only full boxes that might be left were of the mega-titles like Uncanny X-Men or New Teen Titans. Then, a thorough sweeping of the warehouse floor was in order, since there were hundreds of cut string ties and other plastic binders, as well as our original tie-line markers, which were no longer needed.
All Night Long
The rest of the all-night shift was somewhat like magic hour. There was a sort of rarified magic about being up that late – usually fueled by lots of caffeinated beverages and sugary junk food – plus plenty of great music blaring away on the boom box and a spirit of camaraderie for staying awake all night doing something we loved. As long as we got our work done, we could work at any pace we wanted. We even managed to sneak a quick read of our favorite titles – before anyone else had the opportunity to do so! I spent a little free time investigating the things that I didn’t collect or read. It was an incredibly exciting time for comics with new publishers, new titles, and new creators entering the field virtually every week, and I spent as much time as I could spare, investigating and absorbing as much as I could. I knew I had an incredible advantage to be able to take it all in like this.
Along about 4 AM or so, we started working on our last group of accounts who would receive their books on Friday – the local Madison accounts who hadn’t already come in earlier that night and all of the Milwaukee area accounts. CCD also ran a route to them on Friday mornings, usually leaving the warehouse around 7 or 8 AM. Milton would probably blow a gasket if I revealed how many accounts we processed, so I’ll just say that our Thursday night shift usually went from about 4 PM on Thursday until 8 or 9 AM on Friday morning. By that point, there were just a few tiny accounts left to pull and pack, most of which were completed by a couple of the regular 9 to 5 guys who usually worked in back issues. Those of us who were up all night generally were gone by then, ready to hit the sack. I usually crashed like a rock, but I never slept all that long – I was up by noon, reading the new batch of comics for the week on what was left of my leisurely day off.
I was at CCD for several years, including a stint setting up their Wallingford, Connecticut, branch (and working with a great bunch of retailers there. Hi, Crash!). I later became Office Manager for the company and moved out of the warehouse, but I still performed a lot of the prep-work for the weekly distribution, like assisting with the tie-line setup and publications relating to the weekly releases, as well as a short stint assisting with CCD’s monthly catalog.
A Few CCD Memories
Deep inside the CCD warehouse, there was a room called the Poison Room, mostly because the previous tenants of the warehouse were exterminators and they supposedly stored their dangerous pesticides there. I never really believed this story, although the room did have a odd smell to it, and I never, ever stayed in the room for more than a few minutes. Inside the Poison Room were all the leftover copies of the black & white Nexus comics published by Capital Comics, which was associated with CCD, kinda sorta. Especially B&W Nexus #3, which included the special flexi-disc recording as an insert. (For those of you too young to remember flexi-discs, take a look here. – ed.) Legend has it that in order to get a good price on the flexi-disc, many, many copies had to be produced – much higher than the average print-run of the series. So Capital took the gamble, got the extra flexi-discs, and overprinted and bound the comic, causing there to be hundreds of cases of unsold Nexus #3 – all stored in the Poison Room. This mountain of boxes was eventually dubbed “Mount Baron” (after Nexus writer and co-creator Mike Baron) after some unnamed wag planted a homemade flag with that inscription on the top-most box.
The wall dividing the CCD warehouse bay and the bay next to it (used as storage by CDD) had a giant hole at the top of it, about 3 foot by 3 foot and about 15-20 feet off the ground. In a bout of silliness one night, the all-night crew spent a few minutes flipping their empty soda cans into the hole, where they would fall down into the hollow wall. Sadly, since we were all young and stupid, this greatly amused us, and some of us began to use the wall as the regular place to dispose of empty soda cans. I certainly never thought much about it until many years after I was gone from CCD, when another employee told me that the can-filled wall had started to attract cockroaches and had to be dismantled. Several years later, the wall had an amazing number of cans – and cockroaches – in it. Not surprisingly, the warehouse changed locations shortly thereafter, although I’m not sure if the two things were directly related.
I was at CDD when my first car died, in a situation related to CCD business. Milton and John had invited me to fly to NYC to visit the DC Comics offices for the first time, as well as what was left of Seagate Distribution. This was my first trip to NYC and was pretty memorable as the three of us were involved in a minor taxi accident when our cab was hit by another cab. No one was hurt, but it was funny because our driver didn’t even bother to check to see if we were all okay before he bounded out of the cab to start a fight with the other driver. I remember that John was greatly amused by this and laughed, “Gotta love New York!”
After flying back to Madison, I retrieved my car from the lot where it had been sitting for 3 or 4 days and stared to drive home, only to have the engine seize up and completely die just a mile or two away from the airport. After arranging for a tow and a cab to get to work, the garage called an hour or two later to inform me that all the oil had fallen out of my car while I was gone and the engine was totaled. This actually did not surprise me as the car was an absolute lemon and had broken down dozens of times over the last couple of years. I was pretty much done with it – I certainly didn’t want to sink any more money into it – so I asked what it was worth for scrap. $300, I was told. I said, “Lemme think about it and I’ll get back to you in an hour.” Then one of my CCD co-workers said he knew a guy who would offer more – and did – $350.
I called back the first guy and told him I got a better offer. He asked how much and then offered me $400. Suddenly, there was a bidding war for my piece-of-crap dead car! This amused me greatly, so I let it go on for a few more hours, just to see what would happen. By the end of the day, the first guy said $600 – plus he’d cover the cost of the tow and labor for figuring out what was wrong. Sold, I said. As he handed me the check, he told me he was going to fix up the car for his kid. Poor kid, I thought.
One of the things that I most appreciated at CCD was the great musical education I got while I was there. Many of the principal employees at CCD were very accomplished musicians, most of whom played regularly around the area in their own bands on the weekends. Besides hearing a lot of great live music, many of these folks taught me a lot about good music (whether they knew it or not), and especially introducing me to the wonders of the great Madison Community Sponsored radio stations, which greatly expanded my musical horizons.
But my favorite CCD memory was Milton teaching me how to pick a lock with a credit card. Actually came in handy on a few occasions. Always wondered where Milton had learned it from. There aren’t many jobs where the head of the company will teach you how to break into their own warehouse.
Eventually, CCD and I grew apart. There was a very unique work “culture” at CDD that I didn’t always fit into well, and after a few years, I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing there. So I left. And remembering the promise that I had made to Sherill several years earlier, I was in the Westfield offices within a few hours of putting in my notice, happy to finally fulfill that promise of faith she made in me, several years earlier. But that’s a whole other story.
KC Carlson has been working in comics since 1972, where, at the age of 16, he worked at the local magazine distributor, stripping the covers off unsold comics to return to the publishers. Since then, he has worked for DC Comics, Westfield Comics, Capital City Distribution, and many other places, continuing to destroy comics at every step. He also once worked as a “pooper-scooper” for a Dog Show. Guess which one paid better?
The covers for this article were taken from the Grand Comic-Book Database.