On History: The Comicmobile

By | Tuesday, July 15, 2014 Leave a Comment
The gent on the right in this image is Bob Rozakis, formerly a writer and production director at DC Comics. That's his wife on the left. Behind them is DC's official Comicmobile.

In the early 1970s, DC's vice-president Sol Harrison had the idea for a van that would drive around the suburbs selling comics in much the same way an ice cream truck would sell frozen treats. Recall that this is just as the direct market was starting and dedicated comic shops were pretty rare, so publishers were still willing to try a variety of different methods to sell more comics. Harrison got a hold of a van, painted "Here comes the comicsman!" on the side and slapped a bunch of commercially available stickers of DC's characters on the sides. He then sent Michael Uslan (the same one who went on to produce the Michael Keaton Batman movie) out to the suburbs of New Jersey with the van stocked with leftover material from the in-house library. Uslan would drive around to local beaches and parks and such, ring some bells out the window, and sell comics out of the van.

This would have been the summer of 1973. When Uslan had to go back to school in the fall, the van was turned over to Rozakis. Instead of driving through New Jersey, though, Harrison decided they should try Long Island, New York. Rozakis took a train out to Jersey, and then drove the van back.

However, what Rozakis quickly discovered, though, was that the legalities of selling were a bit different in New York. In the first place, he had to get a vendor's license for each of the townships he would be selling in. In the second place, none of them allowed him to stop in local beaches and parks, where Uslan seemed to have the most success. So he had to simply drive up and down the streets of Long Island, hoping to attract some passing attention with the bells he held out the window.

It's not terribly surprising that sales were absymal. Rozakis claims he barely made enough money to cover gasoline expenses. (And this was back when a gallon of gas cost the same price as a comic book -- a mere 20¢!) Interestingly, though Uslan's best-seller was Plop #1 which had just recently come out, and Rozakis says #2 sold very well (compared to everything else) when it came out while he was driving. But the sales did not justify the experiment and Rozakis was called back into the DC offices after about six weeks.

The van was sold/traded/given to Bruce Hamilton, later the publisher of Gladstone Comics. He tested the Comicmobile concept in Arizona for a few months. (I can't find any record of how successful it was there, but I suspect not very.) The van ultimately was demolished when it was hit by a semi.

The experiment was such a failure that no one seems to have seriously considered repeating it until the past few years. One could argue (easily) that Harrison's plan was a little too loose on the details, and wasn't given sufficient planning and/or funding. One could argue that it wasn't given enough time to develop; Rozakis has noted that most of his clients were regulars, much like a local comic shop. One could argue that the market was radically different forty years ago. So maybe a comicmobile today will have much better results; whoever wants to try this again, I wish them far better luck than Uslan, Rozakis and Hamilton had!
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