29 July 2000

CVG 101: The Comic Book Connection (originally for Classic Gamer Magazine)

[Classic Gamer Magazine introduction. This article was originally published in CGM #4 (summer 2000). This is the article as I submitted it and may not exactly match what was published.]

In the early 1980s, video games were everywhere as everyone was trying to cash in on the booming video game business. This included the comic book companies. First of all, both DC and Marvel, two of the largest publishers at the time, were licensing their characters for use in video games, the primary examples being the Superman and Spider-Man Atari 2600 games. (For more examples, just flip through the previous issue.) When it came to linking video games and comics, DC may have had an edge because both it and Atari were, for a time, owned by Warner Communications. Atari included several small, DC-produced comic books, called "pack-ins" or "in-packs," with their Atari 2600 games. What I believe was the first one, however, was apparently produced without the help of DC.

Yars’ Revenge: The Qotile Ultimatum was a short, eight page comic that served as a prologue to Howard Scott Warshaw’s first Atari 2600 game. It explained the origin of the Yars, the reason (more or less) they were fighting the Qotile, and even how to play the game. If it had included the game version matrix, it could have almost been substituted for the instruction manual. The story by Hope Shafer was rather simplistic, but the art by Frank Cirocco, Ray Garst, and Hiro Kimura was well done. It was not a bad first effort, but apparently Atari’s new parent, Warner Communications, decided it would be more expedient to have another Warner company, DC, handle the pack-ins from then on. (This is conjecture on my part as Yars’ Revenge and Defender, the first game to include an Atari Force comic, were both released in 1982, so I’m not 100% certain which came first.)

DC pack-ins debuted with a series of comics about a science fiction team named Atari Force. The use of the name "Atari" was explained as standing for "Advanced Technology And Research Institute." The series opened in 2005 on an Earth recovering from the Five Day War. This war irreparably damaged the Earth’s ecosystem. As a result, ATARI sent a group of five international adventurers out in Scanner One , a starship that could travel to parallel universes. There they searched for a new planet to which Earth’s population would be moved. As you might guess, these comics were more involved than the one from Yars' Revenge. They featured the talents of known comic book creators. The writers were Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, while the art was handled by Ross Andru or Gil Kane, and Dick Giordano.

The first two issues, which introduced the team members, came with the Defender and Berzerk cartridges and had little to do with the games. The third pack-in came with Star Raiders and was more directly related tot he game. Issue number four, which came with Phoenix, was something of an oddity. Whereas the rest of the issues weighed in at 48 pages, this one was only 16 pages long. And Atari Force only played a minor role. This story also appeared as a bonus feature in New Teen Titans #27 and DC Comics Presents #53. There were several differences between the pack-in and the bonus feature. The biggest was that in the bonus feature, the featured ship was called the Liberator instead of the Phoenix. Atari actually went on to create a coin-op game called Liberator, which was based on the story and has been called a reverse Missile Command, that same year. It even featured the Atari Force logo on the marquee! Finally, the fifth pack-in came with Galaxian and featured the story of Atari Force finally finding a new planet to colonize. According to articles that appeared in Atari Age magazine, the magazine of the official Atari Club, there were actually more stories planned. It would appear that someone decided to cut the pack-ins short in order to prepare for the debut of the full-sized Atari Force comic.

This series debuted on newsstands and at comic book shops at the end of 1983. It featured two children of the original Atari Force, Martin Champion (leader of the original team), and an interesting cast of aliens. They fought against a reincarnated Dark Destroyer, who had also been the recurring enemy of the original Atari Force. The series lasted for 20 issues, was brought back for a Special the following year, and has not been heard of since. The primary creators for the first dozen or so issues were Gerry Conway, writer, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, penciller. Wrapping up the series were Mike Baron as writer and Eduardo Barreto as penciller. Ricardo Villagran inked the majority of the issues.

The reasons for the title's cancellation were unclear. In the final issue, editor Andy Helfer stated DC knew when they started that the story would have a definite ending. However, one can’t help but wonder if the break-up and sale of Atari by Warner and the video game crash of 1984 didn't also factor in. I don’t have sales figures, but Amazing Heroes, a magazine about comics, included Atari Force in its list of the ten best books of 1984. Regardless, because the series was short-lived and independent of any major superhero "universe," today you can find back issues in the bargain bins of comic book stores, if you can find them at all. You can find out more about Atari Force at my own Atari Force Headquarters web site.

Atari Force was not DC's only attempt to bring video games to comic books. They also produced two graphic novels based on Atari's games. The first was Star Raiders by Elliot S! Maggin, writer, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, artist. This was actually DC’s very first graphic novel and it predated the full-sized Atari Force series. It had a brief cameo appearance of the original Atari Force from their adventure in the third pack-in. From there it went on to tell the story of what happened after they left. It’s an entertaining read and worth searching out at comic book shops.

DC’s other video game-based graphic novel was Warlords . (Not to be confused with their unrelated comic book series called Warlord.) This fantasy story by Steve Skeates, writer, and David Wenzel, artist, told of a troll named Dwayne and his somewhat reluctant efforts to unify his world, which was divided into four kingdoms. The leaders of the four kingdoms were a set of brothers who were constantly at war. Beyond that, the story has little relation to the video game it was based on. Overall, it’s not bad, but I personally wouldn't spend a lot to get it. I was able to get my copy fairly cheap on eBay, although you may also find it at comic book stores.

Returning to the topic of DC’s pack-in comics, shortly after Atari Force debuted, Atari began their series of SwordQuest games. The idea behind these games was that players could win valuable prizes by buying and playing the games. During game play, players would get clues for where to look in the accompanying comic book for a piece of the puzzle, which was a word phrase. Sending in the complete puzzle to Atari got one considered for the contest. The creators behind the comic books (which were much better than the actual games) were largely the same as those handling the Atari Force pack-ins. Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas again wrote the series and Dick Giordano inked it. The penciller this time, however, was fan favorite George Perez. Together, these creators told the story of twin thieves, Torr and Tarra, and their quest through four worlds for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery. Unfortunately, the sale of Atari Corp. to Jack Tramiel caused Atari to stop the contest. The third game and comic, WaterWorld, is very difficult to find while the fourth game, AirWorld, was never started. The AirWorld comic was started, at least as far as plotting goes, but it’s unknown whether any art was done or where any of this work is now. You can find scans of all the released comics on the Internet at http://www.tripoint.org/sq/sq.html.

The final pack-in DC did for Atari was Centipede. This comic was much more cartoonish than the previous ones. The story, by Howard Post and Andrew Gutelle with art by Howard Post and Robert Smith, was about a young elf named Oliver who lived in a forest and was friends with a centipede, spider, flea, and scorpion. An evil wizard turned the elf village’s mushroom supply into toadstools and Oliver’s arthropod friends against him. The most likely place to find this and the other pack-in comics is the same place you find cartridges and instruction manuals: thrift stores, flea markets, garage sales, and the Internet. Because of the full-sized Atari Force series, you can sometimes find the Atari Force pack-ins in comic book stores, but it's unlikely.

While DC Comics went the more traditional route of adapting another medium (in this case, video games) to comics, Marvel created a comic book-sized magazine called Blip . Blip was a mix of interviews, news, playing tips, cartoons, reviews, and more. In other words, a fairly typical (aside from the size) video game magazine from the early 1980s. It was apparently not a success, however, as it only lasted seven issues. Given lead times in the comic book industry, this means the series was probably canceled almost as soon as sales figures from the first couple of issues were obtained. Although when you look at the timing, this is not particularly surprising. Blip ran from February to August of 1983. Due to "The Crash," many video game magazines either ceased publication or reduced their frequency at the end of 1983. You can sometimes find back issues of Blip in comic book stores, but because it was a magazine not dedicated to comics, this is a rare occurrence.

As you can see, there is plenty of material for classic video game collectors who also happen to be comic book collectors to find. I've actually been surprised by the number of video game collectors who are current or former comic book collectors. No doubt, the marriage of these two mediums should make them happy. And for those that aren't comic book collectors, these comics still make a great addition to your own collection of video game memorabilia.

Postscript (12 June 2013)

I don't have much to say about this. Cav announced the theme of the issue would be video game cartoons, so I assumed comic books were fair game as well. I was a comic book collector before I became a video game collector, so this was right up my alley. I initially volunteered to write a special article strictly about Atari Force, but decided to just include them in my broader article for my regular column instead.

Interview with Jerry Greiner (originally for Classic Gamer Magazine)

[Classic Gamer Magazine introductionThis article originally appeared in CGM #4 (spring 2000), but the below is from my copy as it was submitted and may not reflect any changes the editors made.]

In November of 1999, Jerry Greiner, better known as classic video game dealer JerryG, announced he was going out of business after many years. In February 2000, shortly before the official announcement that he had sold his business, I caught up with Mr. Greiner to get the details of why he’d both gotten into and then gotten out of the classic video game sales business.

Greiner, 58, began collecting classic video games around 1989, although he'd "always been a collector of something." He and his wife enjoyed going to garage sales. Mr. Greiner said, "I kept seeing the Atari stuff and I remember back when my kids were younger having the Atari and playing the games. Kept thinking, 'well one of these days I ought to pick one of these up so I can show the grandkids what their parents played with.' We stopped at a garage sale and a guy had a box full of games and game system. Probably had 50 games, a bunch of controllers, and stuff. Sold it to me for 15 bucks. Then unfortunately at the next garage sale, a guy had a box full of games about the same size. He offered it to me for 5 bucks. I said, 'Geez, I've got to average my cost here,' so I bought that one."

Greiner continued, "Then I got to thinking, 'well, I wonder how many different games are out there?' So I just started buying them by the titles."

I’m sure that part sounds very familiar to most collectors. He remembered setting a limit on what he would pay: 10 cents a game. However, if it had "some weird, neat label on it," he’d go up to 25 cents. "It was easy to go out on a Saturday and, if I’d wanted to, I could have picked up a thousand games, but I’d usually find 20 or 30 or 50 or something I didn’t have." Then he decided he should have a system for each grandchild, but not knowing how many he’d have, he just started picking up extras.

Like many other collectors, Greiner started collecting a single system: the Atari 2600. He recalled, "I remember stopping one day and the guy had these ugly looking yellow carts." The man claimed to have every cartridge ever made for this system. "By the time I left he got down to $5 if I took everything. I said, 'no, I don’t want it,'" Greiner continued. "I figured it was some weird junk that wasn’t worth anything. Then [later] I realized it was a Fairchild [Channel F] and then all of the sudden I wanted a Fairchild. I haunted the flea markets and thrift stores and garage sales until I finally found a Fairchild."

Although his collection has branched out to include other systems, the Atari 2600 remains his favorite. "It'll probably be the last thing I give up. They'll probably have to bury it with me," he said.

When asked what his wife and children thought of his new hobby back when he started, Greiner at first said he wasn't sure. He literally filled up their house in Oregon with his collection, he said. When they prepared to move to Arizona in 1996, she said, "I want a house we can live in. So let's find one with a three car garage so you can put the games in the garage and I can have the house." However, Greiner said, "she's been very supportive and understanding of all the stuff that I drag in." Both of them enjoyed going to thrift stores and garage sales. It showed when they moved because they had a six week garage sale, made almost $12,000, but didn't even get rid of half of their stuff.

Around 1991, Greiner stumbled upon an early issue of The 2600 Connection newsletter and saw an ad for Games and More, who had Atari games still in the box. He called, and the owner started ranting how he was tired of collectors calling up and then complaining about his prices on the old games. Nobody complained when he charged $30–40 for an NES game, but people got upset if he even asked for what he paid for the older systems' titles. Greiner asked how much the owner was selling old games for? The man replied $5–10, but he was going to just throw them out because they were taking up shelf space. Greiner told the man he was really interested and asked what the man had. The owner responded he didn't have a count, but he had a list of the titles he had and read some off. Greiner asked, "if I took more than one, what would you want for them?"

"Five bucks a piece. If you took a bunch it would be even cheaper," the man replied.

Greiner asked, "how big a bunch and how much cheaper?"

The owner told him, "if you take everything I have I'll sell it to you for 50 cents a piece, whether it's a piece of hardware or a game and I won't charge you for the common stuff."

A week later $1800 in shipping charges showed up on Greiner's doorstep. That was almost three times what he paid for the merchandise itself, which was all Atari 2600 items. His wife asked, in the way wives do, what he intended to do with it all. Thinking on his feet, he replied, "I'm going into business!" His first sale was to a man in New Orleans: Kaboom! for $4.

Over time, more people with large supplies of games came to him to sell cheap. Sometimes he told them to junk it because he didn't know what to do with more of it. One man in New Mexico tried to sell him a bunch of Intellivision games. After going down to a nickel a game, Greiner still refused because he didn't have room for it. Finally, the man said he’d send it to him for the cost of shipping, but Greiner still said no. He regrets it now, somewhat, but at the time it seemed the correct thing to do.

Over the years, business has been up and down, but enjoyable. Most of Greiner's profits were spent on his personal collection or expanding his inventory. "It's not like everybody thinks," he said. "It's not a way to make a million dollars. I don’t think anybody's going to get rich selling old video games. It's particularly tough if you're trying to do it as a dealer with taxes and those requirements." He believes eventually collectors who sell a lot but aren't officially in business will discover the pleasure of dealing with the IRS. "It costs me more to try to keep track of the paperwork than to pay the taxes," he quipped.

Greiner feels the hobby of collecting classic video games has grown since he went into business. "I think things like eBay have been very helpful to the hobby, but they're also very detrimental. I'm not sure, in the long run, if it's going to kill the hobby or increase the hobby. It's been good from the standpoint that it brings recognition among people that these things have value to somebody and it encourages more people to look for them. But I think the detrimental part has been that no matter who you talk to in the last couple of years, it's extremely difficult to find anything at all, the reason being every collector buys everything he can with the idea of selling the excess on eBay. And so there's not the stuff out there for somebody like myself or the collectors who started when I did to go along and say, 'oh, look at this, I think I’ll just buy one of these for the heck of it,' unless we're the first guy at the sale. The change that I've seen is that there's more customers who buy from me because they want to play a 2600 game than there are collectors who want a particular title or label or something."

When asked if the expansion of the Internet might play into this, he said yes. "When I first started, basically I did snail mail catalogs. Now I haven't printed a catalog in three years. Most of the same names are still doing business with me, except now they're using the Internet."

I asked Greiner if the decision to leave the video game business had been long in coming and if it was a difficult one. He said, "it was probably a matter of several years in coming. It was very difficult to make the decision because I didn't really want to get out of games."

He decided to keep the hobby, but quit the business. He will continue to maintain the video game museum portion of his former web site at www.atari2600.com.

"I guess the biggest problem for me and the biggest reason that I decided I had to quit was I was just unable to keep up [with shipments]," he said. Another big factor was that both Greiner and his wife have health problems. Greiner is fighting diabetes and recurring exhaustion. However, he will continue to help the new owners, a young couple, with the business for an undetermined amount of time. (Basically as long as he feels like it.)

He'll keep a personal stock of rarer items for trade. "When I first started accumulating things, I was accumulating them for trade. I picked up a number of contacts from The 2600 Connection and the Digital Press. Everybody had the good stuff that I wanted and they wouldn't sell it, they wanted to trade for it. So I started trying to collect the better stuff to use for trading. And then people would get mad at me because I wouldn't sell it. Finally I broke down and sold some stuff. This time I don't intend to break down and sell stuff."

Greiner did, however, sell large chunks of his collection as part of getting out of the business. Much of it brought a higher price than he had anticipated. He said it was difficult to part with some of it, particularly the obscure stuff he hadn't had time to play.

When asked what he would do with all the new space, he replied, "I'm not so sure there's going to be a whole lot of space left." His wife wants to actually put a car in one garage. Another is used for his office. The third he'll fill with shelves. There's also a storage building in back that he may store household items in or make a game room out of. He will free up a patio, which has some boxes on it that he never unpacked after receiving them. All of these areas were filled to the ceiling with boxes of games and consoles.

"I've met a lot of nice people and good friends through the hobby. I've had people stop by from all over the world," Greiner concluded. "It's been more fun than work, although it's gotten kind of stressful at times. Hoping I can get a little more rest, get my health built back up where I can do more things. I hope I can make the game show in Las Vegas this year. I missed the first two." I hope you can make it, too, Jerry. No doubt it'll be even more fun for you now that you're "retired."

Postscript (11 June 2013)

Jerry did indeed make it to Classic Gaming Expo 2000, the same year I was there.  He even came by the Classic Gamer Magazine booth (which allowed Cav to take a photo for the interview), but I never managed to meet him the whole weekend!

At the time this was written, any serious video game collector on the Internet knew who Jerry Greiner was. He was active on the rec.games.video.classic newsgroup, too. I'm sure I could write an entire blog post on Greiner, but for now I'll just concentrate on the interview itself.

I contacted Mr. Greiner about an interview the same day he announced everything was for sale, 11 November 1999. At the same time, I asked CGM publisher Cav if he wanted to run it. If he didn't, I'd put it on my Classic Video Games Nexus web site, which was moderately popular at the time. Greiner agreed to the interview, but didn't have time to compose a lengthy e-mail, so would only do it on the phone or in person. As cool as in person would have been, he lived in Arizona and I was in Alabama, so that wasn't going to happen. Cav did indeed think it was a good idea, so I was reimbursed for the phone call.

For reference, here is the first paragraph of his announcement about selling out.
Because of the failing health of both my wife and myself, and because my space and spare time is getting scarce, and because I need to spend all the time I can on my regular job commitments I have decided to sell off all or parts of my collection and game stock. There is probably not anything I won't sell if the offer is right, including individual items or complete collections from my "want to keep" list.
Due to various things on both our ends, the interview didn't take place until mid-February 2000. I had a microphone that attached to a phone with a suction cup, so with his permission, I recorded the call. I also took copious notes. Thank goodness I did, because it turned out the computer caused some sort of interference that made some of the audio unclear. Theoretically I still have that cassette tape somewhere.

Because of the interference and because we both tended to ramble a bit during the interview, I went with the above narrative rather than reproducing the interview verbatim. Writing is also more enjoyable than simple transcription. Cav and Sarah were both very pleased with how it came out. The deadline for CGM #3 had already passed by the time the interview took place, so I didn't write it up until #4.

Shortly after the interview was conducted, Greiner announced the business was sold.
Effective at midnight, Sunday, March 26th, 2000 the Atari2600.com website and videogame business will be operated by Joe and Lottie Cody.
The couple bought the entire business, except for what Greiner kept for his personal collection or sold before coming to terms. He wasn't done with the hobby, though, as in March 2001 he finally released the first edition of the JerryG Guide to the Classic VideoGames. (He had released at least one "beta" version before that.) He worked on a second edition, but as of now, it has never been released.

Greiner "retired from the hobby" in 2012 and began selling off his personal collection. Much of it was selling directly to individual buyers. But a year later, he was still working on selling it off, mostly on ebay by that point. As you can see, even though he sold the bulk of what he had when he sold the business, his collection's size was still most impressive.

17 July 2000

Brag: 2600, 7800 games and more

[Originally posted to rec.games.video.classic.]

Woohoo! Today was a great day, especially for a Monday. I hadn't even planned to go thrifting today, but changed my mind for sundry reasons. I'm glad I did!

First stop: The local used game shop has marked all their $4.95-6.95 NES games down to 3 for $10. I'm tempted by some, but the only things I'd really like haven't been marked down (e.g. Donkey Kong 3, $19.95). They've also marked down SNES games to 3 for $25 and Genesis to 3 for $15. I didn't look over those too closely.

Second stop: Someone donated a few Atari 8-bit computers with stuff. I went up front with an old-style trakball, a Tac-2 joystick, two unnamed joysticks with not much of a base (I've seen these before, but I don't believe I have any), and a pair of remote control joysticks and the receiver. (In a fit of irony, I'd recently made a deal to buy a boxed set of remote control joysticks from a local collector, but hadn't actually bought them yet. I hope he won't mind if I back out.) The cashier priced everything at $2, except the trakball ($10!). I put the trakball and one practically-baseless joystick back.

I also did NOT pick up the following loose Atari 8-bit carts for $3 each: Atlantis, Beamrider, Gyruss, Miner 2049er, and Monster Maze. Should I go back for them (at that price)?

Second stop: I usually don't head straight to the video and sound media area (for lack of a better name), but this time I thought I saw a new batch of 2600 games, so I did. Jackpot! For 25 cents each, I got (all loose):
  • 2600 - Demon Attack (blue label), River Raid, River Raid II, Sea Hawk
  • 7800 - Double Dragon, F-18 Hornet, Titlematch Pro Wrestling, Xenophobe
For another $1, I got a complete, boxed copy of Archon for NES. All of these were in excellent shape! (Demon Attack and F-18 Hornet has some actiplaque. Titlematch has some odd, smudged black spots.) I bought Demon Attack to replace one I traded away for a hardcover copy of The Complete Guide to Conquering Video Games: How to Win at Every Game in the Galaxy a few years ago. I thought River Raid would be a label upgrade for me, but it turns out I apparently already have one in good shape. All the rest were ones I didn't have.

BTW, I was initially given a price of $0.50 each on the loose carts. After going back for River Raid and coming back, she only charged $0.25. I told her her initial price, but she said she was "in a good mood today," so I told her I wouldn't argue.