Another “new comic book day” has come and gone with readers staying home again because there were no new comics to be had. Diamond Comic Distributors has halted comic book deliveries and most local specialty and comics shops across the world are closed, putting the entire comicbook industry in jeopardy. Meanwhile, DC Comics has made moves to find other means to distribute books, Marvel Comics and other publishers are asking creators to put their “pencils down,” and some publishers are moving to all digital or are simply distributing themselves to get the comics out there while even living comics legends are predicting the end of the local comic shop in the wake of this crisis. A lot of people could lose their livelihoods. And like every other business that has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, comic-book publishing — a wellspring of material for countless hit films and TV shows — is truly in considerable jeopardy.
Where can the comic book industry go from here? How long can it survive this pause? How severely will demand for comics shrink as this goes on? To answer these questions, I reached out to some of those on the front lines of the comics crisis, speaking to comicbook fans, commenters, related podcasters, and even retailers to get their take on what is happening in order to see what they think is the way forward for this beloved medium.
Eric Helwig of Kowabunga Comics chatted with Bleeding Fool earlier this month. His shop is located in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin which is a short drive west of Milwaukee. Eric was already deeply entrenched in the comics hobby for years before he got into the retail side of things. I reached out to him to see what his biggest worries were right now in regards to the struggling comics industry.
“The biggest concerns are mostly around the distribution end of things. Having one distributor for the majority of comic related material really caused a bottleneck. There is a very real likelihood that some shops will not even weather the storm of this shutdown.”
He continued, “Many books are printed in North America, however significant portion are through Transcontinental, which is based in Canada. Currently the presses are turned off, so even if Diamond was shipping and publishers were creating … nothing would be printed. Printing has long left the USA, in fact there is a large printing facility that is sitting vacant to this day not far from us that at one time printed Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Time and many other publications, but was shut down as that work was sent to Asia. Will we see a resurrection of high tech big printing in the US again?”
“One thing is for sure, the industry will likely look the same to customers,” Helwig added, “but will have a number of new pieces under the hood to provide what those of us who also live in the technology world call ‘fallback protection’ or ‘load balancing’.”
Infinity Flux Cards, Comics & Games has operated in Chattanooga, Tennessee for a little over 5 years. They’re very active at local cons and they helped establish a community co-op that that fosters local writers and artists to create their own comics and self-publish the anthologies that they create together as a group. While I order a lot of my comics online, I still consider these guys to be my LCS, and love taking my niece and nephew there for Free Comic Book Day. I’ve also featured them on this site before. Meagan Frye is a co-owner Infinity Flux and she shared her concerns about the coronavirus lockdowns, especially for their customer base.
“Our biggest worry probably concerns our readers,” Meagan said. “We’ve spoken with many of our customers throughout this time and several of them have totally lost their jobs. Comics and the weekly routine of visiting your local shop provides comfort and a sense of normalcy to people. Now that that normalcy has been stalled, we primarily worry many readers won’t be able to return to buy comics like they once did.”
While many readers are looking for new comics, some writers and artists continue to produce work without any way of knowing how or when readers will be able to see it. Many of these creators work for publishers that have issued “pencils down” requests because there’s simply no need for new material at this time, which is putting their economic solvency in question also.
“With so many creators are literally out of work, I wonder how many will take new roles and not have the capacity to come back to comics,” said Eric Helwig. “Artists perhaps have the “easiest” go during this type of event, because they can take commissions and still generate money. But the writers who are paid per script have no means to sell scripts when nothing is being printed or sold. So ultimately I feel for creators the most.”
“There’s no question that everyone is suffering on some level,” added Meagan. “The individuals who have lost their jobs across all the sectors you mentioned above probably have it the hardest.”
Of course, beyond the creators and the readers themselves, comic shops and retailers are feeling the pain also.
Helwig added, “we tend to be the ones who take on a significant part of the risk. Ordering ahead for books in hopes of meeting, but not over exceeding demand. Add to it that there are a number of retailers who take advantage of payment terms and are likely not generating the money they need right now to pay for previous deliveries of books. Those retailers are really going to be hurting.”
When asked what his shop was doing to remain solvent during the crisis, Eric shared some tips that other retailers may want to take note of.
“Be transparent with your customers. We try to post to Facebook at least once per day and are sending out weekly emails to our customers to let them know of any changes we’ve had, anything new that has come in, and being as encouraging as possible. Many shops are using eBay, setting up their own online stores, using Facebook as an auction platform, etc. Basically, the time you would have previously been in the shop, try to use that time to sell online. There is a world full of customers, they just need to know what you are selling.”
On the subject of how retailers can adapt, the owners of Infinity Flux added,
“Comic book retailing is not an industry where you (typically) make tons of money to begin with. You really have to love/know the product, like people, and be willing to work hard, long hours. These days, that core work ethic means even more – and has to stretch further. We’ve had to get creative, stay lean, continue to communicate, and stay busy. That’s going to mean different things for different retailers, but it’s worked for us.”
“We’ve had to get creative, stay lean, continue to communicate with our customers, and stay busy. We’ve had to shift to running entirely online with a little bit of curbside pickup and even home delivery. Our shop has (so far) been closed for a month. With no new comics to sell, so we’ve focused on our back stock and limited direct orders from Diamond. We’ve used platforms like Facebook Live to keep in touch with our customers. That’s opened up not only new sales, but given us an opportunity to get closer with our regular customers and new ones as well.”
Bryan Hibbs owns Comix Experience in San Francisco, and is known to be an often polarizing, opinionated contributor at Comic Beat. He has had a very bleak outlook on how this crisis will impact the industry, but in a moment of hope he recently shared a Google document where other retailers had been adding their thoughts and strategy ideas for a retail industry comeback. Many of the items mentioned in this wish-list document were things that retailers across the spectrum have been asking the major publishers to implement for years, such as changing the way FCO (final order cut-off) works, returning to the occasional one-and-done stories to draw in new readers with evergreen tales, labeling one-shots without a #1 on the cover, delaying trade publishing, returnability of comics, and on and on.
Several of the ideas in there will probably never be adapted by the mainstream publishers, although it contains both good and not so good ideas. If you’re a retailer, I think it’s probably worth your time (if you can get access to it).
I asked my shop owner friends if they had any ideas of their own about how the industry could be improved after this pandemic clears. Meagan was very detailed.
- “Earlier and better communication between publishers and comic shops. For example, if retailers knew what titles, events, etc were coming out sooner (and had MUCH more details about them), we could educate our customers on what is happening and have a better shot at selling them.”
- “A smaller selection from some publishers would be nice as it would allow us to dive deeper on things we know are hits/what our customers want vs. us casting a wide net on uncertain titles. Having fewer titles/projects would almost certainly increase the quality of those projects that are pushed forward.”
- “More cohesive/considered cross over between comic films and shops. Right now, you could go to a Marvel movie and never know where these characters originated. It would be great if these films could even include one screen at the beginning or end with info on where to find a local shop.”
- “Oh, and far less variant covers.”
The owners at Infinity Flux also commented on how they’ve been able to navigate these uncharted waters, and included a few tips that other shop owners could benefit from:
“Our business has succeeded the way it has because we are constantly communicating with our customers. Through social media, in-store, and now plain-old phone calls just to check in. We don’t take their support for granted and we make sure they know they are appreciated. In turn, they continue to support us through extra orders, gift card sales, etc. We’re all facing this unprecedented time together, but staying humble and staying busy are what’s working for us. It’s hard, but you have to think ahead. Struggling shops may need to become self-reflective. Make sure the have the know-how to navigate this time or are asking for the right help,” said Meagan.
As for the readers themselves, Eric Helwig admitted there were some bright spots in the midst of the gloom.
“I think the readers honestly benefit the most from this type of event. Not that it is great for them, but it gives them a chance to catch up on reading, they can still purchase material from many shops to read online like our online store, or they can hop on things like the Marvel Unlimited app, Comixology, or the DC app and try out material that they wouldn’t otherwise have time to.”
When it comes to his personal life and the direct impact the crisis has had on him and his family, Eric had an immediate answer.
“This has meant more long hours working at the shop, and less time with my family. We are actively working to maintain a level of revenue in the store that is consistent with our 2019 revenue. So far we have been successful through our online shop and our Ebay store, but it has meant more work listing, packing, shipping, etc. Things we would normally simply sell over the counter now take much longer to sell. Sadly, that means I have had even LESS time to read than ever before (as if I thought that was possible). Hopefully when this is all done, I can take a week off, have a cocktail, and enjoy some great reading!”
Neither the people who sell the comic books, nor veteran observers of this industry see a quick solution. Will this current calamity eradicate only a few stores and publishers or an entire, decades-old model of doing business? With so many shifting sands in the direct market right now.
Meagan has found a bright side.
“On the plus side, it’s never been easier to catch up with your reading!”
My recommendation is to hit up these stores and your own LCS, check out their eBay listings, and take a look at some of the bargains they’re offering. Chances are there you’ll find some exceptional deals on back-issues you can take advantage of and maybe fill those holes in your collections while new comics are paused. If nothing else, use this spare time to escape the worries of the things we cannot control and read those comics you haven’t gotten around to yet, re-read your favorite stories off the shelf or in the long box. That’s why we keep them around isn’t it?
Remain hopeful. Take care of yourself and your loved ones. We’ll get through this.