The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the core of almost every aspect of the entertainment landscape. With movies being pushed back, TV shows on hold, and events of all sorts cancelled or postponed, one of the industries proving to be most affected by quarantining is also one of the most financially delicate ones: American comic books.
On March 23, Diamond Comic Distributors, the industry’s monolithic mover of product from print to retail, announced a halt on shipments of all products, beginning on April 1 and for the foreseeable future. For many retailers, this reality has meant shutting their doors, possibly for the last time. To say that the comics industry will “continue to be affected” by the COVID-19 pandemic is true, but belies the unique severity of those effects. Still, shop-owners who spoke to Polygon are finding points of optimism, despite worries about the immediate future.
How can one company press pause on all of comics?
Diamond’s near-monopoly is the result of the last seismic event for the comic book industry: the 1990s. The decade brought new publishers, such as Valiant and Image, into the industry. That sudden boom of product came in a time when multiple companies distributed that product to comic stores, including Diamond Comic Distributors in Maryland, Capital City Distribution in Wisconsin, and Heroes World Distribution in New Jersey. However, in 1994, Marvel Comics — on a hot streak of acquisitions, including several trading card and toy companies — purchased Heroes World to act as the exclusive distributor of Marvel Comics, the market leader for the industry.
The immediate effect of what was affectionately referred to as the “Marvelution” was that DC, Image, Dark Horse, and Archie Comics rallied behind Diamond Distributors, signing exclusive contracts with the company. Shortly after, Diamond absorbed a nearly bankrupt Capital City Distribution. In 1997, with the entire market on a post-boom downturn, Marvel filed for bankruptcy and shuttered Heroes World entirely, laying off its employees and signing its own exclusive contract with Diamond as well. That industry-wide control still holds on English-lanuage print comics today.
As with every other private business dealing with the escalation of the pandemic, perhaps the first significant blow to comic book retailers came in mid-March, when shops saw a significant drop in foot traffic and sales due to many states implementing social isolation or “shelter in place” orders. While states like California were quick to have retailers close their doors until further notice, many comic stores throughout the country — including those in states that were not yet seriously affected at the start of last week — were more than prepared to go the extra length for the sake and safety of their customers.
“Owning a business is never easy. I’m responsible for my company, my family, and my employees. They’re my team and friends,” said Mike Campbell, whose store, Captain’s Comics and Toys in Charleston, South Carolina, was forced to close three days after corresponding with Polygon. “We are wearing gloves when we handle cash. We are washing our hands regularly. People are aware of social distancing and are being respectful of that goal. We are doing everything we can to stay virus-free. This is going to be a very hard year, but we’re hoping that our national leaders will make good decisions to help people financially survive it.”
Harder hit states have regulated that non-essential stores be closed until further notice, including Floating World Comics in Portland, Oregon.
“Sales dropped about 80%,” said Jason Leivian, store owner, when asked for a statement on the unsureness of the market. “I’m scrambling right now to shut down the business and set up this framework for what it might be moving forward. There will be a lot of destruction and loss, but also a lot of potential for rebirth.”
Jason’s optimism was also shared by James Sime, co-owner of Isotope Comics in San Francisco, whose store closed in response to California’s “shelter in place” order just a few days prior to talking to Polygon. “Things seem to change dramatically on a day-by-day basis, but I can tell you that I’ve already seen an amazing ground-swell of common folks trying to keep their favorite small businesses afloat,” he said, “... it is really reassuring to see neighbors step up and be the super-heroes — no super powers required.”
Retailers are holding out hope that by using drastic health and safety measures, like curb-side pickup, they can keep the lights on for the industry’s largest source of sales. But they’re also relying on publishers, who have just begun to respond with unprecedented measures — unprecedented flexibility on orders, full stops on production, and even the potential of diversified distribution.
At the shop today from 11-3 for limited curbside pickup, also taking orders for mail order online or over the phone! pic.twitter.com/yGMzwrk4it— Floating World Comics (@floating_world) March 28, 2020
How have publishers responded?
On March 18, Image Comics became the first publisher to publicly respond to the mandatory shutdowns many stores faced. Image assured retailers that all products would be returnable within 60 days, and canceled all “non-essential” releases, such as second printings and reprints. Tim Reynolds of Comic Carnival in Indianapolis, Indiana spoke up in favor of Image’s move, praising them for understanding how the retail side of industry works saying “I’d rather get 10 new titles a week for a month than 40 new titles one week and nothing the next.”
After retailers’ grateful response to Image’s announcement, Aftershock, Vault, Boom! Studios, Archie, and many smaller publishers were glad to offer retailers 60-90 day returns on all new stock, while publisher TKO offered to match 50% of any order sent to retailers. “Returnability,” a widespread practice in book publishing, allows shops to return unsold stock to publishers for credit, significantly alleviating the burden of over-ordering. (In what is perhaps an eerie connection, returnability in America’s book publishing market dates back to measures put in place to keep the industry from collapsing during the Great Depression.) With returnability, comic shops are able to recoup 100% of their losses from issues they weren’t able to sell — in this case, due to loss of walk-in buyers during social distancing or because of mandated shutdowns.
But the question on almost every retailer’s mind was how Marvel and DC Comics, who together drive roughly 70% of Diamond’s sales, would respond to the shutdowns. On March 20, Marvel stepped forward to offer deep order discounts, but not returns, leaving many retailers taken aback and disappointed. On March 28, DC finally announced that it would offer returnability on all its print books released between March 18 and June 24, and that the company would look into alternate distribution models as well.
Though it originally indicated it would not pause digital releases, on March 30, DC announced that it was delaying the digital release of many of its April 1 titles, and digitally releasing only collections, reprints, and a digital first series. Finally, on Tuesday, March 31, hours before the publication of this post, Marvel Comics announced that it would not release any new digital titles on Wednesday, April 1. As of publication, the company has not offered returnability to retailers.
While many retailers were quick to take to social media to vent their frustrations, several others stood hopeful that publishers had the best interests of retailers in mind.
DC's announcement is disgraceful: by not stopping digital releases they are going to hasten many stores' demise. This is a dire mistake, and even a tiny amount of cross-channel conversion at this moment will put the majority of DM retailers in enormous economic peril.— Brian Hibbs (@savagecritic) March 29, 2020
“Communication in general is just really important,” said David Bishop of Fantom Comics in Washington D.C., one of the most compromised areas in the country. “A lot of publishers are announcing upcoming titles being fully returnable, others are delaying the release of their product. Extending credit terms — from publishers to Diamond, and from Diamond to comic shops — equally across all comic shops so we all have more than enough time to pay is also something that’s going to be critical to the survival of these businesses. Hopefully they will come up with a good plan that keeps all their retailing partners in business through this time.”
But offers of discounts and returnability from publishers mean little if there’s no way for books to get from printer to shop. Diamond’s announcement put almost the entire English-language print comic book industry on pause, but for the overwhelming majority of those who spoke to Polygon, it also brought a sense of relief.
“Last I heard, 70% of comic book stores were at some level of closure. I think temporarily pausing comic book shipments is the right move,” said Tim of Captain’s Comics. “If I cannot sell, then having [a] thousands of dollars-a-week back-up and then all coming out at once seems like too big of a product shock to the system. Let’s just pause it now, hunker down, and then try to get back to a normal pace when things are more sure.”
Even stores that consider themselves more game-centric seemed pleased with the news, saying that the closing on gaming companies would affect more of their sales.
“I feel like customers won’t be happy about it and I’m sure it will affect some of the comic heavy stores but the other option is that some stores in states are going to be able to sell new books while others in states that are shut down won’t,” said Steve Matousek of Atlantis Games and Comics in Chesapeake, Virginia. “I feel like this is the fairest and safest way to handle it. ”
Though the current rollercoaster seems to finally be slowing down for many retailers across the country, this continues to be an ongoing story. At the time of writing, there’s still a great amount of uncertainty about whether the release of digital comics will also be delayed alongside their print counterparts.
Even though print publishing remains the primary way American comics are consumed (according to sales aggregator Comicchron), many physical retailers fear their customers will jump ship to digital. But if digital releases are placed on pause, publishers will be left with the question of how to compensate the comics creators whose books will have no avenue for either release, or profit. Publisher solidarity with physical retailers may mean an uncertain future for creators.
Many publishers are choosing to stand by their convictions, with Dark Horse, Oni Press, Image, and IDW Publishing (as of writing) confirming that there will be no new releases — digitally or otherwise — while Diamond Distribution is on hold. DC would seem to have plans to continue digital releases of new books, but has also delayed April 1 digital releases. Marvel Comics has canceled its April 1 digital releases, saying “as soon as more information is available, we will outline our longer-term plans,” in its statement. At the time of publication, Comixology, America’s leading platform for digital comics, has yet to make any public statement on the possibility of a digital release stoppage.
What does this mean for your local shop?
A number of companies and organizations, such as the independent publisher Lion Forge and the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, have planned for economic hard times in the interdependent web of the comics industry. Forge Fund was started in late 2019 to financially boost struggling comic book retailers, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has been working tirelessly to provide resources and marketing tools to retailers as well. Donations to any and all retailer relief funds are an action that many comic shop regulars can take, but if readers want to stick to something more local, many shops are offering shipping services to customers’ doorsteps to help keep everything going on both ends.
The devil is in the details when it comes to how the comic book direct market works in an unprecedented global crisis, and unfortunately many of those details have simply not been figured out. At the moment, it seems that both retailers and fans should prepare to hunker down with a hefty bin of back issues. In an ironic sense, the most honest way to describe the current state of the comic book market is… “to be continued.”
Chloe Maveal is a freelance pop culture journalist who specializes in comics history, British comics, superheroes, and fandom culture. You can find her on twitter @PunkRokMomJeans where she is probably talking about the historical significance of Judge Dredd’s butt.