Welcome to the end of the world as we know it. Walk with me into the maw of the abyss, dear friends. It’s time to talk comics retail in 2017.
Pretty dour intro, right?
I’m not being hyperbolic when I state that 2016 was a garbage time for a lot of people. What’s worse, whoever was plotting the year seemed to forget about subtlety entirely and started plodding through some of the most hackneyed ideas put to paper. The result felt like a second act that stomped on the spirit, but didn’t have the basic decency to be intriguing – just disheartening.
Now it’s 2017. The next act dawns, and while the match has been lit, the gas isn’t on fire. Not yet. We still have a chance.
If you’ve been keeping up with retailer rumblings here at Comics Beat and elsewhere, you’ve heard many talk about several comic shops threatening to close their doors in the new year. I’m not here to say that those shops aren’t going to shut down, because they will. In fact, this whole thing has been a long time coming. I’ve taken to calling it “The Flood” because in my mind, the industry could have used a good flood ages ago to wash away the rot.
That probably sounds cold. It absolutely is. But we’ll get more into that in a bit. There’s some back tracking I need to do.
KNOW YOUR HISTORY
When I started Variant Edition with my wife in 2015, we did so knowing full well there was a flood on the way. I had been working for another shop in the city for eight years prior and had been actively gathering industry information for several more. During that time, I witnessed the industry shift, slow and insidious. When I arrived, things were at a valley. Bendis had yet to be hired at Marvel (just to give a time frame), and the industry was looking to claw itself up from an ever deepening lull.
From my perspective, I arrived just as a burst of fresh voices swept through the books and characters that I loved. Companies started focusing more on story, and the ways they could manipulate the form of the corporate comic to find a new audience. It worked… granted, a significant chunk of that audience was the old guard returning after being spurned years ago.
What the industry did, was rebuild a foundation. So much of it had been washed away in the 90s, that it needed to find solid ground before it could push outwards. And it did, and it grew, and things were… okay.
Eventually, there was stagnation – or at least, not as much growth as the corporate bottom line demanded. And so, we saw the return of variants and special editions, chum for the collectors who had returned. While companies still seemed to be focusing on building story, they became preoccupied with the marketing of short term gains in the form of variants and events. As the shine wore off on these, the stakes had to get bigger. The push had to be stronger.
And so it did.
Now, during this same period of time, Image started experiencing a creative renaissance, funded in part by Robert Kirkman’s buy-in as a full partner. From what I’ve been able to gather, a chunk of that money was used to start actively pursuing some of the industry’s biggest names who had left independent comics in times previous for the promise of a regular paycheque. Utilizing bigger names while offering an advance of sorts on the regular Image deal that pays on the back end, you started to see the writers and artists of top selling books put forward their own ideas, once again building from a place of story.
And so the industry swelled slightly again, buoyed by the injection of fresh ideas. As this initiative gained more traction, you began to see other companies that had fought long and hard to push new ideas out gain more traction as well. People had been coaxed out of the comforting bubble of superheroes into wider genres, and they craved more. So they were provided more. This wider selection, in turn, began to bring more people into the medium, with the offer of more choice in storytelling options.
While this was happening, the big companies still needed to satisfy their sales quotas, and had become entrenched in a fast money build. Companies doubled down on higher qualifiers for variants and Even Bigger Events. Meanwhile, the amount of titles in the market began to expand as other genres started carrying more and more weight. Money began to spread, both in terms of what customers were buying, and what retailers had to spend money on.
Flash forward to today, and what do we have.
Marvel appears to be nearing the losing end of a plate spinning game, and DC… well, remember what I said about the industry having to rebuild a foundation before it could grow again? Yeah, DC had to do exactly that with Rebirth. Their line had lost focus to the point where large chunks needed to be reconstructed, and they did so with the sturdiest materials they could find: their superheroes. They pulled everything back, made things recognizable for those readers who already wanted to read, and came up with a marketing strategy that appealed to the base that had left.
They’re back where they were when I first started reading and researching comics all those years ago. They will be there again, but probably not before Marvel readdresses their line in the near future. They will do this, because they are far too focused on building from a marketing stand point, and not a story based one, and they will push through the cycle again.
THE SHORT GAME
For all of the great work both Marvel and DC are doing right now within their lines… they’re relying on short term tactics to prop them up. Over at Marvel, it’s with the extent of their variant program, and how great they are at selling their snake oil to retailers. Roll up, roll up, for the next great event! And in the next issue? Something big. Something so big, we’re sending teasers out before final order cut off, letting creators eek out small details here and there, building noise that you can hear in your ear. And the words they’re whispering?
“What if you miss out? What if you don’t have enough?”
Out of all of the comic companies today, Marvel are the monarchs of marketing to comic retailers. Note, I did not say “were”. Yes, they are experiencing sales troubles, but that’s because they’re currently marketing a raft of titles meant to appeal to those outside of the comic shop while still pushing titles in the same ways. Shops are still taking the bait and are sitting around, wondering why they have so many unsold copies of regular comics and variants. Clearly that’s Marvel’s fault, right? No. No, it’s not. But more on that in a bit.
Over at DC, they hit pay dirt with Rebirth, but they refuse to take their foot off the gas. While they’ve managed to earn back the trust of their pre-existing audience, they are actively alienating the one that has been slowly forming with their accelerated publishing schedule. They’re also relying on having two different covers for everything in their main line-up, which only serves the need to collect, and not the need to satisfy story.
This has all been exacerbated by a regular churn of creators who are leaving the big companies to tell their own stories. As it stands, I can point to a small handful of talents that bring eyes to superhero titles just by mere mention of their name alone that still worked fairly exclusively for the Big Two (I’m looking at you, Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns) and that’s starting to hurt in the “easy money” area of things.
So while the big two churn and churn and churn, looking for their next big marketable idea, a sea of amazing new books and ideas have arrived, some largely unnoticed by readers and retailers as most of the noise and buzz continues to arrive from the superhero lines. Which brings us around to why there will be so many shops closing in 2017.
Marvel and DC have been guilty of grabbing at short term cash to their cyclical detriment.
And so have retailers.
Find me a retailer who is having trouble selling comics in 2017, and I will show you a store that has been putting the majority of their money into pushing and marketing both Marvel and DC above all others, either deliberately or subconsciously. Many of these same retailers are doing so while demanding that Marvel and DC fix what’s been broken.
The secret to success in all forms of business? Looking at the curve. Seeing what’s coming. Planning and preparing for the long term while potentially using the short term to your advantage. As a retailer, are you complaining about there being too many variants in the latest Previews? What does seeing that volume tell you?
If you look at Marvel, you can tell the sales expectations they have for certain books by the width and breadth of the variants they offer. Is your gut telling you there are too many to sustain? You should go with your gut, because the customer is thinking the same thing. Don’t sink that cash flow into the big variants. Or if you do, be damned sure you know what’s going to sell deep in your bones and make that fast money, and then save it – because you can’t count on the revenue from a marketing scheme like you can from a good story.
Or how about this. Do you think DC is putting out their titles too fast? Do you think both companies are putting out too many titles to sustain? Listen to yourself when you ask those questions. What are trying to tell yourself? Clearly, your confidence in this tactic isn’t there, so why should you put your trust in that scheme? There will always be that voice in your head that whispers what if you didn’t order enough, but your answer is simple. There will be a second printing. Or there will be a collected edition. And if your customers aren’t happy with either option, consider this: what customer base have you been chasing? Why do they require that first printing? Is it because they can’t wait to read the story? If so, why doesn’t this customer have it on their file? You should start them a file, and offer to do so immediately. If they decline, for the most part, that is a customer who is not necessarily interested in experiencing the story, so much as they are interested in collecting comics. Which is not a bad thing, but take a step back and look at the curve of all things.
Collecting doesn’t endure. At some point or another, a collection ends, whether it is due to a change in everyday circumstances, or interest, or… if we’re going all the way here, because of the fact that we all wind up in a box. What does endure? Story. A good story will have people coming back, if not now, then later. A good story doesn’t rely on a new number one to push interest or a special cover. A good story doesn’t lose value when the next story starts being told.
Now I know the solution isn’t as simple as focusing on story over marketing. There are a ton of other factors that come into play, such as people abandoning files or the general cost of living going up or (here in Canada) the high exchange rate placed on products. But the simple truth is this: comic stores that are closing in 2017 will be closing because they did not look forward, and they did not prepare.
Brian Hibbs has talked about this for years, dating back to some of his first columns wherein he portents the doom of shops far too reliant on the speculative cycle. This was in 1991. When he talks about it today, he brings in ideas about how much harder it is to succeed as a physical retail space today, with rising costs all around. He notes that for himself, he’s watched rent increase significantly in his area, and is keeping a tight eye on the minimum wage going up in his city to $15 in the near future. You’ll also note that in these columns, he has a watchful eye on all of these factors, and has implemented game plans. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if his purchase of a second location wasn’t partially to have an escape hatch if his original location wasn’t struck with the type of rent increase that had doomed others in his area… but please keep in mind, that is me saying that, and not Hibbs.
Regardless, if I were a betting man (and I’m not), I’d place money down on Hibbs running a comic shop until he himself calls it quits, because knows where his money is, knows when to spend and when to save, and he’s always got an eye on the direction the industry is trending.
As for myself, well…
Like I said at the top, my wife and I started our shop in early 2015. When we did so, we had a third partner whose focus was on Magic: The Gathering product. To put things extremely mildly, this partnership didn’t work out, so just a little over a year later, we moved our store to a new location, without this partner or any Magic: The Gathering product, and brought in used books. Realistically, moving a store after less than a year in business and changing the product base drastically should have destroyed us – especially in a time where shops are threatening to close their doors all around.
I am happy to report that we will not be closing any time soon. We formed Variant Edition with an eye to survive the upcoming flood – and so we kept an eye on where the industry was going, and adjusted accordingly. When things started going south with our third partner, we took measures to mitigate damage. When it became clear that Magic would fit ill with the audience we were forming due to cognitive dissonance with the customer bases, we moved away from it. And all of these moves – including one across the city – have worked out.
We spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears building up a community that followed us when we moved – one that we had built by connecting people with stories they loved, and not ideas that we could market. It took a lot of work… and it was slow work, but little by little, we are seeing the number in our bank account increase, despite the move, and the business partner drama and everything that 2016 threw our way.
So when I say “good riddance” to stores that may have to shut down in 2017… please know that I don’t mean that on a personal level. On a personal level, I know about the struggle. I know about the love that gets poured into a small business like a comic shop, and I know how big a part of your heart it can become. I know the fear of looking out into the future, and seeing that all go away. That’s one of the reasons why I left the old shop I worked for back in the day. I personally wouldn’t wish that loss on anyone, whether they are an owner or an employee. But from a business standpoint… a business, large or small is built on the kind of connections that you build, and in an industry that should be built on stories, I have no remorse for those who looked out at the curve and tried to build inwards instead of pushing out, grabbing a vital new audience that is hungry for material.
There are so many people out there, waiting to connect with something new… and it won’t be the next big event or a special cover that will bring them in. And they won’t come in if you don’t give them a reason to connect.
So push. Build. It’s going to be slow, but it can be done.
You can do this.
We can do this.
We’ll see you in 2017.
Brandon Schatz and Danica LeBlanc are the owners of Variant Edition Comics + Culture located in Edmonton, Alberta. They specialize in matching people with the comics and books they never knew they wanted. In their spare time, they write articles and produce podcasts at Submetropolitan.com