Comics aren’t dying. Comics will never die.
Diamond, effectively the only direct market comics distributor, halted all shipments, and cash flow problems caused them to delay vendor payments (they later announced a payment schedule). Numerous publishers sent creators “pencils down” messages, and the weekly comic release schedule virtually shut down. Diamond since announced a May 20th return to comic book shipment, but the damage was already done.
Make no mistake, it’s an awful situation. Many comic book stores, already notorious for tight profit margins, have been forced to temporarily close due to state and local ‘stay at home’ orders, and it’s impossible to predict how many will have the means to reopen when this pandemic finally ends. Many shops that have remained open have been forced to limit sales to curbside pickup and deliveries, and the loss of foot traffic combined with a lack of new product surely takes a financial toll. And that’s all to say nothing of the legions of fans like myself who miss their weekly “new comic book day” ritual.
Unfortunately, there’s a vocal contingency of grifters and doomsayers among comic book fans who would have you believe that the combination of these factors spells the end for comics. The grifters are arguing in bad faith, and the less said about those reactionary far-right Youtubers the better. But I’m sympathetic to well-meaning comic book fans who don’t know how else to process the shockwaves COVID-19 sent throughout the industry.
But all this needs to be put into perspective. First let’s address the obvious: the entire planet is in the midst of a highly contagious pandemic, the likes of which have not been seen in over a century. At the time of this writing, there have been over 4.92 million confirmed coronavirus cases globally, with more than 323,000 deaths.
This is exponentially bigger than comics, and the economic repercussions of indefinitely closing all “non-essential” businesses cannot be overstated. Even AMC Theatres, the largest movie theater chain in the United States, may not survive. How is it reasonable to assume that the comic book industry should be better positioned to ride out this crisis than any other industry?
Besides, the direct market is just one part of the equation. I love comic book stores, and want to see them survive and thrive. But we must remember that comics, the medium, is far older and more expansive than comics, the industry.
Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics defines “comics” as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” As McCloud admits, it’s not a perfect or elegant definition, but it’s useful, and broad enough to capture the scope of the medium. It puts the vastness of comics in perspective: comics are more than 20-odd-page staple-bound magazines about big strong men who fight.
Let’s step back for a moment. Way back to ancient times, with Egyptian hieroglyphics representing an early form of sequential art. From cave etchings, to medieval tapestries, to the latest X-Men issue, humans have used pictures to tell stories. People have always had a natural inclination to make and consume art, including comics. Until our species goes extinct, we will always make and read comics.
Even if you subscribe to a narrow definition of comics that only includes “what people think of when they think of comics,” this isn’t even the first time in modern history that the comics industry has faced an existential threat.
There was the moral panic of the 1950s, when Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent claimed comics lead to juvenile delinquency, homosexuality, and other perceived social ills. The ensuing outrage was followed by congressional hearings, and widespread censorship in the form of the Comics Code Authority. This led many publishers like EC Comics, known for material no longer permitted under the code, to shut down.
People weren’t sure if comics would survive after the bubble burst on the speculator boom of the early ’90s, either. Even Marvel Comics (yes, that Marvel) filed for bankruptcy in 1996.
And are we so short sighted that we’ve forgotten about the 2008 financial crisis already?
Make no mistake, this pandemic will change the world for generations. It’s impossible to know how these changes will take shape, but the business of comics will change too. No industry stays the same for long, especially in the arts. It won’t be easy. There will be growing pains. A decade from now, we may not be buying, or even reading, comics in quite the same way. But we will adapt, somehow. We have to. Because those of us who love comics can’t stop making or reading comics, regardless of who or what tries to stop us.
“Comics are dying” makes no more sense than “music is dying” or “poetry is dying.” Comics are art. Art doesn’t die. Comics aren’t dying. Comics will never die.