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By Brian Hibbs

This was supposed to be the annual BookScan column, but then COVID-19 swept the world.

There are millions of people with more serious worries than mine – there are people who are at serious risk of dying, there are hospital workers who are putting themselves in genuine harm’s way to try to help protect the population – so the worries of a comic book store owner are genuinely unimportant in a time like this. And yet, I have to worry about my staff, and my family, and how this impacts all of them. Please don’t take a single word of what I write as diminishing the very serious life-threatening concerns that others have; but I have to share my truths as best I know how.

Comix Experience has six employees, most of whom are dependent on their jobs to pay their own rents and sustenance. I myself am the sole provider for my wife and son, and selling comics is all I’ve ever done since I was twenty-one years old; at 52 years old, I wouldn’t judge myself to be exactly an attractive hire in the post-plague world, if I had to close the stores.

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Comix Experience is a cash-flow based business. We’re largely profitable, but it is pretty marginal – and without new money coming in, we’ll burn through our cash reserve in very short order. We are currently pledged to pay our amazing and awesome staff the full amount they would have received, but that’s not really sustainable when we’re closed to walk-in traffic.

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The San Francisco Bay Area was the first municipal area in the United States to shut down “non-essential” business. 3/16 was our final day of being “open”. And while calls for clarification seem to indicate that we can continue to do mail order and extremely limited “contactless” curbside delivery, the stone cold reality of things is that doing a transaction for a customer at the register takes seconds, while doing all of the steps and work of mail order or curbside takes minutes – sometimes as much as ten minutes, depending on the asks. Our systems, our inventory, our work flow, our knowledge, is all centered around and optimized for supporting walk-in customers.

In a best-case scenario, we’ve been working roughly four times as hard for about one-fourth of the income. This is not sustainable; either for our own health, or our economic picture.

We’re not alone in this; I’m no one special here, but being in the Bay Area means we’re a lot further on the lack-of-sales curve than most of my peers, many of which are just now starting to get shut-down notices from their states. And, it is my belief that NO order will be lifted until all fifty states have done a full three week shut down – while San Francisco’s current order says “through May 3rd”, California’s is “indefinite”, and my current expectation is we’ll still be likely to be locked down into June.

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Tony S. Daniel’s cover to Batman #94, once scheduled to be released on May 4

I also want to note that while mail order, etc. was strong for a week or so (though not enough to actually pay the bills), it reduced precipitously in the second week, and now that we know that the comics printer shut down and that Diamond is no longer distributing new product, I’m positive it’s going to drop precipitously once again.

The “CARES act” that Congress passed holds some hope…. IF it does the things it says, and IF the Small Business Association can keep up with the demand that will be unleashed (there are reasons to doubt both of those premises, I think), but even the rosiest scenarios in there isn’t enough to keep the stores going for more than a short time.

Both of my landlords have told me we can “defer” the rent (but it will still be due eventually). Paying commercial rents on an unusable retail space is not a tenable situation for more than a month or so.

So that’s my State of Play right now.

# # # # #

As noted above, the comics printer Transcontinental shut down on March 25th for “three weeks”, and that means that Diamond shut down shipping new items directly thereafter.

But let’s talk about some purely mechanical truths: Once you shut down a big and complex machine, it is inherently slow to start back up again. Orders have to be taken (virtually no order that was placed before the shutdowns could be considered valid), product has to be printed, packaged and shipped out to distribution, where it needs to be broken down and repackaged, and then sent out to thousands of stores. Even assuming the freight networks are all working at pre-COVID levels (which sounds like an open question to me), if everything came together perfectly and precisely together correctly, to absolute best case scenarios, it seems pretty obvious to me that the earliest we could assume that new comics could ship again would be May 6th, six weeks later. This also sounds like an overly optimistic time frame to me, and that we’re more likely to be well into June before new comics arrive inside of stores.

This also sounds like a complete pipe dream to me, because there are still whole states in the US whose Governors are still stubbornly resisting closing down, which will do nothing but prolong this problem for everyone.

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Now, virtually every publisher has promised to not ship new comics, in print or digitally, until this crisis is over (Image should get an enormous amount of credit for being first out of the gate here, with Boom! very close on their heels), but there have been two major exceptions: Marvel and DC.

Now we reach the portion of my column that I have had to rewrite at least three times over the course of a week, because things keep changing.

Originally, DC’s official press release statement talked in oblique corporate double-speak. However, in multiple retailer forums on Facebook (including at least one that isn’t “private” as any rational person might understand it), separate DC representatives had both used identical verbiage of “Here’s where we are on digital. All our data shows the digital consumer and the physical consumer are two different audiences. For now, we’re going to continue to release digital comics, but will revisit this if the pipeline for physical distribution continues to be challenged and disrupted.”

Obviously, it’s been an open secret for a long time now that there are factions at DC that pine to get rid of physical print periodicals, in fact I was told that one of the very first questions that was asked by AT&T when they had their first post-takeover meeting at DC, in the pre-plague past, was “Why are we still printing these?”. I even sort of get it a little bit – every other physical media other than prose books has moved wildly significant percentages of their income to digital and streaming, and that’s because in those media the actual difference-to-average-consumers in consumption experience is neutral to significantly better. But it’s my belief that comics are a significantly worse experience when they’re not on paper.

This also appears to be the audience’s belief: all indications from all fronts is that digital is a pretty minor portion of sales (under 15% for most comics), and that it hasn’t changed at all meaningfully in the last decade. In fact, I am reminded of DC publisher Jim Lee’s “dental floss” analogy from back in 2011.

Now, regardless of my personal beliefs about the value and readability of digital comics, it certainly appears that the audience agreed, at least as long as print and the physical object was still an option. But are they going to feel the same if we go six to eighteen weeks (or more) without print comics? Surely at least some will “crack” in the meantime and switch channels. How much “channel bleed” can undercapitalized retailers survive, especially after the gut punch of being forced to close? And how many people are going to continue with the “habit” of comics, if it gets interrupted for any real period of time? Long-term, what if the market loses even 5% of readers? That would be a significant body blow to many stores.

We already know of at least one store that isn’t planning on reopening on the other side of the crisis: Lee’s Comics in Mountain View, and I don’t see how publishers considering digital first wouldn’t increase the number of stores thinking the same. Lord, it’s making me think that maybe reopening won’t be viable, and I’m one of the rah-rah-iest cheerleaders for comics you could possibly find.

Choosing to continue with digital releases seems like the worst possible choice a publisher could make – the raw ill-will they would generate from their single largest market segment, for what seems very likely to be an insignificant gain in revenue sounds like a pure PR and marketing disaster to me.

And, In fact, that seems to be what happened to DC for the 4/1 on-sale books – first they announced (albeit it in a cowardly and under-the-table way) that they were going through with digital-first comics; then the next day, due to what we presume to be massive and sustained backlash, they pulled plans to release them.

The Mechanical Issues

But let’s get back to the mechanical issues for a second, by looking at a single comics series, BATMAN. Now, BATMAN is published fortnightly – issue #92 was scheduled for 4/1, #93 for 4/15 and #94 for 5/6. Let’s assume we’re all magically back in business by that last date (we probably won’t be), what happens then? Is DC going to ship three issues in a single week? Three issues that they’ve promised in print will be made fully returnable with them even paying return freight? Would anyone buy those? Would anyone have the money to do that, and how would it impact their purchases of any other comics in that same six weeks-at-once scenario? Can the market afford a “catch up” product dump? Can Diamond handle that kind of output all at once? Can DC handle the vast river of returned product they’d get under that circumstance?

Rather than using this production gap to get caught up on production schedules, to ensure that comics don’t ship late, to set things up for a properly spaced, structured and marketed future, DC would have been ensuring an enormous stress and strain on the market.

You know, historically, DC was always the sober and steady publisher, the one that put the retailer above almost any other consideration and whose broad shoulders protected us all. So that the heel turn of “we’re going to throw you to the wolves” was heartbreaking. It’s super-terrific that they backed off, but that still doesn’t change the fact that they did break our hearts, and it is going to be very very difficult to “forget” that as we move forward. The thing I know is that my peers and myself are fragile economically, but that we are deep and profound survivors because we do what we do from love, not profit motive as our primary consideration. But our support of any project or publisher is born from that love. Without that love, why would we put up with the shit we do?

We remember, you see. We remember everything. I still think about and talk about, say, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #500 and the folly of chasing hits that was taught to the market then, and that happened longer ago than most of my staff being born!

The thing is, if publishers kill the Direct Market, they really don’t have much left. There is no longer a viable or valid “newsstand” market, and all of the wishing for such a thing to magically spring back into being by armchair pundits who’ve never invested a dollar outside of their personal comics collection can’t change that – most modern periodical comics have a shelf life less than milk, they’re incredibly fragile and hard to handle, sought primarily by an audience that has significant interest and investment in material being “mint”, and priced so low compared to other magazines that they’re barely worth the costs of handling.

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In point of fact the reason there is a “Direct Market” is because the non-specialist couldn’t effectively sell comics any more. And that was when the output of DC and Marvel was in the range of a dozen books a week. There’s absolutely no way it could work with the kind of atomized output they have these days – there wasn’t a single not-first-issue that sold in February that sold 100,000 copies, nationwide. There simply isn’t enough money in it for non-DM stores to deal with the product. Barnes & Noble tried, and couldn’t do it; Gamestop tried, and couldn’t do it. The idea that anything other than the niche stores that have evolved to support periodical comics could do it is a pretty unrealistic pipe dream, sorry.

(Even more preposterous are the folks agitating for a “return to the newsstand” along with a wholesale price cut to prices they remember when they were children – the math simply doesn’t work, people!)

Nor would it really be possible for the overwhelming majority of DC and Marvel’s output to survive as “digital only” or “trade only” – the only reason those books are able to come out at the price points they do in the ways that they do is because the DM is amortizing the overwhelming majority of the costs of production.

Sadly, so much of the Direct Market is something like a battered spouse: we insist they’ll change, and we take our hits again and again, and then eventually one day you get beaten to death. That day came really really close last week.

A knife in the back is one thing, a knife in the face is so much worse.

# # # # #

But you know what the worst part to me is? It’s the notion that DC and Marvel could actually take six weeks (or more) “off” to plan, and retool, and refigure their offerings and how and what and where and why they publish comics. They could eliminate late-shipping and mis-solicited comics. They could build marketing plans that actually capitalized on the local passions of local DM retailers, and to reach out and work with us to structure and grow our audiences in ways that make everybody stronger in the long run.

Like, let’s stay with DC for the second: and take their “Generation 5” plan – right now, as a person who might be expected to sell them someday, the pre-plague version of this line looked like a chaotic mess, with messages and marketing all confused and muddled, especially in the wake of Dan Didio’s firing. This moment of “Crisis On Earth Real” gives them a chance to fix all of that, and reschedule and reposition, and to build something that might actually last more than a single quarter.

Empyre_0_CombinedCoversI don’t think that our publishers actually understand just how much our orders are based on our faith to be able to sell to walk-in customers. Preorders are absolutely the metric and rule for a long standing series – I’m selling +2 rack copies on a typical Marvel comic overall, but when it gets to new launches that are actually a “success”, those are really entirely on the retailer’s hope and faith. Since we had to turn in FOC orders for weeks that I knew I was closed to walk-in customers, and turn in an entire order for the month of May where I have to assume I am also closed, we went straight to subs only. The changes and numbers were illuminating to me. My thought here rushes to EMPYRE, Marvel’s theoretical “tentpole” offering this year, with an entire line of mini-series and tie-ins built around it. We originally ordered thirty copies of the first issue, historically extremely low on the scale of “Marvel line-wide events” (back when they were rarer and the line was less-“wide”, it could never be less then one hundred copies sold), but when I dropped orders down to just consumer pre-orders… my orders dropped to just six copies!

I hadn’t actually consciously recognized that I was bearing eighty percent of the risk for that series until I did that revised FOC order.

I mean, wait, why the hell am I doing that if publishers don’t have my back right now, of all times in the history of comics?

As I write this, we just passed the second Wednesday where it wasn’t actually clear what Marvel was doing, on a Tuesday morning – Comixology had a full listing of comics that were scheduled to go on sale… and if I look this second at next week’s list, all of those comics are still listed from Marvel comics as well. Taking this issue “week by week” is absolutely infuriating when the vast majority of comic book stores is completely dependent on Marvel to pay their bills.

How hard is it to reassure your number one market? How difficult would it be to communicate these things through “official” channels instead of us retailers having to find out about these things from comic book “news” websites instead?

# # # # #

The other thing that happened last week, just as the collective retailer base thought we had “won” on digital-first from Marvel and DC, was that “ComicsHUB” suddenly announced a Digital-first plan of their own.

Wow, did that not sit right with folks, and a day later, it was swiftly retracted.

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Now, I happen to be of the mind that nothing malicious was intended here (quite the opposite!), but “it’s coming from inside the house!” is potentially more worrying because a crisis like this requires that folks stick together. In a Facebook poll, in a private group, 222 votes from retailers were cast, with an overwhelming 177 of them (80%) against Digital First releases. Only eleven people (5%) were for it.

I don’t know if I have ever seen eighty percent of comic book retailers agree on anything, so that’s really quite an accomplishment.

I’m going to repeat it again because it seems clear to me that many commentators didn’t think through the mechanical “how does that work?” part of things, but the premise of the ComicsHUB plan was that we were “pre-selling” each week’s comics, and in the meantime, a consumer would get a digital copy. Logistically, it is hard to see how that could possibly work on the top end as I’ve already outlined above (“The Mechanical Issues”): Even if three issues of Batman are magically available in six weeks: Is DC going to ship three issues in a single week? Three issues that they’ve already promised in print will be made fully returnable with them even paying return freight? Would anyone buy those? Would anyone have the money to do that, and how would it impact their purchases of any other comics in that same six weeks-at-once scenario? Can the market afford a “catch up” product dump? Can Diamond handle that kind of output all at once? Can DC handle the vast river of returned product they’d get under that circumstance?

What happens if that “three issues behind of BATMAN” becomes six? Or eight?

When we come out the other side of this, the world is going to be different. Whole industries will have to change or die, we’ll still probably have massive unemployment for months, if not years, to come. It is wholly irrational to think that things are going to snap right back to how they were before, even if we thought that was desirable on its face.

And, at least in comics, I know that it wouldn’t be desirable. Things were skewed and broken and weird before the plague, why on earth would we want to go back to that place where publishers are overproducing mediocre and uncommercial comics and causing their own sales to drop as a direct result? I will only talk for myself here, but a whole lot of the things I used to tolerate about publishing, as a client retailer, will absolutely not work going forward without wholesale changes to how comics are made and produced. For example: rack copies for non-returnable periodicals? Almost certainly a complete non-starter for at least the first quarter afterwards. Accepting items added at the Final Order Cutoff date? Nope. Tolerating launches without clearly communicated marketing plans, and understanding of the scope of line expansions? Don’t be crazy. We’ve already had a number of years for a declining market for superhero comic periodicals: why would we jump both-feet-in back into that without real leadership and communication?

Marvel and DC have already lost my faith – the former from not telling us anything directly and plainly, the latter for being weasels in how they informed us about their digital first plans. What kind of “partners” are those?

Let me be clear: I’m not (that) worried about the medium of comics – things were booming before the plague for not-superhero material – but for Marvel and DC to rebuild my trust in their publishing plans, in the raw viability of superhero periodicals in post-COVID-19 America… well, they need to work for those sales starting immediately. Things can’t go back to what they were before, even if we wanted them to.

These are the conversations we should be having, because this “forced break” could actually end up with periodical comics being significantly stronger, more focused, and more appealing to non-readers on the other side if we can rethink and re-position how we do business.

To that end, a number of Direct Market retailers have started a first draft of the kind of post-crisis changes that need to be made. That document can be found here. That’s in no way complete, and maybe some of the points are not-workable, but we should be openly and honestly discussing all of them to figure out How To Make Comics Better when this is finally finished.

Stay Healthy!


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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73 COMMENTS

  1. “Sadly, so much of the Direct Market is something like a battered spouse: we insist they’ll change, and we take our hits again and again, and then eventually one day you get beaten to death. That day came really really close last week. … A knife in the back is one thing, a knife in the face is so much worse.”

    More retailer whining and self-pity, Poor, poor babies! I guess it’s easier to blame your woes on publishers than take any responsibility.

    Comics collectors are nostalgists and most will always prefer their comics on paper. But publishers need to face reality and make comics available online or by mail order, for the duration of this crisis. If retailers don’t like it, too bad.

    It’s been at least a decade since I’ve bought a comics periodical (except for some back issues that haven’t been collected in reprint volumes). I know that many fans and retailers have a sentimental attachment to floppies, but I really don’t care if that market disappears.

  2. George, even in the the last few weeks of listening to insipid statements from the White House, your opinions made me scratch my head in confusion. You have no horse in the race, and seemingly no interest in the race, but here you are reading an opinion piece about it!

    And you seem to be one of those fellows who think that because it is true for them, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, it is universally true.

    Without monthly physical comic books, there won’t be collections or the vast majority of digital comics.

    But thank god people will still be able to get Cyberfrog.

  3. ‘I guess it’s easier to blame your woes on publishers than take any responsibility.’

    I guess you missed the part about retailers taking all the risk on non-returnable product. That sounds like taking responsibility to me. No matter how you look at it, the Direct Market is the only way this business can survive, with it’s shallow margins per item. The two biggest publishers in this Market haven’t excelled in building anything up, only in squeezing out as much money as possible, without turning out a quality line of well curated books (exceptions duly noted). These are simple truths that can be gleaned by any impartial Observer.
    I think Brian’s point is that business cannot continue as usual. Every aspect will have to be reconsidered. Thinking that switching to digital will make for a thriving comics Market is short-sighted. The Market needs the grass-roots people.

  4. Wow, that domestic violence analogy was incredibly inappropriate and unnecessary. I have read Brian’s column and understand he has no filter (or basic social skills), but could someone at the beat not have edited that? Starting the article acknowledging the context of the problem and then turning around and comparing yourself to a “battered spouse” is tone-deaf at best. Really disappointed.

  5. Honestly, yes. I want retailers to succeed and I respect your passion. But this, for example:

    “we are deep and profound survivors because we do what we do from love, not profit motive as our primary consideration. But our support of any project or publisher is born from that love. Without that love, why would we put up with the shit we do?”

    Wow. Where to start with how woefully out of touch and obtuse this is? The first thing is that you don’t do it from a profit making consideration but for LOVE. Okay, I can appreciate that- the starving artist route. This is your first problem. Because you don’t seem to realize that it isn’t on other parties to bail you out because you chose a commercially risky path based out of your love and your hobby. And I don’t say that with maliciousness. This is just tone-deaf. If you’re going to hire people and be their main source of income, you’d better damn well be out to make a profit and survive and not do things from love. It’s illogical.

    Secondly,
    ‘Without that love, why would we put up with the shit we do’- again, this woe-is-me sense of entitlement is amazing. So people also need to feel BAD for the shoddy distribution system you and many retailers have ENABLED for DECADES. This entire sentence is structured to say that you deserve applause and a pat on the back because you tolerate abuse because you LOVE comics so much. I’m sorry things are hard- I am. But your entire attitude is completely lacking in consideration that it’s the fans, it’s the customer, it’s the buyer’s needs and such that need to come first. You took a gamble which anyone should respect, as ANY business owner does. However, you went into it with admittedly flawed business sense and logic and you need to be held accountable and consider that maybe you made a mistake.

    Retailers have been guilt tripping comic fans for years and I’m tired of it quite frankly. It isn’t on us to support and bail out shops when shops and the comics industry have been peddling short-term gimmicks to us for years. Eventually people are going to be fed up. It isn’t just about the newsstand- it’s about getting comics that aren’t outrageous prices when the USA Today newspaper has much more paper and is still $2.00 a copy.

    You did it out of love? Therein brings up the old saying about the thing we love destroying us. You should be in this to succeed. I say that with respect because of course I realize yes, you want financial success and a profit, but- this attitude, I am going to chalk up out of frustration. Understandable frustration. Because the tone of “I did this because I LOVE it, otherwise why would I put up with all this mean treatment and also, I did this NOT for money because I LOVE it so you’d better APPRECIATE me..” or sympathize with you, I don’t know- it’s just so much whiny.

    Retailers need to band together and there needs to be some Aid benefit for shop owners. The exhibitors who put on these big Cons and the publishers should pitch the hell in. I would too. But always remember, the course of comics will be adjusted towards the CUSTOMER’S demand, not the retailers. Don’t do us any favors.

  6. “because we do what we do from love, not profit motive as our primary consideration.” This is frightening and probably exaggeration. You should absolutely be motivated by profit if you are running a business. The fact that some (many?) are motivated by the medium is why the industry’s always one step from disaster. No one has any realistic market forces driving their business plans. It’s all hoping for growth in a niche market becoming niche-ier. Every time retailers buy into the next gimmick and relaunch, they’re playing a speculation game hoping +50 readers will show up based on internet hype. If Marvel and DC fell flat on their face with a few of these gouging schemes, you bet they would get their act together and come up with something more profitable. As a reader, I’m going to be there when doors open again, so long as comics are still averaging 3.99. I’m never buying a digital issue for that. I’d rather cut it all and pay my 8 to 10 for unlimited plans than waste money on digital purchases at physical pricing.

  7. From the retailer doc, I’ll amplify this by 1000%: “Fewer variants. Less is more, money not spent on a variant will be spent on another comic or collected version…or maybe they spend on the materials needed to protect those comics and strengthen the shop.”

    As a reader, I will absolutely dump my extra comic budget into more titles if I didn’t have to evaluate variant covers every month. I’ll be honest, I fall prey to shiny variants when there’s a choice. I’ll double dip on regular and variant covers for Jenny Frisson Wonder Woman covers and Manapul Batman Beyond covers because I can’t make a choice. I’ll buy both covers of Doomsday Clock because I can’t make a choice. But it doesn’t change my budget. I’ve cut ongoing series and skipped buying reprint collections because they were squeezed out by monthly variant purchases. I would prefer different content, but I am too weak. Haha! And it’s probably way more profitable for the publishers to get free sales out of the cost for a bonus cover.

  8. To anyone criticizing Hibbs or the Direct Market, understand that anywhere from 95% to 99% of the comics you’ve loved the last 20some years only exist BECAUSE of the Direct Market. Yes, even most of the stuff you bought digitally or through the book market only existed because of the established audience and pool of comic professionals supported by the Direct Market.

    And while Hibbs knows more about the business of selling comics than I ever will, I do think the factor he leaves out is you could have the best business model possible and it won’t matter much if the product sucks. I think the bizarre nature of modern super-hero comics, which haphazardly smush childish concepts and tropes together with supposedly adult subject matter and storytelling, is as big a problem for the Direct Market as anything else.

    Mike

  9. interesting how the term “creators” appears ZERO times in this article and there is no mention about how they are the biggest victims of this retailer demanded comics industry shut down. Creators and everyone else working on the publisher side are the lifeblood of the industry. There are no small business bailouts coming for them. They have no inventory to sell online. They are just pencils down.

    This will most likely go on for months. Creators need paychecks, work needs to get made. Fans need the escapism. The comics industry needs to move forward with digital content. What other industry is demanding they skip all digital distribution right now because physical retail stores are closed?

    I feel for retailers, but they shouldn’t take the entire industry down because they can’t open for business.

  10. “There is no mention about how they (the creators) are the biggest victims of this retailer demanded comics industry shut down.”

    Joe, firstly it’s not a retailer demanded shutdown. The entire freaking country is at a government mandated standstill because of a pubic health emergency unlike anything in 100 years. So don’t put this or your temporary inconveniences for not having new comics to read on retailers who would love nothing more than to be selling you new comics.

    Second, the publishers who theoretically have the most capital and confidence in their product are more than capable of paying their creators. I would assume the salaried and contract creators are still being paid and even some freelance creators as the corporate publishers stockpile future issues. If they are not being paid, it’s directly because their companies have no capital reserves to pay them. We’ll all get through this, but we don’t need anything right now but bread on our tables and well-being.

  11. “I haven’t bought a physical comic since 2016, and I don’t miss it.”

    See that thing flying 100 feet over your head? That’s what we call “The Point.”

    Mike

  12. I don’t mean to put words in Brian’s mouth, but I think when he said love, not profit what he meant was nobody goes into comics retailing to get rich. Obviously, if a business doesn’t make a profit it won’t persist.

    I’d like to ask George, Heather and Mark what business they have successfully run for 30 years. My guess: they haven’t run any business for even a minute. Especially not one in an industry that has shut down on government order.

  13. The comics companies deserve blame for publishing crap (including those variant covers). But retailers deserve blame for pushing this crap on gullible customers who think such crap will become “collectibles.”

    Most comic shops exist to sell Marvel and DC superhero floppies. Oh, they also sell Star Wars action figures. That’s how regressive this industry is.

  14. I don’t understand why you claim DC betrayed you. It’s been clear for a decade that DC was only retailer friendly because of Levitz. This is how they’ve been since he was forced out.

  15. I’m wondering how much longer Disney and Warner will allow the comic-book publishers they own to kowtow to the demands of small-minded retailers. At some point this industry will go mostly, if not entirely, online. Brick-and-mortar retailers are lucky it hasn’t happened already.

  16. To answer Daniel T, you’re correct. I haven’t ran a business for 30 years, only six while also becoming a Mother in the same time period. So Brian has 24 years on me as well as being a male in a male dominated industry.

    But what’s the point of that? He could run a business for 96 years and I would still call him out for saying inane things and misplacing blame, implicating guilt, and saying nonsensical and poor logic even if I was still managing a pizza place in Maryland, which is where I started out before becoming my own boss. I stand by my statements; I think this was a flawed column and I responded accordingly. I don’t disrespect Brian Hibbs and I really do respect his passion.

    Who goes into a business not hoping it’s not the most financially positive endeavor that it possibly can be? It’s idiotic to say otherwise. Obviously a great deal of love and passion for the medium of the business you start is required; but this was not the tone. It was, the primary consideration was not profit… well, you need a good passion for your store as the base, but uhm, profit absolutely needs to be the primary consideration when you have employees that depend on you and so forth. All of this being said Brian is a really industrious and smart individual who I think will find a way to navigate. I do think the spousal abuse metaphor was also in really bad taste but again, I know Brian is under a lot of pressure right now.

  17. The complaints about variant covers or events or whatever (frankly, most of the stuff in that retailer doc) seem to me like the equivalent of telling a gunshot victim he needs to eat better and exercise more. May or may not be good advice, but totally irrelevant to the present problem.

    The comic industry isn’t shut down currently because of variant covers. It’s shut down because of a global pandemic, and we have no clue how long that will be the case. If this lasts three months, six months, whatever- at some point the direct market will bleed out. Stores will go out of business, publishers will fold, creators will look for work in other fields, and customers will find other things to occupy their time. Even the sports industry is scrambling to find some way to get new product out there, and that’s a far more stable and profitable concern than comics. Having some new product is better than having no new product.

  18. The problem is not the C19 virus. It is that the direct market is so unprofitable that most shops have no cash reserves. C19 just ripped the bandage off of a sucking chest wound so the patent is bleeding out in minutes instead of hours but either way the patent still ends up dead.

  19. There is no way you can truthfully say that physical goods are desired more than digital when you put rules in place to hamstring digital sales. It’s a no brainer that if the price of an “identical” digital good and physical good are the same that a customer will choose physical. If it turns out that the product is a lemon (which lots of comics are), they will at least be able to flip a physical product for something, even if it’s pennies on the dollar for what they paid for it. Digital should be released at the same time as physical at its own determined price point. Let the market decide. I’ll still buy a mix of issues, both print and digital, as well as trades depending on how I see the value of the content.

  20. “The comic industry isn’t shut down currently because of variant covers. It’s shut down because of a global pandemic, and we have no clue how long that will be the case.”

    Nobody here has said that variant covers have shut down the industry. And nobody has denied that a global pandemic has shut it down.

    Several of the posters here are trying to change the subject and claiming that some of us are blaming retailers for the industry shut-down. We’ve just said that retailers share the blame with publishers for the junk that the industry mostly sells. And that the direct market would rather die than change, which is true.

    But retailers have a vested interest in the system established 40-plus years ago continuing unchanged. They’re obviously making a decent living from it, or they would have gotten out long ago. Comparing themselves to battered spouses — with the implication that publishers are their abusers — is both tasteless and idiotic.

    These retailers owe their livelihoods to publishers. If they couldn’t sell Marvel and DC pamphlets, 99 percent of them would be out of business.

  21. I am a 48 year old, with 35 years of comic customer experience ;) and who is, thankfully, able to work and get paid during this pandemic. I also have 1 child, a 5 year old daughter (who loves DC Superhero Girls and the latest Runaways series – nothing better than Molly Hayes in her world) and who I hope will enjoy comics as much as I do someday. Relevant? Not sure. But, short: I am a comic “lifer”. For many reasons: form, nostalgia and above all else, content.
    I have been reading a lot on COVID-19, and I think this is a long-haul shut down followed by a shaky slow down. End of June for the status quo in North America seems very likely. Then eggshells for a period of time over fear of a 2nd wave (likely, though how big depends on us) then vaccine and stability thereafter, though now we are in 2021.
    I have read Brian’s writings for a long time. A bigger advocate for his business and his retailer community you will NEVER find. He is the grizzled vet who has persevered with a longevity that is no small feat, we know this. But let’s be clear: that as a re-seller who assumes far too big an economic burden as a pass through, he is NOT speaking for the comic creation part of this industry at all, and that is fine. Nor, more importantly, is he speaking fairly to that other kinda critical part of the industry: the end customers (readers/consumers).
    As tone deaf as his battered spouse reference was (and lets face it, it was) what he is trying to say has merit: rather than be an equal partner, or even anything close to a real partner with the comic publishers (especially the “Big 2”) and the monopolistic distributor, he is basically a customer too, albeit one with marginally more “power” than we, the folks who trot into comic shops on a regular basis to buy comics, but also without as much freedom to simply walk away. Ultimate power is purchasing of course, and so while he and his ilk “enjoy” greater access and influence with the “powers that be” up the chain along with their product spend, if we as end customers don’t make purchases, than neither does he for very long.
    I want to tackle a few points raised, leaving the most important for the last.
    First is his belief that there is no better comic reading experience than in print. This is very debatable but can clearly see the reasons why Brian, a lifer too, but with an economic reliance on a particular FORMAT of comic might say that. Here is where I am after 35 years of comic reading (and I get that not everyone is the same, just offering up where I am coming from). First, my comic “spend” on a monthly basis has been pretty steady over the last 2 decades or so (again, lucky: good income, stable job, etc…) and my spend on print format has been pretty steady as well. However, after New 52, with a few exceptions, I switched to reading DC trades at the library (with a few monthly DC comic purchases), read Marvel digitally (enter code on weekly books and read on an iPad AND subscribe to Marvel Unlimited even), and read physical copies of my remaining books, a healthy amount of non Big-2 books based on certain creators I follow. Love all the formats, for different reasons. Comics for the tactile experience and collect-ability factor, yes. DC trades from the library for the price and for getting a whole story in one go. Digital on the iPad so that for art that is a cut above the rest, seeing panels larger than I would on the comic page, with more colour pop too is fantastic. Oh, and I only have a certain amount of comic storing space, so this is a critical consideration too.

    So yes, you say, you aren’t spending more on print, isn’t that a bad thing? Sure I guess, but really, this industry is only going to survive not by squeezing more money out of me but getting more customers to squeeze. Simple as that. And to that point, Free Comic Book Day is coming up (such that it will be). Been running what, 17 years now?
    Retailers should ask themselves this question (and I honestly don’t know the answer, but Diamond’s annual reporting on sales growth is a good indicator in aggregate): in the 17 years of Free Comic Book Days, beyond kids of regulars (hopefully mine too, but who knows…) and a few more, how successful has the industry been in growing the customer base by a significant amount? Not by dollars, easily goosed with higher price points, flooding the market, and ridiculous gimmicks like variant covers, etc… but by actual regular paying foot traffic (compare growth of the industry to something like population growth)? I get that this is not the only avenue to get more people to buy comics, but it is a significant one with efforts made at every level in the comic distribution chain – working all together, rowing in the same direction largely. Of course, don’t get me started on how Marvel/Disney and WB/DC doesn’t chip off a fraction of a fraction of their considerable comic cinema revenues to throw up a standard commercial in front of their movies to encourage folks to seek out the comic content these hugely successful movies are based on! Grrrr….
    Anyhoo, lets get to the crux of Brian’s column. What to do in these strange, very damaging days?

  22. CONTINUED:

    First, despite my own personal experience, I do believe the comic company folks who say that the digital market is largely different than the printed comic market. And I think there are better options than have no comic content sold for an extended period of time and hope the disparate group of 2000+ comic retailers can somehow force the Big 2 to follow better practices for the post COVID-19 world. Sad to say, but I don’t like their chances of success at all based on a sizable amount of historical fact that Brian himself references. And besides, not as easily, true, but this can still be attempted while preserving something of the comic buying market for you know, us the end customers, during this shutdown.

    Brian basically talks about 3 possible directions that comic publishers can take at this point during this unprecedented situation (with a focus on retailers naturally):

    1 – Comic publishers continue to sell their products via their digital offerings on a weekly basis and wait out the physical delivery aspect. Safe to say that comics consumption for a lot of folks is based on HABIT. We do what we do because we do it – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (read digital, physical or any combination of both). But ah, it is broken now, isn’t it? And what of that habit now? So yes, the longer this goes, the greater the chances that retailers will lose some customers for good should they hop on the digital format to satisfy their weekly fix. No doubt. And retailers obviously get nothing monetarily out of this scenario. BUT, continuing the weekly “habit” during the shut down could hold folks onto comics reading and purchasing who might otherwise walk away for good in this world of endless entertainment options, many of which make far more economical “sense” than periodical comic reading.

    2 – Complete shutdown of distribution of any new comic content in any format. Wait it out, and retailers petition for a better approach in the post COVID-19 world. As mentioned, no reason the latter can’t be done anyway, and likely should, despite the limited chance of success. Now what happens when the end customer has NO access to new comic content for months on end? Well, who knows? But as mentioned, habit plays a big part in most print comics purchasing. The “Wednesday Warrior” is a real thing, and retailers I think have a BETTER chance of getting people back who maintain the habit of new comic content buying and reading than those who go completely cold turkey over a several month period. Debatable yes, but I think as a retailer, I would rather those folks have SOMETHING rather than nothing to satisfy their regular consumption habits (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly) – the point is, serialized storytelling in a periodical format greatly encourages regular acquisition intervals that are critical for continued consumption over a long period of time. And again, we are going to be going months before business as usual. Two at a minimum (and that is with most of another already in the books), likely more. There is real risk with this approach that I think may be underestimated. A few weeks, sure, could work, but months…? And longer depending how quickly “normal” distribution patterns can re-establish themselves…

    3- Then there is this ComicsHUB solution that we “outsiders” know only in broad strokes. And really, I have no idea how feasible it is for all the logistical reasons Brian mentions in his talk about resumption of service, and a host of others in this unique delivery system never before attempted. But if it can work (and I think it can), I think it should be implemented. Let’s get this out of the way first. Brian references his comic retailer Facebook poll as an argument against it “retailers don’t want it”. Well, statisticians would have a field day with that poll. Not random. Incredibly small sample size. No details on question(s) asked (what does “digital first” mean, in what context?). No idea if each respondent represented a unique retailer. Etc.. so, sorry, not very meaningful at all. The ComicsHUB solution from what we know of it, has the best chance of persevering the comic consumption “habit” and allow retailers to enjoy some revenue (yes, not much, but better than nothing, yes?) and help everyone ride out this storm as best possible. Get your weekly read, AND get your physical copies later on. Win/win for the end consumer who buys physical comics on a regular basis. And lets face it, if you as a end customer sign up for this, it is likely BECAUSE you still want the physical copies – you want your cake (reading weekly, or bi-weekly or monthly) and eat it too (pick up the physical copies when it is safe to do so). Do retailers lose some business to digital only at the end of this? Sure, possible, but I would suggest maintaining the habit with the promise of your physical copy at the end of it, still acquired from your friendly neighbourhood comic book store (sounds so much nicer than LCS), would lead to LESS loss over the longer term, not more.

    So for Brian and the others who rely on periodic comic purchasing to sustain their livelihoods: what option to advocate for where he and other retailers lose the least given these rather dire circumstances (that can be the only question, sadly)? I would think the ComicsHUB approach would be the best way to go (and I have ZERO personal motivation for “pimping” the ComicsHUB solution, far from it, as a Canadian who is not even sure we would get it “North of the Border”). I think retailers and publishers should give it a re-think, I really do. And really, I guess this is all a long winded “vote” as the ultimate stakeholder, the end consumer of comic content. I think this is the best of bad options to find someway to meet comics demand AND help keep the retailers that we rely on during normal times in business!

    Anyhoo, all food for thought (and debate – and yes, I understand this is theory for me, real life for a lot of others). Stay safe everyone, and to Brian, and all people in the comic industry community, wishing you all the best in weathering these incredibly challenging times. Oh, and coming at the tail end of already a decently sized “discussion” and with a length not suitable for the comment format at all, thanks to ANYONE who got this far in my post!

  23. “To that end, a number of Direct Market retailers have started a first draft of the kind of post-crisis changes that need to be made.”

    As others have noted, these are all plans to keep comics a niche collectible business that is inaccessible to most people. If I were a publisher who wanted my comics — pamphlets, trades, everything — to reach the largest possible audience, I would denounce this.

    The internet is everywhere, much as newsstands and spinner racks were before the ’80s. The direct market may have saved comics four decades ago, but it is only serving a dwindling customer base now. A customer base that is still addicted to adolescent power fantasies.

    Only most of those customers aren’t adolescents these days. They’re adults who don’t want to let go of the crap of their childhoods. It’s sad to enter a comic shop and see them buying material that is no longer intended for them.

  24. Magewolf- and why is it unprofitable? Is that the customer’s fault?? If comic shops had affordable and accessible product, wouldn’t they sell more?

  25. Mostly I want to tag this thread so the comments will get emailed to me, and I don’t know another way then to post something! I really don’t have the time right now to respond to almost any of this, but thanks for people being passionate even if I think many of you don’t actually understand anything about how the biz actually functions and/or what retailers would desire if it was up to us. If you want to support comic book stores, we have a webstore for this crisis that shouldn’t be too hard to find.

    -B

  26. “These retailers owe their livelihoods to publishers. If they couldn’t sell Marvel and DC pamphlets, 99 percent of them would be out of business.”

    If they couldn’t sell Marvel and DC comics, 99 percent of the rest of the comic industry would be out of business as well. Seriously. Here’s a link to the best selling graphic novels on Amazon.

    https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Books-Graphic-Novels/zgbs/books/4390

    30 out of the top 50 are straight out of the Direct Market. Out of what’s left there are two coloring books, two reprint books of classic newspaper strips, a “Blank Comic Book For Kids,” two licensed character books, a how-to book on making your own medical face mask, and “graphic guides” to quantum theory, game theory, and logic. So out of the Amazon top 50 graphic novels, there’s a whopping total of NINE that fit into the indie/non-super-hero comic category.

    Mike

  27. I’m not sure posting those top 50 GNs on Amazon actually supports your argument of the importance of Marvel and DC superhero comic book issues. The vast majority of those listed are kindle editions, and almost all of the books that “come out of the Direct Market” have media tie-ins and/or are Star Wars. Not to say the DM has no impact on graphic novel sales, but it’s a bit disingenuous to use digital editions of books made popular by TV shows and movies to somehow argue that Marvel and DC superhero periodicals remain the lifeblood of all of comics. Like, Star Wars sells because it’s Star Wars. And sure, Watchmen comes out of the direct market… of the 1980s? The newest superhero on there is I guess Ms. Marvel, and she’s closing in on like a decade in publication and has been featured in cartoons and video games. I mean, you can certainly argue that Marvel and DC have been successful in using the DM as an IP incubator for a lot of old and a couple new characters that they can then sell in other forms of entertainment…

  28. “Like, Star Wars sells because it’s Star Wars.“

    The Rise of Skywalker proves otherwise. And all those Star Wars titles were produced FOR THE DIRECT MARKET. I’m pretty sure they all started as monthly comics.

    What I’m trying to address is the mindset that super-heroes or the Direct Market is the problem with the comic business. A lot of such criticism boils down to “If we didn’t have super-heroes clogging the stands or we didn’t have this stupid Direct Market, then the comics I like would be more successful.” That’s bunk. That non-super-hero comic that sells 5,000 or 1,000 or 600 copies in the DM would not magically be selling 100,000 if Spider-Man vanished or the DM disappeared. Those little indie books might not exist AT ALL because they aren’t getting into the book market and they already aren’t selling digitally.

    Despite contrary predictions now going back decades, monthly super-hero comics remain the backbone of the DM and the DM remains the backbone of the comic book industry. Almost all of the non-super-hero work people love exists ONLY because of that pre-existing market. Would comics survive the death of the DM? Sure. But take a look at what actually sells outside the DM. It has very little in common with the sort of indie comics championed by the super-hero haters.

    Mike

  29. “That non-super-hero comic that sells 5,000 or 1,000 or 600 copies in the DM would not magically be selling 100,000 if Spider-Man vanished or the DM disappeared.”

    Not even Spider-Man is selling 100,000 copies per month these days. The last year it sold that many copies was 2008. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Amazing Spider-Man sold more than 300,000 copies per month.

    I don’t understand the mindset of fans and retailers who insist the industry is doing better than ever, when fewer people than ever are reading these periodicals.

    “Those little indie books might not exist AT ALL because they aren’t getting into the book market and they already aren’t selling digitally.”

    Do you ever go to bookstores, Mike? When I go there, I see plenty of books in the graphic novels section that aren’t from Marvel or DC and that aren’t about superheroes. Maybe they don’t sell as well as the superhero or Star Wars trades, but at least they’re there for anyone to buy (or were before all the bookstores closed).

  30. “It has very little in common with the sort of indie comics championed by the super-hero haters.”

    I don’t hate superheroes, and neither do most of the people who complain about the supehero glut in the DM. (Well, I think Gary Groth hates superheroes, and has for decades.) What we’re calling for is variety.

    Mainstream, commercial comics have always been genre-oriented, but there used to be a lot MORE genres, before superheroes took over totally in the ’80s. Mainstream comics now are basically superheroes and Star Wars, space opera being the only other genre the average superhero addict will look at.

    It wasn’t always like this. Hell, there was a time when ROMANCE COMICS were outselling virtually everything else on the newsstands. And if you didn’t like romance, there were horror, sci-fi, crime, Western, humor, jungle adventure and, yes, superhero comics to read.

    Imagine if movie studios produced nothing but Westerns, or if TV networks aired nothing but cop shows. That’s essentially what Marvel and DC are doing with their superhero fixation. What’s really sad is that so many fans are satisfied with this status quo.

  31. “I don’t understand the mindset of fans and retailers who insist the industry is doing better than ever, when fewer people than ever are reading these periodicals.”

    Who says that? Outside of maybe John Jackson Miller. I don’t recall Hibbs calling the pre-COVID-19 days some sort of Golden Age. What is at issue is that the Direct Market is what we have and I have never seen or heard anyone offer up a vaguely coherent or credible plan or even a suggestion of what could actually replace it.

    “I see plenty of books in the graphic novels section that aren’t from Marvel or DC and that aren’t about superheroes.”

    Pay attention. How many of those books are either MANGA (which means they were published in another country and this is a secondary market for them) or were initially published in the Direct Market?

    Here’s the New York Times list of top selling GNs/Trades for April 2020.

    https://www.nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/graphic-books-and-manga/

    Out of 15 titles, four are reprint books of foreign material and five are by a single author. Five of the top 15 best selling graphic novels are by the same person?!?! That’s not the sign of a healthy market.

    Mike

  32. Uh, Bill…. in 1968 there are like 60 titles on that list. In 2020, publishers are shipping 6-8 times that number. Of course they sell less. This is a point I have been making over and over and over again…..

    And, Mike, almost everything you are posting about bookstores today you are going to feel a bit silly when I finally get this BookScan column out.

    -B

  33. “Mainstream, commercial comics have always been genre-oriented, but there used to be a lot MORE genres, before superheroes took over totally in the ’80s.”

    First of all, the 1980s ended 30 years ago. We’re as far away from the end of the 1980s as the 80s were from the end of the 1950s.

    Secondly, we can all theorize about what the comic industry might look like if the Direct Market had never been created. If the industry existed at all it would certainly look and function in a radically different manner. But the Direct Market was created and it grew largely because comics, including all those other genres, were being squeezed out of other retail outlets.

    And anyone can correct me if I’m wrong, but it was super-hero fans who largely created the Direct Market and made it prosper. It was super-hero fans who opened a lot of the stores and it was super-hero fans who made the special trip every week to buy their favorite books. The fans of all those other genres could have done the same thing. But they didn’t.

    That’s why super-heroes dominated the Direct Market. It’s not a scam. It’s not a con. The game isn’t rigged. Super-hero comics dominate the Direct Market because month after month, year after year, decade after decade, they sold better than other books. That’s the plain and simple truth of it.

    Thirdly, it you actually look at what’s out there, the Direct Market has as much or more diversity than any time in comics history. We’ve even seen a little black-n-white comic about zombies rise up to be one of the best sellers of the entire decade of the 2010s. The problem is most of that diverse lineup doesn’t sell worth crap. Is that the Direct Market’s fault?

    Mike

  34. Just a few notes:
    Those 1968 Superman comics had print runs of ~ 1M, which means they sold ~50%.
    That Amazon best sellers list is missing Dog Man, which is in a different category.
    As for five Rainas on the NYT list, you’re in denial if you think kids want to read X-Men for $5. But OK, let’s wait for that Bookscan column…

  35. I can summarize my view of this issue in a few points. Caveat, I’m French so my perspective is broader.
    – today, mainstream US publishers are not selling books any more, they are selling premium variant covers as a main source of income; the contents of the book itself is an afterthought.
    – I am amazed that the US direct market survived for so long already, considering the tiny margins and the kind of volumes the retailers need to still make a living.
    – the DM has been relying on the “love” of the medium, for retailer to live in near poverty, hanging by a thread, an still take blows from the Big Two.
    – Then again, the DM survived the 90s. Bad art, lousy writing, tons of special covers. Lots of retailers disappeared but the market itself went on.
    – DC and Marvel don’t need to publish books anyway, profit is too small. They’re IP farms and they have enough IP already to last a century or two. Self-publishing will bring new blood periodically.
    – Digital saved the music industry, streaming saved TV and may save movies now that even Disney and Warner studio operations are hit by theaters shutdown. So there is no reason it can’t save comics as well. Only downside is that LCS will go the way of record stores and so will theaters. All hail Netflix.
    – switching to the european model might have worked at some point, but not any more. t’s on the verge of collapse too and will only survive in Europe with massive bailouts from governments (i.e. tax or debt).
    – now everythings hangs on how long this shutdown will last. If it’s just a few more weeks, things might bounce back to where they were, albeit with massive casualties. If it’s longer, all bets are off, considering that so many other industries out there will be hit, some more “vital” to civilization than other, therefore more “worthy” to be saved first by helicopter money.
    – everything we say here might be obsolete in 2 weeks. Those of us who still have a paying job are the lucky few. The fate of our civilization, our way of life, is in the balance. Reliance on cheap chinese products, commute to distant offices, physical markets, all that could be gone tomorrow.
    Be seeing you.

  36. “First of all, the 1980s ended 30 years ago. We’re as far away from the end of the 1980s as the 80s were from the end of the 1950s.”

    The problem is that Mike and his pals want comics to remain as they’ve been since the 1980s — which began 40 years ago.

    “Super-hero comics dominate the Direct Market because month after month, year after year, decade after decade, they sold better than other books.”

    That’s true and it’s very, very sad. Lowbrow fanboys who don’t want anything but superheroes are the reason why comics (and their readers) have such a poor public image. Reading posts from guys — and they all seem to be male — who are going through withdrawal symptoms because they can’t get their weekly dose of Marvel and DC floppies is pathetic.

    The fact is that until the early ’80s, people who liked comics but didn’t care for superheroes had plenty of options. And they didn’t have to seek out a seedy “specialty” shop to find comics. They could buy House of Mystery, Tomb of Dracula, or Sgt. Rock at their local grocery and convenience stores. The DM couldn’t support those books because the people who went to comic shops were overwhelmingly superhero fans, and they weren’t looking for anything but superhero books.

  37. What’s really sad is that the superhero rot has spread from comics to movie fandoms. I’ve read posts from dudes who think movie history began with the 2000 release of X-MEN, and the previous 105 years were just boring stuff they needn’t bother with. And the people saying this don’t have the excuse of being 8 years old.

    I wonder how many of today’s Marvel and DC zombies have even read The Spirit, or Terry and the Pirates, or EC, or undergrounds, or Euro comics, or even superhero comics that were published before they were born. If they did read them, they would probably dismiss them as “old” and “boring.”

  38. …OK, after The Spirit and Terry and the Pirates, any suggestions for non-superhero comics published prior to 1988? I would never flat-out dismiss older comics. I wouldn’t even consider them boring. The problem, at least for me, and I imagine others, is that it’s rare to see recommendations for older comics from people who aren’t superhero fans. I’m the type of person who tends to need a recommendations list to go off of before I check something out (given how small my frame of reference is). Otherwise, people ask me to check out older comics and I just put up my hands and give up. I will say, not a horror guy, so EC is a non-starter for me.

  39. All I know is that, thanks to the DM, I can’t get the digital comics I’ve been reading for years.

    (I stopped buying floppies after losing 20 years of comics in a flood.)

    So, thanks guys, for taking away one way I can entertain myself during this pandemic.

  40. DigiCom, life’s not fair. Big corporations have to make money and that’s what they’re struggling to figure out right now. How to keep readers happy, how to maintain story momentum, how to be profitable beyond tomorrow.

  41. Good heavens, so much vitriol at Brian for ‘whining’ and another blames him for being, as I perceive it, part and parcel of the bullshit offerings from the major publishers as if they were part of the scheme. Clueless. As to the fellow who got triggered by the ‘beaten spouse’ analogy–migod. Get over yourself.

    All things being somewhat equal, I haven’t bought a new comic book in about five years, not the least reason being I live in the Philippines and the print copies simply aren’t easily available. Digital? Meh. They still want too much money for them; same as print? Gedoudaheah. Still, I’d say that in the 3-4 years prior to leaving the country, I relied largely on my ‘reading privileges’ at a couple of comics retailers who let me use their store as a personal library (I’d worked or managed them prior both for 3 years), using the library, and found Marvel and DC’s output to be fairly uninspiring or entertaining–particularly if priced at the egregious figure of $2.99 or $3.99. All this combined, the price points, the proliferation of ancillary crap like variants, the spotty value of the writing and art, all pretty much conspired to leave me much less interested in the superhero genre overall.

    As Brian says, the medium will survive but as for superheroes, I can say that I no longer give a rat’s ass about them as much as I once did, save in a nostalgic manner. I hope that the retailers can weather the betrayals of the larger publishers as they seek to survive, but who knows?

  42. It’s not against Brian personally of course. Eventually the blacksmiths disappeared when the carriages made way for cars on the road. It’s the circle of life.

  43. I dropped superhero comics back around 2005, when I realized it was all just corporate serialized storytelling meant to make readers come back week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, and the characters were never really going to change or grow.

    The precise moment when I realized this was an issue of Catwoman, where Selina’s friends threw her a surprise birthday party, and the writer and artist went out of their way to avoid any mention of Selina’s age (including a “Look Who’s” balloon with the age off-panel). I was like “Done!” Gave ’em all away; haven’t missed ’em since.

    These days, I stick with Archie Comics, which doesn’t even pretend it has much in the way of continuity.

  44. “Cars” are graphic novels and webcomics. Just like newspaper strips gave way to comic books. Comics as a medium will outlive your LCBS.

  45. Brian, sorry, that came out wrong. I meant generic you. I hope you do great. I’m a fan of your column and channel. I’m sure you’ll weather this with your passion and know-how. I wish my LCBS cared about graphic novels (or comic books, for that matter). That being said, I don’t wish anybody lost their living. It’s just that I’ve lived long enough to see my favorite strips and magazines vanish. I have no illusions comic books will last forever, but I’m sure comics will.

  46. But, overall, virtually every comic book store that I know is diversifying what they stock and sell. And post plague, I think many are going to do a LOT more.

    Periodical comics do a great amount of heavy lifting in terms of cash flow and customer retention — they’re what ALLOWS a significant portion of “graphic novels” to even exist in the first place because of the amortization of costs over multiple revenue streams. I beleive the number of “OGNs” that actually earn out their creator’s advances are a generally low percentage of the total.

    Most things about how and when comics are produced are just math problems — and they are what they are because that’s what the math dictates. “Digital comics” are not a solitary solution simply because they make virtually no one any money.

    I just get frustrated at the lack of common sense among many internet comments!

    -B

  47. “Those 1968 Superman comics had print runs of ~ 1M, which means they sold ~50%.”

    Who cares? Even with half of the print run sold, ten times as many people were reading Superman in the ’60s.

    “In 1968 there are like 60 titles on that list. In 2020, publishers are shipping 6-8 times that number. Of course they sell less.”

    This overabundant glut of product, most of it overpriced and barely readable, is a big reason why so many people have abandoned serialized pamphlets.

    This bickering shows the DM is a broken system, but few people want to take steps to change it. The old-hippie retailers and the fan-collectors will cling to it until the bitter end. Comic shops are poised to go the way of record stores and video stores. It’s just a matter of time.

  48. “I will say, not a horror guy, so EC is a non-starter for me.”

    EC published more than horror. Check out reprints of these (I assume you’ll have to settle for reprints, unless you’re fabulously wealthy and can afford the originals):

    Shock SuspenStories
    Crime SuspenStories
    Two-Fisted Tales
    Frontline Combat
    Weird Science
    Weird Fantasy
    Weird Science-Fantasy
    MAD
    And EC’s in-house MAD imitation, Panic.

    As for other pre-1988 non-superhero comics, my favorites include Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula and Howard the Duck, DC’s Phantom Stranger and Swamp Thing, and First Comics’ Jon Sable and American Flagg. Great newspaper comics include Steve Canyon, Dick Tracy, Rip Kirby, Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9, Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie, etc. And seek out anything drawn by Alex Toth and Reed Crandall, who worked in many genres.

    Quentin Tarantino recently named his favorite ’70s Marvel comics as Master of Kung Fu, Werewolf by Night, and Luke Cage: Hero for Hire. Only Luke Cage is a superhero book. All worth reading.

  49. “and the writer and artist went out of their way to avoid any mention of Selina’s age”

    In today’s comics, nobody is older than 25. And everyone, even the supporting characters, look like they spend 3 hours a day with a personal trainer.

    You might have to read Love and Rockets to see characters whose bodies somewhat resemble those of real people.

  50. “Comic shops are poised to go the way of record stores and video stores. It’s just a matter of time.”

    That may very well be true. What everybody needs to understand, however, is that while music and movies didn’t disappear when record and video stores vanished, the same may not be true of comics. No, the art form and the medium won’t go away. But a majority of comics published over the last 30some years, including the non-super-hero stuff, would probably not have existed without the Direct Market. And without the dedicated retail market of comic shops, a whole bunch of stuff will NEVER be published in the future.

    Let me draw a comparison with the world of professional wrestling. It used to be a regional affair with various wrestling promotions operating in various parts of the country. Then cable TV came along and with it the rise of national wrestling promotions. Those eventually put all the regional promotions out of business and eventually just one real national promotion was left standing, what is now called WWE.

    That process made a lot of people a lot of money. Where it left the pro wrestling industry, however, was a situation where fewer people are watching wrestling, fewer people are spending money on wrestling, and fewer people are making a living at wrestling than ever before. And if anything were to ever happen to WWE, pro wrestling as an industry would likely wind up dead in the United States.

    Yes, people would still be putting on wrestling events here and there just like people will still be making comics if the Direct Market ever goes away. But it would no longer be an actual business. It would just be something devoted hobbyists who grew up with it keep alive until they can’t do it anymore.

    Mike

  51. “It would just be something devoted hobbyists who grew up with it keep alive until they can’t do it anymore.”

    I’d say that’s what comics already are — especially the superhero books that draw the most obsessive collectors. Sometimes I wonder if they actually read those floppies before putting them in longboxes and never looking at them again.

  52. The comments and opposing viewpoints really do show just how far removed retailers and customers seem to be from each other. While I understand none of us can walk in the shoes of a retailer, Brian here (the retailer in question) seems to be really incapable of having any empathy or consideration for the point of view for the customer and it’s somewhat disturbing to see. Basically, the customer comes first. And while that doesn’t mean the customer can be enabled to be abusive, essentially the customer should never have to know or consider the retailer’s situation I’m sad to say. Because the retailer is there to provide a SERVICE. That is what you are PAYING for. There’s no mystique with comic creators anymore and not with stores either. The comic store hardly seems like a magic place. It seems like a a toxic and flawed business foundation made up of guys without their priorities straight who are misplacing blame. In many ways, you enabled Diamond and the Big 2 to mistreat you and leave you in a bad position. And I feel bad- but you enabled it! Now learn from it and come up with a new system. I know it’s not easy. So what? It needs to be done apparently.

  53. Re: Mike- also, your comment about professional wrestling is apt. WWE, like the comics industry, would rather pretend they were in film and television instead of “rasslin” and it shows in how their product suffers. I wanted to support them once women’s wrestling became more of a priority but they’re just so insecure about what they think they want to deliver. I see a lot of that in comics too!

  54. Heather, when we build community, OF COURSE your customers know your business and situation; and you get to know theirs. That’s what a community IS. I’m legit offended that you are insinuating that I have no empathy for my customer when they’re the SOLE REASON I, and most other retailers, toil in this low-margin, high-touch business.

    I’ve got 296 previous columns, I’d invite you to read those…. if you think I have “enabled” DC and Marvel’s EXPLOITATION of my customers over the decades… well, this notion purely boggles me; I have always striven to serve and protect my consumer, in direct opposition to Marvel and DC when I had to be. Shame on you for suggesting otherwise.

    Where you DO have me right is that, nope, I don’t have a lot of empathy for folks who are not my customers, and who have made it clear in word and deed that they’re not going to be — Digital First folks? They’re reading the wrong column, and, no, I’m never going to advocate for their interests. I have to protect my print customers, the 90% of the market, whose long-term interests would have been utterly annihilated if the market chose a different path.

    Ugh.

    -B

  55. What I’ve realized about most retailers (not just comic shop owners) is their lack of actual selling and marketing. If they are dependent – completely, as Brian says – on the direction of a single publisher, they are taking a HUGE gamble they will lose eventually.

    What are other specialty retailers – toys, video games, sports cards to stay with collectibles – doing these days? Are comics so unique? Do comic shops understand how create and implement a marketing plan for their stores and the stuff they sell (there’s that word again – pitching a title to one’s subscribers, hosting a new readers day, making suggestions to walk-ins – all sales tactics that can boost sales. I’m certain Brian does things like this)?

    The publishers are running their businesses to improve their bottom line, not adhere to retailers’ needs or demands. Barnes and Noble is losing in book retail because like ToysRUs and Blockbuster they don’t use their physical space (something Amazon doesn’t have yet) to their advantage.

    Comic shops wait for FCBD to have their biggest sales day of the year, many without taking the names of all those new readers walking. Most shops shelve books by publisher or alphabetically; we don’t buy anything else that way. Pasta and sauce are in the same aisle for a reason. Eggs and milk are in the back of the market for a reason. Shops might do well to study store layout, customer retention strategies, and weekly in-store events. One could have a successful shop WITHOUT Marvel or DC with planning and marketing.

    Thank you, Brian, for sharing your points. Maybe Marvel and DC don’t care. Maybe Diamond is done. Comics will go on in some form. Time will tell how that happens.

    Roland Edwards Jr.
    Powerhowz Distributing

  56. “I’ve got 296 previous columns
    Writing about things, complaining about things is not the same as actually taking action to change the system.
    This bucket list of bullet points is too narrow-minded to trigger any significant change to the business model, and you probably underestimate the inertia factor, even under corona pressure.

  57. “Comics will go on in some form.”

    Written like someone not making money in the current system who fantasizes he’ll be more successful in some other system. Hint: You probably won’t.

    Mike

  58. Brian- thanks for the response. I mean it- I appreciate it, even if we disagree.

    But you say: “I’m legit offended that you are insinuating that I have no empathy for my customer when they’re the SOLE REASON I, and most other retailers, toil in this low-margin, high-touch business”

    that is my issue. I didn’t insinuate anything, I’m pretty outspoken and will tell you what I think rather than insinuate, thanks.. it’s the whole capitalizing SOLE REASON so dramatically. You are using your customers as a way to elevate yourself as some noble, sacrificing martyr… it’s no different from a parent constantly guilt tripping their kids.. “I sacrificed SO MUCH for you to put FOOD on the table…” yeah, we get it. Kids don’t ask to be conceived and born.

    Your customers didn’t ASK you to “TOIL” in this low-margin, high-touch business. You made a CHOICE to. Stop advertising your noble sacrifice. Start a business to make a profit.

    This is my issue with you. Stop suffering on behalf of your customers, or at least stop suffering and then WHINING about it. And I don’t read digital, if that makes me any more tolerable to you.

  59. Brian, if Marvel and DC are screwing you and your customers so badly, why don’t you stop carrying their books and just sell indie and foreign comics, and reprints of newspaper strips? If 60% of your sales are graphic novels, you may be able to get along without those pamphlets. Or are Marvel and DC (and Diamond) running a comics version of “block booking,” where you have to accept all their comics?

    Really tired of retailers and customers acting like they’re held hostage to the Big Two, and have no choice but to consume their products. I’m not a retailer, but customers can pick and choose. Nobody is forcing them to buy Marvel and DC comics. They can drop them, as I did 15 years ago.

    Marvel and DC are not the only publishers out there.

    P.S.; The only comics I read digitally are public domain comics that are more than 50 years ago. But that may change.

  60. Mike, my point is comics as a medium (not the direct market per se) will go on. Creators will continue write and draw and seek out places to sell their wares. Who sells and distributes and markets comics may change.

  61. Heather: “This is my issue with you. Stop suffering on behalf of your customers, or at least stop suffering and then WHINING about it.”

    Don’t read the column would seem to be the easiest solution to your concern — I’ll write the way I’ve written for three decades, thanks!

    George: ” if Marvel and DC are screwing you and your customers so badly, why don’t you stop carrying their books and just sell indie and foreign comics, and reprints of newspaper strips?”,

    I already do sell those things, and quite well, thanks — but periodical buyers broadly want the DC & Marvel superhero universes much more than they are interested in other things. One sells what the customer wants.

    -B

  62. On the question of the death of the comic book industry, I’m having a hard time finding sales data broken down in one way that seems like it would be helpful to me. The ICv2/Comichron 2018 industry sales report is broken down between periodical comics and graphic novels/TPBs, with graphic novels/TPBs having almost twice the sales of periodical comics. But I want to know how much of that graphic novel/TPB sales is material that originated in periodical comics. Or, perhaps more generally, what is the sales balance between periodical comics + book-format reprints of periodical comics vs. material that originated in book form? Or, maybe as a proxy for this, what’s the sales balance between companies whose business model generally requires print periodicals prior to collected editions (e.g., DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Boom, IDW) vs. companies that publish in a more traditional trade book model (e.g., Scholastic, First Second, Fantagraphics, D&Q)?

    Figuring this out seems like it would show the extent to which the comics industry in total is dependent on periodicals.

    This second category doesn’t seem to be in danger from the collapse of the direct market (although it has the same problems that other trade publishers have responding to Covic-19, so it’s not safe either during our current crisis). I presume the folks saying comics will survive w/o the direct market may be thinking of this second segment.

  63. Thanks Brian. I guess anyone who sues Marvel is bound to get some kind of hubris. Thank you for being completely dismissive and dick-ish in every exchange.

    It may backfire on you and I don’t mean that as an implication or something because I think we can all disagree and not be swearing at each other but, really. Try listening to consumers once in a while. Today my girlfriend Lada wrote me about this entire thread and while she’s not a regular patron of yours, she comes in a few times a year with her boyfriend (they live past Richmond District) and she says, I’m never going in dude’s store again. I said, hey, don’t do that just because me and him were snippy in a comment section. She said it wasn’t that but more the outlook and the resistance to give your employee’s minimum wage or at least venting about having to do that. This negativity and this sense of victimhood is gonna turn customers off, even if you proclaim to be fighting for them. Isn’t there any way to start some kind of group effort for mass retailer relief? And are your columns not meant to entice feedback and a dialogue about the topics you talk about? No, anyone who disagrees with the legendary retailer brian hibbs is shut down and dismissed. Wow, the irony.

  64. I neither think I am “legendary” (Really? I’m a neighborhood comic book store, just like the thousands of other neighborhood comic book stores around the world), nor do I think that has any one been “shut down” or “dismissed” (????). But, certainly, sorry if you think so. I am not being clever here. I am genuinely, humanly, sorry if you think I am making a mistake by not listening to generic “consumers”. I will, however, disagree: I strongly believe that I am listening intently and absolutely to my specific community of CUSTOMERS. I don’t believe that “consumers” and “customers” are even slightly interchangeable words.

    You know what else I think? I think that less than 25% of the actual and real customers of Comix Experience have ever ONCE, ever in their life, read any column that I’ve EVER written…. and connected it to their specific shopping experiences — and these are things I mark and promote widely. I think literally 99.5% of the people buying comics wouldn’t spend 10 seconds reading “the thoughts of a retailer”.

    I think less than 10% of THAT cohort has ever even THOUGHT of “reading the comments section”

    And I think that, and I am being generous here, that maybe possibly 1% of THAT tiny cohort of people is reading this deep into this comments thread, and making a negative buying decision. There’s no doubt I could fully be wrong, but I’m also willing to suffer any “consequences” from why words and deeds, because I feel confident in my righteousness after 31 years of doing this.

    I’d be happy if you told your friend Lada that never not once have I spoken against Minimum Wage — (although I am deeply concerned about the impact of MW, especially how it “never not-goes-up” in San Francisco, on truly small businesses and start-ups; because there’s a hard physical point where math just stops working for small business, be it wages or rent)

    I’d also appreciate if you could point out, and observe that we pay all regular staff more than MW; and more than THAT, we’ve specifically built a specific funding method to pay JUST for wages through the Graphic Novel Club. (Please join today: http://www.graphicnovelclub.com/start) Oh and you know what else? Despite being closed to walk-in business, we’re currently paying all staff 100% of what they “should” be earning for the last month…. and unless something miraculous happens tomorrow, I’m 99% sure that we’ve been stiffed on PPP because the funds ran out (despite our applying within 3 hours of the first day of opening) and we’re STILL committed to paying our people.

    If Lada thinks that I’ve done anything less than equal to the best and most comprehensive staff support of any of my peers in the Greater Bay Area (including among independent book stores)…. well, I will disagree with that full-throatedly, and I will absolutely encourage them to shop with whoever they think has done better. I would too.

    I hope both you, and they, stay healthy.

    -B

  65. JTL, I don’t think there’s an easy way to answer those questions, because it would take a metric fuckton of individual line-item analysis to see what was serialized and what was not, but we could say roughly this: Per ComicChron/ICv2, the $1.095b comics industry in 2018 had the DM be ~$510m of the total. It’s safer to assume this was mostly driven by serializations than not. They have the “book channel” as $465m, of which at least 35% was from “DM centric” publishers Boom! Dark Horse, DC, IDW, Image, and Marvel. You could thus posit that a bit more than 2/3rds of the billion dollars came “from the DM” and thus was dependent on serialization to one degree or another.

    That’s SUPER “back of the envelope” though!

    -B

  66. Thanks for the reply, Brian. I fully understand that you have to sell what the customers want.

    There are probably theater managers who would rather be showing indie and foreign films. But it’s Transformers and Disney remakes that fill the seats (or used to, when you could still go to the movies).

  67. Thanks Brian. I will, honestly, tell her all of that. I’m supposed to visit them in September anyway so want to come to your store to see if you’ll be as snarky to me in person ;)

    But those are valid points and I think they should be brought up. I appreciate the feedback regarding the minimum wage issue.

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