The key to a proper New Year celebration is to not get drunk before midnight. Or at least that’s what the Russians told me after I got drunk before midnight.

This happened years ago, in a time before I had met my partner in life and in business. I was spending New Year’s Eve with one of my closest friends and his new Russian roommates, watching a nightmare version of (link) Winnie the Pooh while we drank. Fairly close to midnight, my friend and I noticed that the Russians were pretty sober. There was a reason for this. That reason was “fire”.

By Brandon Schatz — with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc

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The Russians played a video of Putin speaking at five minutes to midnight. While this was happening, they prepared for the clock to strike twelve by handing out shots of vodka, pens, pieces of paper, and lighters. We were told what to do the moment we heard the first chime. I nodded far too much and squinted my eyes as I definitely took in every last bit of information.

And then… the clock began to chime. My head moved and my vision swirled over to the piece of paper before me. I quickly wrote down my wish for the new year (“be awesome”), and grabbed my lighter. With the flame aglow in one hand, and my wish for the year in the other, I lit the paper on fire, and let it burn down to my fingertips, at which point I was supposed to toss the wish into my glass. Instead of doing this, I yelled “owowowowowowowow” until many yelling Russians spurred me onto the next step.

The charred remains of my drunken wish dropped into my shot glass, I tossed back the shot. The last chime sounded. We all celebrated briefly, and I almost immediately passed out on the nearest comfortable surface.

Now, what does this have to do with comics or comics retail? Well, it’s a metaphor, you see. It’s 2018 and it’s time to make a wish and set the industry on fire. And also, there are Russians, because that seems to be a thing now.

You missed this, right? You missed this.

Depicted: the comment section upon seeing gifs in this post.

2017 was a pretty frustrating year.

At the end of 2016, the direct market was in rough shape. The year had some lack lustre sales. The amount of products sold continued to tick up, but the amount comics sold and money made ticked down. Retailers started coming out of the woodwork to say that if things didn’t change quickly 2017 would be a rough year. And guess what? Things didn’t change.

We’re in the midst of 2018, and there is a mild panic in the air. Marvel is attempting yet another relaunch after a huge stumble this past fall. They’re still leaning on the crutches of variant covers and event style marketing that got them into this mess into the first place. Meanwhile, DC is somewhat stealthily looking at the current model, and realizing it has an expiry date. They’re loading their Rebirth books with as much meat and potatoes as their customer base can handle, and using that to fund life rafts. Most of the Young Animal marketing they did focused on the graphic novels. Their upcoming Ink and Zoom lines will see very few titles serialized in a physical format. And Black Label appears to be looking at a new way of delivering content using an alternative format.

These are both wildly differing reactions to a hard reality: the direct market is not long for this world. It’s something that I’ve been talking about for years. Strangely, it’s why I opened a comic shop with Danica in the first place. The old ways are broken and have been broken for a long time, but everyone thought they could ignore it while the money kept rolling in. Now the money is starting to dry up, and things are starting to fall apart. Many in the industry are starting to look at rusted limbs and realizing if something broke, the money wouldn’t be there to repair it – and that’s a problem. So what’s the way forward?

Sadly, the answer to that is something akin to “go back in time, and invest in long term business solutions”. So many in this industry hitched their wagons to the superhero machine and tiered variants. Emphasis was put upon serving the collector over the reader, which is great in the short term, but terrible in the long term. Collectors are always good for spending large chunks of money now – which can work out pretty well – but at the end of the day, a collector can stop collecting a lot easier than a reader can stop reading.

When we opened our comic shop, we did so with an eye towards connecting people with stories. That meant ordering comics in such a way that removed as many barriers as possible to connect a person with something that they would love. For a majority of those who are into story, they don’t care what format they get it in, so long as that format matches their lifestyle. Some people don’t have time to come in every week. Others don’t have the space to store a lot of single issue comics. We worked with their needs, instead of letting the weekly churn dictate what they could get.

The results have been… well, the results have been amazing. Ever since we opened the store nearly three years ago, we’ve been seeing consistent and sustainable growth. We even managed to weather a falling out with a third partner (and the legal bills that followed) and a relocation without cratering. People followed us because we were giving them more than just the next issue of something – we were giving them things to connect with.

The problems this industry has, and will continue to have, all stem from the need to churn. Books ship twice monthly not because of story demands, but because of budgetary demands. Books like Wonder Woman have been running fill-in stories for almost a full year while it waits for whatever big plan is coming next. Green Arrow is in the midst of four months worth of random writers before the new regular team jumps on board. Superman was running at least one fill-in every quarter for its whole recent run. And Marvel basically used their whole Legacy initiative as a stop gap to get their books from the fall to the spring, where they intended to relaunch anyway. These companies don’t do this because they’re in the business of delivering a satisfying story – they’re doing it because they know you’ll buy it regardless.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the difference between the way Marvel delivered Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s Secret Wars and how they delivered books like Axis and Secret Empire. Secret Wars was allowed to breathe and be a story. Axis and Secret Empire, were means to an end, and were produced through any means necessary. Heck, you can even look at Civil War II. You can see where there intent was: a single writer and artist delivering something that would hopefully sell as well perennially for them as Civil War did. And while I believe they failed in their attempt, their “body language”, so to speak, made their intent clear.

What this industry needs to survive is a long term view – and that’s something that many retailers and publishers either aren’t willing to try to do, or too far gone to make happen – and that’s a shame. Projects like the aforementioned DC imprints have me hopeful that some can see where things need to go. Companies like Boom! Studios and Oni Press seem to have their finger on the pulse of where they need to go as well. But many others? I worry about them. I worry about Marvel. And I worry about a lot of shops and the people who work for them.

So please, if you work in the comic book industry, I want you to do me a favour. I want you to take a look at where we are, and set the past on fire. I want you to look forward to where we could be if we put in the effort. I understand it might take some time, but honestly, I’d rather you come along with us than smoulder in the ashes of what once was.

It’s okay. I promise. You’ve got this.

Be awesome.

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31 COMMENTS

  1. I want to be snarky about some stuff (Like: if you’re NOT seeing steady and sustainable growth every year in your first three, then you’re doing something crazy wrong), but I agree with the premise that you didn’t really directly state: The Marvel and DC universes, as entities that we’d understand today, might have a real deadline on them because of short-term publishing decisions that have been made. Its somewhat like climate change — it can still (barely) be fixed, but certain people would need to give a shit. And they’re probably not going to ever change, until it is far too late. (I think “Legacy” clearly showed us that!

    The problem, I think, is that funding the “lifeboats” still largely requires serialization/double dipping/multiple revenue streams because many/most of those lifeboats sink before they get anywhere. Like: while I think there IS tons of room for YA and Kids imprints for DC comics, I also think that the reason that “DC SUPER HERO GIRLS” succeeded for DC was as much from the multimedia positioning of that brand by WB as a whole entity more than the comics in and of themselves, and that ZOOM and INK have a much harder road to follow .

    At the end of the day, content is what sells over the long horizon more than format — but format is still critical for how you *actually* monetize production of long-term friendly, but short-term loser books: “Young Animal” couldn’t exist in the same way, I don’t think, if they weren’t amortizing production with serialization — picture them as $30 hardcovers first, and I can’t really see them getting to the second volumes, right? And, of course, “Young Animal” can’t exist outside of an environment creating the wider fictive DC universe…

    I think if one hasn’t already figured out their plan for weaning themselves from the Marvel tit already, it’s *probably* too late. *Changing* an existing customer base is *very* hard, and takes at least 3-5 years to really pull off in any substantive way.

    -B

  2. Like…. DC has been sending “lifeboats” for DECADES — Vertigo, Minx, Zuda, Milestone, Piranha, Paradox, etc etc

    The math of making comics is still what it is, and only ONE of those names would be rated a long-term “success”, I think? And they haven’t had a new hit in like a decade?

    -B

  3. Amen to all that.

    We’ve got a couple of shops in the UK that have ditched the Marvel/DC led variants approach and treat everything else as the Mainstream. Graphic novels over floppies. Stories about the real world/creators of note etc. rather than publishers selling toys. They do really well. But the Forbidden Planets of the world continue down the dead end of serving a niche audience rather than the whole population who can amazingly, be encouraged to read comics. If they’re shown ones they find relevant to them.

    This has to be the way to go. Time for the medium to outgrow it’s 30’s roots and flourish. Even if it has to be ‘destroyed’ first.

  4. The last time I came right out with my premise, Marvel kicked us out of their retailer group. A retailer rep said it was because in the article, we revealed the existence of Foom! magazine which had been spoken about in a Newsarama article months earlier. I showed them the link, they shrugged and pointed us in the direction of David Gabriel, who told us to wait until after last year’s SDCC for the situation to be resolved, which we did. But have received no follow ups, or responses to our attempts to reopen the dialogue.

    And yeah, I agree: if we weren’t seeing sustainable growth, that would be a problem. We’re one of the few surviving shops that all seemed to open at once in our city – which already has a lot of coverage, so I gotta think we did SOMETHING right.

  5. And the lifeboat thing – these strike me as being a bit different. Maybe not the Young Animal so much (although WOW Gerard Way has a brand outside the industry that still delivers) but Zoom and Ink and the folks they got to work on those books are pretty big names in those markets and demos, instead of already established comic folks doing the best impression of the product that’s popular.

  6. Would you mind sharing more about how your store is different? Or if you have already written it up somewhere, can you post a link please?

    I would love to find out more.

    I believe there is a future for LCSes but it’s not keep on doing more of the same. It requires massive transformation.

    I see a lot of shop owners who think they are doing things differently but they haven’t gone deep enough and they are going to be sucked under unless they get lucky.

  7. Comics shops are, generally, of two types:
    Hobby shops, which sell comics, toys, games, and related merchandise.
    Specialty bookstores with a magazine rack.

    Different clientele, different ways of selling comics.

    DC’s mistake was, in replicating DC’s 50th anniversary reboot, they forgot to include non-DCU titles. While the superheroes were doing their typical soap opera storytelling in the 1980s, Giordano and Kahn also published now-perennial titles like Watchmen, Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, and Camelot 3000. DC didn’t do that with the New 52. Aside from Earth One (which is limping along, instead of producing a new volume each year for each series), and Snyder’s Batman (which is now dead, since Rebirth?), there was no backlist.

    (The other mistake: not throwing out the entire “shared universe” model and letting creators pitch Elseworld ideas. “52 Worlds” was the structure, but that was tossed. Imagine the backlist from that!)

    DC, however, as a Penguin Random House client, does have an incredible sales force ready to sell their Ink and Zoom titles to libraries and bookstores. Via their licensed publishing, they know

    I think Marvel is trying hard to create a graphic novel program that sells consistently. I’ve read many series which are fun and different (Wasp, Mockingbird, Vision, Hawkeye, Silver Surfer) and creative-team-consistent. It’s just their marketing department doesn’t know how to sell them (they rarely appear at library and bookselling trade shows), and they seem to be hesitant to ask Disney Publishing for help.

    Has any DC or Marvel title gone the Ka-Zar/Moon Knight/Micronauts route? (These were the first newsstand titles to migrate to Direct Market Only distribution.) Does DC and/or Marvel publish periodical comics ONLY available as digital downloads, then print the collection in paper?

  8. “Does DC and/or Marvel publish periodical comics ONLY available as digital downloads, then print the collection in paper?”

    Yes, Torsten… pretty consistently for 4+ years now

    -B

  9. “DC didn’t do that with the New 52”

    Also, that’s CRAZY WRONG — they had horror, western, bunch of other genre material that was previous “No, those don’t sell today”…. and… they didn’t sell today.

    I get that “BLACK LABEL” is trying to assert that one can “create” a WATCHMEN or DARK KNIGHT from whole cloth…. but, man, that trick never works. THE WORK ITSELF matters more than the publishing agenda.

    If one can “just” create a new SANDMAN, well why the hell aren’t we raving about that last KID ETERNITY or RAGMAN reboot?

    -B

  10. @Brandon: “The last time I came right out with my premise, Marvel kicked us out of their retailer group”

    Well, then you’ve already taken the worst they can dish out (which is, essentially NOTHING — that retailer group is filled with brown-nosers and apple-polishers, and is the worst possible place for a working retailer to spend ANY of their capital) — be direct with your intent, said the veteran. DG says he “doesn’t pay attention to the internet” anyway.

    -B

  11. It will be interesting to see what happens to Brian, Brandon and Danica within the next five years as the Direct Market collapses.

  12. My guess? Getting our product from sources outside of the direct market, just like we get some now. All but Image have deals with prose book distribution systems, and THAT product is returnable. If Diamond were to collapse, the book market will be fine. Which is where we’re pushing our business.

  13. Really interesting comment about how on 1986, DC published several maxi-series which became perennials but have failed to do so with recent reboots. However, I have to agree with Brian a little bit here – there’s some selective memory going on.

    Sure, everyone remembers Watchmen and The Dark Knight. A fair amount of people remember Ronin and Camelot 3000. But Silverblade was published at the same time (and there are a lot of house ads for it in DC books of the time – probably not as promoted as much as Watchmen, but not left to dry in terms of marketing). Who remembers Silverblade?!? That was one of the better maxi-series at the time, too. I’m sure there are dozens of worse special projects from the 80s that were hyped but which I haven’t even heard of because they weren’t that good.

    At the other end of the spectrum, DC published stuff like I, Vampire, OMAC, The Flintstones, and The Omega Men in the last few years, all of which I think are good enough and mostly self-contained enough to be perennials. Is the difference between 2011-2016 and 1985-1989 just misplaced marketing (hyping mediocre books and doing nothing for the good but low-key books)? Is it wholly a serious quality deficiency? Is it the format? I’d say it’s probably a combination of all three. I think that at least DC and Marvel can control format and seem to be making efforts to release special projects in special formats with DC’s various imprints and Marvel’s work with X-Men: Grand Design, for example. Time will tell if they get perennial-quality work, though, and if they are smart to hype the good stuff while it’s still being published.

  14. Harrison Whittles:

    It will be interesting to see what a lot of comic shop owners do as the direct market continues its death spiral.

    Brian Hibbs will be fine. He strikes me as a guy who could thrive in a lot of different marketing jobs.

    Not sure about Schatz and Danica. They also have the podcasting thing, but we’re starting to see that there are limits to the amount of money that can be made there.

    The comics industry is one where you have to reinvent yourself every few years and most aren’t guaranteed to spend their whole lives working in it, especially on the retail side.

    If their store closes in the next few years, I could see them moving onto another career entirely. It doesn’t sound as if Marvel will be offering them jobs anytime soon.

  15. Brian, The Ragman comic sucked that’s why no one is talking about it. I live in Kalamazoo and we only have one comic shop. They do really good business and are the best group of people. My biggest problem is that I like to get my books myself off the racks on Wednesday. Speculators are back and they are ruining that for me. Now I have to have certain books pulled or I won;t get them unless a second printing happens. Moon Girl #29 is gone forever. Marvel will never reprint that book. My shop told me that they have to leave a bunch of books off the rack on Wednesday or this one guy will buy every copy. I remember the first speculator craze and am so sad to see it back again.

  16. @Harrison: People were saying “collapse of the DM within five years!” in 2013.

    And 2008.

    And 2003.

    And 1998.

    And 1993.

    And 1988.

    And while I didn’t own a store then, I *read* people saying it in 1983.

    So, I’m feeling OK about the DM’s chances, thanks.

    @Douglas Waltz: “Ragman sucked”… was kind of exactly my point. Format, Publishing Initiative, none of that matters (very much) — what matters is the work that gets produced. “Black Label” and “Zoom” and “Ink” and “Young Animal”< none of those are guarantees of success any more than "Minx" or "Zuda" or "Paradox" were.

    -B

  17. When talking about “long term” and “short term,” it might be useful to remember the Direct Market has been around since the 1970s. That means it won’t actually be that long before comics have been sold primarily through the DM for as long as they were primarily sold through newsstands.

    Mike

  18. “Who remembers Silverblade?!? That was one of the better maxi-series at the time, too.”

    i do, because I was reading everything from Gene Colan in those days. I think that might have been his last DC project.

    “I’m sure there are dozens of worse special projects from the 80s ,,,”

    Indeed, there were worse projects:

    https://www.comics.org/issue/43316/cover/4/

  19. Am I the only one who thinks that Schantz comes off as really “high and mighty” in these columns?

    And kind of snooty, too. Like, if I walked into his shop and wanted to special order a TPB of the original Punisher mini-series or Mike Hell’s Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, he’d do it but would have this passive-aggressive look of disdain the whole time.

    Living in Seattle, I don’t get this air of condescension that people who were born and raised in the Portland/Seattle/Vancouver “bubble” have towards the rest of the U.S. and Canada, where the idea that other people have differing opinions that may be just as valid as their own is completely alien to them.

  20. I remember Joe Brancatelli’s columns in Warren magazines of the late ’70s, which predicted the imminent collapse of the comic-book industry. (Whatever happened to Joe?) And there was the famous anecdote about Marv Wolfman telling someone at a convention, circa 1976, not to go into comics because “in 5 years there won’t be any comics.”

    I assume that at some point there won’t be any comic shops or comics printed on paper. But I have no idea when that will happen. And neither does anyone else.

  21. @ Harrison Whittels

    The store has been more and more successful, and I’m happy with how it’s going, so I’m looking forward to continuing that as the Direct Market changes.

    @ John Weatherwax

    Why would I be looking for a job from Marvel? Oh, and the podcast is simply an arm of the business as whole, so it’s not like I ever need to worry about it making money.

    @ Christopher Stroup

    I encourage you to come by the shop should you ever visit Edmonton. Would love to meet you and order whatever you like.

  22. One of the challenges this time around with establishing break out perennials is the sheer volume of books put out every month these days and the enormous amount of marketing messages that we all get inundated with each day.

    It’s hard for a series to stand out and it’s hard to separate signal from noise.

  23. Christopher Stroup: I mean, no doubt – these columns are a lecture and by default, sound pretty “holier than thou”. But your premise of us acting weird about a person attempting to buy stories they love… nope. No. There’s a difference between not shelving a product, and impeding someone from picking up a product through deliberate action, such as offering condescending looks and what have you.

    Heck – a dude came in the other day and told us we couldn’t possibly be making money because we focus on graphic novels and not on key issues. “There’s no value in them.”

    “There’s reading value in them,” I said back to him, “And we do pretty well because of that.”

    “I *guess*,” he replied. And then I spoke to him about what he liked and he bought a few things he wanted. S’all good!

    I’ll be honest: we get more condescension from folks who have a specific idea as to what a comic shop is than what we offer ourselves. Part of the problem with most shop IS the condescension. I dunno. Love what you love, folks. S’ the only way forward in this world.

  24. Douglas Waltz wrote:
    “Speculators are back and they are ruining that for me.”

    I’m seeing this to at the comic shop I’m at. The past year has seen a rise in a typical group of grubby greedy speculators and it’s frustrating… and we have started to put up “Limit to…” signs on the “hot” books of the week (of course, I’ve noticed this seems to compel some people to buy that title even though they wouldn’t have without the sign!).

  25. I don’t believe comics or books will ever vanish, or paper print will go out of style. People want to posses stuff, and even though you can also posses an I-Pad instead of a pile of books, this doesn’t make books obsolete. Wether interest in books will be enough to keep an entire industry healthy, is another thing.
    Personally, I favour the floppy, I just like it. But I can totally understand people going for Trades for either financial or practical reasons. You are practicly guaranteed that 99% of this weeks comics will get a TP or HC treatment within 6 months. Take any Marvel comic you bought this week, and open the latest Previews, and you are bound to find a sollicitation for a TP collecting the very comic you just paid $3,99 for. To my mind, if you follow up your product with another version of it this fast, you are kind of making the first version obsolete, especially if people know up front about the second versions impending arrival.
    Floppies will probably more and more morph into some kind of print-on-demand specialty, just for the collectors (a bit like small press poetry editions.) Books will suffice for most readers, as will digital versions.
    The loss of floppies as a way to pre-finance their books will increase pressure on publishers to reduce the swill created to just fill slots, and invest in material more likely to prosper in the long run.
    The loss of floppies will force Specialty Shops to change their focus to serving the clients that are actually or potentially there, instead of the fictitious ones buying all their lenticular or Venomized backstock. The floppies are also the perceived edge comic shops have on regular bookstores, but as interest in floppies dwindles, this edge becomes redundant.
    As stated elsewhere, each shop is a one-of-a-kind unique biosphere, and I sympathize with stores that are in trouble because floppies are failing. I do believe that comic shops have the advantage that they already are a specialty store. A specific type of person with specific interests is already coming to your store. A lot of stores would love to have customers as passionate as comic fans. Building on that is probably the key to the future.
    Large regular bookstores usually do not know a lot about comic books; how to recommend or sell them to visitors, let alone how to keep them in stock without losing money. That’s not because they are idiots, but because they do not know the material. As a specialty shop, you know the material and that is an invaluable resource.

  26. For either Brandon or Danica or both:
    On your website’s main page when I hover above your Upcoming Events it switches to a picture of some kind of ghost viking and horse? What comic is that??

  27. “As a specialty shop, you know the material and that is an invaluable resource.:

    But then there are those awful comic shops with surly and unhelpful clerks, who discourage new customers (“mundane” people), and use the shop as a social center for themselves and their friends from high school. I’ve been in too many of those shops.

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