“Comics are a waste of money.”
These are the words that linger in my brain. They slip into dreams and colour slow days at work with a sickly grey pallor. As a child, I would hear them after managing to get one of my parents to take me to the local comic shop – a feat usually managed twice a year, around my birthday and Christmas time. After months of reading information on the internet, spoiling myself in bits of pieces in order to arrive at the store armed with a game plan, I’d make my purchase amidst sighs of discontent.
“Are you sure this is what you want to spend your money on?” I would hear in the store.
“Comics are a waste of money,” is what I’d hear at home.
At the time, those words cut deep. They struck at the worth of something tied to my sense of being. Today? Today, I think they are all words we need to hear, no matter how much they might hurt our souls.
Welcome to 2019, my friends.
Welcome to the death of the industry as we know it.
By Brandon Schatz — with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc
If you’re reading this column, chances are you’ve been keeping your finger on the pulse of (gestures wildly) the comic book industry and the grim forecast of comics retail in 2019. For those that haven’t, here’s the quick and dirty version: many retailers are having a tough go as of late, and many are closing up shop rather than signing up for a few more years of decline. The reasons for this are legion and sometimes highly specific to a store, but all seem to have an immutable idea at the core: something is wrong. The trick seems to come in identifying what that something is, and when it started happening.
If we’re being honest, I think everything went wrong several decades ago, somewhere around the first speculator boom in the 90s. During that span of time, you could see Brian Hibbs talking about how the short term practices being put forward by publishers and encouraged by retailers would do irreparable harm to the industry – and he was right. The industry saw a collapse that took a whole slew of short sighted, slow-to-act stores down with it, emerging shakily years later as graphic novels started permeating societal consciousness.
Today? Well, we’re almost back to the speculative heyday where many publishers are relying on variant covers and gimmicks to boost sales in the short term. Shops, in turn, are aiding and abetting these short-term gains with speculative purchasing of their own, either trying to turn a quick dollar themselves, or attempting to satisfy a roving audience of purchasers whose buying habits are only predictable after reading blog posts about “hot books”.
Things were bad enough the first time the direct market dove right into all of these gross short term marketing ploys when there was enough money floating around for the smart and the lucky to survive. These days? The direct market has a lot more working against it.
First: there is Diamond. As the direct market attempts to keep the plates spinning, Diamond is having to deal with a lot more product without seeing an increase in profits to match. Back when the money was better, you could mitigate this problem by cutting back – but when you’re already down to the bone, where do you go from there?
At a certain point, Steve Geppi (the owner of Diamond) is going to cut his losses, either because he’s getting old, or because the business just isn’t viable anymore – and even the staunchest of all optimists will have to admit that Geppi is going to continue to age. There is a clock in play, as we really don’t know what will happen when he calls it a day. Will he sell Diamond? And if he does, to who? At this point, I don’t think anyone is seeing value in the distribution model that exists, but someone might be interested in all those tasty exclusive distribution rights for single issues (if those are grandfathered in). Could you imagine the shape of the industry if, say, Amazon purchases Diamond? What then?
Another thing to worry about is the state of Marvel and DC. Both are owned by corporations who could probably care less if the direct market died tomorrow. In an immediate sense, that sudden loss of revenue wouldn’t be unnoticeable, but more than manageable for AT&T/Warners and Disney to swallow. They have many other channels to exploit their IP with, including digital distribution of comic book product. But beyond that, what happens when someone finally looks at this distribution model, and realizes just who utterly wasteful it is? The amount of staff needed to keep such a mechanism running already seems ridiculous to companies this large, and at a guess, the recent job cuts at DC are a portent of things to come.
And beyond that, if retailers can figure out that Diamond is in a precarious position, wouldn’t it follow that Marvel and DC can see that too? So many retailers are afraid of Diamond and reporting losses in their own store, but refuse to meld that idea with that of DC and Marvel focusing on other markets. What if DC started up their Wal-Mart program as a potential stop gap if the direct market crumbled? At a guess, there are more Wal-Marts than there are comic stores – or at the very least, there are more people going to Wal-Marts than there are heading to comic shops. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to get a foot hold in a market with some decent coverage before things come crashing down? And wouldn’t it be a smart idea to push out more into the all-ages market that is truly booming right now, outside of traditional comic shops?
The direct market has never been a very forward thinking organism. Certain aspects of it, yes. Certain shop owners, certainly. But as a whole? No. Right from the start, it was burning through more fuel than it really needed, always looking for a quick dollar over long-term strength, and all of that has brought us here. The industry, as it exists today, is in trouble from all of the quick solutions it has indulged in, and resources are swiftly dwindling. As a result, you’re seeing shops starting to either wither or call it a day in the face of it all. Others will stick around long enough for Diamond or Marvel or DC to say the words “comics are a waste of money”, and that will be it.
Harrowing, right? But keep in mind, this is just the demise of the direct market, and not for the comics industry as a whole – which is a very important distinction to make.
Comics have survived a lot, and comics will survive a lot more. Comics are far more than the structure that distributes print single issues. My progenitors have told me that I’m wrong about that last point, that a death for them means a death for us all, but that can’t be further from the truth. Those are the words of old eyes, continuing to focus too narrowly on the short term.
Yes, this industry is going through a hard time. Yes, shops are disappearing – some due to fatigue and others due to poor business practices. Yes, something needs to change, but that has always been the case. This industry has been constantly evolving from the start – strips, to single issues, to newsstands, to comic shops, to book stores, to digital, and on and on and on. We’re in the midst of the next big evolution, and some folks just won’t be making the journey alongside us. They will be what comics was, and not what comics will be.
They will be the victims of an idea: “comics aren’t worth anything.”
A person hears words like that, and they can’t help but be hurt by them. Rightfully so. Those words are an attack designed to make you contemplate worth using another person’s metrics. Their intent says a lot more about the person speaking them than it does the person hearing them.
“Comics aren’t worth anything.”
A store owner shutting down will say those words themselves, or believe that they were said to them, either directly, or through action. They’ll hear it with every lost customer, with every slight from Diamond, with every boneheaded move from a publisher.
They’ll start to believe it, and they’ll soon spread that word through action of their own.
This is where we are right now. An industry at the brink of evolution. A broken system dying a death that’s been long coming, whispering lies about a future that is remarkably bright – that is filled with a future built by Raina Telgemeier and Tillie Walden and Noelle Stevenson and Dav Pilkey and on and on. One that I see them actively discard because “those books are available everywhere, why would I promote them”.
Comics is bigger than them. It is bigger than the direct market. They are ideas, and those ideas have worth, even if they now don’t have worth to you.
Evolve or die, my friends.
I know what I’m choosing.
[The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat]