“Maybe we’ll see readers come out of this with a reinvigorated interest in comics, maybe it’ll be a fresh start and an end to the cynicism that comes with comic book and movie fandom these days.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping America, some local comic book shops were doing okay. In addition to some steady foot traffic, shops like Comicopia in Kenmore Square, Comicazi in Davis Square, and Hub Comics in Union Square, Somerville were making enough to keep the lights on and keep customers happy—and tuck away a tiny bit of profit.
Across the industry, things were looking good as well. According to ComicChron, which tracks comics sales, February 2020 had the strongest sales in three years, up 7% from a year ago, with comics and graphic novels sales reaching $37.5 million
Still, even though superheroes are now highly visible across the pop culture spectrum, actually running a comic book business is a struggle. First, it’s a guessing game. Retailers must order what comics they think readers might pick up months ahead of time, and pay for it up front. That model, which has been in place since the 1980s, collided with the speculation boom and bust of the industry in the 1990s and is a reason many small comic book shops simply don’t exist anymore. Even chains like New England Comics and Newbury Comics have experienced sliding declines in locations and product over the past decade.
Now, like every other business in America, comic shops are having to simultaneously think about how to safely get their product into their customers’ hands while planning for an at-best uncertain future. And without these stores, the comic book industry would basically implode. Industry heads are so worried that Image Comics last week and Marvel Comics this week offered discounts and provided more leeway in returnability of products to get ahead of the coming storm.
In the biggest decision to affect the market, Diamond Distributing, which handles distribution for the largest comic book companies in the world—including Marvel, DC, Image, Valiant and Boom—has put a hold on reordering any comic books beyond April. With many shops closing due to local ‘shelter in place’ orders across the country, Diamond founder Steve Geppi said the decision to cease new products would remain until “a clearer path emerges.”
In the short term, the move could help smaller retailers manage their cash flow as they prepare for a downturn in business. But what happens when no more comics are being shipped out? That will depend on what moves we see from Marvel and DC in the next week or so.
Locally, a few shops like Million Year Picnic have tried to adapt to the times as best as possible, by offering curbside pickup, home delivery, and other options. Others, like Hub Comics, have simply closed their doors for now, hoping things get better with time. And with Governor Baker’s order that non-essential businesses close down, shops are in a precarious situation.
Hub Comics owner Tim Finn started to wind down business at least a few days before last week’s closing due to safety concerns for his staff and customers. His decision to close until April 1 now has to be extended, and while Hub gets its fair share of foot traffic, the operation is relatively small, and doesn’t ship or sell comics online.
Finn said the shop saw an uptick of support before closing—people buying gift cards, stocking up on books—but the store shortened its hours in the last week, and only employed essential staff as a precautionary measure.
“I’ve made sure that all of our employees have been taken care of during our time off,” Finn said. “But I don’t know what April and May will look like that new comics won’t be coming in.”
For a small business like Hub, Finn said Diamond’s decision is a help, but ideally he would like to see publishers, at least the big two of Marvel and DC, slow things down. Generally, he said, comic sales have been increasing due to more young adult and teen buyers entering the market, not thanks to major superhero events. Another problem, Finn said, is the glut of variant covers and tie-in books, two marketing techniques the industry has shifted to boost sales.
“Empyre #1, Marvel’s new event for Spring, has 15 different variant covers,” he said. “This isn’t a Harry Potter sized launch either. Maybe this will force some of the publishers to ratchet down that type of stuff and just focus on core titles.”
Million Year Picnic is one of the oldest shops in Massachusetts and has embraced delivery and curbside pickup at its Harvard Square Store for the past two weeks. According to owner Tony Davis, the shop has connected with patrons online, even launching an “Intro to Comics for Kids” class.
Davis said that readers in Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, and Belmont can still get their books delivered for free, and he’s seen an uptick in folks looking for graphic novels over the past week. He said that Diamond’s decision to halt operations was welcome and not unexpected.
“That’s the biggest bill we have, and it’s bigger than rent,” he said. “I hope stores will be able to sell through their back inventory and you’ll still be able to order other items. I think it provides an even playing field for stores and the distributor.”
Davis said that the break would also provide some of his customers with “months, if not years of backlog” to catch up.
“Maybe we’ll see readers come out of this with a reinvigorated interest in comics, maybe it’ll be a fresh start and an end to the cynicism that comes with comic book and movie fandom these days,” he said.
Across New England Comics’ seven locations, business officially closed Tuesday, March 24, according to NEC Senior Manager Nathan Machado. Machado, who runs the Brockton outlet, said while there remains the possibility of starting mail order, nothing has been set.
“Things are fluid and we’ll have to wait and see what happens in April,” he said. “As of now, everything is on hold and that’s just the reality of the situation.”
Machado said he’s not worried because the chain has built up a loyal following of subscribers through the last 30 years.
There’s no doubt, though, no matter how long Diamond’s hiatus lasts, this Spring will be bad for comic book shops in America. In the immediate future, New Comic Book Day, an event to promote the industry worldwide, has also been affected. The event, which Finn likened to “December for a toy store,” was pushed back indefinitely last week.
“Comic book shops are no different than any other business in America right now,” Finn said. “In Boston, we thrive on having the friendly competition between stores because we all do it a little different. So, we’re staying in touch with everyone, including artists, writers, event organizers and fans. As we figure out what to do, we’ll also be looking at how we help each other.”