“We have been selling comics for close to 26 years now, and this is truly the first time that we are uncertain about the future of our store, our industry and our favorite art form,” continued the email, which in many ways summed up the precarious state of the comic book retail business.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, comic shops had been struggling to reinvent themselves as sales slumped — but with social distancing, self-quarantining and the effects of COVID-19 changing the way the world works, the specialty comic book market is facing something that could, without an appropriate response, prove decimating to the industry as a whole.
Comic shops were already in the process of adapting this week. When The Hollywood Reporter stopped by Los Angeles’ Golden Apple Comics on Wednesday, it had curtailed its hours, with its staff wearing gloves and sometimes masks. It had also limited the amount of people it let into its store and even set up a comic book car hop — but this latest news packed a Thanos-sized punch.
As of Friday, all of California and New York are under statewide shutdowns of non-essential businesses. Illinois also followed suit.
As the full extent of the virus continues to be felt across the country, a good bellwether for how things might turn out for comic shops is northern California, where retailers have been dealing with an enforced shutdown of their storefronts for a week, without knowing whether or not publishers would continue to release product — and bill stores for it — during the shutdown.
“I sent an email to my top five suppliers asking if they were going to be offer returnability on the other end of this — I have three weeks of orders in the pipeline, and zero ability to sell those books in a meaningful way,” longtime California retailer Brian Hibbs wrote on Facebook at the start of the week, ahead of the enforced closure of his two stores. “Two of the five ignored me, the other two gave me really really dark answers and it is clear they are using each other as excuses, and only one, Image, stepped right up and said ‘Yep, returnable for now’. It’s probably only 80% of the reassurance I want, but at least it is something.”
Guidance from both publishers and central distributor Diamond Comics Distributors has arrived through the week, albeit in evolving, often contradictory, piecemeal fashion. (Plans for May’s Free Comic Book Day event were initially expanded for the entire month, before being indefinitely postponed a day later, for example.)
As Hibbs’ note suggests, Image Comics was the first publisher to step up, making all new releases fully returnable for the next two months and staggering or cancelling some releases.
Industry leader Marvel on Friday released a statement announcing its own plan for assisting retailers, with what is being described as “extensive deep discounts” for releases between March 18 and April 8.
“As we all encounter new and uncertain challenges in response to COVID-19 and take extraordinary measures to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of everyone in the industry and beyond, our thoughts are with the entire industry and community we all support,” Marvel Entertainment president Dan Buckley said in the statement. “We have spoken with many retailers about the economic impact to their stores from this situation, and we are here to help.”
DC, at time of writing, has yet to release its own statement. THR reached out and a spokesperson confirmed that the publisher is working on a meaningful plan to help alleviate current stresses on the comic book industry and that communication to retailers is forthcoming.
Indie publisher AfterShock Comics has suspended new releases for four weeks, while Vault Comics has suspended them through the end of April. Boom! Studios announced it will stagger new releases and guarantee a level of returnability throughout the year. Oni Press has made all releases returnable for the foreseeable future and is reassessing its release schedule for the remainder of the year.
For its part, Diamond Comics Distributors has told retailers that those affected by shelter-in-place orders can place their account on hold, essentially shutting down business until further notice.
Northern California retailer Ryan Higgins of Sunnyvale’s Comics Conspiracy noted his shop is luckier than most, thanks to its ability for customers to order and pay online via the ComicHub point of sale system, but he fears even that won’t help much in the long run.
“I’m more than happy to pay my bills, but I can’t if I am severely limited in my ability to sell to customers,” Higgins told THR. “The online store is great, but the vast majority of our business is walk-in customers. Even though I’m in regular contact with our subscribers, not being able to walk in will limit who buys comics from us.”
Shops looking for relief do have a few options. Last year, The Forge Fund was established to assist retailers in times of need. Additionally, independent publisher Mad Cave Studios on Thursday launched a crowdfunding campaign to assist smaller retailers, with the intent to raise at least $100,000 to be shared equally across all retailers asking for financial aid. At time of writing, it has raised over $10,000.
Despite the many challenges, many remain optimistic about what lies ahead for the industry and the medium as a whole. As Vault Comics CEO Damian Wassel put it, “Comics will find a way forward. We always have. Readers love the medium and always will. How the medium is sold to readers has changed many times in history, and the medium remains.”
The medium, sure. But what about the stores and the industry built up around it?
Collector’s Paradise will now offer curbside pickup, shipping and sales. Golden Apple will continue its car hop service and take phone orders.
“I’m more than a little concerned,” Golden Apple owner Ryan Leibowitz told THR. “It’s just weird right now. But I have to keep moving.”