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John Jackson Miller and other pop culture archaeologists interested in comics history.

 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Hope and comics at 2 a.m.: The historical case for optimism

by John Jackson Miller


A good friend in the comics industry wrote me just before 2 a.m. last night. Earlier that day, Diamond Comic Distributors, its supply chain pushed to the brink by closures associated with the COVID-19 Coronavirus, had called a time out for a large portion of the business: while orders would still be fulfilled, no new comics scheduled to go on sale April 1 or later would ship until further notice, since it wasn't clear that said books would be printed, shipped, shelved, or bought with large swaths of the world on lockdown.

My friend asked, in the simplest terms, "What's to become of us?"

Comics would, of course, survive as a medium, my correspondent said, but the enormity of what had just happened had hit home. Not even World War II had stopped the circulation of periodicals — but then, printers were still operating, trucks were still running, stores were still open, and kids could get to them. The virus attacks both mobility and people's wallets; it's a challenge we've never confronted. My friend asked if I had any ideas about the future.

At Comichron, I'm in the history business, not the future business — but I have seen a lot. For those reading here for the first time, I've been a comics collector for 45 years and followed the industry's news for most of that time. Twenty-seven years ago I began writing that news, covering the chaos that was the comics industry in the 1990s as editor of Comics Retailer magazine, working alongside Maggie and (all too briefly) Don Thompson, who taught me plenty about the shape of the industry back to its beginnings in the 1930s. I've been a working comics writer and author for the past 17 years, and running Comichron for 13. I have collected what is likely to be the largest agglomeration of historical comics sales data outside the publishing industry — far more than the monthly Diamond charts you find here.

But none of that imbues one with psychic powers or a crystal ball — and certainly not with the ability to predict what may happen in a world where it's impossible to guess about anything even three days from now without resorting to charts. The future may be my bailiwick in my fiction, but not here; "this didn't age well" is a real thing. So I approach prognostication with humility — and the further knowledge that nobody really knows exactly what the current state of the retail base is in every location.

What I can apply, first, is all that history I was talking about...

THE GREAT ESCAPES

Will Eisner, friend to comics stores
“I’ve seen this business die three times. I’m standing here at the edge of the cave waiting for the resurrection.” 
— Will Eisner, 
Comic-Con International: San Diego, 1997

I once asked Denis Kitchen what Will Eisner was talking about in that famous quote from 1997: he speculated he meant the birth of the Comics Code in 1954, the collapse that followed in the late 1950s before Marvel "joined" the Silver Age, and the underground comics crash.

As Kitchen said of Will's quote: "It boiled down to 'Don't worry, kid. It'll be all right.'"

It says something about the course of the business that we have to ask which three times he might have meant, because there have been several. Yet each time, we've emerged  — almost always, by innovating our way out of it.

The challenge of the 1930s was simple viability. Would people buy this stuff? Early comic books were just reprints of comic strips, and right from the earliest circulation reports available in comics, for Famous Funnies, we see sales going down. So creators and their publishers answered with new material. And through Action and Detective and the others, we got a Golden Age.

The challenge of the 1950s was a double whammy: the collapse in readership across all demographics due to the expanded availability of television, even as opportunistic politicians targeted comics over their content. Many publishers fled rather than fight. So creators and their publishers answered by making super-hero comics interesting and circling the wagons around the most reliable demographic, adolescent males. We got a Silver Age — and while it made narrower an audience that was once broader, we lived to fight another day.

The challenge of the 1970s was in part a consequence of that narrowing, but also — somewhat similar to today — a result of an external shock: the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, and runaway inflation that made comic books so expensive, so quickly, that an already inefficient newsstand distribution system began to collapse. Marvel needed Star Wars to keep the doors open; DC had an implosion. This time, it was fans who came to the industry's rescue, setting themselves up as retailers and distributors and working with publishers to create the Direct Market, the most successful model in all of magazine publishing.

The challenge of the 1990s came when excesses in that model created a credit bubble, ballooning the number of comics shops far beyond what the audience could support — and the concomitant glut of more low-quality, gimmick-laden material than any store could shelve. By the time that bubble burst into the Distribution Wars, the crisis became where new customers would come from, as the newsstand had by then ceased to function as a channel for new readers. Innovation was again the way out, with the graphic novel allowing creators and publishers to repurpose content from periodicals in a way that would be profitable not just for comics retailers, but attractive to mainstream booksellers as well. Within 20 years, book channel dollar sales were nearly as large as the Direct Market.

We managed to make it through the 2010s without our regularly scheduled collapse; 2017 was part of a six-quarter stretch where the quality of releases just couldn't keep up with the blistering sales pace of the mid 2010s, but the comics shop market has been recovering from that, and indeed the decade was up 8% in that market, even after being adjusted for inflation. 2019 was an up year in the Direct Market, and a colossal one in the book trade.

As it turns out, the great test of the 2010s appears to have shown up just a bit late.

A POSSIBLE FUTURE


Which brings us to now, and what I told my friend. Again, I approach this with trepidation: I am often tagged with being too positive, because until now, none of the gyrations of the comics market in the 2000s have been even close to those earlier hair-raising close calls of the 20th Century. But if you were to ask me what a better-than-average outcome would look like...

…let’s visualize a spring of 2020 in which there is some international governmental recognition that all commerce has to be made whole, where enough cheap or free money floods the market where the clock is turned back, Christopher Reeve style. Let's assume that a number of debts and immediate obligations either are forgiven or postponed due to governmental decree or industry action. (Publishers and Diamond are working now on methods to reduce retailers' burdens; ComicsBeat is a great source for following those in-industry efforts.)

It will be too late for the shops like Lee’s Comics that moved to shutter right away, but given that new comics weren’t the majority product in a large number of stores anyway, the damage might not be utter and complete. Retailers have been diversifying since the tumult of the 1990s, and there’s an insulating layer of other product in a lot of stores. And while some of it is likewise suffering — no in-store gaming anywhere for a good while — a shop with a lot of merchandise has assets that will still be worth something whenever commerce revs up again.

And that merchandise includes the new periodicals shipping now, during this last week of March. Remember, unlike most other magazines, many comic books have a potentially unlimited sales life. They’re the magazines people keep — and the aftermarket, much derided, becomes everyone’s friend in a world in which we have a large number of titles in artificially limited supply. The “key comics” collectors can be counted on to soak up a certain amount of that product, presuming that they themselves are funded, and that the retailers who have those comics are willing and able to get them into the national marketplace. Back issues used to always be part of the standard comics shop not because they were ordering mistakes, but as a service; a lot of that activity has moved to the back room off the main floor, but it's still out there.

Now, to the other side of this — and the "after times" we know least about. Let's again visualize that we go through however many weeks it takes, and the word is given that the printers can operate and that the supply chain is running again. Cash flow, at this point, is the whole game. In 2000, the first X-Men movie was a major and much-needed hit — and yet it did retailers no good at all, as they were so cash-poor from seven years of bad sales that there were barely any extra X-Men comics on shelves.

See eBay listings for this book
So rather than rev up piecemeal, there’s a chance for the industry to recapitalize quickly by doing something it does really well: comics events. The biggest single day in comics history was in 1992 when Superman's death brought $30 million into stores; of late, we've been having colossal success with Free Comic Book Day, which was able to begin successfully in 2002 because retailers had cash from a decent 2001.

This time, the big event is New Comic Book Day — that is, the first "really" new one after the hiatus. Rather than bringing parts of the system online one at a time, publishers and Diamond would be well served to make sure that day is a big event — and since it's likely that not all parts of the country would be able to participate in it at once, supporting materials would be provided to stores for whenever their particular reopening day comes.

See listings for this book on eBay
With all of this, bonus material. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks hit just six days after the release of Wolverine: The Origin #1, the comic book generally marking the end of the 1990s malaise — and instead of stunting that revival, the event became a rallying cry for the business, with multiple charitable relief and tribute issues heading quickly to shelves. Obviously, Coronavirus relief books could both help the afflicted, while also helping afflicted stores.

We'd have no illusions about what we're coming back to; we'll be looking at partial numbers when it comes to the retail base and publisher capacity for some time. People have dropped $10 million a week, more or less, in comics shops for the entire last decade; just getting near that would be a big victory. The key is to get cash in shops again — and then, once the train is running, Diamond slates Free Comic Book Day when everyone can take advantage of it. Spring starts, perhaps, in summer.

But again, all that depends on curing the virus first — and a world economy that hasn’t gone completely sideways.

A REASON FOR HOPE

As a science fiction and comics author, I imagine plenty of dark futures; as a parent, I truck in better ones. The above was one possible future, a happier one; it could go another way.

But in looking at any range of futures, we need to stick to facts. And there is one particular one that's heartening: COVID-19 has struck individuals and the economy — but the comics market was healthy before this. The book channel was doing crazily well — and the winter in the Direct Market was pretty good, as winters go. Conventions were packed in multiple cities the last weekend in February, including the one I was at in Richmond (where my bookseller sold out of my books by 1 p.m. Saturday). That's in February, smack in the middle of the quarter when the comics industry used to go to sleep.

The market wants to go back to that, almost as if it’s a living thing. It is a living thing — a machine made up of all of us. The obstacle is a virus, a plague; confronting it while protecting the vulnerable is the business of all, now. For our actual business, comics, it’s like we were in a car accident. A multi-car pile-up in the ice, where things are still moving and it's still too dangerous to help. We need time to judge the damage, time to pull everything apart and take stock, time to heal.

But there’s no need to reinvent something that wasn’t broken. The market was healthy before this.

What’s to become of us? That depends on doctors and the decisions of others who, hopefully, will be drawing on wise advice. But once our fate’s more fully in our hands again? I wouldn't bet against us.  Because as Will Eisner— such a great friend to comics shops that the retail industry's awards program was named for him — said, we've beaten the odds before. He's somewhere out there now, waiting to see what we do.

Comichron founder John Jackson Miller has tracked the comics industry for more than 25 years, including a decade editing the industry's retail trade magazine; he is the author of several guides to comics, as well as more than a hundred comic books for various franchises.

He is the author of novels including 
Star Wars: KenobiStar Wars: A New DawnStar Trek: Discovery - The Enterprise War, and his July release, Star Trek: Discovery - Die StandingRead more about them at his fiction site.

Be sure to follow Comichron on Twitter and Facebook, and check out our Youtube channel. You can also support us on Patreon!
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