In early 2019, I left a job I held for eight years on a gamble that I could make it in the insurance industry. A barrier to entry was that before you could officially begin training for full employment, you had to pass a test in order to obtain the necessary license, a feat many in my group of new hires accomplished but I failed to. For the first time in a decade, I was out of a job, and I knew I had to take steps to save what little money I had. The first was getting in my car, going to the comic shop I had been frequenting for many years, Downtown Comics in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and cancelling box #37, a number I would never forget because of a bit in Kevin Smith’s Clerks.
It broke my heart to have to make that decision, as one of my favorite parts of every week was going to the store to pick up my issues, checking out what new action figures and collectibles were out, and always striking up a conversation with the people behind and in front of the counter. My interests: movies; television and of course, video games, were increasingly trying to keep me contained in my small room in my apartment, but comics always got me out into the world if only for an hour or two a week. In the weeks that followed, I tracked the Previews World website, writing down the issues I would have been picking up had things been different so I could catch up once I got back on my feet. After about a month or two I stopped. I had begun to take stock of what little space I had where I lived, and the money it would take to get back up to speed and I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Like a lot of industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, the comics industry has been hit hard. Comic book stores were forced to close temporarily because of health issues, and this week DC Comics had massive layoffs in its editorial department after corporate restructuring. The business of comics has been in need of an overhaul for sometime now, and recent world events have only expedited the need for that change. If comic books as an art form are to continue, it simply cannot remain on its present course.
In 2019, comic book stores bought $518 million in comics, graphic novels and magazines according to John Jackson Miller, which according to his figures was a 2.23 % rise over the same period in 2018. These are high numbers no doubt and by no means spell doom for traditional print comics. But while there have been issues that have sold in excess of a half-a-million unites or more in the past two decades – Detective Comics #1000 sold 526,941 last year alone – comics are far from the days of the 90’s where you had the X-Men relaunch and the debut of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn selling millions of issues. Much of this has to do with the changing landscape of media.
Travelling back to the 90’s once more, comics mostly had to compete with movies, both theatrical and rentals, network television, books, video games, and eventually the mass adoption of the internet. Those things are still true in 2020, yet they’re also very different. At least where I live, a single issue of a comic, not counting special issues with inflated cover prices, costs around $6 or so, factoring in a bag and board. Any one streaming service, Netflix or Disney + take your pick, are just a few dollars more at a one time monthly fee, offering thousands, if not millions of hours of entertainment, including movies, live-action and animated shows all inspired by comics. When I was buying issues, it would not be uncommon for me to plunk down $40-$50 per week on books I would spend maybe an hour or engaging with. I understand that my consumption habits are just my own, as there are many I’m sure who read their issues over and over, but this is what I was doing for many years. Based on others I spoke with who were also into collecting comics, my numbers were on the lower side.
You also have to consider the way people interact with comic book characters has radially changed in just a few short decades. The 90’s were filled with excellent animated series starring the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, Spawn and the X-Men, and all of these characters would be adapted into video games too. However, they were still tied to the stereotype of the basement dwelling nerd, even at the start of the superhero movie crazy in the early 2000’s. Now, films like Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, Marvel’s Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home have become box-office juggernauts grossing $1 billion a piece. Even one of those films took in more money than what was sold to comic book stores last year. This is excluding the ever growing CW Universe of DC Comics shows, The Walking Dead that’s now in its tenth season and video games such as Marvel’s Spider-Man, which has already become the best-selling superhero video game of all time.Comics are big business, with a capital B, and you don’t reach milestones like that by just catering to a few hundred thousand comic book readers, regardless of their years of dedication.
Where once someone had to hide their love of comics for fear of being ridiculed, now they’ve never been more popular than ever, just not in the medium that birthed them. Whether it’s superheroes on the big screen, shows like The Umbrella Academy on Netflix and a title like Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a video game that will more than likely sell more than a few PlayStation 5 consoles later this year, the influence of comics can be felt in every facet of pop culture. But comic books need to thrive to keep this symbiotic relationship alive. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an Academy Award winning film doesn’t happen without Brian Michael Bendis creating the character of Miles Morales in the first place, and the same goes for Captain Marvel as the version of that character seen in two films last year only came to be eight years ago. Kamala Kahn, the new Ms. Marvel, will play a major role in Marvel’s Avengers, a big budget, multiplatform game that releases in just under a month. This character similarly only debuted in the past few years.
Even though I’m currently not reading comics, and right now have no idea if or when I’ll come back to them, I don’t want to see them go away. Two books I desperately miss reading, Venom from writer Donny Cates and The Immortal Hulk, are two bold, far from mainstream shake-ups for established characters that really only work as comic book stories. You only see stories like those, and many other examples, when the visions of writers and artists collide in comics. One such way that the sale of comics has evolved is digital distribution, but it’s not a perfect one. For starters, issues cost about the same as buying from a comic book store, and the platforms you buy them on like Comixology, whose parent company is now Amazon, doesn’t help to support a place like Downtown Comics. Personally speaking, what I liked about reading comics is that they gave me a break from screens, and there are things like two-page spreads that simply don’t translate as well to digital.
A potential model that comics perhaps should move towards is akin to how shows are made for streaming platforms. Services like Netflix have established the “binging” model of getting a whole seasons worth of content upfront. It’s easy to imagine shifting away from getting parts of a story every month to getting a “seasons” worth of stories altogether. This model doesn’t exactly work one-to-one with comics as it would greatly reduce repeat business and visits for stores, plus it would limit the continuous conversation surrounding a book allowed by single issues, but something like this is probably far more palatable to the mass market and budget conscious. An added benefit of this is that it can hopefully move new comics back to places like department stores instead of being exclusive to speciality shops.
I was born in 1984, and I didn’t step foot into a comic book store until 1997. Before that time, I bought comics at the magazine racks at gas stations, supermarkets, drug and department stores. Graphic novels are sold at major book stores – there are large shelves of them at Chapters stores here in Canada – but they have zero presence in major retail locations. By moving away from single issue stories, comics could once again return to places like Wal-Mart in a big way, which could help lead to a broader, mass adoption of them to individuals who maybe only interact with them through movies and TV, or just simply don’t live close to a comic book store.
For my budget and lifestyle, comics are now movies, shows and most importantly, video games. I’ve missed buying comics ever since life forced me to abruptly give them up, but it’s so much easier for me at least to keep track of a few blu-ray sized cases on a shelf and a movie every month or two then finding space for bulky, not to mention heavy, comic book boxes. I have no idea what the future for the comic book industry holds, but I hope that somehow it will continue. Superheroes are in no danger of disappearing, as yearly box-office receipts have shown us, but this recent pandemic has shown just how delicate a thread comics, and the businesses that sell them, walk on. Whatever moves that have to made to keep new stories coming, I hope the people at the top implement them fast.