While publishers and stores feared COVID-19 would be an extinction-level threat, the industry has proved more resilient than thought. Jeff Ayers is used to working long hours every December, as fans flock to the renowned Manhattan comic book store Forbidden Planet in search of gifts. Ayers enjoys the hustle and bustle, recommending his favorite comics and chatting with customers. This year, Ayers, was just as busy, but much has changed about his job as general manager of Forbidden Planet.
COVID-19 has transformed how the shop does business. It is no longer a place for enthusiasts to hang out for hours on end and make new discoveries, but rather a place to get in and out quickly to limit risk of exposure to COVID-19. Sales in the store are way down this year, but there's a silver lining: the store's more labor-intensive mail-order business is way up.
"It's certainly, 'work harder to make less,'"Ayers tells The Hollywood Reporter. "At the end of the day it's a little disappointing, but there's nothing normal about this."
In March, when COVID-19 hit the comic industry in earnest, many retailers and publishers feared it would be an apocalyptic event for the business. Stay-at-home orders shuddered stores, and shipments of new product ceased for several months when Diamond Comics Distributors hit pause. Stores have struggled to survive, and some have shuttered permanently.
However, months after the comic book industry restarted — accompanied by a publicity campaign proclaiming that the industry’s “comeback will be bigger than [the] setback” — there are multiple signs that comics has proven to be far stronger than anyone, including those inside the industry, expected in the face of an uncertain year.
“The biggest surprise started during May and June, as we were allowed to re-open, comics started shipping again, and customers were slowly starting to come back to the shop. Customers were buying comics. A lot of comics,” California retailer Ryan Higgins tells THR.
With comic conventions canceled and people not taking vacations, many fans concentrated on making their collections more complete.
"Comic supplies sales skyrocketed right away as people took this time to clean up their collection," says Higgins. "New titles were selling better than we ever expected, graphic novel sales spiked, and back issues jumped dramatically in price and flew out the door just as fast. Sales during the summer and early fall months were just unbelievable.”
That was a pattern repeated across the country, according to Diamond Comics Distributors, which handles the majority of comic shipments in the North American market. (DC, the second biggest publisher in the U.S., left Diamond entirely in June, ending an association that had lasted decades.) In a statement to press earlier this month, Tim Lenaghan, chief purchasing officer of Diamond’s parent company Geppi Family Enterprises, said that the company has, in the last financial quarter of the year, “seen a lot of stabilization in ordering patterns and, in many cases, these baseline numbers have exceeded our expectations."
It appears that sales patterns have stayed relatively consistent, with X-Men and Batman remaining the most valuable franchises at Marvel and DC, respectively.
A key metric for the health of the industry is how many comics stores are ordering. Those numbers are moving in the right direction.
“March 2020 saw Diamond ship 5.9 million comics; September and October were both over 7 million copies each," writes analyst John Jackson Miller in an email to THR. "Those are both behind the equivalent months in 2019; October 2019, with the X-Men relaunch, was the fourth best month of the decade of the 2010s. But per release, the sales levels are improved, and as the number of releases continues to build back, you can see it fully catching up.”
As Higgins suggests, it’s not just new titles that are seeing a bump; multiple publishers told THR that back orders for already released material still available directly from the publisher scaled up in the latter half of the year, as well.
"We believe that the market is strong — the world is unpredictable and often dangerous, and being able to look at not only storytelling, but comics and graphic novels, is a wonderful thing, now more than ever," IDW publisher Nachie Marsham says. "We've found that both personally and professionally being able to be inspired and challenged and excited and comforted and amused by stories are things that readers of all ages are into right now."
For decades, monthly comics have been the life force of the industry, getting readers to come back to stores again and again. Miller says that 2020 has underscored these monthly titles are "irreplaceable to the business."
“A hundred new issues a week means people into the store every week; those people then buy other things," says Miller, who likens these comics to subscription services, such as Disney+ or Netflix, which produce dependable monthly income for companies.
"That’s exactly what comic shops, keepers of customers’ ‘pull-and-hold’ orders for issues of Detective Comics and Amazing Spider-Man, have been doing for nearly fifty years. Periodical comics are the streaming service with staples," Miller says.
2020 was also a year in which crowdfunding became even more important in the comics space. Forbidden Planet raised $75,000 via a campaign launched in April, which the store used to stay afloat as it transitioned to the new normal of COVID.
For Aspen Comics, the publisher founded by the late Fathom artist Michael Turner, the crowdfunding model proved fruitful this year with a 600-page Kickstarter project collecting Turner's works raising more than $275,000. The company sees these Kickstarter offerings as an additional way to reach fans, particularly in a time when comic book shops are not at 100 percent due to COVID.
"It gives everyone an equal footing," says David Maisel, co-owner of Aspen and who is also known as founding chairman of Marvel Studios. "It gives a company like Aspen or individual artists a huge amount of direct distribution possibilities."
Another company that has explored a direct-to-consumer offering in the face of 2020’s challenges is indie publisher Vault Comics; it’s part of a significant re-evaluation of operating practices at the company, according to CEO Damian Wassel.
“If there is one specific lesson that is worth sharing, it's this: This kind of ongoing, widespread crisis will systematically break down everyone on your team,” Wassel writes in email. “Right now, everyone is cut off from their ordinary personal support structures. To get through anything like this you have to rethink how you operate, building in new relief valves and support systems. And you constantly have to reevaluate them for effectiveness. You have to make sure that you’re taking steps to keep everyone from breaking at once."
Beyond offering work directly to readers, Vault has additionally shifted its work practices in response to the pandemic, moving to a four-day work week, and instituting an unlimited paid-time-off policy. "You have to try to be good to the people you work with, or there's neither a reason nor a path to keep moving forward," Wassel explains.
"I think the biggest takeaway for us as a whole is the need to look to the future and to really actively engage with the changes coming to the larger industry," agrees IDW’s Marsham. "This past year has helped to create an internal environment where it's hopefully easier to question our reality and direction and to make sure we know exactly why we're making what we're making. There's little value in just doing what's been done before on autopilot."
Comics also provided relief for fans itching for new stories. 2020 was the first year in more than a decade without a Marvel Studios release, while films such as Wonder Woman 1984 were delayed for months.
"As movies got taken off the schedule and put into limbo, comics surged forward," says writer and artist Rob Liefeld, best known for Deadpool and who reports being busier than ever on new projects this year. "You can pick them up from the curb at your retail outlet. You can get the mail order. We, as an industry, continued to rise up and give you your comic books."
Though COVID-19 vaccines will roll out into 2021, it's too early to predict when comic shops will return to normal. Forbidden Planets' Ayers loves forming a personal connection with customers, opening up a comic and pointing out his favorite panels. That is a thing of the past in this era of social distancing. He looks forward to doing that again.
"I can be optimistic for a 2022 and beyond," says Ayers. "If you live long enough, you see recessions, and then we'll have booms. This boom is going to be phenomenal."