‘This is beyond the Great Depression’: will comic books survive coronavirus?

As Marvel cuts staff and publishers stop selling new titles, artists, shop owners and writers worry for the future of an industry worth billions

There are no new comic books.

Steve Geppi, head of Diamond Comic Distributors, which distributes nearly every comic sold in the anglophone world (or used to), announced this on 23 March, though senior industry figures already knew what was coming. The coronavirus pandemic had sunk retailers deep into the red. They couldn’t pay their bills to Diamond or rent to their landlords, because they hadn’t made any sales. “Product distributed by Diamond and slated for an on-sale date of 1 April or later will not be shipped to retailers until further notice,” Geppi wrote.

If shops can’t pay Diamond, Diamond can’t pay the industry’s constellation of comics publishers, who then can’t pay artists, writers, editors and printers, who now can’t pay their rent or credit card bills – or buy comics. Sales of comics, graphic novels and collectibles distributed by Diamond were $529.7m (£462m) in 2019 – a huge number which suggests that a months-long gap between issues of Batman, Captain America and Spawn will stretch into tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. (Though Diamond plans to start shipping comics to shops again on 17 May, many around the world will still be in lockdown then.)

The unprecedented situation has encouraged many acts of kindness, by individuals and companies. In solidarity with the shops relying on physical sales, most publishers are not currently selling new comics digitally. And dozens of artists and writers are auctioning off books and art to benefit others; DC artist Jim Lee is sketching a superhero pinup every day for two months, selling them for thousands on eBay to benefit comics shops.

The comics world is now split between many have-nots and two very prominent have-alls: DC Comics and Marvel Comics, subdivisions of massive publicly traded corporations Disney (Marvel) and AT&T (DC), worth $192bn and $224bn respectively. Though Marvel and DC have taken a hit from the pandemic, they’re still so big that professionals and retailers look to them not just for guidance, but also for relief. DC has donated $250,000 to a charity for bookshops, and, for the first time since the 1970s, is allowing retailers to return unsold comics. A spokeswoman said the company was also assessing new ways to distribute comics to shops for mail-order and kerbside pickup programmes. The Guardian has also seen an email from DC sent to shops last week, saying it will start distributing comics through three new companies – two of which are reportedly run by retailers that directly compete with the shops themselves.

And Marvel has cut its editorial staff by half, according to a source familiar with the situation. A Marvel spokesman said the company would not confirm numbers, but that all the cut staff were furloughed, not laid off, and the firm would continue providing health insurance “for the duration of the furlough period”. Bleeding Cool also reports that Marvel has stopped work on at least 20% of its forthcoming books. However, it is offering some discounts to publishers.

Ron Hill, owner of New York shop Jim Hanley’s Universe, says he appreciated some of the gestures, especially those of individuals such as Lee. But overall, he feels upset by the weak response of publishers to the pandemic. Hill, and retailers like him, don’t only need discounts; they need debt relief, and recognition that everyone – shops, distributors, studios – is now in the same boat. The faster that happens, he said, the better everyone’s chance of survival.

“This is beyond 2008, this is beyond the Great Depression,” Hill adds. “I’m just a guy who sells comic books but I feel like this is true up and down. How are we gonna do this? I’m reading that Macy’s is gonna go out of business, and AMC [movie theaters] is gonna go out of business. Why are we letting these places go out of business?”

You can’t recreate the feel of a comic bookshop on the internet any more than you can a restaurant. In shops such as Hanley’s, Batman rubs elbows with Alex Toth’s Zorro, R Crumb’s muses and Snoopy. No one appreciates this nexus of competing realities more than Robert Sikoryak, the chameleonic artist who draws line-perfect imitations of famous cartoonists to enliven iTunes’s Terms and Conditions, and Donald Trump’s verbal gaffes in The Unquotable Trump.

While none of Sikoryak’s mini-comics are going to outsell a new issue of Wolverine, some of his comics, such as the Trump book, have their genesis in the black-and-white 16-page one-offs he sells at Hanley’s. “That did become weirdly lucrative, because people are so … traumatised, obsessed, whatever, with him,” Sikoryak says. The post-pandemic world must have comic shops, he feels: “I’m loath to predict anything except that we’ll get through it. I can’t bring myself to predict anything else.”

Others are less optimistic. “I … have to assume the anglophone comics market is not going to come back in anything like the shape it was in 200 years ago, back in February,” wrote author Warren Ellis in his newsletter on 12 April. “There’s going to be a lot of pain points, moving forward.”

Kieron Gillen, writer of Ludocrats and The Wicked + the Divine series, said he hadn’t received bad news about any of his ongoing work – yet. “In terms of the Image books I’ve been doing, we’ve carried on making them, and because I’m in a lucky position I have enough sales that they’ll probably find an audience. The question is just … does, eventually, that stop?” he says.

While the current big charity push is to bail out comics shops, Gillen predicted that the next wave will probably need to address the needs of the creators themselves. The psychological toll still needs to be considered. “The first week of social distancing/stay at home continued like normal,” says Erica Henderson, artist on Marvel’s beloved Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series. “I was putting out the same amount of work, it was fine. The next two weeks? Nothing. I really had a hard time getting anything work-related done. I continued to make comics for my Patreon, but I think the fact that it wasn’t my job made it OK. I wanted to keep making art but doing my work was impossible. I’m now at about a 50-75% capacity.”

The situation has raised existential questions about the role of comics shops. Most retailers in the US are pure bricks-and-mortar operations, and proudly so. Even the industry’s heavyweights, such as Denver’s enormous Mile High Comics, have web presences that can feel like time travel back to 1998. But if the lockdown continues much longer, publishers may not wait for the shops to catch up. As Hill says, “There’s a lot of fear that they’re going to go ahead and release comics digitally and leave us behind, and continue to release comics into the market when we’re not able to participate.”

Gerry Conway, co-creator of antihero The Punisher and Spider-Man villain Mysterio, said that, as comics began retreating from newsstands into speciality shops in the early 70s, comic readers became older, preferring heavier, more complex fare. But this may have made comics less accessible to newcomers, even as their characters became the subjects of blockbusters.

“It’s a tragedy, because the books created now are so much better in so many ways. But they’re also largely irrelevant to the wider culture,” he says. “The fact that these movies and video games and TV shows have appeal shows that these stories have potential, and we haven’t been accessing it, because we’ve had this safe zone.”

“If this goes on for the amount of time that we think it will go on, a lot of these stores are not going to come back,” he adds.

Whether or not comics have the influence they did when Superman sold 1m copies an issue, they still punch far above their economic weight. Hill hopes the corporate giants who hold the industry’s fate in their hands will see them, and the shops that sell them, as a strategic investment – and a modest one, at that.

“There is no building of anything without comics,” he says. “It’s been this way in the direct market since at least the mid-80s when Frank Miller’s Batman paved the way for the Batman movie – and it’s been that way ever since. A hit comic book paves the way for a hit movie, and then a hit video game, and then a toy line. Before you know it, you’ve made billions. But it starts with comics.”

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