The reports of the death of print media may be greatly exaggerated, but no one will deny that the print publishing industry is fighting for its life. Retail giants like Borders have shut down their operations, and small independently-owned bookstores are closing across the country. But surprisingly, the comic book publishing industry and comic book specialty stores, are actually doing quite well.
“Between the direct market, the bookstore channel, and the emergence of digital, comics have — almost by accident! — become one of the healthiest parts of the magazine business,” writes John Jackson Miller, curator of the industry blog The Comics Chronicles. Comic book store owners across the country are happy to report they’re seeing more and more customers coming through their doors.
“The strength of the whole market right now is the fact that we’re getting and growing and expanding in readership and customers,” says Richard Evans, owner of Houston’s Bedrock City Comic Company which opened its first store in 1990 and now has four stores in Houston. “Those people are coming in because they have a genuine interest in the medium and the culture surrounding comics.”
So what’s going on here? If the Internet has the kryptonite-like power to destroy book stores and wipe out print publishing, how is it that comic book stores are thriving?
In order to explain what’s going on, we need to don our capes, hop on the invisible airplane and travel back in time to a world some of you may remember as–the 1970s!
The post-Lawson’s emergence of the direct market
Growing up in Columbus in the 1970s, I bought comic books at a convenience store called Lawson’s just down the street from my family’s house. I wasn’t a kid with a lot of spending cash, but I felt what little allowance I had should go toward funding my passions, which at the time included comic books. Comic books arrived sporadically at Lawson’s, and were displayed on a spinning wire rack somewhere near the cigarettes, Slim Jims, and candy bars.
Going as far back as 1930, comic books were distributed through newsstands, pharmacies, candy stores, and convenience marts like Lawson’s. But in the 1970s, in response to a declining market for comic books, as well as the rise comic book conventions and the emergence of the comic book as a collectable item, a new kind store appeared that mainly specialized in back issues of comic books. These specialty shops purchased new comics as a discounted, non-returnable item directly from comic book publishers. Both parties hoped to profit from a new, more discerning type of comic book reader.
The direct market helped small-print publishers to get their product into specialty stores, and the market expanded to gradually include a much wider range of titles. The comic book medium, which beginning in the 1960s included several underground, fantasy, and erotic titles that were generally sold in head shops, became an even more sophisticated and adult form of expression.
The main thing I remember about comic book specialty stores is that nearly every comic book for sale was sheathed in a plastic bag. Most of the comic books were out of the customer’s reach on shelves behind a counter and, especially if you were a kid, you had to (humbly) ask one of the clerks if you could please browse through a box containing several back issues of Spiderman. The vibe was “a clique-ish fan boy thing.” The unnamed character on The Simpsons who runs The Android’s Dungeon and Baseball Card Shop is a send up of your back in the day comic book store owner.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw another expansion in the market thanks to an increase in consumer speculation of the comic book as an “instant collectible.” Comic book stores carried and sold titles, along with baseball cards, to consumers who had what Evans describes as “the expectation of buying new product and selling it for a profit.” Few people were actually reading what they were buying, and not surprisingly, the market collapsed on itself quickly.
The collapse however allowed the cream of the industry to rise to the top. Says Evans, “The best creators were left standing, the best publishers were left standing, and the stores that were catering the real reason for comics were left standing.”
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a friendly and helpful comic book store clerk!”
I was sort of stunned when I first visited Houston’s Bedrock City Comic Company and, after staring helplessly at several new comic book titles on display, none of which I recognized, one of the store’s employees actually took a few minutes to suggest some comic books I might enjoy based on the one I had recently begun reading (The Manhattan Projects, published by Image Comics.) It was a very different experience than what I remember of the specialty stores of the 1970s and 1980s, but given the fact that a lot of newbies out there looking to get into comic books, it makes sense that these business owners make customer service a priority.
There are now so many avenues besides comic book conventions promoting the culture, including television, movies, video games, and the Internet, that many casual consumers simply view the comic book specialty store as “a viable place to go and get some entertainment.” Evans confirms that the promotion and success of television shows, video games, and of course films based on comic books (300, Men In Black, The Road to Perdition) has made people aware that specialty stores are “the hotbed for the creation of popular entertainment.” The job of Bedrock City and other Houston comic book stores like Third Planet, Pop Culture Company, and 8th Dimension Comics to name just a few, is to show customers the breadth and variety of the medium, and to convince them to keep coming back for more.
Perhaps most surprising is the impact the Internet and online digital comics has had on print comic book sales. Miller writes, “Digital is appearing to develop more as a parallel product — as trade paperbacks did — at least so far. The digital comic offers different perceived benefits from the monthly comic book; each product has its own adherents.”
“Online digital release of content, books, news, whatever, has been the death knell of mom and pop book stores and record stores,” says Evans. “(But) with comics, the opposite has happened. As more and more stuff is getting released digitally, people are getting exposed to the characters via online content and they’re actually searching out hard copies of that stuff. Titles are selling more because people have another avenue of exposure to the characters.”
Back to the future
Back issues and collectible comics are still part of the inventory of many comic book specialty stores (you can buy the first issue of Superman at Bedrock City Comic Company for $43,500 dollars). Along with creator-owned comics and more traditional superhero titles, there are comics for children and younger readers, comics that have a substantial female fan base, including the punk new wave-era Love and Rockets and the more recent Strangers in Paradise, and comics that push the medium and genre into unexplored territory.
From my perspective, as a grown man rediscovering to a form of entertainment and artistry that I first encountered displayed in a wire rack by a slushie machine, the possibilities for the medium are almost limitless.
So next time you’re looking for something fun to do, why not visit your local comic book specialty store? You may go in a novice, walk out a fan, and you’ll be supporting your local and creator-driven economy by doing so.