Author’s Note: The following editorial is intended to highlight the ramifications of digital distribution, the overhead in producing printed comics, and what changes this could bring to the industry as brick and mortar publishing companies, including DC and Marvel, increasingly focus on digital platforms. Let it be said here that I love printed comics, comics shops, and other places to experience geek culture! I in no way desired to ridicule them, or what the store owners do. I simply hoped the following editorial could stir thought about the future of comics as the companies we follow switch to more digital platforms in the future.
Finally, I would like to publicly apologize to John and Carol’s Comic Book Shop for the picture choice I originally used in this editorial. I was not aware of what store the photo depicted, and the editorial wasn’t about that store in any way. It was a thoughtless error for which I apologize profusely.
Yesterday I went to a local comic book store at the mall in my town. My wife picks up the new issues of Grant Morrison’s Multiversity series, as well as the new Sandman Overture, when they come out at this particular store. I hadn’t been in a while, so I thought I would go by and check out what they had.
Going to a comic-book store is, at times, a paradigm-shifting experience, only because comic-book stores rarely cater to just comic-books and serials. Within the microcosm of the store are branches of affiliated segments; collectible cards, action figures, porcelain statues, and odds and ends are sold, in addition to comic-books. So I am reminded of this (and on this particular occasion) every time I go into a store to get anything. Comic-book stores are indicative of both the insular and the trendy, the niche and the mainstream, both within the comic-book world and wider American popular culture. Superman is iconic, recognizable for all. Indie comics, not so much. The traditional comic-book store is a watering hole for the profane and the sacred, etc.
But the stores are dying off. Why? There are a few reasons for that. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. It’s a good thing the stores are going, and here’s why:
Back in the era of collectible markets, comic-book stores were very popular. They were relevant, cool, hip, and many more people read comics on a regular basis back then. We all know this mood of prosperity came to a head in the mid-90s, when the speculation bubble burst. By the end of 1997, about 75% of comic-book stores in America closed up shop. (Marvel even filed Chapter 11 in 1996, mostly because of a foiled business venture into their own distributing ring.) One could imagine the aftermath to be something in line with post-plague Europe in the 1300s, with a small remnant of field laborers in the game to call the shots. With humility and reality, hand in hand, the industry restructured, but the sales of “floppies” never fully recovered.
Consequently, the advent of the internet, digital distribution, and digital storefronts is saving the comic-book industry. The internet keeps the communities and their causes in continuous circulation. People can stay connected, discuss storylines, and even sell their own used comics through online marketplaces like eBay or Amazon. Most importantly, digital comics now allow companies to reduce their overhead by an order of magnitude. So while local comic-book stores slowly disappear and fall off, their incorporeal counterparts continue to thrive. Action figures, collectible toys, and the other odds and ends are also getting good notice, even two-day free shipping. Without the distribution logistics being handled by a multibillion dollar corporation, it would be otherwise impossible to get in on the ground floor of a new toy or comic that was extremely rare, all the while ordering from a computer on the opposite end of the country. These kinds of transactions are made possible with this digital orchestration. And don’t forget that these comics, because of the reduced overhead, sell for almost 50% off cover price, thereby protecting consumers from blowing their wad on shock-and-awe stories that sell filler and not lasting impressions.
Comic-book stores thrived because, without an internet platform, the only way for Diamond Comics Distributors to vend comics was to get the comics to independent shops or newsstands.
The greater issue with comic-book stores dying out is that the physicality of the medium is being called into question. Do comic-books require the aesthetic of turning pages? Does this make the stories more tangible? Without such interaction, there isn’t much need for a place to go and buy / read comics, let alone reasons to invest large amounts of operating capital to sell at exorbitant cover prices. So in a sense, Amazon killed the comic-book store. And, you know, that’s not a bad thing.
Correction: an earlier version of this editorial incorrectly used an image of Carol and John’s Comic Book Shop in Cleveland, Ohio. It was unrelated to this editorial’s content, and it’s beloved by its customers! It looks like a wonderful store, and Sequart encourages its readers to check it out!