Comic Retailers on the State of Comics and How They’re Adjusting to the New World Order

Last month, I wrote a big feature looking at how the coronavirus pandemic was affecting creators, retailers and the broader industry, but if you read it now, it’d be like lookin at prehistoric times. To say the world has changed since then is an understatement of understatements: it’s been a seismic shift globally, but also in the comic book world.

As per usual, I like to keep up with the world of comics retail, and I had planned on doing something this week where I just checked in with shops. And then, Friday came and DC said they were partnering up with DCBS and Midtown for distribution and Diamond said they were aiming to return by mid to late May, and I had to go forward with that plan. Earlier today, the first part of those chats rolled out as I talked with Katie Proctor from Portland’s Books with Pictures, and now, I have a mix of eight more shops sharing their thoughts on the direct market world today. All of their perspectives on a small selection of topics can be found below, and as per usual, they’re a wide mix of results, because comics retail is a land that features people of all types. Give it a read below.

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The front of Cape & Cowl Comics in Oakland

Let’s start with the basics. How are YOU doing? Not your shop. How are you doing?

Steve Anderson, Third Eye Comics (Maryland/Virginia): I’m doing good, man. You know me: I am my shop, so the two are always closely connected; but I would say that we’re both hanging in there. Just trying to keep that Positive Mental Attitude, and be thankful for the health of my team and those close to me.

Bruno Batista, Big Bang Comics (Dublin): Just earlier we checked in with the staff and everyone is okay, I’m happy to say. Everyone is a bit stressed with the entire situation but we’re trying to keep as safe and sane as possible. Personally, and since I’ve been working from home, I’m now more aware than ever that my significant other has THE worst taste when it comes to TV. Do you even know how many 90 DAYS FIANCÉ shows and spin-offs there are?


Patrick Brower, Challengers Comics + Conversation (Chicago): Meh, fine. I don’t mean to be trivial, but it seems that a lot of people are having a much harder time with this than I am. Personally it’s rough not seeing my family every week, but I know it’s for the best. Mentally, I’m fine. All the store work we’re doing (see the answer below) really makes it feel less like quarantine and more like modified business-as-usual, save for not having to go pick up new comics every week. Otherwise, I have two bands to keep me occupied, writing and recording from our separate residences, as well as collaborating with friends on other musical projects. As usual, it feels like I don’t have enough time in the day. But, plus side, I’m cooking more, and eating better, and have the time to work out every day rather than a few days a week. And I gave myself a mohawk, which will stay after the quarantine. It just won’t be spiked every day…

Jen King, Space Cadets Collection Collection (Oak Ridge North, Texas): I am physically okay as is my whole family. Mentally, its tough being an extrovert. Since everything in my social media news feed feels very focused on controversial industry news right now, that part stresses me a bit. I do look forward to getting back to talking about what cool comic is coming about and who is working on it. 

Eitan Manhoff, Cape & Cowl Comics (Oakland): I’m doing pretty well. The first couple weeks of the lockdown were pretty rough. I’m not the most emotional guy, but I had myself a couple good cries when the store closed and a few more when the massive wave of love and support started rolling in from the community. At home I have two daughters aged 7 and 4 so we’re adjusting to distance learning and life without the 354 weekly activities we’re used to. My wife is a real life superhero keeping most of that going while I’m over at the shop trying to keep the ball rolling.

Colin McMahon, Pittsburgh Comics (Pittsburgh): Good. Took first two weeks as a staycation. Read a couple of book books. Now starting to think about what I want to change at the store. Freshening displays, getting rid of that clutter I never got to. But lots of mood swings. So many What Ifs.

Jacob Sareli, Comikaza (Tel Aviv, Israel): Well naturally I am little bit stressed from all that is happening, the main reason is that whereas there is a pretty good approach to COVID-19 from a health point-of-view, the financial side of the crisis is not great to say the least. There is a great feeling here that the small businesses are left behind to fend for themselves and when it comes to help from the government we don’t expect for much. But it would be great to be proven otherwise. Besides that, I gained a few pounds as a side effect of the stay home policy.

Scott Tomlin, Comics Dungeon (Seattle): I am doing okay given all the circumstances, stress and grief I have gone through during this period. I am ready to get back into the world.

The front of Challengers Comics + Conversation in Chicago

Next, how’s your shop doing in this crazy time, and what are you doing to adjust to this new world order?

Anderson: I would say it’s one of the hardest challenges we’ve faced – but three or four weeks in, and we’re finding a rhythm. First two weeks were the hardest, we didn’t know what to expect, and ever since, have been building new ways of doing biz in one to two day time tables; which is nuts. We usually spend months on an idea, fleshing it out, testing it, and making sure it’s perfect from top to bottom, or as close to it.

In a weird way – it’s kind of recharged me; it reminds me of my first 6 months of being open, and that’s a strong feeling. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t wait to have this over and see normalcy return, but yeah, trying to find the positive.

In a nutshell:

One thing that helped — I was following the news with Wuhan back in January, and I’m naturally a paranoid person, so while I don’t feel we were as prepared as I’d like; we did begin thinking about things that are helping us now — and we stepped up sanitation measures in the stores very early, including making sure we had the items our team needs to be safe.

Batista: We’re doing our best to keep going! It’s been hard, and fair play to John Hendrick for going in every day and doing all the exhausting actual work, but we’re getting by. Lots and lots of postal orders and customers looking for something new to read have been immensely helpful, we couldn’t keep doing this without them. As for the New World Order specifically, we have new staff t-shirts coming in. John’s is black and white and mine is black and red. 1

Challengers is actually… busy. Not normal-business busy, but busy. We’re not open to the public but we are processing mail orders, making contactless local Chicago deliveries on Wednesdays, and we have a local pick-up option at a restaurant up the street, the Chicago Board Game Café (started by the Cards Against Humanity folk). They have a pick-up window and they are very generously allowing us to drop paid for product off for customers to pick up there. And people can get some amazing food while they’re there, so it’s win/win.

We’ve been extremely fortunate to be getting a steady stream of graphic novel orders. The drawbacks are…

A) It’s x4 the work for ¼ of the pay. Every transaction is a back-and-forth email discussion with availability and payment specifications, on top of general “what should I get?” recommendations. We have our current policies detailed on our website, but not everyone reads them before ordering. And to be fair, I don’t either. If I want takeaway from a local restaurant during this, I just show up to see how they’re handling food orders—I don’t go to their website first. But yeah, it’s a lot of extra work vs. someone walking in, picking up a book and bringing it to the counter.

B) It’s a 24-hour/day buying cycle. With no set hours, orders come in all the time. Last Wednesday morning 3 separate orders all came in within a 3-minute window at 1:30am. So it’s a logistical nightmare keeping everything organized by the time we get back to the shop.

We’re also going thru packing supplies in a furious manner. We ship everything via USPS Priority Mail, and they provide boxes and envelopes, but you can only order a set amount at a time, and we need a lot, and in a variety of sizes. But also, printer ink, paper and oh man, packing tape!!

King: I have been blessed to be in an area where curbside and mail-order is still allowed. Also, because I have been doing live Facebook sales for 2 years now, I have a built in on-line selling platform. I also co-own The Comic Book Shopping Network CBSN on Facebook with Jesse James Criscione, where we have over 20 top shops doing shows and working together to create a safe shopping space.

The shop is doing okay! We’ve gotten so much support from our friends and customers it’s absolutely overwhelming. Within a couple days of shutting down I made the call to switch over to ComicHub which is a POS system that came with the ability to get most of our inventory online and available for sale overnight. It was a VERY steep learning curve and I am in no way a computer person so I probably struggled more than most at the beginning, but we got a crush of orders right went it went live and they continue to trickle in now. We’ve also started doing live sales on Instagram for collectible back issues as well as kids books (this is a super great way to distract my kids on a Saturday morning)!

Shop is non-existent. Doing $200/week on ebay. That’s it. We are Stay at Home, no delivery or curbside. Mail order seems like just adding expense to something they can eventually get anyway.

The shop is doing pretty decent numbers considering that we are closed to anything but deliveries. After 18 days this month, we are about 33% for a normal month of April so it’s not great but all things considered we are happy. There was a great support from our regulars and new customers as well, also a lot of old voices we haven’t heard for a long time for different reasons (moving to digital, buying from Amazon/Book Depository) called ordered stuff so we are really grateful!

One point that is worth mentioning, and this point was made by the guys at Challengers and by Brain Hibbs is that the work that is done to achieve the revenue during the pandemic is double in time and effort. But we are not complaining, it’s just a new thing that took us some time to get used to. We did a few Facebook Live sales and they did really good so that is something that can be considered as a good development!

The shop is bleeding money. We are doing everything we can to generate sales. We are selling online and via social media, but is still short of break even, even with a much lower payroll. We are fortunate one of landlords has deferred the rent, but it will be due eventually. We are selling a lot of inventory, but it feels like we are digging a hole that will need to be filled with massive reorders when we get to open again. We will see. We have had good success with a GoFundMe and have been able to pay the staff equivalent at least one additional paycheck.

Friday brought…a lot of news. DC is now going back to releasing comics on April 28th via new distribution partners in DCBS/Lunar and Midtown/UCS, while Diamond said they are targeting a return by mid to late May. How are you feeling about that? How does that change your short to mid term plans, if at all?

Anderson: I’ll be temporarily using UCS for DC until DCD (Editor’s note: Diamond Comic Distributors) resumes. I will then be using DCD for everything once they’re back in biz. I have always felt that DCD does a great job, and am totally happy with them. At the same time, I am still operating (we’ve been getting trades via INGRAM and RANDOM HOUSE), and bringing in new stock, and our customers want it. So, we’re gonna be providing them with those books.

I already had worked (this) into my 8-week plan before this began. I figured we’d see new books by June.

Brower: So much of this is still up in the air. Chicago is set to re-open on May 1, but we don’t think it’s going to happen. What we’re doing now is on our own terms and timelines, but DC is forcing stores to go against their city’s procedures and putting people in potentially unsafe situations. Plus, no one wants to give the industry’s two biggest mail-order accounts our order information or our money. As of this writing, we plan to get our DC product from Diamond, as usual. If Diamond does re-open in mid-May, we can wait the three extra weeks for DC’s books. And let’s face it, it’s not like those books are ‘must haves’ for most readers, save for Batman #92.

For me, nothing has changed. I’ve always said as soon as new comics were available that I had the customer base who wants them. Where they come from, doesn’t matter to me as much as meeting the needs of my customer base.

Fuuuuuuck all that. The way it was presented to retailers – the lie by omission about who the “distributors” are and the minuscule time window to make the decision – are both incredibly frustrating, but my biggest problem with it is their complete disregard for the health and safety of the rest of the industry. The Publishers are the only part of the supply chain that can do 100% of their work comfortably and safely from home, yet they’re forcing the hand of the other parts who will take on all the financial and health risks involved with this decision.

I think what DC is doing is basically cutting the fat from what has been delayed so far and releasing that through Midtown and DCBS. That way when Diamond resumes shipping they can try and give the impression that they are “helping” us by reducing their releases in those first few weeks of distribution. Lame. As far as Diamond’s announcements go, I think late May would probably be okay for shipments to resume. I’m not sure if we’ll be open yet, but I’m sure hoping we will be in at least some kind of limited capacity.

We are not allowed to be open, so it seems odd to purchase books I cannot sell. The books are not important enough to go out of my way to get in now as opposed to waiting for them from Diamond.

I see it alienating DC to a lot of stores. A way of benefiting two big mail order houses at the expense of a lot of closed stores. It was a “We are all in this together!” situation that has now become a Have and Have Not situation based on which stores are in an area that can be open and who has an established mail order system. Flying solo, the amount of work involved in processing and shipping single $4 purchases seems like more effort than its worth. I’m better off hanging at home with the dogs than spending hours to make $100.

So first thing I did when the news about DC came out is email Diamond and make sure that our order for those books were still standing (which for now they are from whatIi understand). Diamond came through when we asked from them to extend our billing when we were told to shut down and we are grateful for that. If we can get those books from DCD, I would prefer to get it from them (even if it takes more time).

As a general idea I wasn’t mad about this move as DC doesn’t stand by themselves and have to answer to a greater power. In that regard, I totally get the move but that won’t work for us. But I knew things would be hitting up with our peers in the states.

As an International retailer there are a few more steps in the chain of us ordering a comic all the way to getting it in our store, so doing all that hassle for some 15 titles isn’t really worth it in terms of time and money. Also, aerial shipping is still crazy expensive and we would be (probably) closed in the period of those mini-shipments so waiting for DCD is more logical even if I wasn’t grateful when they helped us out!

As for DCSB and Midtown, I think that the reason they were chosen is that only they have the resources and market familiarity to do something that is similar to what DCD is doing distribution-wise so I cant be mad about tha,t But the initial time frame that was given by DC is not looking good and I hope that they can make it work with the retailers that do want to be part of this. 

Tomlin: DCBS has long been seen a huge competitor to brick and mortar stores (B&M), their volume allows them to discount well below retail that B&M stores simply cannot compete with. If I thought DCBS and Midtown would honor a minimum advertised price, but I worry this arrangement will further disintermediate B&M stores. With that said, the books they are selling this first time around are not a threat to our livelihood, but it could be the start.

What’s a preferred response from other publishers, notably Marvel? Would you prefer comics to still be on hold, even in to late May, or do you prefer new comics to start coming again?

Anderson: We’re fine with either; I honestly prefer late May – but if SMALL (keyword: small!) shipments begin now; I’d be fine with it. As with any point of doing biz – we’ll order what we think we can sell, and skip what we don’t.

Brower: Certainly we need new comics to stay in business, but I would prefer new comics to ALL come back at the SAME TIME. We would hope that Marvel also doesn’t go out and create new distribution paths, further complicating the publishing landscape. I get it. They’re not making money. No publisher is making money, and unlike comic shops, a lot of them have parent companies that need to see revenue. Well, we need to see revenue, too, but not at the expense of the future of our industry. I have yet to see a plan that’s more than a ‘finger in a dam’ for right now. Wholesale change is needed, but it is absolutely not expected.

Again, this will be a very unpopular stance, but I’m ready for comics to flow and many other retailers are as well. I prefer for publishers to hold off on the big releases until a majority of stores can come online. 

I’d love for Marvel to chime in and throw a little shade at DC. (I say this as someone with an old school DC Bullet tattoo on my shoulder. I have much love for DC Comics). But maybe a little, “We’re not going to do anything desperate like using online retailers to do our distribution, but we’re working on solutions that work for everyone.” I think if Marvel, as the big fish, can just chill out for three weeks like everyone else until Diamond can resume shipping, it would really be best for everyone. For the most part, Publishers have been nothing but great and I think Retailers will remember who helped us during these super crappy times.

I would love to see Marvel say something like “We are sticking with the Direct Market in this time of crisis and will start shipping books to stores only when we feel it is safe for them to be open selling them.” Stay on hold until Diamond gets going again. Level playing field. Even if I can’t be open, I can figure something out. I think we are all getting close to at least being able to do something. With the nationwide Stay at Home ending soon, we are all kind of in the same position.

That is a great question. I would be comfortable to resume to regular shipping when most of the retailer shops internationally would resume to somewhat operating means. The stores in France, Italy, Spain were the first to be told to closed (I think that for them its six to eight weeks of closed doors right now) and there are also stores in the UK and Australia with similar days not operating regularly. I just hope when things got moving again it won’t be (at) the expense of the health and well being of the people involved and the decisions will be made in a responsible and unrushed manner. 

I don’t have a good answer here. We need to find a way to get comics flowing again, but a partial response and partial distribution won’t be enough. If we can’t go back to normal volumes businesses won’t be viable. If the country comes back piecemeal, it will encourage to even a further degree mail order out of our region. Ideally everyone would be back to full service and soon, the longer this goes the harder recovery will be.

Home delivery from Third Eye Comics

It’s entirely possible this isn’t the case, but because this whole situation has required so much wholesale change to approach, have you discovered anything about how you approach your business that you may carry forward after this? Anything that has been surprisingly effective?

Anderson: SO MUCH. It’d take forever to write it out; but with every Crisis – there’s usually a bunch of great #1s that launch in its wake, and I think that this whole thing is teaching us some new tricks, and more importantly: showing us (and the rest of the world, really) just how grateful we should all be to have physical spaces to go and have fun with.

We had a number of plans before that we never seemed to have the time to put in practice (running a comic shop with its clockwork weekly shipment of comics is very routine-heavy, and sometimes just doesn’t leave you enough time for side projects) but now we finally have our website online, have been able to catalog a lot of our many products that we weren’t able to before (we have a lot of cool stuff we had totally forgotten about!) and even got to experiment more with social media stuff like Instagram Live. It’s been a lot of work, but definitely rewarding!

It totally confirmed that our previous steps of offering a more robust Postal Order service were the right ones and something to look at even more strongly down the line. But more than anything, it reminded us of the amazing community of customers that we have developed through the years. The amount of people that reached out to buy something or put a deposit on their accounts, or just wanted to help us in any way possible was staggering. It’s a big cliché to say that we do what we do so we can share our love of comics with everyone but times like this really drive that home.

Brower: Constant communication with our customer base is key. We’re still emailing Previews updates, as normal, even if we don’t know when the solicited books will ship. We’re posting dumb in-store videos on our social media sites to keep us in people’s minds. We’re looking ahead to when we’re back open and the changes we’ll be making (Challengers-branded facemasks on all employees, plexiglass sneeze guards in front of the counters, digital thermometers ready to read people as they come in), but that’s all virus-related.

We’ve had larger discussions on how we would proceed if Diamond doesn’t recover, and we think we can do it. One disappointing thing is that while we now have the time to make the physical changes we’ve been wanting to do forever without interrupting business (new carpet, new window treatments, things like that), we can’t spare the money to do any of them. I know your question was a broader, business one, but we don’t have any large-scale changes in the works. We did reevaluate our digital gift card provider and switch to a better one with considerably lower fees. So that was a good change.

We added so many ways to interact with our customers: Morning reading time for the kids on Facebook, Art classes, Trivia, Joke time, etc and I think we will largely keep those going forward. Also, we ramped up our FB live sales interactions and those we will also keep. We absolutely want our customers to see us as a way to escape, and we have been told over and over again that all of these interactions help them. 

We’ll definitely keep selling online through our sweet new web store. Our priority will always be our physical shop, but if people like the new shop or want us to ship us out to or for them, we’re happy to do it! Also, I think engaging with our customers live through Instagram is something we will do for sure. We’ve had a ton of fun doing it and it’s such a great way to interact with a bunch of people all at once. Plus, we’re putting a ton of extra comics in people’s hands which is kinda what we’re all about!

I realized I should have been doing a lot more eBay before now. Just listing unsold ratio variants. Nothing fancy. I do very well with key back issues in the store, so I really don’t have a lot to do with selling them online or via a live sale. Those also seem to be at least 2 man operations.

I have no idea how things are going to be when we can reopen. Different focuses, change in customer bases. That is going to be the interesting part. Which customers don’t return. How lesser books do. What people view as important or unimportant. There could be major changes, we just don’t really know what they may be. I know we are going to need to do a ton of promotion when books do start sipping again. Reminding people what was going on in the books and why they want to come back and get them. We’ve had a big break in routine and we will need to work hard to get that going again.

The Facebook Live sales and Q&A thing is probably something we will be keeping. Also, our general social media posts involving video footage is something that resonates more with our customers so we will be doing that as well. We are having a online video book club in two weeks so I would be glad if we will find that it is something that we will be able to continue to do as well.

We have certainly been more efficient with mail orders and have a good system, this will definitely carry forward. Our use of social media has definitely been stronger.

  1. Editor’s note: I think this is a wrestling joke.