“I See Good Things Coming”: On Comics Retail’s Craziest Year Ever

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, there was increasing concern over what it could mean for the future of the direct market. 4 It’s easy to see why. With cities deploying shelter-in-place orders, ordinary citizens staying at home and shopping less, and substantial in-industry changes like Diamond Comic Distributors putting a pause on comic distribution for two months, it was difficult for some to not to look at it all and think, “Maybe this is the end.” There’s always a doom and gloom vibe to the direct market side of things, but during a time that paired a pandemic with an economic crisis? Forget about it.

And yet, despite all of that, when I reached out to a bevy of comic shops for their perspective on the year that was, it wasn’t all that different from years past. Don’t get me wrong, the details differed. But the blend of performances and even the range they lived in hewed reasonably close to years past. Some were up and some were down, with a fairly ordinary divide between those two poles. Of the nine shops I spoke to, six were down from 2019 5 and three were up, with the low being a 25% drop and the high being a 20% increase. Given the environment they were contending with, it’s honestly incredible, as John Hendrick from Dublin’s Big Bang Comics suggested.

“If you had have told me (that we’d be down 5% on the year) back in April or May I’d have laughed at you and called you insane,” Hendrick said.

When you consider that of the shops I spoke to, each and every one of them was closed to customers for as little as one and a half months and as much as ten – that’s Oakland’s Cape and Cowl Comics, who still has yet to reopen to in-store foot traffic – and that many were on reduced hours when they returned, it really is bonkers. Even more wild was something Pittsburgh Comics’ Colin McMahon shared. He said his percentage decrease on the year was the exact percentage of the year his shop was closed, which he accurately described as “eerie.” So, for some, those closures represented a huge chunk of lost revenue from the year.

Add it all up, and you could say that despite the trials and tribulations of the year, the direct market dodged a bullet. 6 It could have – or even should have – been much worse, even if it was still a painful, stressful year that was way more work than these tireless mavens of comic books are used to.

Once you consider all of that, the question becomes, “What helped these comic shops survive?” The short answer is “a whole lot of things.” The long one is much more complicated. That’s why in this week’s feature, we’ll be looking at the good, the bad, and the hopeful from 2020 in comics retail, arguably the most insane year in the history of the direct market.

And that is saying something.

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  1. Or the comic shop side of the broader comics industry.

  2. Including one that was fractionally down and another that was solidly up before another lockdown late in the year.

  3. If you really want to stay on-brand, you could say that Kate Pryde phased it through the comic shops of the world, but that’s too much work.

  4. Or the comic shop side of the broader comics industry.

  5. Including one that was fractionally down and another that was solidly up before another lockdown late in the year.

  6. If you really want to stay on-brand, you could say that Kate Pryde phased it through the comic shops of the world, but that’s too much work.