“Breaking Records”: On Comics Retail’s Insane Year

You might think that for pandemic reasons, comic shops are struggling. That's mostly not the case, it turns out.

The world of comics retail is one I’ve eagerly engaged with since I started writing and podcasting. Part of that interest amounts to personal research, 15 and part of it is simply because I love comic shops. In some ways, I grew up in stores like the ones I talk to. The one here in Anchorage, Alaska has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and every time my family took a vacation, my parents would go out of their way to take me to shops. It was a big part of what made me the comic fan I was. That passion carried into adulthood, which I share with retailers. After all: they truly love what they do.

But if I’ve learned anything during my time chatting with shops, it’s that this love comes with a healthy balance of frustration built from the reality of what they do. While the vision some have of comic retailers is a person sitting around reading comics in-between customers, the truth is it’s more often about constant work, long hours, unreliable distributors, unpredictable customers, partners who don’t necessarily have mutually assured success on their mind, and very, very little actual comic reading.

Maybe that’s why they’re not always the most enthusiastic bunch when I talk to them. Even when met with success, it can feel like they’re worrying about what might be next, with their triumphs carrying a healthy amount of realism that can border on pessimism. Don’t get me wrong: they still love what they do! But years in the field has led them to have a certain amount of skepticism about their work.

That’s why my recent conversations with them have been so extraordinary. In the face of great turmoil in the industry and an ongoing pandemic, the comic shops I spoke to aren’t just excited, 16 they’re blown away by a year unlike anything they could have imagined or expected.

“Business is up across the board,” Ralph DiBernardo of Rochester, New Hampshire’s Jetpack Comics told me. “Not only from 2020 but from 2019 and previous years.”

“I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to pre-pandemic ordering,” Jen King of Space Cadets Collection Collection in Oak Ridge North, Texas added. “Or at least I hope not, since we actually added numbers instead of lowered them.”

That’s the incredible thing about the surge the comic retailers I spoke to are seeing. For many, performance isn’t just up over 2020, a pandemic year that found many of them closed for extended periods and release lists depleted at the same time. It’s up from 2019 and beyond, with little indication of slowing.

“2021 has continued monthly sales higher than we’ve ever had before,” Ryan Higgins of Sunnyvale, California’s Comics Conspiracy said. “With things more or less ‘normal’ again, I thought sales might drop once people start going out to dinner and taking vacations, but it hasn’t affected anything, our sales across the board with every company and format of comics are breaking records.”

Now, that trio of shops is not representative of every comic shop. But that level of unbridled enthusiasm is rare in the direct market, and certainly worth examining. That’s exactly what we’re going to do today, as we check in with comics retailers from around the globe to see what’s working, what isn’t, and how things are looking as we pass the midway point for 2021.

While those three retailers can only speak to the boom they’re seeing in their shops, they are not alone in their success. The majority of shops I spoke to for this piece are up in 2021, sometimes considerably, and often in comparison to pre-pandemic times. And sure, it might be true that I tend to lean on retailers who have proven more adaptable to this new world order, each shop I spoke to has different enough focuses and markets that it still underlines how broad this potent period in the direct market’s history has been.

Consider Chicago’s Challengers Comics + Conversation for a moment. They had a tough 2020, closing their second store — which only opened towards the end of 2019 — in the face of the struggles the year brought to their doorstep. 2021 has been the opposite, with Challengers co-owner Patrick Brower telling me the shop is doing well enough that they locked into a new eight-year lease 17 at their store, putting them in a position where they’re “no longer wondering if we’re going to survive but instead looking ahead to what we want Challengers to be.” That’s a huge deal, especially on the heels of the uncertainty of the preceding year.

They weren’t the only ones making big decisions in regards to their space this year, with the health of the market inspiring many to make changes. Challengers was one of five shops I spoke to that was either locking in for the long haul on the real estate front or expanding their space. Oakland’s Cape and Cowl Comics is one of them, as owner Eitan Manhoff told me that his shop continuing to thrive — despite at no point being open during the pandemic for in-store customers before this past Sunday — resulted in a substantial expansion, with the size of the shop and its staff both doubling.

The newly reopened Cape and Cowl Comics

Higgins is also taking on more space, as Comics Conspiracy needs more room to manage collections they acquire and to keep up with the burgeoning mail-order side of the business. Brandon Schatz of Edmonton’s Variant Edition Graphic Novels and Comics 18 said they moved to an even busier location near their existing one, which is something they could do thanks to a year that has been “going amazingly well.” Growth isn’t something that is focused on when we discuss comics retail, as related news tends to zero in on closures. But it’s happening, and it’s often in effort to keep up with the demands of this current environment.

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  1. The cliché belief about comics journalists is they all want to be comic creators. I do not. I want to own my own comic shop. There’s a difference!

  2. Save for a couple examples who have very understandable reasons for the slowness they’re seeing, which we will get to.

  3. At a lower rate!

  4. Which he co-owns with Danica LeBlanc.

  5. The unique and unusually slim entertainment ecosystem because of the pandemic, the extended period we all went through where we couldn’t really go anywhere or spend any money, etc. etc.

  6. One other curious wrinkle shops noted, though: there has been a consolidation in the days and times regulars seem to shop, as single issue comic customers have flocked towards Wednesdays and Thursdays, often around open.

  7. Brower told me that Invincible “may be the best ‘bring people into comic shops for the source material’ instance (he’s) seen since Batman (’89).” That’s a hell of a thing.

  8. That’s especially the case if they’re written by James Tynion IV.

  9. Manhoff noted how frustrating it can be when speculator apps and YouTube shows label a random, late-run release as “hot,” as a quick sell-out often leads to regulars bowing out on the title. I know that feel.

  10. I’ve heard a mix of paper shortages and the usage of plastic for PPE has driven the latter issue. Whatever is causing it, it’s a problem, as King told me that prices on bags and boards have doubled, “if you can find someone with stock at all.”

  11. Returnability is a super valuable tool, but it still requires shops to pay up-front, with shops only getting money back for returns down the line. For businesses with razor-thin margins like comic shops, that can be difficult to do.

  12. That’s DiBernardo, who told me he’s going to order from both as a test.

  13. As Batista said to me, “Wait, there was a time when comics retail wasn’t weird? WHEN?!”

  14. To all manga publishers: please print more copies of everything. The retailers! They beg you!

  15. The cliché belief about comics journalists is they all want to be comic creators. I do not. I want to own my own comic shop. There’s a difference!

  16. Save for a couple examples who have very understandable reasons for the slowness they’re seeing, which we will get to.

  17. At a lower rate!

  18. Which he co-owns with Danica LeBlanc.