Good, Bad, A Bit of Both: A Look at the Year that Was for Comics Retail

When I walk into my local comic book shop on a Wednesday, it’s typically a bustling marketplace of curious shoppers and welcoming clerks. And why wouldn’t that be the case? It’s the most important day of the week for the medium: new comic book day. I have my routine when I go in. I say “hey” to my favorite employees, one of whom checks my pull and hands me my books, I walk the stands to see what I might have missed, and then I head to the sports card section to buy my comics and talk shop with my former boss. 11 It’s a constant in my life, something I’ve been doing almost religiously since my youth.

Based off the tenor of the conversation online, though, you’d think I would instead be greeted with the depressed purveyors of an archaic, derelict product. Literal tumbleweeds would cross my path as I acquire my comics for the week, with the ghosts of Wednesdays past more likely to haunt the grounds than other customers. That’s dramatic, but the conversation around the state of comic shops can often be a dour one, with certain corners seemingly lusting over opportunities to downplay the feasibility of that business model.

The reality of the situation is naturally different than the online discourse. And yet, the dialogue can lead to outbreaks of doom and gloom where otherwise reasonable people might wonder, “wait..are comic shops in trouble after all?” And unfortunately, that question is rarely interrogated with any real vigor.

But what is the answer really? Is it actually a time of doom and gloom for the direct market? The easy answer is “not really,” as we know orders for comics and graphic novels were actually up in 2019. 12 That’s just sales to comic shops, though, and naturally, one has to wonder whether or not the stores themselves saw similar gains. That’s what we’re going to be analyzing today, as we continue my exploration of the direct market 13 by exploring the year that was from the perspective of comic shops.

No one has a better idea of what’s working and what isn’t than the retailers themselves, and we’ll be diving deep into the state of things with insight from shops from around the globe. Naturally, with around 4,000 total accounts with Diamond Comic Distributors and 2,500 actual brick-and-mortar comic shops, this will only represent a small cross-section of where things are for comics retail. But it will give us a glance at the micro side of the industry, which is important in an industry that’s endlessly obsessed with the macro.


When exploring the direct market, it’s crucial to remember that just because the broader trends of the industry suggest one thing doesn’t mean you’re going to see that in the shops themselves. Comic shops are reflective of their owners, which means that they run the gamut in terms of product mixes, what they emphasize, how they approach sales, and all kinds of other things, not the least of which is performance. Orders in dollars being up by 2% industry wide is not going to lead to a uniform answer of “sales must have also been up by 2% for shops.” 14 Not even close, actually.

The shops I spoke to for this exemplify that perfectly, as 2019 ranged from up dramatically for some stores and down a decent chunk for others. Success can be for a variety of reasons, as Third Eye Comics in Virginia and Maryland saw a nice uptick in 2019 thanks to strong years from Marvel, BOOM! and Vault, per its owner Steve Anderson, and Bruno Batista of Dublin’s Big Bang Comics even noted the more comics positive vibe they saw from customers during a very solid year in-store. But the same can be true when it comes to what appear to be down years, as context is key for ups or downs.

A view of Third Eye Comics in Annapolis, Maryland, from Third Eye’s site

“By the numbers, we had a bit of a contraction: down about 9% from 2018,” Katie Proctor, the owner of Books with Pictures in Portland, shared. “But in a bigger sense, we are hugely better positioned for the future: we moved (supported by a Kickstarter campaign) into a building that I was able to buy (with the help of some amazing investors) and so are no longer going to be burdened by annual 10% rent increases. We have a beautiful space in a historic bookstore building just a couple of blocks from our original location, and with substantially better frontage.”

“I am attributing our net decrease to the work of the transition: we were only closed for a week but, more broadly, my attention was on remodeling and business wrangling for the better part of the year,” Proctor added. “I’m excited to start 2020 with a better footing, better focus, and a community who have my back.”

In Proctor’s case, a down year was prelude to better opportunities. That may be the case for W. Dal Bush of Chicago’s Challengers Comics + Conversation as well, although that shop is coming off a year he described as flat 15 despite “absolutely catastrophic” months in April and June. Bush and his partner Patrick Brower opened a second Challengers location this year, a decision made because they found that one store cannot support two salaried employees while providing a viable pathway to retirement for either of them. While it was only open for a month, this second location had a “weird” start, with limited visits from weekly comic buyers so far. Opening a new store can lead to significant time being put in and costs being paid out, and that’s important to consider when thinking of the year that was for the Eisner-winning shop. A stronger year could be on the docket if this second store connects with comic fans.

A look inside the new Challengers Comics + Conversation store, aka Blue

Jen King of Space Cadets Collection Collection in Oak Ridge North, Texas transformed her business model entirely this year, an idea that would be too risky for some. She saw impressive growth because of it. Her in-store sales slowed but she saw massive gains thanks to the Comic Book Shopping Network, her new collaboration with former retailer Jesse James Criscione. The biggest growth in her business came from Facebook Live, of all places, as King now sells comics both new and old through a quartet of shows throughout the week. It’s become a “robust new selling platform” for the veteran retailer, and something that has dramatically expanded her reach and revenue.

Due to this shift in focus, King tweaked her brick-and-mortar space in 2019 as well, with these changes leading to considerable gains. King converted Space Cadets into “a boutique-style layout, where most large independent publishers got front facing displays on the walls and all of their single issues in file drawers below, so all of their product is together and easy to find.”

While that may not seem like a significant change to some, a layout with an eye for merchandising and improved visibility of product can make a world of difference, as King discovered herself.

“The forward facing (inventory) alone has in some cases tripled sales on those lines,” she said.

Of course, sometimes potential cons to a year don’t come with pros, necessarily. Jacob Sareli of Tel Aviv’s Comikaza had to close his second, smaller location, as he started feeling the burn from Amazon’s push in his market and wanted to focus on his main store. Colin McMahon of Pittsburgh Comics had a slightly down year, reporting a year of extreme month-to-month fluctuation. Some months were up, but his usual second-best month of the year – December – nosedived to a seventh place finish for him. Others noticed similar unpredictability, as well.

But for the most part it was a solid year overall for the shops I spoke to, and one thing they regularly overlapped on was what led the way for all of them. Those answers were shockingly consistent, and the clubhouse leader should surprise no one: the ascendant X-Men line, as powered by writer Jonathan Hickman.

House of X and Powers of X were undeniably the most powerful offering of 2019,” Jermaine Exum of Greensboro, North Carolina’s Acme Comics said.

Exum’s shop has been in business for 37 years, with him in the mix since 1996, and he revealed that these titles weren’t just the biggest titles for the year, but in recent memory. Even with decades of experience, Exum saw a level of success with this X-Men relaunch that few titles could match. It was thanks to a bold move related to his shop’s belief in the project and awareness of how Marvel approaches efforts like this.

“I knew that even on a project like this, Marvel would likely allow first printings to sell out, possibly before the first copies hit the shelves, and would announce second printings as being necessary,” Exum said. “We wanted to only have first printing copies available for the duration of House and Powers. If we couldn’t support Hickman-led X-Men with art by Larraz and Silva, then what could we support? What could the industry produce that we could sell with confidence if not this?”

“So we debated a purchase number unlike any we had done in many, many years that we would have to keep consistent across the twelve weekly issues. The total number across the variety of covers available for each of the twelve issues was very high, but we committed, and it paid off,” Exum added. “Not only did our regular clientele and lapsed readers (buy in) – including some DC exclusive readers who purchase the series – we drew in customers from other parts of North Carolina and even Virginia. We were able to cultivate mail orders from various parts of the country and Canada, some of which have turned into ongoing mail order customers.

“This was a critical factor in the success we found in 2019. We took the data we knew about how Marvel published, what Jonathan Hickman redefining the X-Men brand in a long-term way could mean, and we planned to become a reliable vendor of the product.”

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  1. I worked there in my teenage years…in the sports cards section!

  2. Dollars were up and units were slightly down, which, yes, indicates that cover price was driving the lift to a degree. But hey, up is up.

  3. This previously started with a feature examining how the publishers in the middle are handling the current state.

  4. Especially because that 2% number means a 2% increase in dollars spent by shops, not in dollars spent at shops, which is a crucial difference.

  5. Worth noting: his co-owner Patrick Brower shared on this week’s Off Panel that it was the shop’s best year ever, so flat can mean multiple things.

  6. I worked there in my teenage years…in the sports cards section!

  7. Dollars were up and units were slightly down, which, yes, indicates that cover price was driving the lift to a degree. But hey, up is up.

  8. This previously started with a feature examining how the publishers in the middle are handling the current state.

  9. Especially because that 2% number means a 2% increase in dollars spent by shops, not in dollars spent at shops, which is a crucial difference.

  10. Worth noting: his co-owner Patrick Brower shared on this week’s Off Panel that it was the shop’s best year ever, so flat can mean multiple things.

  11. I worked there in my teenage years…in the sports cards section!

  12. Dollars were up and units were slightly down, which, yes, indicates that cover price was driving the lift to a degree. But hey, up is up.

  13. This previously started with a feature examining how the publishers in the middle are handling the current state.

  14. Especially because that 2% number means a 2% increase in dollars spent by shops, not in dollars spent at shops, which is a crucial difference.

  15. Worth noting: his co-owner Patrick Brower shared on this week’s Off Panel that it was the shop’s best year ever, so flat can mean multiple things.