“I Have Nothing but High Hopes”: Retailers on the Surprisingly, Quietly, Maybe Positive First Half for Comic Shops

Whenever the subject of the direct market’s health comes up, the conversation tends to focus on extremes. The moment is always an epic disaster or huge success, with little attention paid to anything in-between those poles. That makes for scintillating conversations and thinkpieces while inspiring a sea of YouTube videos that declare this point to be either the best or the worst, depending on where things are. But the reality is that the state of comics retail is rarely ever just one thing.

But why should that be a surprise? After all, the direct market is the side of the comics industry defined by a couple thousand unique and independent comic shops, each with a customer base that is equally singular. Comics retail isn’t a monolith, no matter how some may act. Lean times for one shop could be a bonanza for another, and everything in-between. It’s just the way it works.

2024 has been no different, at least amongst the shops I’ve been talking to. Everyone’s experiences have been wholly their own, with distinctive plusses and minuses in each store, even if there is overlap. But if there’s one unifying factor, it’s that most — not all, but most — are feeling a little better about where things are after a troubling year or two, and that was true whether the shop was up on the year or down.

“2024 has been great!” said Erik C. Jones, the manager of Winchester, Virginia’s Four Color Fantasies. “We’re signing up new subscribers every week, walk-ins are steady, both are trying new books and picking up trades. It’s a great time.”

“So far, we’re down 4.25% from the same point — January to May — in 2023, and 2023 was down just over 4% from 2022, so it looks like the attrition continues,” explained Patrick Brower, the co-owner of Chicago’s Challengers Comics + Conversation. “But I’ll tell you this…it doesn’t feel down.”

That last point is crucial, as it’s an underlying sentiment others shared. When Brower says, “it doesn’t feel down,” he means that the path to these results has been much more encouraging — especially with things trending upwards in recent months at Challengers after a slow start. In this mid-year check-in with comic shops, 19 the highs were a little higher and more frequent while the lows didn’t come with quite as much pain attached. And that’s a good thing.

That doesn’t mean that was the case for all comic shops. There have been high visibility closures this year, albeit ones often connected to economic and real estate concerns as much as anything comic related. On top of that, ComicsPRO’s 20 survey of the direct market from January revealed that many were still facing significant headwinds. There are undeniably challenges in this space. But after a perilous stretch, it was heartening to see the tides turning ever so slightly towards a more encouraging present for the shops I talked to, one that lacks some of the bad feelings retailers were carrying with them in recent check-ins. While outsiders may revel in the explosive highs and lows of the direct market’s post-pandemic era, I suspect many retailers could go for the more tranquil vibes these shops are exuding.

The easiest way to express how different this year has been so far is in how many shops were either comfortably up or effectively level with where they were the year before. More than half the retailers I talked to fit into one of those two camps — and sometimes with great enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm can be predictable. It’s what I expect from Steve Anderson of Maryland and Virginia’s comic shop chain Third Eye Comics. Anderson is the retailer equivalent of a ray of sunshine. He’s also incredibly successful, having been on a heater for as long as I’ve known him with new locations opening on the regular. He told me that 2024 has been a “great year,” with comics and graphic novels “all trending up.”

That’s how Anderson rolls, though. Not everyone has his circumstances. Jen King of Shenandoah, Texas’ Space Cadets Collection Collection certainly didn’t. She went into 2024 in a much more tenuous place. Her shop moved into a local retail center this year, something she hoped would make a difference after a difficult stretch. It was a calculated risk, and one that paid off, as Space Cadets “definitely feels like” it is moving in the right direction, per King. The new location has given the shop “a true Wednesday again” and a return to pre-pandemic numbers for its Saturdays. That’s been a boon for her store overall.

A look inside Tulsa’s Impulse Creations

Aaron Trites from San Diego’s Now or Never Comics and Dan Wallace from Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Impulse Creations were even more enthusiastic. The former is up 15% in sales year-to-date, with customers spending more “in almost every category,” while the latter has continued a “multi-year period of growth” with a 14% boost so far. They’re on the high end of results amongst shops I talked to.

Two retailers reported that they were level-ish so far. Bruno Batista from Dublin’s Big Bang Comics emphasized that they “are doing fine!”, while Christina Merkler from the online comics giants Discount Comic Book Service (DCBS) and InStockTrades saw flat sales in her single-issues focused business and an uptick in the trades and graphic novel-centric one. In a wildly unpredictable market, both will take it.

Only four have seen decreased sales so far. That was Challengers and California’s Current Comics, 21 Cape & Cowl Comics, 22 and Comics Conspiracy. 23 All three West Coast retailers largely echoed Brower’s “This is fine” attitude about the first half’s results, even if each offered their own flavor of it.

Current Comics’ Travis Pratt said his shops saw a dip, but with comics and graphic novels both up and the store gaining new subscribers of late, he’s feeling “excited for the rest of the year.” Eitan Manhoff of Cape & Cowl Comics was genuinely confused by his experiences. He’s down overall with comic sales rising by 10% and graphic novels falling by 20%, which is a bit anomalous relative to recent trends. Overall, though, enthusiasm seems to be there in the shop and things are trending in the right direction. Lastly, Ryan Higgins of Comics Conspiracy has seen a return to around 2019’s numbers, something he described as “sustainable,” although he admitted they “obviously miss those extra sales.”

The last shop wasn’t up, down, or even level on the year. That’s because it’s a new one altogether. It’s Chicago’s Goblin Market Manga, Games & Curiosities, the city’s “first dedicated manga store” per its co-owner Don Alsafi. 24 It opened in October 2023 with a “sideline in comics.” They zigged while everyone else zagged in their comic shop-heavy city, focusing on manga and a comics and graphic novels section that “is far more curated than expansive.” The only titles they stock on the shelves are “those that we particularly believe in,” per Alsafi, a move that makes sense given the plethora of comics in the market today. While it’s too soon to make any year-over-year comparisons, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the shop — and its formula seems to be working.

A look inside Chicago’s Goblin Market Manga, Comics & Curiosities

One commonality most shared was a reported uptick in foot traffic, with Wednesdays being particularly busy. Even Challengers, one of the shops that was down, has been roughly level on that front. Having customers is essential to making sales, and even those that aren’t converting as many as they’d like are getting plenty of opportunities to do so.

It isn’t all roses, of course. Big Bang saw a “noticeable” decline in active pull lists this year, as they currently have 15% fewer single-issue subscribers than last year according to Batista. But the disappearance of those regulars has largely been offset by “new customers ordering other things like manga and graphic novels,” which the retailer will happily take. That matches one of this check-in’s main themes: many of the negatives have positives balancing them out, at least to some degree.

While quantifiable metrics like sales and foot traffic are key, some qualitative aspects can be vital to understanding how things are going for these shops. Maybe the most important, and arguably most predictive, is customer sentiment. One of the consistent points I heard from retailers in previous editions of this feature was that there was a growing number of customers who were just going through the motions. They were buying, but they weren’t doing so with enthusiasm, which could have been a portend for even tougher times.

That isn’t as true as it was. Shops have seen increased excitement and optimism from customers. As Higgins said, “The vibes in the shop are directly the opposite of the vibes online.” There’s a positive energy in customer interactions after those feelings had waned of late. That’s not universally true, of course. Batista said that some customers have soured on the current slate of single-issue comics. But as Jones knows all too well, that’s just part of the endless cycle of being a comic fan.

“You’re always going to have the people who complain that comics are too expensive now and the stories aren’t as good as they used to be,” Jones said. “But those people complained about the same things when I worked here 24 years ago in high school.

“The majority of people who are reading comics read and love what they like.”

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  1. As per usual, this is more of a temperature check of how things are going for a selection of shops from around the direct market. It isn’t meant to be a definitive, representative look at how everyone is doing.

  2. A trade organization for comic retailers.

  3. They have two shops, with one being in Monterey and the other being in Salinas.

  4. Which is in Oakland.

  5. That’s in Sunnyvale.

  6. Alsafi co-owns it with two partners in Ryvre Hardrick and Daniel Dziubinski.

  7. As per usual, this is more of a temperature check of how things are going for a selection of shops from around the direct market. It isn’t meant to be a definitive, representative look at how everyone is doing.

  8. A trade organization for comic retailers.

  9. They have two shops, with one being in Monterey and the other being in Salinas.

  10. Which is in Oakland.

  11. That’s in Sunnyvale.

  12. Alsafi co-owns it with two partners in Ryvre Hardrick and Daniel Dziubinski.

  13. Trites said the upcoming TMNT series will debut as his shop’s “most ordered book in the last five years.”

  14. I’m keeping an eye on Saga’s digest editions as well.

  15. They ran a promotion that discounted the prelude issue, Absolute Power: Ground Zero, by three Euro to generate interest. It worked. They went from three pre-orders to 65 copies sold and a massive uptick in subscribing customers. That’s not a giant hit, but it’s a nice gain, and one they hope will pay dividends throughout the event.

  16. They’re going to deploy the same discounted cover price tactic they used on Absolute Power on this week’s X-Men #1.

  17. Which, in the shortest possible explanation, is designed to standardize publisher metadata that goes into point-of-sale systems to make everything as consistent and predictable as possible.

  18. Not everyone agrees with the idea that Tuesday releases were a bad idea. Wallace was a big fan of having a sales day just for DC.

  19. As per usual, this is more of a temperature check of how things are going for a selection of shops from around the direct market. It isn’t meant to be a definitive, representative look at how everyone is doing.

  20. A trade organization for comic retailers.

  21. They have two shops, with one being in Monterey and the other being in Salinas.

  22. Which is in Oakland.

  23. That’s in Sunnyvale.

  24. Alsafi co-owns it with two partners in Ryvre Hardrick and Daniel Dziubinski.