“Short Term Pain for Long Term Gain”: Looking at the Year So Far in Comics Retail

Back in January, I wrote about the state of comics retail, talking with a selection of comic shops about how 2019 was for them. Overall, their tone was hopeful, as those who were the worst off were finding ways to solve the problems they faced, while most were in solid shape. There was a new year ahead of them, and this crew saw potential. Opportunity. Hope. As Bruno Batista from Big Bang Comics told me, “Comics aren’t dead. Comics aren’t dying. But the direct market, as an industry, needs to keep learning and evolving.”

It was a perfect coda to the piece, a message about how everyone – creators, publishers, distributors, retailers – needs to keep growing to ensure a better future for the direct market.

The good news is, 2020 has brought ample opportunity for everyone to learn and evolve. Unfortunately, it’s due to dire circumstances, not out of hope of creating the next generation of comic fans. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the direct market – potentially forever – and asked each and every retailer to make a choice: adapt or die. To their immense credit, the vast majority have focused on the former, doing everything they can to make it through the unreal hardships this situation has brought to their doorsteps.

While we’ve covered the world of retail on a micro scale quite a bit this year, as this time of global change has been matched by industry specific shifts, I thought it was worth taking a holistic look at how everyone is holding up in the face of these challenges at the halfway point of 2020. The results are predictably all over the place, as not all six-month stretches were created equal, with each city, state and country having different lengths and severities to their shelter-in-place orders. Typically, shops I talk to are within some degree of separation of one another, but the spectrum here is broad and fortunes are fluid in a way I’ve never seen before. But it’s still worth a look. Even if there is a lack of consistency in experience, there’s plenty of value in what each of these people have to say.

That’s what we’re going to be looking at today, as we examine the story so far for comics retail in 2020, underlining how each shop has done in the face of unexpected challenges, what has been working (or not) for each of them, and how everything is shaping up as we head into the second half of the year.


While there are plenty of places we could start, we’ll begin with the same overarching topic I typically lead with: how they’re doing relative to the year before. While the first half of 2019 hardly lit the world on fire, at least they were able to be open in full then. Needless to say, 2020 has been a wildly different experience for that reason alone. Amongst the shops I spoke to, the majority of them have been open to walk-in customers somewhere between a third and half the year, even if all of them were still actively selling comics during their in-store closures via curbside pickup, delivery, mail order, and other avenues of sale. 9

While some like Eitan Manhoff’s Cape & Cowl Comics in Oakland, California have continued to be closed to customers – he has the ability to open, but Manhoff “made a super tough decision” to stick it out with curbside pickup and mail order 10 because of the immense growth of the virus in his area – the bulk of the shops I spoke to are now open to customers, albeit with limitations to how many customers are allowed in-store at a time.

Chicago’s Challengers Comics + Conversation

Because of how each region has differed in its approach to the pandemic, there was incredible variance in experiences shop-to-shop. Even with that in mind, some shops had pretty straightforward answers when I quizzed them on how their years have been. Big Bang Comics’ Bruno Batista simply described the year as “bad” despite high hopes for the year, while Patrick Brower of Challengers Comics + Conversation shared that his shop with partner W. Dal Bush was down “over $72,000 versus the first six months of 2019,” even resulting in the closure of the shop’s second location. 11 Brower added that even June – a month that came after the return of new comics and in-store customers – was down a few thousand dollars from the “catastrophically bad” June of 2019, which was their “worst June in over five years…until now.” Not ideal.

If that was the only version of the story, that would look rather grim – and it is still far less than ideal – but as I said, results were varied. Comikaza’s Jacob Sareli said his shop in Tel Aviv was down in June relative to 2019, but with single issues starting up again, he shared the month “exceeded our expectations.” Steve Anderson of Maryland/Virginia’s Third Eye Comics has “seen business return strongly,” post shutdown, while Ralph DiBernardo of Jetpack Comics in Rochester, New Hampshire is actually up on the year, albeit with a commensurate increase in expenses. Edmonton’s Variant Edition Comics has seen a decrease in revenue but an even more significant drop-off in spending, resulting in greater profits thanks to a more focused line of graphic novels and single issues, per its co-owner Brandon Schatz. 12

That’s a broad range, performance wise, but it gets even more complicated once you work the human factor in.

“In a lot of obvious ways 2020 has sucked so bad. We were completely closed for about three months, I had no employees, and the comics industry came to a screeching halt,” Manhoff said. “But despite that, I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt the love from our community like I did over those three months. The outpouring of support for the shop and the staff was completely overwhelming.

“I’m not a crier… unless people are unexpectedly super nice. So I definitely shed some tears this year.”

Manhoff said 2019 was his shop’s strongest year yet, and when you pair that with a pandemic year, he believes there’s no meaningful comparison to be made. It’s completely apples to oranges. And that’s a totally fair assertion. 2020 is the year where rulebooks have been rewritten, because nothing has followed any semblance of expected paths.

One thing I will note, though, is that if there is a silver lining of the pandemic, it’s that shops were fortunate the shutdown happened during the first half of the year. Historically, it’s considerably slower than the second. While there’s never a good time for pandemic related closures, you’d likely take the first half over the second if you were a comic shop, especially if you can get back up to speed before the ensuing half arrives.

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  1. Save for short periods where their respective regions employed more stringent shelter-in-place rules, of course.

  2. Including to Alaska, as I’ve made two orders from his shop!

  3. I should note that this wasn’t purely because of the pandemic, as Challengers just wasn’t connecting in its second location like it did with its first.

  4. That led to a great note from Schatz, where he said, “you know how BOOM! has been slimming down their line for a few years and telling folks that their sales have never been better as a result? Turns out, that’s what everyone should be doing.

  5. Save for short periods where their respective regions employed more stringent shelter-in-place rules, of course.

  6. Including to Alaska, as I’ve made two orders from his shop!

  7. I should note that this wasn’t purely because of the pandemic, as Challengers just wasn’t connecting in its second location like it did with its first.

  8. That led to a great note from Schatz, where he said, “you know how BOOM! has been slimming down their line for a few years and telling folks that their sales have never been better as a result? Turns out, that’s what everyone should be doing.

  9. Save for short periods where their respective regions employed more stringent shelter-in-place rules, of course.

  10. Including to Alaska, as I’ve made two orders from his shop!

  11. I should note that this wasn’t purely because of the pandemic, as Challengers just wasn’t connecting in its second location like it did with its first.

  12. That led to a great note from Schatz, where he said, “you know how BOOM! has been slimming down their line for a few years and telling folks that their sales have never been better as a result? Turns out, that’s what everyone should be doing.