The Publisher Tiers: The Direct Market Pubs Ranked on How They’ve Responded to the Coronavirus Crisis

There’s no perfect way to handle a crisis situation in an any industry, even one that’s used to varying types of Crises and Wars like comics. The coronavirus pandemic is impacting society in an unprecedented way, and it’s affecting everything in the short, mid and long-term. That includes comics, where the direct market has effectively been shut down between cities and states being in lockdown and Diamond’s decision to no longer accept and distribute shipments of new comics. 9

That required a response from the publishers who serve the direct market, and now, a few weeks into COVID-19’s presence being felt in America, we’ve seen the response from what that looks like. Each direct market publisher has revealed their game plan for the near term. To the uninitiated, it could be difficult to tell the good plans from the…well, less good. That’s what I’m hoping to help with today in my own way.

To do that, I’m stealing a structure from the great Mike Sando over at The Athletic, who produces tiers each year to place each NFL quarterback into a level that reflects the belief in their quality of play and impact on the field. Instead of quarterbacks, it’s The Publisher Tiers, in which I will rank each direct market publisher’s response to this crisis into a different tier based off my own read of the situation and off feedback I’ve gotten from retailers and others during this process. Let’s be honest, though. This is less of an official ranking and more of a mechanic designed to deliver my perspective on the subject, so I might as well commit to the kayfabe in full. With that in mind, here is a quick breakdown of how each tier works.

  • Tier One: The actions of the publishers in this tier have inspired complete trust and belief, reflecting a solid plan for the foreseeable future.
  • Tier Two: These publishers have made good strides to show their support and care, but their plan is perhaps not as holistic as others so far or doesn’t have a huge impact for varying reasons.
  • Tier Three: They have a plan, but there’s a downside.
  • Tier Four: These publishers haven’t come through, leaving more questions than answers and great concern to those who are ordering from them. These publishers cannot make up their minds, and at this point, their approach is worthwhile or harmful depending on when you ask. 10

While each tier will have bleed over, the hope is to give some perspective on how this crisis is being handled within the direct market, especially by those who are key to ensuring there is something to come back to when this is all said and done. There’s a lot of conjecture out there, so I wanted to provide a little more perspective on the plans that make sense and those that don’t, while still giving some leeway for prognosticating.

There’s something I wanted to add before I move on to the tiers, though. When these things are discussed, there is one important consideration people often forget. We tend to look at it from either a “how does this affect retailers or the broader direct market?” or “how does this affect comics?” standpoint. But the decisions these publishers make do not exist in a vacuum. They will not just affect retailers and the comics they publish, but the creators they hire and the people they employ, amongst others.

Comics are an ecosystem, and it’s one that has tendrils that stretch in many directions. If a publisher stops releasing comics, that means less money comes in the door, which means less money to employ existing staff. There’s a cost to every decision, even ones that seem like they’re good on the surface. That will be considered in my rankings, even if it won’t be discussed to the same degree as other factors. It’s worth remembering by you as well, because there are legions of people behind these comics and characters we all love so much.

Two final notes: Each publisher is ordered in quality of response within each tier, with those with equal responses being grouped together. And this is all taken from the information available as of the final rewriting of this article on the morning of Monday, March 31st, so if something massive changes after this was published, please remember that. This is an incredibly fluid situation. Things are changing quickly.

Tier One

The actions of the publishers in this tier have inspired complete trust and belief, reflecting a solid plan for the foreseeable future.

For a slightly larger tier breakdown, I wanted to emphasize something about this one. The top four are almost a mini-tier within itself, as I personally elevated the final three publishers despite that group receiving a mix of ones and two. But at the same time, each of these publishers have offered comprehensive answers for retailers, a clear plan going forward, and flexibility depending on the fluid situation we find ourselves in.

Image Comics

What they’re offering: First to returnability, not releasing digitally before print, free #1s digitally, generally led the way

Being first to something does not always mean you’re the best. But in this case, it does give Image Comics a slight leg up on their peers. Image was first to returnability, offering it almost immediately for the first final order cutoff window and the rest of March, but then expanding it onwards as they moved along. They’ve publicly said that they won’t release new titles digitally before print comics can hit stores, a crucial concession in aligning the varying parties. They’ve relentlessly leveraged their social platforms and beyond to support comic shops, while advocating to other groups to support shops how they can. They’ve offered #1s free digitally for consumers, currying favor with that group at an important time. And from my conversations with varying people, they’ve been out there from day one asking everyone the most important question of them all: “How can we help?”

Were they the only one? No. But they were first, and when you pair that with Image’s Chief Creative Officer and Publisher Eric Stephenson publishing an open letter imploring other publishers to step up and support retailers, it’s clear they should get the top spot. Image has generated a lot of goodwill during this effort, establishing itself as a thought leader in a time desperate for one.

BOOM! Studios/Dark

What they’re offering: Returnability (BOOM!, Dark Horse, IDW), not releasing digitally before print, pushing comics back or reducing line

If Image was first to the game, this trio were next to a comprehensive plan to help shops make their way through this crisis. Each offered returnability, each has promised to not release digitally before print, and each is looking at pushing titles back or reducing their lines as well. That trio of ideas are the foundation of the playbook that retailers were looking for, and they’ve been on it for a bit now. They handled their business, and handled it well.

They’ve effectively matched each other, move for move. However, I will note that my conversations with others leaned towards BOOM! as the leader of the pack, as they’ve both publicly and privately shown support for retailers in an uncommon way. At the same time, given what they’ve each been doing, we’re basically splitting hairs here. We’re calling it a tie.

Archie Comics

What they’re offering: Returnability for March through May, not releasing digital before print (besides 4/1 releases and one title on 4/15), delaying releases (for the time being)

Hey, big ups to Archie! While others might have slept on their moves, I have to say, I’ve been impressed by how much Archie Comics have come through here. They’ve been bold in the longevity and aggressiveness of their vision. Returnability has already been announced for March through May! No digital before print, beyond a small selection of titles they have to do that one! Delayed releases for the near term! They might not be as significant as the publishers above them, but their playbook is nearly as robust without all of the accolades. I’m impressed. Good job by Team Archie!

Dynamite Entertainment/Oni

What they’re offering: Made comics returnable for the near future, Oni pausing digital until print is back up, Oni looking to strategically bump certain titles back

Dynamite and Oni tie because their main carrot is the same: they’re offering the same thing for retailers. Returnability is the most desired option from shops, and both of these publishers quickly flexed to offer that, particularly Dynamite, who proved to be rather aggressive in its focus on helping shops. Both houses have suggested they have significant interest in being as flexible as necessary to find the right answers, and we’ve already seen that as Oni told The Hollywood Reporter they’re not going to go digital first while print is unavailable. They’ve responded to the call, quickly and aggressively. The only difference between them and the other Tier One pubs is longevity of vision and a lack of clarity on how certain plans are being rolled out. But they’ve done what they needed to do.

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  1. And apparently to no longer pay vendors because of cash flow issues!

  2. The story changed the morning before this article went up, but I wanted to reflect where we started with the strikethrough.

  3. And apparently to no longer pay vendors because of cash flow issues!

  4. The story changed the morning before this article went up, but I wanted to reflect where we started with the strikethrough.

  5. Sometimes significantly!

  6. And who knows if it really is the time being at this point.

  7. Ordering from one distributor is already a slow process. Adding layers upon that makes it even more arduous, and that’s without even considering the learning curve any stand-in would have to match Diamond. You think Diamond is bad, wait until you see what someone who has never done it and is learning on the fly would be like!

  8. Good job by Rich Johnston for keeping on this.

  9. And apparently to no longer pay vendors because of cash flow issues!

  10. The story changed the morning before this article went up, but I wanted to reflect where we started with the strikethrough.