The Rise of the Middle

Two years ago, publishers in the middle of the direct market were at a crossroads. Now, they’re thriving.

Comics were in a weird spot as the calendar turned to 2020. Sales were fine or better in the direct and book markets, but there was a pervasive nervousness in the air, as if everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Things weren’t bad, per se. The path forward just lacked clarity. If everyone made chose the wrong direction, it could be a dark turn.

In an effort to examine that moment in time, I published a feature that explored the state of comics through the prism of the direct market publishers in the middle. The reason for this focus was simple. Much of that conversation orients on the names at the top — namely, Marvel, DC, and Image 17 — and with the industry in a particularly wayward moment, it seemed like a worthwhile exercise to get insight from those less insulated from change.

While many potential directions were considered in this piece, no one could have guessed our actual future: the pandemic. This event not only changed the world forever, it effectively rendered that feature useless immediately, as Diamond Comic Distributors closed for nearly two months, comic shops shut down to in-store customers, and, shortly thereafter, interest in comics…exploded?

The stretch since the direct market reopened after the pandemic shutdown has been staggering. 2021 was a banner year in particular, with comic shops seeing solid lift compared to pre-pandemic years and the book market putting up video game numbers, leaving previous records in its dust. While manga and all-ages comics led the way in bookstores – and in comic shops in regards to the former – the story of the direct market’s rise featured the previous middle of the pack as a co-lead, with comic shops reporting gains on that side and orders skyrocketing for an assortment of publishers outside the Big Two of Marvel and DC.

Met by expectations of doom and gloom, the direct market has gone the other direction. Pair that with massive changes in the distribution space — as we went from one core distributor in the direct market to three — and unexpected wrinkles like the supply chain breaking, and you have the perfect recipe for one of the most disruptive periods in the history of comics.

Given all that turmoil, it felt like time to get a feel for how that shift has affected those publishers in the middle. That’s what we’ll be exploring today, with insight from each of the original five from my 2020 feature. Publisher representatives include Ahoy Comics’ Editor-in-Chief Tom Peyer and Head of Operations Stuart Moore, BOOM! Studios President of Publishing & Marketing Filip Sablik, Oni Press/Lion Forge’s Publisher James Lucas Jones, TKO Studios’ co-founder and President Tze Chun, and Vault Comics’ CEO and Publisher Damian Wassel, with each of these fine folks helping us better understand the state of things, now that we have two years separating us from that original feature.

Much of this piece will be positive, as it’s a high time for performance in comics. But before we dive into that, it’s important to mention that these publishers have been operating during an unprecedented time of stress, health concerns, and societal issues, to say nothing of what the comics industry or the broader mechanisms of commerce were facing. This has led to substantial costs, both on the business side and the human one, as plans shifted and worry mounted.

These publishers persevered, at least in part because they had to, even if they each felt the impact. Jones shared that Oni’s strategies were “waylaid” by the pandemic, its recent merger, and assorted complications. Wassel emphasized that it was an “almost impossibly challenging time from a logistical, operational, and human perspective,” one that was only survived thanks to Vault’s team and the creators they work with. 18 Others reported similar trials and tribulations. But perhaps no one has been more immersed in all of it than Chun and his team at TKO, if only for one reason: it’s been the status quo for almost their entire existence. They launched and 13 months later, “everybody locked down.”

“To some degree, that’s kind of our normal,” Chun told me.

Whether it was effectively their status quo or not, publishers have done an astonishing job of managing all this turmoil. Simply making it through as a functional company filled with functional humans would have been considered a win through the prism of March 2020. But instead of the downfall of comics, it’s been a boon, with rising sales and new readers in both the book and direct markets. And there’s perhaps no better place to see that changing fortune than the middle of the publisher hierarchy, 19 a domain that just two years ago generated mixed feelings. Where once midsize publishers were “battling at a disadvantage in both markets,” as Jones shared then, now, they’re finding space and enthusiasm that simply wasn’t there before.

“There’s more room to grow as an independent publisher than there has been in at least a decade,” said Wassel.

“There are indications that we as an industry not only weathered the initial impact of the pandemic, but that we’re actually thriving during the ongoing pandemic” added Sablik. “From what I could tell virtually every publisher grew in some fashion.”

We’re all busy and exhausted and scared and a million different things at once, so it can be easy to forget to celebrate wins when we find them. As Sablik emphasized, “One of the things that maybe we don’t appreciate is what a not insignificant miracle” it is that instead of the demise of comics, the industry is finding new high points. That was an unlikely result. And yet, here we are.

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