What’s Next Might Almost Be Here

If 2020 was a year of chaos for the direct market, a new order could come from it. We might be starting to understand what that could look like.

Petyr Baelish, the Game of Thrones character most know as Littlefinger, once famously said that “chaos is a ladder.” While he was referring to the state of Westerosi politics at the time – and was probably thinking more along the lines of “how can I manipulate and kill people in this situation to work it to my advantage?” – that premise rings true in most situations. Chaos creates opportunity, even if it isn’t the usual prospects most would consider. It’s a breeding ground for change, which often can be equal parts productive and terrifying. 1

There are few years that are a better blend of that than 2020. It was fundamentally a year of chaos for basically everyone and everything. That’s what happens when a pandemic comes out of nowhere and ravages the world and industries that reside within it. The comic industry, as exhaustively covered here, was no different than any of its peers. Whether you’re talking creators or publishers, the direct or book markets, 2020 was an unstable, unpredictable year.

It’s 2021 now, and while the pandemic is by no means over, we’ve had enough time that many within comics have been able to reestablish their footing. It’s still not perfect, or even ideal, but adjustments have been made to the way things are. Comic shops are a perfect example of this. While they’ve taken on many new tactics, 2 they’ve largely returned to some semblance of the status quo with the stabilization of distribution. Their model was not profoundly changed, even if there were notable adjustments. For comic shops, chaos wasn’t a ladder; it was a challenge to their way of life. And it was one they survived, at least for now.

Curiously, their main partners in the direct market might be on a different wavelength. That’s not to say the direct market publishers weren’t looking to do everything they could to help shops survive, of course. More publishers leveraged returnability in 2020 than ever before, as that tactic helped reduce risk in a time shops were overdosing on it, and every house – even Marvel! – dialed their release lists back to go with an all killer, no filler vibe. It all helped.

But amidst all of this turmoil and that good-natured collaboration, it’s possible that some direct market publishers – particularly DC with its mad science approach to the year – have started to reframe their approach around a new line of thinking. New tactics, new formats, 3 and new platforms are what 2021 is starting off with, albeit in a blending with the old. We’re seeing it happen right in front of us. Change is afoot in comics.

The real question isn’t whether it’s happening, but if the chaos of 2020 could be a ladder for new ideas, possibly resulting in order of a different sort for comic publishers, both this year and beyond. Like many new ploys before, 4 these could be short-term fads. Or they could be systemic adjustments to the way things are done.

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  1. Particularly if you’re in Littlefinger’s crosshairs.

  2. Like delivery, a heavier focus on mail-order, curbside pickup, Facebook Live sales, online stores, etc. If you’re interested in more the subject, this was covered in far more depth in my recent retailer year in review feature.

  3. Or at least “new” on a broader scale.

  4. Shouts to polybagged comics and augmented reality in the pages themselves!