One day the clouds will part and the world will shift back into focus.
At least, that’s the ultimate hope as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the worst such outbreaks in over a generation. Hopefully all of us can do our parts (maintain social distancing, assist others as needed, avoid those baser urges to hoard toiletries, etc.), and from that find some semblance of normalcy again.
Yet we can’t deny that things will be forever changed after this madness, in many splendid and not-so-splendid ways. For one, it’s more clear than ever before that American healthcare needs a massive overhaul, and our corporate structures are embarrassingly behind the rest of the world in fully supporting employees. Not even pop culture is safe, and every comic fan, creator, and business type is aware of the massive shift this pandemic will have on how we sell and market comics from here on out.
It’s hard to tell just what these exact changes might be, but there’s a few key lessons to be learned. These insights will help us not only recover but find a way to streamline and enhance this massively important ecosystem. Understanding the larger issues and dynamics, and applying those lessons to the future, will make whatever inconveniences and trials we face now seem worth it in the long run. Plus, we’ve all got ample time to think long and hard about some truly heady issues.
For more near-term solutions, our own David Brooke assembled some really essential tips.
Hard Times On Demand
Like so many other industries, it didn’t take very long for comics to feel the squeeze. Within a couple days of nationwide quarantines and shelter in place orders, retailers everywhere were struggling to find ways to maintain the flow of business while shuttering storefronts. It’s essential to understand just how sensitive the comics industry really is, and this pandemic has demonstrated that just a minor downturn can have even massive consequences for comics shops and retailers of all sizes. As a pre-order-heavy business, and one with plenty of specific deadlines and cut-off dates, comics basically operates in a week-by-week basis, and here every little thing counts.
This awareness means that steps must be taken to maintain a certain level of momentum. Right now, people are focused on the most basic services, and keeping up their regular purchasing schedule however possible. But that’s only a stop-gap, and this event has been a powerful lesson for what we have to do next. Not only future delays by disease or other disaster, but what we do to keep up the pace of daily business required for a happy and prosperous industry. By that, I mean emphasizing a more regular and efficient way to sell and buy comics, one that is prepared for downturns but also works in a way to make the most out of the order-centric deadlines and systems already in place. Retailers and consumers now are beholden to a slightly antiquated system, and one that might not be the most effective for our modern times. Our world doesn’t do deadlines the way it did before, and that’s got to be something we mull over in the weeks and months to come.
Understanding the weakness and inherent structure of comics is crucial to not only proper business but fully engaging stakeholders alike. A shared savvy by all parties means we fill these holes and conduct business geared toward making the most out of everyone’s efforts.
The Power Of Digital
One of the more intriguing issues to come from this mid-COVID shift in the market is just how many stores don’t do online orders. Luckily, orgs like CBLDF/ComicHub offered free assistance to shops without an online presence, of which there’s not an insignificant amount. But the fact of the matter is these stores are years out of touch; in a world where you can order spaghetti sauce at 11 a.m. and have it at your door by 3 p.m., there’s no reason comic shops should still be operating circa 2012. Especially because, as this excellent Guardian story from last April points out, online retail is effectively the future of comics, whether shop owners often like it or not.
I understand the prerequisite technology and related functions can be costly, and that some shops don’t have the time, space, or resources to adjust accordingly. Yet to ignore the resources available, and to feign some disinterest in keeping pace with the marketplace as it was, is partially why things become so dire so quickly. Even if we love comics and think of them as this purely wholesome physical artifact, we no longer live in a world where people solely buy comics at a shop down the road. The digital solution has opened up collecting to all sorts of populations, including those with diminished access.
Shops who don’t already have some digital system in place are shooting themselves in the foot every single week, and the problem only gets worse as we face more delays and disturbances, no matter the size and scope. Digital purchases are a real thing, and the more that’s denied, the more these shops do to close their doors for good.
More On The Digital Landscape
Hold up, I’m not off the digital horse just yet. The last few years has seen a real reckoning when it comes to digital comics, and it’s clear they’re a massive part of modern sales, even as some people still see them as the devil incarnate. When we can’t access our physical books, though, digital looks like a dream to even the most ardent critic. On the one hand, further digital access (not only in sales but in rentals — which is basically ComiXology) is a solid way to boost access to various groups and open up the audience to new sections of consumers.
At the same time, though, it’s evident that digital is a massive resource. As some publishers take steps to cancel second runs or push books back in the face of the virus, digital comics remain mostly untouched. Does that mean we go exclusively digital? Heck no — people love real and actual comics. What it does mean, however, is that digital remains a thing and we must look at it as not some secondary or support market but a major part of the comics market. It’s digital that remains eternal, and that kind of staying power means we should take continued steps to further remove any novelty attached. To only consider digital as a saving grace during downturns would also be a bad idea, and we’ve got to see it for the source of steady income and larger presence that it represents.
Digital comics aren’t inherently better, or even the industry’s singular future, but they hold a power that the industry needs as it places accessibility and openness as central operating pillars. They’re a tool for jump-starting an industry fearful of change.
Creators Leading The Charge
Perhaps one of the most heartening things to emerge from this crisis is the dedication of creators, fans, and journalists alike, though especially among the actual artists and writers. Everyone has taken steps to help get comics into people’s hands, be it via free digital downloads or making lists of curbside service. (Writer Leah Williams deserves ample credit for her dedication to uniting people with resources and info.) There’s a tendency in many artistic pursuits to either focus less on marketing (because creators are socially inept or just wholly disinterested) or just do a bad job with it in general. These folks maintain so much power and influence, and it’s evident that they’re a vital part of how people connect the human side to the actual business (be it across comics, film, or music).
Even when we’re not in a time of massive downturn, they need to keep up this dedication to going beyond the act of mere creation. They must (with some regularity) remind people of what’s at stake, to help shops connect with resources and people in general, and to act as agents for a business they love and support. It goes beyond retweets and talking about FOCs; creators are the driving force of business in an industry where most people would rather be reading books and drinking chocolate milkshakes. I used to write professionally about music, and many bands did a great job of understanding sales and how that impacts their ability to record and perform. A certain savviness, combined with an ability to use that in the public sphere and plot out their respective careers, gives creators much-needed power.
Having the writers and artists right out front, providing a face and connecting people, is the way we sell books for all the right reasons. Bravery in the face of tragedy is one thing, but it’s vital creators maintain this work as the industry tries to rebuild for the future.
A Flaw In The Diamond
Across industries (comics certainly included), there was this persistent desire to hold out as long as possible, for owners and employees to keep the lights on despite the ever-growing odds. For Diamond Comic Distributors, that moment finally came yesterday (Monday, March 23), when the company announced it would no longer accept new comic shipments. As far as bad news is concerned, ComicBook.com summed it up best when they said, “Diamond controls such a significant portion of the direct market that the system cannot function as is without the distributor.” While it remains to be seen the exact extent of this development (despite a keen awareness that it’s nearing the apocalyptic), it’s worth noting that Diamond will instead keep pushing out its remaining warehouse stock.
Since we’re considering the future here, the upside is there will be a time when Diamond returns to regular form, and the industry can get back to the business at hand. But should they? Is there a need for Diamonds re-assume the status quo, or does a recovery mean a shift in practices? Diamond is something of an outlier, and other industries (namely music) rely on a series of distribution partners of varying sizes. Diamond’s status may streamline a lot of the industry and mitigate some operational issues, but their closure also means the entire industry shuts down to a substantial degree. When things normalize, should we have more such distributors, maybe even a series of them, to spread out the power more uniformly. Will having a handful of larger names even help during crises, or even make for a more sturdy business model overall? At the same time, all this raises new questions and concerns, and competition isn’t always the best thing for business (even if Diamond’s perceived “monopoly” makes some people rightly uneasy).
There’s just as many pros (more distributors gives power to retailers and consumers) as there are cons (a shift in the system could be painfully slow or nigh impossible). A substantial conversation needs to take place at some time, and if we don’t make the room, we’re doing a massive disservice to retailers and fans alike.
Humanizing The Publishers
It’s not just great creators doing their best to put on a good face and get books in the hands of consumers. The last few days, it’s been really great to see how some of the larger publishers have reacted. Image Comics, especially, did something wonderful by stepping up and extending their returns policies, going above and beyond for their retail partners to spread the misery and plan for a return to business. That’s not only smart from a professional perspective, tying together the many sectors within comics, but it’s a good bit of press, and more of that now is always a plus. I think there’s a real tendency to either ignore or deemphasize publishers, to see them only as the faceless things that gives us new Batman books once a month. It’s encouraging to see them work in the industry and to take steps to help it survive.
It sort of reminds me of great indie rock labels, like Merge or Burger Records. Sure, people are buying their albums because they love the actual artists. But so many folks also understand how these labels do business, and the sort of presence they foster within the industry, and just as many fans follow the labels on their respective paths. I do see plenty of that loyalty in comics, but more publishers can do far more to maintain transparency and give the fans something to care about beyond demanding weekly books.
As part of this, some publishers have done a rather lackluster job of responding to COVID. (Some pointed toward DC for delayed or poorly-handed communications). Does that mean they’re not helping, or we shouldn’t support them? No. It does, however, show the value of engagement and communication, and why having a face in the world, especially in times of trouble, can go a long ways in helping publishers.
Power To The People
Fans of any industry can be deeply fickle. Boring products or a disinterest in creators happens across all media. However, people forget that they have so much power in these relationships, and our money and time is often the thing that can reshape individual businesses as well as the industry as a whole. When it comes to COVID, lots of fans have been voting with their money, taking steps to support groups they see fit at a time when they need it most. Some folks still get their pull list despite not having the books yet, and that’s huge.
Generally speaking, I think comics are better to their fans then some industries — the music industry, and the accompanying live music sector, have a history of overcharging fans and creating structures where the average person doesn’t feel empowered. This pandemic has shown people the larger share of power they have, and the industry has responded with some resounding recognition of how much spending (even at pre-disaster levels) means for their bottom line going forward. Fans would be wise to always keep that in mind. Not to keep comics creators and publishers and retailers hostage, but to recognize the authority they have to keep this system as fair and equitable as possible.
No industry can survive without its mass of consumers, and their criticisms and praise should absolutely shape how the business regulates itself. We all need each other, sure, and we do this for a love of art and creativity. Just never forget this is a business and fans have just as much of a right to protect their interests as any artist or publisher.
There’s lots of things I’d change about modern comics. For instance, I’d do away with most trailers because they’re pointless rubbish. Or, I’d put a greater emphasis on more dollar comics to draw in diverse new fans. The point isn’t to just look at things that are inherently bad, or to re-evaluate only in times for crisis. This entire ordeal has shown us the most important lesson of all: a continuously critical eye on comics is the singular way forward. We need to be OK with having hard conversations and fielding tough decisions. Not because we hate the thing, or are simply complaining for the sake of it, but because we all have the industry’s best interests at heart. (Mostly.)
It’s when we think systemically and in the longest terms possible that real, meaningful change takes place. More than that, it’s how we all get what we need the most: community, inspiration, and a little dash of magic in a dark and brutal world.