The list of economic upheavals that Mike Richardson, publisher of Milwaukie, Oregon-based Dark Horse Comics and owner of the Things From Another World comic book store, has managed to overcome in his 30-plus years in business is harrowing.
The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest.
“There was ‘Black September’ and the crash of the black-and-white comics in the late ’80s, the speculator bust of the mid-’90s, the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, 9/11, and the Great Recession of 2008,” Richardson said. “We made it through those events, and though this is far more serious, we’ll make it through this one, too.”
The pandemic has many fearing for the future of the comic book, that beloved but increasingly anachronistic driver of modern pop culture. We live in one of that industry’s great hubs, with four of the top 20 publishers and a high density of creators, so what matters to the comics industry matters in the Pacific Northwest.
Now, shutdowns mandated in the wake of the virus have exposed, and exacerbated, just how fragile the comic book ecosystem is.
Gig-working creators are largely out of work and waiting for checks, while the very limited printing and distribution system handicaps publishers who compete for space like mushrooms in the shadows of the big two, Marvel and DC, which control about 80% of the industry.
And that doesn’t even count your local comic book stores, which have been shuttered and empty for weeks now with most employees laid off. While most stores appear set to reopen as restrictions are lifted, many fear a spiraling economy may eventually drag them down.
“Who knew that 2020 would be the year that the vinyl album and the classic American comic book would just kind of disappear,” mused Eric Reynolds, associate publisher at Seattle’s Fantagraphics Books.
While tongue-in-cheek, that’s an apt comparison. The vinyl album and the comic book share a lot of things in common, including their fragility. Both are delightfully nostalgic for folks of a certain age, largely aimed at a niche audience that has disposable income and require a network of enthusiastic small businesses whose owners are willing to surf the margin of profitability to enable their passions.
And both have been sidelined by the pandemic.
The comics industry effectively came to a halt during the shutdowns. Social distancing restrictions and stay-home orders kept stores from fully opening, and even those that offered online or call-in mail-order services had no new comics to sell, mostly only stock on hand.
That’s because North America’s two specialized comic book printers — both located in Canada — shuttered, as did the only major comics distributor, Diamond Comic Distributors, which handles about 75% of the comic books sold in the U.S. Already-printed comics got trapped in distribution warehouses, too.
Now, when shipments do start again — Diamond says it will start shipping orders May 20, and many of those previously waylaid orders will start flowing in, too — many shops will struggle to come up with the money to pay for orders. The industry has also been roiled by the actions of DC and Marvel, both of which said they would release some missed April titles on digital platforms only.
“We’re nervous no matter what,” said Chris Ureta Casos, manager of Seattle’s Comics Dungeon. “This industry is always on thin ice. And the Seattle market is a whole ‘nother problem because everything’s just so expensive here and because of [competition from] Amazon. So this is definitely increasing all those fears tenfold.”
Here’s a glance at how the pandemic is affecting some in the comics industry in the Pacific Northwest:
Stores doing more work for the same money
Earlier this month, with just two weeks to go until shipments began again, Casos was still waiting to hear from Diamond about how things will go. He was nervous and not optimistic that things would unsnarl quickly or logically.
He’s Comics Dungeon’s only employee at the moment. The rest of the small staff was laid off. While his store has seen some mail-order business, it’s hardly been worth it for what is normally a tactile, face-to-face business that relies heavily on customers being able to thumb through books.
Any business transactions during the pandemic have been costly and time-consuming. He echoes a mantra in the comics community that shop owners are now doing four times the work for the same dollar they earned prepandemic.
“While we are making money doing this, it’s a fraction of what we were making week to week previously while we had the new books because they are the blood flow of the store,” Casos said. “We just can’t overextend ourselves financially.”
Will creators get out en masse?
Gina Siciliano, one of the many PNW creators left in the lurch by the coronavirus, is supposed to be living her best life right now.
The Seattle author and artist of the well-received Fantagraphics graphic novel “I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi” published the passion project recently, just as there was renewed interest in the Italian renaissance painter with the heartbreaking story. In what seemed like an example of good karma, the seven years of effort she put into the drawings was going to be rewarded.
Siciliano participated in an exhibit of a Gentileschi painting at Seattle Art Museum last year and was scheduled to travel to London earlier this spring to view a National Gallery exhibition of Gentileschi paintings, many of which appear in her book.
Then karma took back its gift in a heartbreaking blow.
“At first it was just feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to miss out on stuff,’” Siciliano said. “And then as things progressed, it became less about me missing out on stuff and more about, ‘Oh my gosh, the world!,’ and everybody being in the same boat, everybody missing out. But what can you do? It just is all about kind of taking it one day at a time. Of course, it’s devastating. It’s absolutely devastating.”
The fear is that at some point the margins will become so thin, creators will start getting out en masse.
“That’s not the future, that’s already happening,” said Justin Norman, the Seattle-based artist also known as Moritat. “I’ve applied to several video game jobs. That’d be really OK.”
And Norman has a paying gig. He’s under contract at Vault Comics and is involved with a creator-owned project. But he’s tired of waiting on checks.
The pandemic has also sidelined an important source of cash for creators — the convention. The biggest, San Diego Comic-Con, has been canceled and many others were postponed, including Emerald City Comic Con, which has been rescheduled to August.
“Ultimately, I think a lot of creators are screwed because I’m not going to a convention any time soon,” Norman said. “And, from people I’ve talked to, I think everybody’s going to be scared because for years now, going to a convention, comic book creators would get their disinfectants out and their Purell and talk about the ‘con crud’ or the ‘con flu.’ So that’s a big problem I see for creators.”
Publishers affected in different ways
Each of the Pacific Northwest’s four big comics publishers is different and is being affected in different ways. They do have one thing in common, though: They all sell their products in largely independent comic and book stores, and they have no control over when or how those stores will open again.
“There’s absolutely no silver lining or a glass-half-full aspect to that,” Fantagraphics’ Reynolds said. “It’s disastrous. But we don’t really know what to do other than to keep doing what we do in the hope that, as the economy rebounds, people are going to continue to want books.”
Dark Horse’s Richardson said three of the company’s associated film projects have shut down. Backlist and digital sales have picked up, though, helping relieve some of the financial pressure.
“We are doing everything in our power to avoid layoffs,” Richardson said. “We received small-business assistance from the recent stimulus package, which will certainly help.”
Portland-based Image Comics laid off a few employees early, publisher and chief creative officer Eric Stephenson said, and payments and projects have slowed down. He thinks the company will be back on schedule by August after purposefully slowing down releases in the short term in a concerted effort with other publishers to avoid burying customers in paper.
Distribution problems aside, Stephenson believes publishers have brought a lot of the current problems on themselves.
“Diamond is neither the cause nor the solution to our industry’s problems,” he said. “The fact that comics aren’t carried in convenience stores or groceries or newsstands anymore isn’t Diamond’s fault — it’s the publishers’ fault.”
Stephenson pointed to Marvel’s decision last year to restart the X-Men franchise with a stunt, as an example. The company put out two separate, six-issue series that had to be read together to get the complete story. By the time readers were done, they’d spent $60 on 12 issues.
“You could get five months of Netflix for that, and continuing to produce comics that require that type of investment isn’t a blueprint for continued success,” Stephenson said. “If the industry is going to survive, let alone evolve, we need to get back to providing inexpensive entertainment that focuses on what makes comics unique as an artistic medium, and make that product available as widely as possible.”
One solution may be to finally liberate the industry from the “pamphlet” or “floppy” format. Fantagraphics has a model that relies on graphic novels rather than installments, and it has given them much more flexibility during the pandemic. Graphic novels and other book formats like manga are easier to print overseas, often cost less to produce than a single issue of a comic book and (perhaps most importantly) are carried by a wide number of distributors, including the world’s largest.
“One of the most bitter ironies for me through all of this is that Amazon may well end up being the main thing keeping us alive,” Reynolds said. “That’s kind of sobering in and of itself.”