Will the Comic Book Direct Market Survive COVID-19 shutdowns?


There has been a tremendous amount of speculation lately about what’s going to happen with new comics being put on hold indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Comic Shops have not only been shutting their doors because of local “shelter in place” orders, some have already been put of of business permanently.

There was a flurry of speculation about the negative impact to comic book shops if comic companies “train” readers to switch to digital in the absence of print comics.  In particular, when DC looked like they were going to ship a lot of April 1 comics digitally, including Batman #92 (a position DC later backed off from).

We then got the alleged “savior” of the direct market, in the form of a service called ComicHub that would allow readers to buy comics digitally to read on that service and then later get the print comic from their local shop when that shop reopens and physical comics are available again.  This plan is not being embraced by all.  Noted San Francisco area retailer Brian Hibbs posted about ComicHub on Facebook:

A poll on a retailer forum right now has 119 opposed, 17 unsure, and 5 for “digital first” releases, EVEN IF IT “comes from a retailer source”.

Beyond the philosophical idiocy of encouraging cross channel migration (even passively), the mechanical aspects of it are insane — how could ANYone process and deal with 4-20 weeks of physical print comics dropping at once that would be needed to “catch up”?

I can barely make a profit with my MUCH MUCH larger discounts than what the ComicsHUB plan offers, and this creates an EXPONENTIAL amount more of work in having to track and organize such sales, all for what will be a paltry revenue stream.

The COVID-19 pandemic may ultimately count the comic book direct market as one of its victims.  The longer the shutdowns go on, the more small businesses (which include comic shops) will find themselves unable to stay in business.

It has been pointed out that there are really 4 segments to the comics market (which can be debated, but it’s close enough for this discussion, so roll with it):

  • Direct Market titles (Marvel/DC/Image/etc.)
  • Book market stuff (like Raina Telgemeier/Dav Pilkey)
  • Manga
  • Web comics

People a lot smarter than me have observed that if enough comic shops go out of business the part of the comics industry called the Direct Market will likely collapse as well.  This portion of the comics market would probably not survive a sudden transition to a new distribution method (including digital).  The key word there is SUDDEN.

A well planned transition is one thing, but a damage-control transition brought about by the collapse of the existing distribution network coupled with what will likely be a global recession is quite another.

On Facebook (and other places), I have seen a number of people who abandoned the super-hero portion of the Direct Market long ago cheering it’s demise.  “Good Riddance” they shout, “I only read (digital, webcomics, manga, etc.) any more anyway!”

The more I think about it, the more I understand this “burn it to the ground and just see what regrows from the ashes”viewpoint.

The Direct Market is currently 70% or so Marvel/DC. I think the “other 30%” of the Direct Market could survive a transition to OGNs and digital much easier than the vast connected superhero universes of Marvel/DC.  It’s not that superhero comics would go away altogether, they would just need to evolve to live within whatever market rises from the ashes.

The thing we’d be losing in the long term as part of a Direct Market demise is the large/complex shared narrative superhero universes.  Whatever comes out the other side of a Direct Market collapse almost certainly would not have 80+ monthly titles from each of Marvel & DC weaving a complex narrative every month.

And maybe that’s not too bad a thing to lose since the large shared narrative has been diminished by marketing to include lots of convoluted continuity, continual reboots, and far too regular mega-events with unnecessary tie-ins that are being sold to a very small slice of the overall audience of the superhero industrial complex over the last decade or more.

What would survive is OGNs telling tight stories about the most popular heroes and teams.  Or perhaps these would come out initially in digital installments and then be released as printed collections.

I think the “big” stories” like Dark Metal, or War of the Realms (or whatever, these are just 2 recent examples that came to mind) would in many ways be better if they were told tightly in a 160-200 page OGN instead of sprawled out over an 8-12 issue mini-series with 30-40+ relatively pointless tie-in titles. So the “new normal” could result in an even better way to get cool concept stories out to the fans… and these are often what Hollywood looks to as IP to base movies on, so that could continue unchanged, with the most popular storylines getting adapted to other media.

Of course, this is all speculation at this point.  What I know for a fact is that the next several months will be very interesting to watch and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out the other side of this.

Opinion piece by: Bob Bretall
http://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics For Fans who Love Comics

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