Despite the slow pace of economic recovery, owners and managers of comics shops contacted for our annual, informal survey of comics retailers said they are generally optimistic about the comics market, citing a good holiday season and healthier sales in January and February, in particular for kids comics. But the retailers also emphasized caution, citing the need to adjust to new consumer buying patterns and said they were closely monitoring costs; being highly selective about inventory and emphasized the need to continually hold events that will bring consumers into their stores.

This year we talked with the owners or managers of six comics shops and, Book People, a general bookstore in Austin, Texas. The comics shops we spoke with included Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles; Chapel Hill Comics in North Carolina; Chicago Comics; Midtown Comics in New York City; A Comic Shop in Orlando, Florida; and Forbidden Planet in New York City.

‘Healthier’ Sales in Early 2011

No matter whether comics’ retailers said business was up, down, or about the same, all the retailers PWCW spoke to seem to have adjusted to new consumer buying habits. “2010 to 2009 was slightly down,” said Andrew Neal of Chapel Hill Comics in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, “but expenditures were more down than sales, so we made a little more money in 2010.” Neal went on to explain he has “learned never to spend money I don’t have. I don’t stock things that don’t sell.”

Overall, retailers seemed to be adjusting not only to changes in the economy but price fluctuations from Marvel and DC, a lack of big event titles, and no new, exciting big sellers like last years Book of Genesis by Robert Crumb. But while 2010 was a bit slow for retailers, they are predicting 2011 will be an exciting year for comics. “ People are excited for comics again. The temperature of the buyer is hot for it,” exclaimed Gaston Dominquez, the CEO of Meltdown comics in Los Angeles, cracking that his customers might be “eating cup of noodles,” but they’re buying comics.

Eric Thornton, manager of Chicago Comics, described 2010 as “about the same [as 2009], not that dramatically different. The economy is about where it was last year.” But, he went on to say the first quarter of 2011 has been “surprisingly good, December was great, October, November, and September were slow. January and February have been surprisingly healthy.” Dominquez agreed with Thornton’s assessment, “the holidays led into a fantastic January and February,” Gerry Gladstone, co-owner of Midtown Comics in New York City, said “Through mid-January we were down a little bit,” blaming Midtown’s fall off on “less event books,” and emphasizing that 2010 was “not a good year for hot, big sellers.” However, he said with the “death” of Marvel Comics’ Human Torch character, an iconic character from Marvel’s classic Fantastic Four series—the kind of big media event that sends fans to comics stores—they have “since seen a rebound” at the end of January with Fantastic Four sales “through the roof.” For Aaron Haaland, co-owner of A Comic Shop in Orlando, Florida, the recession didn’t hit them “as bad as I heard from other people,” explaining that his core customers are students from the college nearby rather than “middle age people who lost their jobs.” Yet, Haaland said they were “hurt last year after big crossover series like Blackest Night and Siege ended.”

For some retailers continued financial health is a matter of keeping expenditures down and ordering tight. “[2010] was pretty much the same,” stated Jeff Ayers, the manager of Forbidden Planet in New York City, “we kept costs down, made sure we had the perennials, and took less chances.” North Carolina retailer Neal agreed, “Compared to 3 years ago, we have $20,000 less wholesale. I am cured of trying to stock things that don’t sell.” He explained that, “I’m fairly brutal with what I stock; we don’t have less variety, I’m just stocking less of lower selling stuff in every category.” This strategy helps Neal give space to things that easily sell well, as well as books that could sell well with a little push. As an example, he mentioned last February’s Afrodisiac, a cleverly done blaxpoitation parody by Jim Rugg and published by AdHouse Books, which was their third bestselling title in 2010. And Forbidden Planet’s Ayers was quick to make a similar point, “It’s easy to sell Watchmen,” but other less known titles can be given a little more space and a chance to do well and get attention.

While retailers all said that generally they had a good 2010 holiday season, they also said that the season lacked a big, new title to bring people in. “Holiday sales were better than expected,” said Ayers, “but nothing like the year before with Crumb’s Genesis, which sold hand over fist.” A Comic Shop’s Haaland said, “the holidays were lukewarm,” with students going home for Christmas and not a lot of action figures at their store to get a “bump for the holidays.” Thornton had a similar experience at Chicago Comics and said, while the holidays went well, they sold “Doctor Who screwdrivers and pint glasses. We refine our merchandise for the last quarter, when people buy knickknacks and stocking stuffers not books.” Neal said “The holidays were good; not quite as strong as 2009, but still strong.” For Neal, a big part of this success was that he didn’t spend as much, “Sales were down 3%, but I still made a little money, which made the sting a little more bearable.”

Kids Comics, Walking Dead and Scott Pilgrim

One category that did well over the holidays for some of the retailers were children’s comics. “The Amulet series is doing great for us; we sold tons of those and Bone for Christmas,” said Neal. “Childrens’ comics for us over the holidays was absolutely gigantic,” Ayers exclaimed, noting that they sold a lot of the “perennials,” such as Tin Tin, Archie, Amulet, and Bone. Meltdown Comics’ Dominquez also mentioned Tin Tin as a strong seller for them. With the upcoming movies, they sold “gangbusters,” according to Dominquez, noting that sales covered all the volumes in every format, single issue and hardcover. Overall he pointed to Tin Tin books “we’re up 400% for them.”

However, Robert Kirkman’s bestselling zombie series, Walking Dead (Image), and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic adventure series, Scott Pilgrim, were the all-around big sellers last year, with sales driven by both the Walking Dead TV show and the Scott Pilgrim movie.

Walking Dead was like printing money,” said Thornton from Chicago Comics. Dominquez joked that Walking Dead was their “bread and brains” for last year. Looking over his sales charts, Forbidden Planet’s Ayers noted there were “page after page” of Walking Dead sales from August on. “Walking Dead, Fables, Y The Last Man, we are constantly re-ording even more graphic novels of those series,” said Haaland of A Comic Shop. At Chapel Hill Comics, Scott Pilgrim Volumes 1 and 6 were Neal’s top two sellers last year, and all the volumes were on his top ten list for the year. He said they “always do well with Scott Pilgrim,” and Ayers agreed, emphasizing that “reliables remain reliable; we might not be moving hundreds of copies of Watchman, but I’ll take a dozen [of Watchmen] and moving a hundred copies of Walking Dead; that’s fine.”

“Quality sells,” Thornton emphasized, “there’s a flash in the pan, [we can] sell Blackest Night for three weeks, [but over] a year I can’t depend on it; Darwyn Cooke [I can] sell for two to three years.” Neal also mentioned Drawyn Cooke’s new Parker adaptation (published by IDW) and said the latest adaptation of the classic noir prose series did particularly well for them. Ayers and Dominquez both said Dark Horse’s Axe Cop sold well for them, with Dominquez adding he “sold hundreds of those.” Creator owned indie comics are doing well for Ayers, he said, because they “don’t have decades of continuity to jump into,” like many classic superhero comics. Dominquez also pointed to “classic American reprints”—the trend towards high quality collections of classic comics from the past—as doing “fantastic” for them, and pointed out Craig Yoe’s much admired collections (among them, The Complete Milt Gross). Neal also noted, “Fantagraphics's variety of classic comics stuff, we do well with Peanuts and Popeye,” and he expects the new Fantagraphics's Mickey Mouse will sell well. Gladstone said they have recently done well with Batman Inc. and the return of Bruce Wayne. Haaland said Batman Inc. “would be a hit if it came out on a regular schedule.”

The lack of a big new comics title probably had the hardest hit at Book People, a general bookstore in Austin, Texas. Comics, according to Elizabeth Jordan, Book People’s adult book buyer, “did not do so well, down quite a bit in the last year [with] 12 months steadily down.” All categories of comics were “consistently” down, with superheroes down less than others. She directly attributed this drop to the Book of Genesis. “Every one was asking for that book for the fall of 2009, we didn’t have [anything similar] this past Christmas.” Book People’s strong sellers last year, much like the comics shop retailers, were Walking Dead and Scott Pilgrim. The drop in comics was inconsistent with store sales overall, since Jordan said, “2010 was one of our most successful years, up 4% across the board.” Comics, she said, were the “anomaly.”

Manga Sales Continue to Slide

“Manga dies a little more every year,” Chicago Comics’ Thornton said. “Manga is dead,” proclaimed Dominquez at Meltdown Comics. Yet, some retailers are still seeing sales movement in specific sections of manga. “Manga is still there and selling,” said Neal at Chapel Hill Comics, yet he said while kids and adult manga are “strong,” teenage books, outside Naruto and Bleach, are “hard to stock, because people stopped buying and moved to scanlations,” the illegal English translations of popular Japanese manga posted on the web and available to read for free, which are often out months before the book is published in America. He noted that Yotsuba! is his bestselling manga and that it is popular with both kids and adults. “There are still manga books that do well because we promote them,” continued Neal, “Naoki Urasawa keeps doing great, because [his series] are easy to recommend to a wide variety of people.” Neal also pointed to Vertical Inc’s list of classic manga as well as some of its contemporary manga titles, “we try everything Vertical publishes; as a publisher they do a good job and are consistent with stuff.” As examples, Neal mentioned Vertical’s Osamu Tezuka books and Chi’s Sweet Home, “a full color comic about a cute cat. Cute Kitties, that’s stuff I have an audience for.”

Dark Horse, according to Neal is consistent. “Dark Horse is surprisingly a manga publisher doing a decent job,” Thornton said, “Viz and Tokyopop oversaturated the market and derailed their own train.” However, Dark Horse, a more mainstream comics publisher, publishes manga series which might appeal to traditional comic store customers as opposed to the more otaku-oriented series of Viz, which is the U.S. publishing arm of two Japans’ largest manga publishers.

Thornton also added that manga from Drawn & Quarterly, which has focused on publishing gekiga, a type of Japanese manga that can be compared to American alternative comics, does well for them, noting that D&Q manga have an indie sensibility. “Manga is still there for us,” said Ayers at Forbidden Planet, but he explained he is seeing two kinds of manga buyers right now. “Manga-otaku, who know what they want” and don’t want any recommendations, buy the newest volume of a specific series, and more “recommendation based” customers who will try new series and books that are “comparable to other comics series” they like.

Traditional Comic Books Face Problems

Periodical sales were also a difficult category for some retailers. “Sales on periodicals are down,” said Neal, “in general we sell more graphic novels than comics.” Thornton said, “superheroes are still easily our bread and butter,” yet he also said that, “pamphlets have slowly been dipping for the last five years. Our highest selling book would be on the cutting block ten years ago.” For Dominquez at Meltdown, their “core business is the Wednesday customer. Floppies, which we call comic books, stapled 22 pages of love, are our core business.”

Yet, periodicals were hurt even more in 2010 both by Marvel and DC’s fluctuating cover prices and the lack of big event titles/series to draw people into comics shops. “The $3.99 price point may have killed the industry,” Thornton said, “they cut the jugular, good luck patching it up, it’s a little to late.” Thornton said that Chicago Comics lost a lot of customers with the price rise because the rise in prices has “trained them not to impulse buy comics, which is a horrible thing to train comic buyers to do.” Even rolling back prices probably won’t help, according to Neal, who said, “Rolling back prices? It would have worked better to have never raised prices. It’s easy for people to stop buying comics, now people who still buy comics, buy less.”

Asked whether customers are returning after the recent price drop, Neal noted that “a lot more people mention it than act on it,” adding he’d rather “Marvel and DC stop making boring comics.” On the other hand, at Midtown Comics in New York, Gladstone said, “There were grumblings when the prices went up,” yet he said there wasn’t a “dramatic decline” due to their “dedicated customer.” Since the price reduction, Gladstone said, “grumblings were replaced by kudos.”

At A Comic Shop, “the raise in cover price really hit Marvel,” explained Haaland. “With Siege and Dark Rain, it was the conclusion of a seven year story,” said Haaland, so, customers continued to buy despite the price rise “to get to the end of what they had invested in.” However, after those events ended customers were reluctant to try new things with the cover price at the higher price. Since the reduction in price, Haaland has noticed DC has gotten the bigger bump with a uniformity in covers that made “lapsed readers” aware of the change. Ayers said it is “yet to be determined” for them if customers are returning, but he has noticed “ringing up bigger piles.” Ayers said, “$3.99 was a cost prohibition for the fourth, fifth, or even sixth mini-series of a single character.” He continued, “It’s hard to ask a customer to pay a dollar more per issue and to keep up with seven Thor series. I’m glad they changed it back down to the more manageable $3.”

Digital Comics and the Physical Comics Shop

Another issue facing retailers is the impact of digital comics, yet most of the retailers we spoke with seemed to think that legally sold digital comics are not particularly big competition for them right now. A few weeks ago Diamond launched its Diamond Digital program, an effort to encourage physical comic shops to sell digital comics. “I don’t think people have figured out how to merge the two markets,” Thornton told PWCW, “those [fans] reading digital are doing it for free.” In fact, Thornton said he believed that people who were already getting comics digitally are more likely to steal them. “I don’t predict that digital sales will impact consumer sales. The real impact is [digital] pirating,” said Neal. Indeed, as far as these retailers are concerned, the traditional comics buyer has no interest in digital, and people are not likely to buy digital comics at a physical comics store.

According to Dominquez, “the percentage [of consumers] downloading actual comics is small; dabblers checking out freebies.” Neal said, “If I want to buy a digital comic, I would not go to a store. You don’t have to go to a movie theater to use Netflix.” However, Thornton acknowledged that promotions that offer a free digital copy with the print copy or 50% off the print when you buy the digital might be useful. Trade-paperbacks stand to gain more from digital, said Dominquez, noting, for instance, a series like Bill Willingham’s Fables does “gangbusters because digital book samples lead [consumers] to the trade-paperbacks.” While Haaland expressed hope digital comics could be “used as a tool to get more people in the store,” he remained skeptical claiming he’s “not against it, just not all in,” noting that he was looking forward to seeing presentations on digital delivery at the Diamond retailer summit, held at the recent C2E2 pop culture convention in Chicago. “I’ll see what Diamond has to say; it seems vague now,” Haaland continued. Ayers said he understands why “Diamond is interested in digital. Diamond doesn’t want the money going to Apple or Comixology; it’s another distribution channel.” But, he’s “interested to see how the logistics work out,” noting its all “still in the development stages.”

Getting Customers to Keep Coming Back

Going forward in 2011 the retailers PWCW spoke with said they are searching for ways to keep customers coming back even during slow weeks. “Its been an interesting year so far this year, everything out-performed the previous 3 years,” said Dominquez, “that’s a drastic change. We need warm bodies with credit cards to fill up the store. One more year like the last three years, we would have been done.”

A few of the retailers mentioned the importance of holding in-store events to keep customers coming in. “Having signings and events keep people rushing back to the store,” said Gladstone of Midtown Comics. Neal has done three signings in February resulting in dramatic sales. “We’re trying to put more effort into events and get people in the store,” he explained, “it’s less important if people buy the event book, if they just spend money.” Due to a recent signing with bestselling science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card for the comics prequel of Ender’s Game, a graphic novel adaptation of Card’s prose novel, Neal said the first volume hardcover of the series has become his bestselling book.

At A Comic Shop, Haaland has also been holding events to bring people in, citing a signing with Y the Last Man artist, Pia Guerra, that “brought people to the store out of the woodwork.” Along with events, Haaland noted that he offers a graphic novel rental program called “Fanfix,” which has 3000 books in the program, 300 of which are usually circulating. Without the commitment of buying, Haaland finds superhero readers branching out, and the program “kept people in the store.” Retailers were generally optimistic about these kinds of programs, a valuable effect when facing an uncertain economy and a growing number of outlets beyond the physical store, where consumers can buy their comics. “It’s nice people don’t fall out of the habit of making us the hub of their nerd culture,” Haaland said.