The government may claim the recession has ended, butcomic book and graphic novel retailers and their customers remain cautiouswhile looking to the future of the economy and the category. Yes, someretailers say, sales are improving but are still slow. "While certain aspectsare less terrible," said Mitch Cutler, owner of St. Marks Comics in New YorkCity, "it's all about holding on and waiting for the alleged end of therecession to be a little less alleged."
Once again, PWComics Week talked with independent comics retailers from around the county—six directmarket comics shops and two general bookstores—in our annual informal phonesurvey about the state of the comics and graphic novel marketplace. In conversations with PWCW, many retailers said this past Christmas turned out betterthan they expected and sales generally have been up, at least a bit, since thebeginning of the year. Many retailers said that among their biggest sellingbooks of the past year were R. Crumb's Bookof Genesis Illustrated, Joe Sacco's Footnotesin Gaza, Robert Kirkman's WalkingDead and David Mazzucchelli's AsteriosPolyp. And they also pointed to surprise hits like Brian Maruca and JimRugg's Afrodisiac from Adhouse. Someretailers said that sales dropped on pricey collectible hardcover collections.And while manga sales appear to be flat or even shrinking, some retailers saidthat former teen-age manga buyers are growing up and may finally be buying someof the literary, sophisticated and even eccentric manga titles now coming intothe market.
The Year 2009 And The Holidays
While many of the retailers said that graphic novelsales last year and at the beginning of this year were up and that Christmas2009 was better than 2008, they conceded there was still room for moreimprovement. "Buying habits are different than 10 years ago," Eric Thornton ofChicago Comics said, "we don't have impulse buyers; people are focused on whatthey want. Quite honestly, it's been awhile since I've seen people willy-nillywith money."
Andrew Neal of Chapel Hill Comics in Chapel Hill, NorthCarolina said, "Six months of 2009 were up and 6 months were down." While hepointed out, "North Carolina is doing betterthan a lot of states," and he is "lucky to be in an affluent area," he admittedthat there were a lot of layoffs at the nearby University of North Carolina, and "a decent percentage of customerslost their jobs." Neal also said that even though customers were buying less,his store was attracting more customers overall due to a move to a betterlocation. "We had more transactions in 2009," Neal said.
Gaston Dominguez, CEO of Meltdown Comics, a comics shopin Los Angles, said the past year, "was pretty rough overall." However JerryGladstone, co-owner of Midtown Comics in New York City, told PWCW"any potential growth might have been missed, but nothing reduced."
Looking back on 2009 Holiday season, St. Mark's Comics'Cutler said, "This year did not suck as much as last year, Christmas 2008 wasthe worst ever. [In 2009] no one was buying high end collectibles, but at leastthey were buying." Jeff Ayers, manager of Forbidden Planet, a comics shop inNew York City, also said Christmas 2009 was an improvement over Christmas 2008:"Last year was a late rush,  was back to a bit more of a month-long eventthan a last minute scramble." Overall, Forbidden Planet's Ayers said sales were"about pretty much the same and we're keeping excess inventory down." AfterChristmas Ayers said sales "leveled back down to what they were beforeChristmas" due to "a crappy January in New York." At Chapel Hill Comics, Neal exclaimed,"Christmas was great. December was one month that beat last year. BeforeChristmas was much better last year, but afterwards has been much less; fewerpeople are spending money on themselves after Christmas." For Chicago Comics' Thornton, "the holidayseason was good; it was pretty close to last year." Dominguez noted that"Christmas wasn't what it's been over our 17 years in business," becausecustomers were using a lot more gift cards and credit cards; "the credit cardsare the ones making money," he said.
Out on the coast at Powell's Books, a general bookstorein Portland, Oregon, the graphic novel buyer Gerry Donaghy said comics are"still doing well as a category," and they "had a great winter and holidayseason." Speaking of the first few months of 2010, Donaghy continued: "We'restill feeling the effects of what was going on at the tail-end of 2008; I'm stillin my apprehensive mode, but we're doing better than 2009."
Elizabeth Jordan, adult book buyer at Book People, ageneral bookstore in Austin, Texas, joked, "Over the last year, 12 monthscompared to the last 12 months, [graphic novel] sales were up a whopping $6." Jordan saidthat November, December and January sales were good, but in February"everything was down. We've held strong as much as everything has; 2009 wastrending up compared to 2008, and our graphic novels did well even during therecession," she said. Graphic novel sales make up 1% of the overall sales forBook People.
A few bestselling books boosted sales for retailersover the winter and holiday season. Jordan said sales at Book Peoplewere "driven solely" by R. Crumb's Bookof Genesis Illustrated from W.W.Norton. "Crumb just keeps going, I wascaught ordering like crazy at Christmas; we've sold over 200 copies sinceOctober." Pretty much all the retailers PWCWspoke to pointed to Crumb's Genesisas a big seller. "Genesis was a hugebook," Thorntonsaid, "We could not keep it on the shelf." Donaghy said, "a couple bestsellingtitles were The Book of Genesis andJoe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza (MetropolitanBooks). Genesis was sellingconsiderably: I was buying 200, 300 at a time and plowing through them." Nealalso said Crumb had done well, but that it has declined in sales sinceChristmas. He also mentioned that David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp (Pantheon) "sold a ton." Neal also did well withRobert Kirkman's Walking Dead seriesfrom Image Comics, and he said that Alan Moore's classic superhero epic, Watchman, was his second bestseller,selling "big until the movie, January through March" of 2009.
At Forbidden Planet, Ayers also did well with Crumb andAsterios Polyp, as well as Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis,Christos H. Papadimitriou and the art team of Alecos Papdatos and Annie DiDonna, an usual biography of Bertrand Russell from Bloomsbury,noting that the books, "sold more than my lofty expectations." He pointed tothese books as, "perennials," books that people bought as gifts and forthemselves. And even though these titles "didn't have a whole year of sales,they still sold more copies than other books throughout the year." Ayers saideven while these big books do well for them; he makes an effort to have"slightly more niche books that normal book stores don't have [in order] tostand out of the crowd." He noted indie titles such as Capacity and Sleeper Car, bothby Theo Ellsworth and published by Secret Acres. Another small press book thata few retailers listed as a success was AdHouse's Afrodisiac, a blaxploitation parody by Brian Maruca and JimRugg. Out less than a week at the time,Neal said Afrodisiac had "done reallywell. It's not something people hear about and come in looking for, but it's ahardcover with great design and is a great deal at $15. We got grand sales onit." Meltdown's Dominguez also said Afrodisisacwas a big hit for them, with people coming in and buying it, showing it aroundat work and often sending more people in to Meltdown looking for copies. "It'snot a cape book," he said, "but a fun made up story."
Book Collections, Pamphlet Comics and Manga
One of the more dicey aspects of the market forretailers was traditional pamphlet form comics. "The vast majority of sales arein collected form," Thorntonsaid, "[book] collections are the backbone of the industry." Furthermore, Thornton said the Marveland DC pamphlet price increase to $3.99 was "the biggest hit this year. Oncethe price increase hit, mid-tier titles dropped across the board." Hecontinued, "trade books are fine, always climbing upward, but monthlies areslowing." Ayers from Forbidden Planet said, "Single issues still have amarket," but he continued noting that the popularity of "event"comics-generally a super hero crossover series that involve characters fromacross a multiple series-seem to be falling off. "Event titles brought peoplein last year, both long-time fans and new readers, but [this year] people are sufferingfrom event fatigue," Thorntonexplained. "The last year and a half [crossover] events didn't bring people in,and catered to people who are [already] fans," he said.
But Thornton also mentioned that after the firstgraphic novel of a series is collected into book form, some fans would startbuying the continuing pamphlet issues to keep up with the story. He pointed tothe wildly popular zombie comics series, TheWalking Dead, as an example. He said it's a "50-50 split" of peopling justwaiting for the next trade book." For Meltdown's Dominguez, "superheroes arethe bread and butter," however, he said, "lots of people are waiting for trade[book collections]." He said his customers are testing the $1 first issues DCis offering, such as Joe the Barbarian.Dominquez said he sold 300 copies of Joethe Barbarian but he also said he would, "see if it drops off with a priceof $2.99." Dominguez also said he was "not branching out with big tie-ins," andhe noted a change in tone in superhero titles, "this year it's about optimismand hope, light stories, not dark and grim." However, at St. Marks Comics,Cutler said, "Single issue sales are up because they are cheap, softcover salesare steady and hardcovers are done."
While most of the retailers agreed that pamphlet salesare on the decline, so are higher price point hardcover editions. "People are opting for less expensive items,"explained Cutler. "A price point above $40 is a tough sell," Thornton said. And, the sales of theseformats are reflected in retailers ordering habits. Neal said he was "lesslikely to order DC's Absolute Editions [generally priced about $100] and[other] high dollar books." Ayers said, "Some things shouldn't be out inhardcover. We carry those in less quantity. Quick reprints did well and $10entry graphic novels like Unwrittenand Scalped." Cutler agreed, "If Acme Comics is going to put out a comicin hardcover and a softcover six months later, they might as well not bother.With the economy we're in we sell far less collectible editions. The onlyhardcover things with steady sales are books only available in that format,like classic reprints."
Similarly, Neal mentioned that Marvel's Criminal Omnibus by Ed Brubaker and SeanPhilips, "sold a lot more" in paperback format then hardcover. Even at generalbookstores this trend was seen: Donaghy said high-end hardcover books "trickleddown towards the end of 2008 and never gained ground again. I've certainly notbeen slap happy about reordering Absolute editions; I can't afford to inventorythem deeply." Jordan of Book People concurred, "We weren't taking chances oninventory of limited editions; the ones we had weren't selling." She continuedthat instead "steady sellers like WalkingDead keep going in trade paperbacks."
In other categories, such as manga, sales varied forretailers, but what was selling signaled a change in manga readership. "Theprimary manga readership age in the store has gone up to the 30s," Nealclaimed, "5 years ago it was high school and college kids who are now happy toread fan translations that come out 6 months earlier." Neal said he is "muchmore focused" in his manga ordering to try more "idiosyncratic adult stuff,"such as Pluto, 20thCentury Boys, Oshinboand books from Vertical Inc, like Osamu Tezuka's classic Black Jack. Ayers also saw this trend, "people who were sixteen twoyears ago at the boom are growing up and looking for more adult themed books."He told PWCW, "Dark Horse is doing ahell of a job" as well as Viz with such titles as Taiyo Matsumato's Go Go Monster.
On the other hand, Meltdown was forced to have a closeout sale of 4000 manga books before the holidays for a dollar a book. "It's adead segment for us," he said, also taking note that "perennials" such as 20thCentury Boys, Pluto, Tezuka titles, and Akirathat continually sell. At Book People "manga is shrinking," according to Jordan, since"series are difficult to keep an inventory on." However Donaghy said, "I'mgoing back to things and bringing back series I stopped ordering. The latervolumes hadn't sold when I bought the series, so I'm reordering early volumesand seeing if it cycles." He explained, "With some graphic novel series andmanga, they peter off and people rediscover them."
CuttingInventory; Working Harder
In general, retailers said they are "playing close tothe neck," as Neal put it. "If I can't tell what's going to move, I'd ratherrun out and have to reorder than have a ton remaining." Neal also "cut out 20%of shelf stock this year." They had a big liquidation sale to give remainingstock "better display space," because he "feels sales are more focused on itemswith great presentation." Of the 20% cut in stock he said, "60% of that wassuperhero," and the sections least affected were autobiographies and kidsbooks. Ayers said he is also "a bit more selective and [will] get specificitems for customers." Cutler said, "We are certainly watching every penny. Wecarry everything that is published, no titles go by the wayside, just lessdepth on them." On the other hand, Neal said, "2009 was the first time I didn'torder first issues of Marvel and DC," and Thorntonsaid he is also "not taking chances. If it's not a relatively sure bet, wedon't get it. Before, if it was on paper we got it."
Thanks to installing a Point-of-sale system, Dominguezsaid he is "able to track and refine ordering to cater to core buyers. We usedto gamble because [merchandise] was nonreturnable. We were just getting killed,an average $1500 a week in product wouldn't get returned." These days the "codewords" for Dominguez are "lean and mean, fast and furious, cut down operationsto what is necessary."
Besides ordering, stores search for other ways tomaintain business as they cautiously look for the end of the recession. "I'mnot going to assume anything," said Neal, "since people started to say itsgetting better, it's now at the point where I'm not the only one that saysâ€˜yeah right.' No doubt it will get better, but it will take a little while torecover." While waiting for the situation to improve, Ayers said he is"exploring new ways of doing business," among them, he's opening an onlinestore and holding more signings and promotional events. "I do think the yearwill get better, but I can't sit waiting for it, so I'm working a lot harder indifferent ways that don't come naturally." Donaghy mused about the future ofbookstores at time when online retail and digital publishing are growing: "Howbrick and mortar stores stay relevant is going to be the question and no onehas an answer."
Thinking about the changing landscape for the comicsindustry overall, Cutler concluded, "It's a good idea for everyone to retrenchand find out what the new reality is." In many ways Neal spoke for all of theseretailers when he told PWCW, "It's sohard to look at the industry as a whole, every piece is behaving differently."