At the beginning of 2021, the comics retail sector was surrounded by uncertainty. Shops reported they were “struggling to stay afloat,” per PW’s retailer survey published in the first quarter of last year. As the year progressed, store owners had to adjust on the fly to emerging challenges and limitations to business operations.
Now, on the second anniversary of global shutdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the market has shifted tremendously yet again. By the look of 2021 sales figures in both the direct market—a section of the comics industry comprising 3,000 or so independent comic shops that buy mostly nonreturnable stock at wholesale from direct-market distributors—and the book market, comics and graphic novels came back in a major way.
PW’s annual comics retailer survey is an anecdotal look at the comics retail landscape from the perspective of those on the front lines. To better understand what fueled the 2021 turnaround, we checked in with comics retailers from across North America, asking them to report on the lead genres and titles driving profits, as well as issues they may have encountered with supply chain disruption and distribution changes, and generally how they and their staff are feeling in this topsy-turvy period.
This year’s survey features four retailers from comic shops: Eitan Manhoff, owner of Cape & Cowl Comics in Oakland, Calif.; Jenn Haines, owner of The Dragon in Guelph, Ontario; Ty Denton, manager of Austin Books & Comics in Austin, Tex.; and Mitch Cutler, owner of the recently reopened and relocated St. Mark’s Comics in Brooklyn.
We also spoke with reps from two bookstores with significant graphic novel and comic sections: Doug Chase, a buyer at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., and Liz Mason, manager of Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago.
Per our respondents, 2021 brought the return of a (relative) status quo, and for some locations record numbers, as customers eagerly shopped in person upon being welcomed back inside physical stores. The category drivers ranged from the predictable—manga and middle grade/YA graphic novels—to an unexpected surge in single-issue sales. But the global supply chain delays resulted in the most popular manga titles often being nearly impossible to restock, putting a ceiling on what was otherwise a monster year for that sector.
While the impact on manga sales was particularly notable, publishers of all varieties of comics faced unexpected shortages and delays. Even packaging elements for single issues of serialized comics, such as bags and boards—designed for floppy comics to protect each in a slipcase supported by a cardboard insert—were in short supply.
Further adding stress was a sea change in single-issue comics distribution. Penguin Random House became Marvel’s exclusive single-issue distributor, with a rocky start to operations due to inadequate packaging resulting in damaged product, though that situation is reportedly improving. PRH’s arrival caused shock waves in the direct market, impacting the other two main distributors (veteran Diamond Comic Distributors and relative newcomer Lunar Distribution) and causing both publishers and comics retailers to readjust models.
But every respondent proved optimistic about where comics are headed, both in terms of the medium and its greater diversity of representation, and the industry. Practices trialed by fire in the early days of the pandemic, such as curbside pickup, have become established and benefited customer service. With a sense of normalcy returning and great energy coming from consumers, there’s excitement from retailers about the future.
How was the year in comics for your shop, especially compared to 2020?
Mason: Once people started getting vaccinated in the spring of 2021, we started letting more than eight people into the shop at a time, which obviously meant that we were making more sales. Letting more than a few people in at once means you have more shoppers buying more books!
Manhoff: 2019 was our previous best year for sales, and 2021 beat that by 29%. That’s an exciting jump, but it’s particularly cool when you take into account that we were closed to the public until mid-July. We had a nice little curbside service and mail-order operation going, but it turns out people really prefer to shop inside.
Cutler: 2021 was a return to the status quo—St. Mark’s Comics moved back to a bricks-and-mortar location, as it had been from 1984 to 2019. We were delighted to reopen in Industry City, Brooklyn, in a much larger, much improved space. It’s been a terrific seven months of reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. We are growing far faster than anticipated.
Supply chain issues were significant throughout the year. Was your shop impacted by that trend?
Denton: It was rough for a bit with shipping delays and publisher delays. Luckily, it looks like it’s getting back on track.
Haines: Every single day we had to explain to customers about supply chain issues. You could feel the palpable relief that there was an actual explanation for why no one had the manga that they were so convinced was popular. As a result of this, most customers left their contact info for whenever the books came back in stock, and we generated quite a few sales that we might have lost had they just continued to wander from store to store. I used to be able to promise my customers a special order would be ready for pickup within a few days—now I cannot tell them when products will arrive. It carries a greater risk that the customer will find the item elsewhere in the meantime and/or decide they prefer the instant gratification of Amazon
Chase: For most of 2021 we had huge lists of Viz Media books unavailable. There were issues with other publishers, but Viz titles were the toughest to restock. Some titles in the various series are slowly coming back into stock, but there are still holes in our inventory.
Manhoff: Our inability to secure comic book supplies such as bags, boards, and comic book boxes was incredibly stressful. Beyond selling them, we need comic book supplies for our day-to-day operations or our work comes to a screeching halt.
Mason: There were boxes of Japanese horror that showed up way after the holidays, and I thought, geez, did I just keep reordering this and it didn’t show up and then I forgot I ordered it and I ordered more?
What titles, genres, or categories moved the needle for your store in 2021?
Chase: Manga and kids’ graphic novels continued their surge in popularity. Even with the huge supply chain issues with manga, sales were very healthy. Anything Junji Ito was popular, and most of his titles could be restocked. Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe was a nice end of the year hit—and still is.
Haines: Honestly, it feels like it’s just been more of everything across the board. Generally, our customers are looking past the superheroes to other genres, and so we are seeing superhero-level sales on single issues of nonsuperhero books, which we’ve always experienced on one or two titles, but not to this degree. So far in 2022, that trend is continuing. We’ve also been running a $1 back issue sale for the better part of the year, as we try to sort through a lot of backstock, and so our back issue sales are way higher than ever before.
Mason: Heaven No Hell by Michael DeForge was a hot seller during the holiday season, as well as titles published by Silver Sprocket, such as Girl in the World by Caroline Cash and Fungirl by Elizabeth Pich. Lisa Hanawalt and Simon Hanselmann are other artists whose works were big sellers.
Manhoff: 2021 was the year of the single-issue comic book at Cape & Cowl. For our first five years, our sales by category were pretty predictable. Our total sales for the year could usually be broken down to 40% single issues; 40% books and graphic novels, including manga; and 20% everything else. However, 2021 was nothing like that! Single-issue comics jumped to account for 55% of our total sales.
Denton: Horror comics are in a renaissance right now, while standards like superheroes and science fiction are still going strong.
2021 was the year of manga. How did manga perform in your shop?
Manhoff: Manga did very well for us, but it could have been so much more. It’s hard to quantify how much was lost due to supply chain issues.
Haines: I’m sure it is the same story everywhere: manga was top of the charts, and there’s no sign of it slowing down.
Cutler: It’s always a challenge to keep enough manga on the shelf, but we’re devoting more linear feet to it every day.
Denton: We actually had to double our manga section to keep up with demand. It does get frustrating telling someone who has never been in a comic shop that the series they want to start is back-ordered or out-of-print.
How are you feeling about your single-issue distribution partners right now?
Cutler: Acquiring single issues from three different distributors? Is this supposed to be new? We’ve lived through this before, buying from Heroes World, Capital, and Diamond during the first collapse of the distribution system. It isn’t always easy, but competition is far more beneficial to retailers than monopoly.
Haines: There have been some real growing pains, that’s for sure. Personally, I believe that the more competition there is in distribution, the stronger the industry can become, as competition pushes everyone to be better.
Denton: I was skeptical at first. It was very convenient to be able to get all our books from one location, but after working with more distributors I can see the upside.
Haines: The biggest issue with multiple distributors is finding a point-of-sale system that adequately does everything you want it to and can place initial orders, final order cutoffs, and reorders from all the distributors. Right now, we’re all doing about three to four times more work on the same tasks compared with when it was a single-distribution model. That’s not great. It would be wonderful to get to a spot where handling multiple distributors doesn’t carry such a time penalty.
Manhoff: The three companies fall into a pretty clear 1-2-3 ranking for me. It pains me a bit to say it, because I really do detest their parent company, DCBS, but Lunar is my best single-issue comic book distributor. My shipments are consistently early, packed well, picked accurately, and shipped affordably. After Lunar, Penguin has become a solid number two for me. Again, shipments arrive consistently early, are very accurate, are mostly packed well, and ship for free. There are still packaging kinks to be worked out. Every few weeks we’ll get a damage bomb dropped on us where a stack of 50–100 books are just crushed and we’re forced to pull out the least-damaged ones for our customers so we’ll have something to sell that week. Unfortunately, that leaves Diamond as a distant third. Arrival dates for its shipments are a complete mystery half the time, damages are constant, accuracy isn’t really a thing, and shipping costs are astronomical.
I’m sure you’ve taken on new tactics and approaches since the pandemic began. Did any of these lead to significant wins for you this past year?
Mason: Curbside pickup! We made that an option on our website in 2020 and that helped a lot of people.
Manhoff: The biggest win for us was one of the adjustments we made just days into the pandemic. We switched to a point-of-sale system called ComicHub and it changed the game for us. It moved almost our inventory online and available for purchase overnight. It allowed us to survive the first couple months where mail order was our only option to get product to our customers.
Denton: We used the shutdown to implement a new point-of-sale system, ComicHub, that put our entire inventory on sale to the entire U.S. and it has worked out quite well for us. We now do business in pretty much every state in the country, as well as internationally.
Haines: We started doing Facebook Live sales. This was a great way during lockdown periods to continue to provide avenues of purchasing for our customers. One of the complications of a retail model that includes so very many SKUs is that customers often find items by accident, due to their placement next to something they were looking for or because it stands out visually in some way. Without the ability to come into the store to happen upon these things, we needed to find a way to get products in front of customers.
How are you feeling about where the comics medium and industry is headed?
Chase: More and more, readers can find people who look like themselves in these stories. Creators have to work hard to find an audience, often by posting work online for years, but a good deal of this work is being discovered and shared and sometimes even published for bookstores like mine to present to our customers.
Cutler: We could not possibly be more optimistic about comics—the material and the industry.
Denton: I’m very optimistic. The comics medium exists to give people an escape from the humdrum of everyday life. It’s also now being taken more seriously by the public. It’s not “just for kids” or a “nerdy hobby”; it’s literature that can be enjoyed by everyone. Teachers come in for recommendations for the kids in their class, and parents bring their kids in to start them down the road to reading for fun and not for classwork. As long as the industry puts out good stories and comic shops engage their communities, I feel that everything is looking up.
Haines: There’s no way to know what the future holds, with Covid still hanging over everything and supply chain issues becoming more obvious and pervasive, but I do know that we’re equipped to handle it. The key is being able to adapt and pivot, finding solutions to the situation instead of fighting against things that are outside of our control. With the last two years serving as evidence of how capable we are, there really doesn’t seem to be anything we can’t overcome.
Manhoff: I’m very excited for where the industry is headed. It seems like many stores are coming off banner years and the beginning of 2022 is keeping the good vibes going. Most publishers are responsive to retailer needs, and relations are fairly civil. Distribution certainly has some kinks to work out, but I believe we can get where we need to go. Overall, things are going well for Team Comics. It’s a hard gig for everyone involved, but it’s better than working a square job any day of the week.
David Harper runs the subscription comic book site Sktchd and is the host of Off Panel, a weekly comics interview podcast.