In 2022, the comics retail sector attempted to level out the roller-coaster track of the recent pandemic years. After a period of significant change in the industry, paired with record sales, many retailers expressed a desire for a return to normalcy this past year—and a continued uptick in revenue.
The sales gains have held for now, at the very least. Coming off the high-water mark of 2021, adult graphic novels still boasted a modest 4.6% sales increase in 2022, according to NPD BookScan, with YA comics sales rising a surprising 20%. Though kids’ and middle grade graphic novels dipped by 3%, the category is still up 29% over 2020. Overall, it was a welcome result.
Last year wasn’t just a good year for sales. Supply chain issues also improved dramatically, particularly on the manga front, and there was stabilization in single-issue comics distribution, even if it remained imperfect. However, word on the ground from retailers was that added workload, increasingly complex logistics, and a glut of product complicated the overall positive outlook.
PW’s annual comics retailer survey offers an anecdotal look into the comics retail landscape. We checked in with retailers at six comics outlets across North America, including from the direct market—a section of the industry comprising 3,000 or so independent shops that buy mostly nonreturnable stock at wholesale from direct-market distributors—and general bookstores with robust graphic novels sections. Owners and staff shared their thoughts on year-to-year performance, the titles and genres that ratcheted up sales, the impact of economic uncertainty and industry changes, and their projections and mood moving into 2023.
While nearly every bookseller PW spoke with is upbeat about the market, some comics shops dealt with a slight downturn on the single-issue comic side in 2022, with the broader graphic novel channel offsetting that dip. Sales there were driven by manga and adult graphic novels. Frustration was expressed, though, about navigating the rapid growth in output from publishers that rushed to capitalize on the hot market. Retailers contended with an overabundance of title options, including variant covers (a quirk of the comics market: alternative covers for single-issue comics designed for collecting purposes). Shoppers like choices, but stores had to gamble on what to stock, resulting in high variance in sales and lengthy ordering processes. The impact of economic uncertainty was also starting to be felt.
But even if anxieties occasionally spiked behind the register, eager fans brought contagious enthusiasm through the door. Comics retailers closed the year optimistic that they’re steering toward a bright future—particularly if some issues are cleaned up along the route.
A “weird” yet successful year
Jenn Haines, the owner of The Dragon in Guelph, Ontario, sums 2022 up as “a bit of a weird one in retrospect.” That’s because shops saw that this year’s largely flat or improved performance came with associated costs. For example, Haines mentions that her two storefronts enjoyed a 13% sales increase over 2021, but that she also closed a third location “in a strategic move” in late August. Her lease was up at an outlet that didn’t grow her customer base as much as it segmented it. The savings on rent allowed her to renovate her flagship shop, a move that’s proved beneficial. “The business is stronger than ever, and 2023 has started just as strong,” Haines says, but “it constantly felt like I was fighting my way to the finish line.”
Others chimed in with similarly contrasting reports. They commented on the unique stress factors that came along with riding out boom times in an ongoing period of change. Everyone in comics retail continues to deal with the ripple effects of the past couple years.
Challengers Comics + Conversation, a comics shop in Chicago, saw sales increase in 2022, but co-owner Patrick Brower admits it took a toll. “It was the most stressful and hectic behind-the-scenes year I think we’ve ever had,” he says. This stemmed from changes in single-issue comic distribution. Challengers is now buying weekly product from five separate distributors, each of which uses drastically different invoicing systems. It takes five times as long as it used to, he explains, meaning the gains the store made came with significant increased workload.
Seth Peagler, the operations manager at Charlotte, N.C., comics shop Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, has faced similar issues. “On paper, 2022 seems to have been a better year than 2021,” he says, though he adds that it required more time and effort to get there. It isn’t just distribution changes, either. The increase in comic titles and variant covers dramatically lengthens the ordering process.
It seemed like even if 2022 was a success on the surface, it was a mixed bag for many retailers. Space Cadets Collection Collection in Oak Ridge North, Tex., saw a sales dip in the second half of the year, according to owner Jen King. “Customers have been much more careful about spending their money,” she speculates. “After the spending spree that was 2021, with the surge in interest in collectibles and the regular influx of stimulus money, it’s a bit of a shock to readjust to the current mindset of our customer base. It’s been a big slowdown.”
There was good news in comments about consumer enthusiasm and increased foot traffic. Alex Hemming, a manager of Los Angeles’s Skylight Books, emphasizes that sales were still high in 2022, even if they normalized “compared to 2021.” He’s seen “a lot of excitement around comics,” he says, with customers expanding their genre horizons.
Brower, who has been a retailer for more than 32 years, echoes that sentiment: “More people are buying comics than ever before.”
And Susanne König, co-owner of Powerhouse Arena, trumpeted sales increases for comics and graphic novels, particularly for younger readers, in all three of her Brooklyn stores.
Hot titles and holiday sellers
Manga continued its remarkable performance last year. Reissues of independent manga and “any horror manga” thrived at Skylight, per Hemming. Space Cadets capitalized on the release of a new My Hero Academia series box set timed for the holidays. Other stores report similarly strong performance.
“In the graphic novel space, manga continued to dominate,” Haines says. “Manga accounted for 30% of our graphic novels sales last year, which was an increase of 5% over 2021. In fact, with sales increasing across the board over last year, our manga sales actually doubled from 2021 to 2022.”
However, retailers once again reported that supply chain troubles made it hard to consistently stock the booming category, though the conditions are improving. And with exploding options, it was also a challenge to simply determine the right series to carry. Brower says he found that “variety is not the answer.” Despite the deluge in first volumes launching each month, Brower believes the store could do just as well “if not better” by simply focusing efforts on top-selling series such as Spy x Family and Chainsaw Man.
Elsewhere, middle grade and YA graphic novels led sales. King describes Space Cadets’ all-ages section as “by far the strongest section in our store,” with its space doubling in 2022 with a similarly significant increase in sales. Dav Pilkey’s latest Cat Kid volume was a top holiday performer for several shops.
Powerhouse almost exclusively focuses on the kids’ market in its graphic novel buying. Brittany Jarvis, children’s book buyer for the store, notes a number of middle grade holiday standouts, including Molly Ostertag’s queer mermaid romance The Girl from the Sea, Christina Soontornvat and Joanna Cacao’s cheerleader drama The Tryout, Sophie Escabasse’s magical family adventure series Witches of Brooklyn, and—as usual—Jeff Kinney’s latest in the bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series leading the way.
“The popularity among kids of a graphic novel is pretty heavily dependent on it being a series,” Jarvis observes. “Of course, there are some amazing standalone graphic novels that have seen success, but kids love series.”
As for adult graphic novels, both comics shops and general bookstores cited Kate Beaton’s graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands as a holiday standout; the account of the cartoonist’s time working in the North Canadian fuel industry appeared on Barack Obama’s reading list and several best-of-year lists, including PW’s top 10. But a surprise top seller, Zoe Thorogood’s creatively drawn autobiographical graphic novel It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth, could have moved even more copies if availability had been consistent, Brower says. The popular Image Comics release was out of print during the holidays, much to the chagrin of the veteran retailer.
Among the surveyed retailers, the graphic novel format was the dominant player in sales gains. For shops focused on serving a more traditional superhero fan base, though, single issues still moved. Peagler reports that “mainstream superhero comics continue to be a predominant driver” for his customers, perhaps unsurprising at a shop named Heroes. Haines emphasizes that DC and Marvel’s offerings “continued to be as strong as they were in 2021,” with superhero favorites such as Deadpool, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man leading the way with debuts of new volumes. The return of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga series was also warmly received.
But Brower, in contrast, saw the single-issue comics format lag. He listed key genres and categories and how they performed at his long-standing fan-base home base in the Midwest, and only three declined: superheroes, single-issue comics, and merchandise like posters and enamel pins. Handselling single-issue titles used to be easy for Brower and his team, he says, but has grown increasingly difficult.
A changing industry and economy
Despite strong sales, retailers faced headwinds and feared fallout from industry and world economic shifts. The instability in the larger economic environment was often cited by booksellers as a cause of concern. An increase in costs, both for consumers and the retailers themselves, forced stores to shift priorities.
König reports that while “paperbacks are flying off the shelves,” hardcovers have become “a harder sell.” And Hemming says that Skylight has had to stop carrying an increasing number of titles simply due to increased shipping costs. Haines notes that increased carrying costs have left The Dragon’s profit margins “slashed,” limiting the traction and gains from increased revenue numbers.
Brower brought up the fact that comics retail packaging supplies—like bags and boards used to protect single-issue comics—have seen three price increases in the past two years (after zero in the previous decade). While customers understand products being out of stock, frequent price increases lead to contentious conversations with loyal collectors.
Comics supplies aren’t the only products increasing in price. Some shops bristled at the unpredictable costs of single-issue comics themselves. Customers continue to be willing to pay as much as $10.99 for one (albeit oversize) single-issue Superman comic, but the concern is that these prices can have a ripple effect. Paying that much for a single release could come at the expense of comics the consumer may have otherwise added to their order. With comics often being nonreturnable in the direct market, that situation leaves shops with inventory that’s unlikely to sell.
The good news, though, is that the supply chain “definitely improved” in 2022, according to König—and most retailers agree. But delayed shipments still occurred, sometimes resulting in mammoth bills when stacked on top of regular weekly deliveries.
Hemming found that full-color products, including comics and art books, “are still seeing significant delays.” King notes that this can impact planning, especially considering some products were so delayed they were assumed canceled.
The three largest North American distributors of comics—Penguin Random House, Diamond Comic Distributors, and Lunar Distribution—seem to have steadied their operations compared to 2021, according to the retailers surveyed. But there’s still progress to be made. Haines—who doubles as the president of ComicsPRO, a trade association for comics retailers—describes each distributor as “emotionally and financially invested in helping retailers,” while also admitting that “not one of them is perfect.” Minor gripes about each distributor compound when retailers toggle between systems; the shift to a multi-distributor model in recent years has resulted in more work for stores.
As Brower notes, “Regardless of the best intentions, there are too many different ways of doing the same thing, on every level, and it makes retail so much more laborious than ever before.”
More books, not enough time
One industry trend all survey respondents noted is the increased output of comics and graphic novels, as publishers followed sales growth with investment in new imprints and titles. For some, the change has been beneficial—a rising tide of variety that lifts all boats. King is thrilled to serve a more diverse selection of readers, and Haines says that diversity “means there are books on my shelf to satisfy any customer.”
Others noted that ordering takes longer, as store buyers navigate and educate themselves about the expanded offerings and variant covers. Differentiating between two or three covers for most titles is difficult enough; when prominent launches or anniversary issues come with dozens of variants, the process becomes overwhelming, and stocking shelves can feel like a guessing game.
Having space for all the product is its own problem. Real estate is always a limiting factor for retailers, and with more titles and variants, they must be “ruthless,” as Brower puts it, in deciding what they can and cannot showcase on a weekly basis. As a result, some shops have changed how they order, including Skylight, which, Hemming says, has had to become more selective.
Brower says that the increase in consumer choices has resulted in a per-title decrease in sales, leading Challengers to change “the way it thinks about ordering every new series.”
Retailers repeatedly brought up the fact that the period of rapid expansion, though fruitful for the overall industry, brought with it the weight of compounding decisions. Peagler believes a “streamlining” would be even more useful for all involved. “This doesn’t seem to be a sustainable progression,” he says. “It is increasingly difficult to make sure that we are filling the requests of all our customers. It also demands more time from the ordering process, as well as the time it takes to process each week’s new shipments.”
The aftermath of the chaos of the pandemic is still unfolding. “The industry seems to be trying to get back to some sort of normalcy,” Peagler says. “And maybe it slowly is, but I don’t think any of us are sure what the new normal is going to look like, be it in the comics industry or life in general.”
Working harder and smarter
Looking into 2023, the buzzword across survey respondents was optimistic—albeit with some uncertainty about how, exactly, stabilizing growth in comics will play out. Most retailers are comics fans themselves and are in it for the community. Peagler credits Heroes’ “loyal customer base” as crucial to the store’s success throughout constant changes within the industry. While other comics shops expand to product lines like gaming and toys, his focus continues to be “purely on comics.” And new fans are born every day—literally.
Powerhouse’s Jarvis celebrated young readers coming to the medium, saying she’s a “big advocate for kids and their desire to read graphic novels,” describing comics as “an amazing tool for deeper or more challenging themes that might be too intense when written as a prose chapter book.”
Potential new fans are everywhere. That’s why King believes that part of the comics industry’s continued growth needs to come from outside the traditional channels. “The industry is going to have to work smarter and harder to optimize its reach to new customers,” she says. “We can go to comic conventions and other related events, but those are already our customer base. We have started an initiative on our end to try and expose other potential customers to our products.”
This effort finds Space Cadets attending and setting up market at all kinds of collector and fan events, in addition to the usual comics conventions. The hope is to discover crossover customers among collectors, whether they’re coming together at horror conventions or craft shows. Fandoms are larger and more disparate than ever, and King hopes to tap into their passion.
Hemming describes the popularity of comics as “a bit of a double-edged sword.” He’s been thrilled about the way recent industry-wide successes have resulted in the return of out-of-print comics, more risk taking among publishers, smaller publishers getting more shine, and an increased array of translated comics coming from other countries. But it’s also “led to a glut of mediocre comics,” he says.
Brower hedged when asked about the future. He’s concerned about recent decisions made by publishers, including cover price increases, less across-the-board promotion, and the release of more product with no clear audience. While he’s certain “the medium of comics is never going away,” he finds himself unsure about where comics—particularly direct-market serials—are headed. “I know they’re not going anywhere, but I think we’ll see several fewer publishers making single-issue comics by the end of the year,” he adds.
The opportunity and challenge for comics going forward is summed up by Haines, an expert in both the micro and macro trends of the industry, in her dual roles as shop owner and at ComicsPRO. She recognizes that there are issues that need to be addressed, but she knows that these also present opportunities—ones that could result in growth. “I truly believe our best year is ahead of us,” she says of 2023, “as we adjust to the changes and work more closely together as a whole on what every single person working in comics wants: a stronger, better industry.”
Comic Charts by Publishers Weekly on Scribd
David Harper runs the subscription comic book site Sktchd and is the host of Off Panel, a weekly comics interview podcast.
This article has been updated for clarity.