It’s time to sing a (mostly) happy 50th birthday to the modern comics shop, though opinions differ on what the future holds for retailers. The direct market—that is, the group of bricks-and-mortar stores that stock periodical comics using a dedicated distribution system—celebrated a half-century run this past year. Despite the increasing popularity of graphic novels and the encroachment of bookstores, many retailers and publishers believe the direct market remains the keystone of comics culture.

“The book market has readers; the direct market has fans,” says Hunter Gorinson, president and publisher of Oni Press. “Even though that audience can be perceived as smaller, sometimes their voice and their contributions to comic book culture far outrank what you would find in bookstores.”

In 2022, according to the latest ICv2 industry report, sales of comics and graphic novels came to about $1.2 billion in the book channel and $735 million in the direct market. That’s a 40% increase for direct market over 2019. Though overall figures for 2023 were not available at press time, ICv2 estimates sales in comics shops are down 8% this past year, per a ComicHub sample, which also shows periodical comics down 5.8% and graphic novels down 11.9%.

Still, overall sales are expected to remain higher than they were before the pandemic. Those sales are spread among the roughly 3,000 independent retail stores worldwide that are, in Gorinson’s words, “the incubator of comics culture.”

Back in 1973, the medium of comics was moving toward more challenging and mature material with stories like “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” in the Amazing Spider-Man series, but comics themselves became harder for readers to source as newsstand distribution was breaking down. Entrepreneur and fan Phil Seuling cut a deal with Marvel, and subsequently DC and Archie Comics, to distribute its series to independent retail shops, setting up the unique system that still defines the direct market.

The industry has evolved as it’s grown in the intervening decades, leveling up even as it has faced diverse challenges. Diamond Comics Distributors, founded in 1982, became the sole major distributor to the direct market in 1996 and a unifying force of sorts for the next 25 years. In 2024, there are now three dominant players, with the addition of Lunar Distribution and Penguin Random House. Toggling between the three distributors has made stocking complicated, and that in turn has spurred retailers to tackle a long-standing fundamental problem: the inconsistency of comics metadata. (See our q&a with Books with Pictures owner Katie Pryde, “Show Me the Data,” p. 26.)

“The local bricks-and-mortar comics shop is a place where you can go and discover,” says Tony Davis, owner of Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Mass., and “a place to find kindred spirits, to hold and thumb through comics—have that tactile experience.”

Comics are fundamental

While most stores carry a mix of periodicals (typified by series like Batman, Superman, or Saga) and graphic novels (from Maus to My Favorite Thing Is Monsters), new periodical comics are “the bread and butter of a good comic shop,” says Bob Moreau, the manager of Westfield Comics in Madison, Wis. Moreau estimates that single issues account for about 30%–40% of sales.

Siena Fallon, COO of the North Carolina retail chain Ultimate Comics, estimates that 50% of sales in their flagship store come from new periodical releases. Pryde, reporting from Portland, Ore., says about 30% of sales in her store are from single issues.

Because of the direct market distribution system, periodical comics sales have a cadence all their own, with retailers placing nonreturnable orders two months in advance and encouraging customers to buy in at that time. Each Wednesday, traditionally the new comic release day, finds customers arriving to pick up preorders. Despite making up less than half of sales (and remaining basically flat relative to inflation from 2010 to 2022, according to ICv2’s report and the stores PW spoke with), periodicals are still seen as essential in the eyes of many.

“When you have a subscription service, a couple hundred people regularly order the same titles,” Davis says. “That’s a foundation for your monthly ordering.” Plus, the boost in foot traffic encourages browsing shelves, resulting in new subscription or one-off purchases.

On the other hand, some buyers balk at committing two months in advance. Moreau says many of his customers didn’t preorder Ultimate Spider-Man #1, the top-selling comic in January (per ComicHub), but the demand was high the week it released. He sold out quickly and had to wait to restock for a second printing scheduled for mid-February.

That delay is a legacy problem for the direct market, where privileging periodical releases hinders backlist and reorders. Avi Ehrlich, publisher of the small press Silver Sprocket, which also has a storefront by the same name in San Francisco, sees the downsides of the focus on frontlist firsthand with the imprint’s graphic novel sales, for which it uses two distributors. While they find Diamond yields higher preorders, Lunar sells more in the long run because it does a better job of keeping its backlist in stock and fulfilling reorders.

Davis concurs, noting trouble stocking the best-selling Dog Man graphic novels for the same reason.

Marketing focus on periodicals can also get in the way of collected edition sales. “Single issues are our hype center,” Pryde says. But when customers say they’re going to wait for the trade, sometimes “there’s no hype around that graphic novel release.”

Where buzz gets born

More Than Meets the Eye, the first volume of the bestselling robots-meet-soldiers Void Rivals series, hit the book market in February, with an announced 40,000-copy initial printing. The power of the direct market to build buzz was evident in summer 2023, when Skybound Entertainment announced it had acquired the Transformers and G.I. Joe licenses not with a press release but with a comic.

Skybound cofounder Robert Kirkman held a marketing call with a group of about 100 retailers a few weeks before final orders were due. After a dramatic pause, Skybound senior v-p and publisher Sean Mackiewicz recalls, Kirkman said, “What I’m about to tell you is top secret.” The reveal was that Jetfire, a Transformer, would appear on the last page of Void Rivals #1, launching a new shared universe uniting Trans-
formers and G.I. Joe.

Not only did the retailers keep the news from leaking but they also ordered an additional 40,000 issues. Fallon estimates she ordered 5,000 at Ultimate, and she gave away a free copy to every customer who picked up their regular preordered comics. The marketing expense was well worth it. “We saw an influx of new customers,” Fallon says, calling the ploy “a playbook” for other publishers to follow.

Following that reveal, Skybound announced three new series set within the same universe: Transformers, written by Daniel Warren Johnson, creator of the Eisner Award–winning graphic novel Do a Powerbomb; and two G.I. Joe limited series, Duke and Cobra Commander. Six months later, Transformers has officially taken over from Batman as the top-selling series at Ultimate. “Having Johnson on Transformers meant we could get our indie people on it,” Fallon says. “We could sell our superhero people on the fact that it’s this connected universe, and then, it’s just good.”

That compounding enthusiasm is what keeps the direct market engine running. Another buzzy example is Dynamite’s relaunch of the Thundercats series, which generated preorders of 170,000 (a huge number in today’s market).

Comics shops are “where younger readers get pulled in and older readers can be reinvigorated,” Davis says. He also believes single issue price points (typically $3.99 to $5.99) “are a cheap way to get into new concepts and discover new creators,” adding that “the graphic novel market doesn’t necessarily afford that chance.”

Books can be comics, too

Some industry insiders believe that comics shops should shift toward a general bookstore model, eschewing the latest periodical comics in favor of a wide and deep selection of comics and graphic novels that can’t be found elsewhere.

The Silver Sprocket store in San Francisco, for instance, operates on a completely different paradigm than most other comics shops: it doesn’t carry monthly comics at all. Its inventory does include graphic novels from publishers such as Abrams, First Second, and Pantheon, but, Ehrlich says, “our specialty is stuff you can’t really get on Amazon,” such as micro-press comics and European imports. Because Ehrlich also publishes comics by local creators, their fans are drawn to the store, an approach they call “bottom-up” retailing. “A lot of comic book stores are very top-down,” they say. “They get the product from Marvel and DC and Image and then sell it to their customers. My favorite stores actually do their own publishing. They have resources to help seed a local comics community of creators.”

Terry Nantier, founder and publisher at NBM, is also doubtful about the future of periodical comics. “Look at the pricing going up all the time for such a short read,” he says. “I just don’t think that that’s sustainable in the long term.” In France, he points out, comics shops are bookstores that only sell graphic novels. As long as North American stores come to “understand they are comic bookstores, and not comic-book stores, they’ll be fine,” he quips.

Whatever the future holds, local comics shops thrive when they deliver what few bookstores can: a “third place” for fans, where they can chat about favorite series, stumble on new ones, and generally geek out.

“There’s gorgeous stuff on the shelves every single week, and your job is to help people find it,” says Pryde. “Your job is to be excited about as many things as possible in your store. Which doesn’t mean you like everything—but you should like comics.”

Brigid Alverson is a regular comics contributor to PW, columnist for School Library Journal, a contributing editor at ICv2, and the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog.

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