California is an important center for the comics business, with DC Comics and Legendary Comics based in Burbank, Boom! Studios and Humanoids in Los Angeles, IDW in San Diego, and Viz Media in San Francisco. The proximity to television and film producers is a draw for publishers that are interested in developing their properties for nonprint media—and, as Filip Sablik, president of publishing and marketing for Boom (and former East Coast resident), points out, “It’s pretty great that 90% of the year it’s sunny outside.”
In a year that has (so far) included the Covid-19 pandemic, political unrest, and wildfires all along the West Coast, publishers have had to be nimble. The closure of many bricks-and-mortar stores affected all types of publishing, and comics publishers had an additional challenge: Diamond Comics Distributors, the sole distributor to comics shops, suspended operations from late March until late May. We asked California-based comics publishers to describe how they have weathered 2020. DC declined our request for an interview, but the others had plenty to say.
“2020 has been chaotic for sure,” says Jann Jones, manager of brand development and publishing operations for Legendary Comics. “I think the biggest change we’ve made is to be more flexible with each other, our talent, and our coworkers. While it’s hard to predict where the publishing market will land, we are trying to be proactive in terms of our schedule and marketing plans.”
Like all nonessential businesses, comics publishers had to close their offices on short notice in March. At Humanoids, CEO Fabrice Giger announced that the company would not furlough employees or stop work on projects in progress. “That is the glue that held us together,” says publisher Mark Waid—“that we didn’t have to lose morale by furloughing or asking creators to put pencils down.”
The response was the same at Boom. “To put it very simply, instead of going pencils down, we doubled down,” Sablik says. “We pushed forward, and we believed that folks would want great stories to read during this time. It’s been really gratifying to see that that belief has been rewarded as we have gotten into the year.”
IDW also made a quick pivot. “We increased our sales and marketing efforts focused on our robust and diverse backlist catalog rather than being primarily driven by frontlist promotions,” says Blake Kobashigawa, v-p of sales. “Our traditional bricks-and-mortar sales channels closed down almost overnight, so prioritizing online retail became paramount. Marketing plans had to change focus to email, social media, video, and virtual events, in response to the halt of in-person conventions and trade shows.”
Viz did not change its publication schedule at all. “As long as we were convinced that the supply chain could be done correctly and safely and people were not being put at risk, from printers and binderies to trucking companies to Simon & Schuster and Diamond, we were not going to alter our publication schedule,” says Kevin Hamric, v-p of publishing sales. That turned out to be a winning plan. “Sales are fantastic,” he adds. “We are over our revenue budget goals.”
Backlist titles are selling particularly well, as readers with time on their hands explore older series. “The number of reprints we have been doing through this pandemic is something I have never seen at Viz,” Hamric says. “There are books we have never reprinted that we are now reprinting.”
E-book sales hit an all-time high in April, May, and June, and online sales were strong as well. “Even when Diamond was shut down totally, the owners of independent comic and book shops stepped up,” Hamric says, “delivering books and comics to their readers in their own cars, using Uber and Lyft, setting up tables at the doors into their stores where people could just walk up and get their books. They did what it took to keep the lights on and the doors open.”
IDW leaned on a strong backlist as well, with titles such as Locke & Key (recently adapted into a Netflix series) and the late John Lewis’s memoir March continuing to sell well throughout the pandemic.
Digital sales remained strong for Legendary, and Jones says the company has been looking for ways to make its comics more available on digital platforms.
For some publishers, the events of this year have accelerated a move from monthly comics to other formats. “Over the past few years, we have shifted away from the floppies and monthlies,” Jones says. “And 2020 has only cemented our current plan to release our books as graphic novels or on digital platforms like Webtoon.”
Humanoids pushed back its publishing schedule and canceled the last few issues of some comics series, instead including them as chapters when the series are compiled into graphic novels. “I think for smaller publishers this is another nail in the coffin of periodical comics,” Waid says. At Humanoids, the focus is now firmly on graphic novels.
Humanoids also has the advantage of being an international publisher, with offices in Paris and Los Angeles. “If we were reliant strictly on the American market, I don’t know that we would still be around,” Waid says. “So we are doing even more co-printing of books with our Paris office, and we are coordinating our publishing schedules a lot more closely.”
According to Sablik, “The trade show and convention schedule was massively impacted. Even before we started to get information from our trade show and convention partners, we had already made an internal decision that we would not be asking our staff or creators to attend any large, live events until the management team would feel safe going into that space.”
That meant refocusing Boom’s publicity, marketing, and community outreach events. Sablik says his team rose to the challenge: “We had a couple of people who learned brand-new jobs on the fly and have been remarkably successful with that. In a matter of weeks we were producing our first virtual panel.” Now the publisher is producing a weekly series of video chats in which members of the marketing team interview creators of upcoming books.
Similarly, Legendary found new opportunities this year. “The emergence of the online convention panel has been really good for us,” Jones says. “We’re able to reach a much wider audience through these events, and that is exciting. We also have the opportunity to introduce audiences to more of our creators, as Zoom has really opened up how people can participate from wherever they are in the world.”
One lasting legacy of 2020 will be the push for social justice led by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has publishers thinking about how to open up the market even more. “We are making a concerted effort to champion diverse voices and introduce unique perspectives into our work, which we believe will make comics even more inviting to a larger audience,” Jones says.
“We have always worked to be representational and diverse in our material, but if anything, from what the last six months has shown us, we have to triple down on that,” Waid says. “And happily so. We are not Warner Bros. We are not Disney. It’s like steering a battleship in those places. We are in a speedboat, and we have the opportunity to be more political, more contemporary, and take more chances on the kind of materials we publish. ‘Be transgressive’ is our office motto. So, if anything, we are more committed to that than ever before.”
Brigid Alverson is a comics journalist and the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal.