Fear and lack of vision has seriously damaged our beloved comicbook industry.
Decades ago, the newsstand distribution system was crumbling under the weight of fraud and vanishing mom-and-pop drugstores. Some very smart and clever folks created and built the direct sales market, which flourished in the ’90s with over 8,000 comics shops and a dozen distributors.
In their lack of vision, publishers let the newsstand market die without fostering a replacement, behaving as though the direct market would continue to grow. Marvel, in its corporate greed, shattered the direct market by trying to distribute its own product at the expense of the entire industry; eleven distributors vanished, leaving one to service, poorly, an ever-shrinking niche market of comics shops.
Even while watching their market deteriorate, publishers did little to rebuild. A few comics made it into Barnes & Nobles or Walmart. But the market became so small there are kids today who only know the superheroes from the movies, TV, cartoons, and games — who have never held a comic book in their hands. And as we endure a pandemic that causes even more comics shops to close, the lone distributor to shutter for a while, and publishers fire staff and bunker down and wait for the pandemic to pass, publishers do nothing significant to help themselves.
They never grew out of their complacency in the ’90s. When comics publishers were raking in many millions during the boom of the ’90s, how much of their bountiful harvest was put into new distribution development? When Marvel shattered the market for everyone including itself, how much did they put into building new distribution. The lack of that foresight in the industry brings us to today.
The market needs folks with the vision the direct market founders had, to make new inroads where no comics have gone before, to make comics accessible and cheap impulse buys again. The publishers, in tandem with that new world of distribution, need to experiment for formats and sizes and cheap paper stocks. $4 for a 32-page pamphlet is ridiculous when, based on inflation, a 12-cent comic in 1962 should cost $1.03 in 2020. Warren-style black-and-white magazines, digests, Treasury-sized comics, and much more should be the name of the game in new, fresh distribution markets.
The accessible-everywhere comics would then be far cheaper to produce per copy, and the large circulation would entice the return of paid advertising which would offset the print bills. It’s insane that movies (accessible everywhere) based on comics (accessible almost nowhere) are among the world’s biggest moneymakers, yet the source material is coughing up blood.
Comics are an amazing commercial entertainment enterprise and one heck of an art form. But people need easy access to want to read them. Candy bars are at every checkout lane for a reason. If you had to go to a specialty store 60 miles away to buy your Snickers bars or your kids’ Kit-Kat, would you seriously make the effort every week?