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The Coronavirus Outbreak Has Put the Comics Industry Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A collection of back issue comics.
A collection of back issue comics.
Image: Noam Galai (Getty Images)

More and more comic book stores across the United States are having to close their doors because of the ongoing covid-19 outbreak—whether that’s due to state restrictions or an actual lack of new product. One of the biggest questions looming has been what, if any, steps publishers and distributors like Diamond might be able to do to help shops weather the ongoing storm. The answer, of course, is somewhat complicated.

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Today, Marvel Entertainment president Dan Buckley announced in a statement that the comics giant would not be publishing any new titles in physical or digital formats this week, but suggested that may change in the near future as the situation shifts. “This is a fluid situation with details changing every day, so we appreciate your patience and understanding as we all navigate our way through this,” the statement read. “As soon as more information is available, we will outline our longer-term plans and opportunities to support you and the industry.”

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Buckley’s statement came just days after Diamond Comics (the country’s largest comics distributor) initially announced that it was would not be shipping physical comics to stores this month due to multiple points in the company’s supply chain being affected by outbreak-caused closures. Today, Diamond’s parent company, Geppi Family Enterprises, followed that first statement up with another explaining it would not be able to pay publishers like Marvel for the comics they were meant to distribute, because comic book stores that pay Diamond for the books are also being affected by the outbreak.

“The unfortunate truth is that we are no longer receiving consistent payments from our customers,” Geppi Family Enterprises president Stan Heidmann said. “This requires that at this time, we hold payments to vendors previously scheduled to release this week. This is a difficult decision and not one we make lightly.”

When a publisher decides to put out a new title, it gets the ball rolling by having a certain number of individual issues printed out, that Diamond then agrees to buy a certain quantity of. The size of Diamond’s order from a publisher is determined largely by comic book store owners finding comics in Diamond’s preview catalog and letting the company know how many issues their individual store is likely going to be able to sell. If a store owner is able to perfectly guess the precise number of an individual issue that they’re ultimately going to be able to sell, everything more or less ends up working out smoothly, but that’s seldom the case. The success of the Diamond distribution model was always contingent on a constellation of factors lining up ever so precisely to ensure that the system kept chugging along, and it’s far from surprising that a literal pandemic has brought the entire production to a screening halt.

More and more people across the country are practicing social distancing and minimizing the time they spend in public places in order to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, and comic book stores across the country are taking a massive financial hit due to the lack of people coming in to buy things. This is a problem for the larger comics industry for a number of important reasons. Comic book stores have to fight to stay open even in the healthiest of economies, but in a situation like the one the world is currently dealing with, it’s incredibly easy for a store’s daily business to evaporate seemingly overnight. Storeowners have gotten creative and attempted to find ways to keep serving customers with special services like curbside delivery, but on the whole, that’s just not the sort of pivot that every single store is able to do, and it’s doubtful whether it’d be enough to keep them afloat in the long term. Even if consumers were to begin patronizing stores more right now, comics stores won’t actually have any new physical comics to sell because of the general stoppage.

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People losing their businesses and individuals losing their jobs are crises in and of themselves, but in the case of comic book shops, it’s vital to recognize the larger ripple effect that this kind of economic instability has on the industry as a whole. With more shops unable to pay Diamond for comic orders, Diamond’s effectively shut down until further notice and not paying the publishers either. There are many facets to the problem that would be difficult if not impossible to address all at once, but one of the most obvious moves the publishers themselves could make right now would be to continue publishing digitally as planned and using the current moment to encourage more people to begin reading on their phones, tablets, and computers. But again, that doesn’t help comic shops.

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According to a CBR report, this appears to be the route DC will be taking in the immediate future. In a private Facebook group for retailers DC works with, director of marketing services Adam Phillips apparently explained that, from the company’s perspective, people who typically read physical comics and people who read digital comics are two distinct audiences. Given the circumstances, though, DC’s pushing ahead with the release of certain titles digitally that were meant to be released physically.

Because Diamond essentially has a monopoly within the periodical comics industry, in that it has the exclusive distribution deals with most of the major publishing houses, there’s no real way for people to get their hands on new physical comics right now that aren’t indies being sold directly by their creators. This is why what DC’s doing makes a degree of sense—because while Diamond may control the distribution channels, it doesn’t actually own the IP to the comics it sells, meaning publishers are free to sell them digitally should they choose to do so.

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Many people are stuck in their homes and want to read comics; being able to download them with the press of a button is incredibly convenient. At the same time, though, a widespread shift toward a predominantly digital model would put traditional comic shops in an incredibly difficult position—so much of their livelihoods depend on the old system functioning as it always has. It’s difficult to know precisely what sort of structural innovation within the comics space could adequately address the economic crisis that the covid-19 outbreak has caused, but as the pandemic rages on, these are exactly the sort of impacts that more and more industries are going to have to brace themselves for.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

alliterator85
alliterator

There are a lot of problems now:

  • Without physical comics being delivered, comic book shops are going to lose money and a lot might shut down permanently. This isn’t just bad for the comic book shops themselves — it’s bad for comic book companies, since physical sales still tend to dominate over digital sales.
  • At the same time, however, not selling any comics, physical or digital, might mean that Marvel and DC have to stop producing comics, which means they have to stop paying their writers, pencilers, et cetera, i.e. freelancers who depend on that money for their livelihood. Some DC freelancers have already been told “pencils down,” while Marvel has stated that they will continue paying freelancers, but who knows for how long.
  • It also doesn’t help that Diamond Distribution is the sole distribution company for single issue comics (“floppies”), giving them an absolute monopoly. Having one distribution company was an issue back when they were still delivering comics; now that they aren’t, it’s a crisis for the industry, one that both Marvel and DC are looking into, apparently.

Everything depends on how long the coronavirus crisis lasts. A month or two and comics might be able to go back to the way things were. Six months and comics will be changed forever — for good or bad.