When Bruno Batista and John Hendrick set up Big Bang Comics in Dublin’s Dundrum Town Centre 12 years ago, they hoped it would break out of the stereotypical mold for comic shops, and serve as a welcoming, ecumenical home for all varieties of Irish comic fans. In the years since, the co-owners have found their store becoming more than that: not only a central locus of the Irish comics scene (if not the British Isles as a whole), but a shop on the front lines of a transforming industry.
They’ve also been among the most outspoken voices when it comes to the problems and existential concerns facing the current comic market - speaking out on social media and in interviews about whether the monthly, single-issue direct market can long survive, and championing the need for greater diversification for publishers and retailers alike.
The Comics Journal recently sat down with Bruno after a long Saturday’s work in the shop, to talk to him about Big Bang’s place in the Dublin comics scene, the troubles of the direct market, and where comic shop retail is headed from here. Curious shoppers can browse Big Bang’s online catalog at their website.
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The Comics Journal: We’ll start with some background. How long have you been in comics retail, and how did you get into it?
Bruno Batista: I started doing comics retail back in 2004, and that was still in Portugal, where I’m from. And I started with the time-honored tradition of the guy that owns the shop going, "Hey, you’re here a lot of the time, you want to come in and work for me?" Which I think is how most kids start working in comic shops.
So you were a reader of comics in Portugal before you moved to Dublin.
Oh, yeah, very much. I’ve been reading since I started with translations of Disney comics. I started with Brazilian comics, which is a very huge market that we never talk about over here, and then I started reading the reprints of the DC and Marvel comics - I would have been probably seven, eight years old when I started reading superheroes.
So how does the comic scene in Dublin differ from the comic scene in Portugal?
When I left Portugal in 2006, there wasn’t much of a scene. There were a few people trying to do European comics, but there wasn’t much of a connective tissue apart from this monthly meetup of old fellas, literally in their 60s, writing comics-- sorry, not comics, bandes dessinées. Since time immemorial they all get together for dinner. But there wasn’t much of a scene when it comes to younger creators, whereas when I moved to Ireland, my colleague John Hendrick and I made a big effort with events, signings, after signings going for drinks, getting everyone together. And I think that helps a lot with the local scene. But there was a much bigger unity when it comes to creators in Ireland than I’ve seen in countries like Portugal or even the US.
What about readers? What are you stocking, and what’s selling at Big Bang?
We’re part of a big shopping center, which is one of the biggest ones in the country, which means we get a lot of families, we get a lot of kids, we get a lot of first-time readers - a lot of people that watch the Marvel movies in the cinema. So where we are, it’s a different scene then it would be downtown, where a lot of the more “classic” customers go to. We still sell all the superhero stuff, we still sell a lot of Image. But we sell a lot of manga. We sell a lot of graphic novels for kids - we sell a lot of graphic novels period, for customers that will not read, or even think about reading, comics every month. We’re very much a family store, in that sense. We don’t have boxes of back issues on the shop floor. We have lots of graphic novels, lots of action figures, lots of stuff for the more common customer, as opposed to the core, single-issue customer.
Has there been a trend where you’re seeing the proportion and popularity of those things change over the time you’ve been with the shop? Has manga, for instance, been getting more popular?
Over the last 11 years, we kind of saw the rise of Image, for example, as a big mover of graphic novels between The Walking Dead and Saga, and a lot of very popular series. We were still here when Vertigo was a very hot thing and sold a lot of trades. Manga built up slowly, not just in the Irish market, but in the Anglo-American market - Ireland, the UK, and the US, which are very similar in terms of content.
Manga was a thing that took a bit longer to arrive to these shores compared to, say, France or Spain, where the manga market is much more mature, and much broader in terms of what’s available. But definitely we went from nothing to a couple of volumes of Dragon Ball and Bleach and Naruto, to like three, four, five, eight [Ikea] BILLY bookshelves of manga at the moment. Which is double what we had even two years ago. The only problem we’ve had with manga has been the lack of availability, because a lot of it’s been out of print for a long time. But otherwise, if we have them, they’ll sell.
Has the bread-and-butter of the shop been changing as a result, or is it still sort of traditional, American superheroes?
With the single issues, yes, the core has always been the Marvel and DC stuff, with exceptions like Saga or Something is Killing the Children. The books that do really well are your bread-and-butter like your Spider-Mans or your Batmans. For the graphic novels it’s not as much: we still sell a lot of Batman, because that’s always going to sell, but we also sell a lot of other stuff that’s not tangentially related to Batman at all. It’s not superheroes, [the way it is] with the single issues.
So at this point, what proportion of what you’re selling is monthly single issues as opposed to other forms of comics - trade paperbacks, original graphic novels, or whatever else?
From the top of my head, I think comic single issues would be around 30%, but that’s a very rough number - it could be 35%, it could be 40%. But we also do really well with action figures: that’s a massive market for us in the last two years. And some people have been joking that we sold out because there’s so many action figures in the shop now, and we’re like, “No, we just have to make money.” But making money on this thing allows for those [comics] to be on the shelf. So I’d say, again from the top of my head, like half of what we do now is action figures. Last year, everything is on the rise. Last year has been our best year ever, which is something I think you’ll hear from a lot of shops about last year.
You’ve been pretty vocal about the problems that comics are experiencing as an industry with regard to single issues and the direct market. Describe for me what you see as some of the troubles with that model right now.
The comics direct market-- so we’re talking American, mostly superheroes, the big companies. During the pandemic, unlike other industries, comic companies couldn’t publish fast enough. They just needed more. And as most comic companies do, they were trying to capitalize on the short [term] as opposed to planning for the long. So you started seeing a lot of releases of comics that don’t seem to have an actual audience - don’t seem to have a purpose for existing.
There’s a lot of variant covers there. There’s no need for a comic to have 30 variant covers, but, you know, Gargoyles issue #1 from Dynamite [Dec. 2022] had, I think, 30 covers, because the naming on those variants was A, B, C, D, and went all the way up to cover Z. And it’s been such a short-sighted focus on what can make money now, instead of what can make the industry more money later. There’s always been a market for variants and stuff like that. But all of a sudden everything has, like, four or five covers, and the market can’t take it.
That’s one of the big problems. Another problem, like I said before, is the release of so many series. And I’m not just talking about smaller publishers: you started seeing releases from Marvel and DC with superheroes that are big enough names, but [the extra series] don’t have any traction. I think the market, and by the market I mean mostly the customers, are not buying what people want to sell. A lot of customers seem to have lost trust in the publishers more than ever. I don’t see many customers being excited by what they’re reading. It used to be that they can pick up their pull list and go, “Oh, yeah, let’s read the latest whatever, that’s really good.” And now it’s rare that any customers tell me “I’m really enjoying what I’m reading.”
Is there any publisher that you’re seeing this from more than others?
No, everyone, and that’s the problem. Take Image: it seems like there’s such a discrepancy between, say, Saga and everyone else. It’s such a gap in popularity, in sales, in excitement. I’m using Image because it’s an easy example - Saga is like the flag-carrier for all that is good in comics, and it seems like Image as a publisher is finding it hard to find anything else that goes up to those heights.
But at the same time you have Marvel and DC that have characters like Batman and Spider-Man that are gold mines, you know? They’re the ones that people came in for the first time to the shop. And [the publishers] keep throwing stuff at the wall, and they cannot seem to replicate that success. They keep going to the same well again and again, and there’s more and more fatigue from customers about, you know, “Do I really need a 7th Batman title, or a 3rd Spider-Man title?” There’s too much stuff, and it feels like none of it is very exciting.
So are you still putting those books on the shelf, or are you just not buying them?
Less. Last year, we changed the way we put up comics. We actually have less space for comics after issue #3 - we only really order for pre-orders, and like one or two more for the shelf. There’s no point. So I’ll normally order big on issue #1s, and then it’s a matter of trying to reduce the footprint as much as I can, because whatever doesn’t sell, it’s stuck in the back in longboxes that I’ll have to sell off one day for 50 cents. I find that issue #1s go really well with customers, but I’d say maybe 10% come back looking for an issue #2. And these are regular customers and new customers. It’s crazy.
Is that because they’re just not liking the series, or because they bought issue #1 as speculation?
No, the majority of people that I see going to those shelves are kids. They are people coming in who want try comics, or feel like dipping their toes in a new series. I don’t know - I don’t think it’s a quality thing. I don’t think comics are worse than what they were. I think it’s sort of more complicated for new readers to come in and pick up an issue #1, and realize you don’t have the background that you need to understand 60 years' worth of Spider-Man, or what the hell is [X-Men character] Madelyne Pryor. I cannot explain to you what’s going on. What I can tell you is that it’s something I see with single issues. Whereas if someone comes in to buy a volume 1 of a manga or graphic novel, it is way more likely that they will come back for volume 2.
Yeah, that’s why I asked whether this is driven by people who are just buying first issues as speculation in case the series became big.
No, we used to have those. They were more prominent around a year and a half ago, but those customers have died off for us. I think it’s funny, because they were buying stuff from us and putting them on eBay, and we saw what they were putting on sale, and the stuff that they were trying to get 50 quid for that they bought for 5 quid wasn’t selling. And I think a lot of them kind of went, “This is actually going nowhere.” It’s sort of like the NFT stuff, you know?
So if you’re seeing sales drop off across the board between issues #1 and #2 of new series, how do you get any new series to catch on? If you’re a creator doing an independent series for Image, and if you know sales are going to vanish after the first issue, what do you do to keep people buying?
Well, apparently you put lot of variants on issue #1, and you have to make the money then. I don’t think there’s an answer. I just think it’s a really bad time to release anything new. And it’s not just the [comics] market, it everything: it’s the economy, it’s inflation, it’s people getting fired.
How are you surviving as a shop, then?
As a shop, we’ve long stopped depending on single issues. We sell more graphic novels than we sell single issues. We sell a lot of action figures. The future of the comic shop is mostly going to be as pop culture shops. Shops that just sell single issues, I don’t think they’re sustainable in the long run. And it actually takes a lot more work now to sell comics than it did two years ago. There’s so many things with the different suppliers, it is actually more difficult to sell a single issue now than before.
But isn’t this sort of a long-term crisis in the making? Because without single issues as the initial source of those stories, how do you get the comics to put into graphic novels? How do you get the new characters to turn into t-shirts, or action figures, or other forms of pop culture?
But that’s a very American way of looking at it. Whereas instead of thinking in single issues, the European market gets graphic novels: there are just bundles that come out each year. There’s a new volume of Asterix , or, you know, manga: even though you do have the chapters in the Shonen Jump app, for example, in America, for most customers, manga single issues aren’t necessary. I think [single issues] are a part of the direct market, the backbone of it, but I don’t think they are the end-all, be-all. Creators will see them as an extra form of income before they get to the graphic novel, or an easy way of raising awareness of what’s coming up: “Here’s our issue #1, and there will be a volume 1 [graphic novel] in six months.”
But single issues, as a cost proposition, are slightly ridiculous. They’re very expensive for what they are. Not that anyone still buys blu-rays, but imagine if instead of buying a box set, you had to buy every single episode for $5. No one does that. It’s sort of a relic of times past. For a new reader, the idea of paying $4 every month for a bit of a story-- I don’t think it’s as enticing unless you’ve read comics your entire life. And that’s why you have publishers trying to push as many variant covers as they can, because they know they’re trying to sell more to the same people, as opposed to trying to sell to new people.
So if you were to speculate, would you say that the future of the comics market is going to be in that sort of graphic novel-first model, like it’s always been in the European market, and like we’ve even seen some American creators start to do, like Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips?
Right, look at Reckless [the aforementioned Brubaker & Phillips series], for example. I think that’s a conversation that’s been happening for the last 20 years: maybe the OGNs are going to replace monthlies, and it hasn’t happened yet. I think it’s going to take an actual generational shift. I think we’re going to have to die before that happens - you know, people like you and me that have read single issues for so long. In 20 years' time, I could see a future where DC has 10 monthly comics and the rest are OGNs.
Is it going to happen in our lifetime? Probably not. I don’t think this is a sky-is-falling situation. I think what’s happening, though, is that a lot of retailers tend to believe that publishers are their best friends. We want to believe that the people we’re working with also have our best interests at heart. And I think even those more hardcore retailers are going, “Actually, wait a minute, [the publishers] are doing what they need to survive.” I think last year there was a growing awareness we’re alone here, you know? The big guys aren’t going to come in and save us, and save the industry. Marvel and DC are in this to make money, and we can work with that, or we can sit back and hope for things to change. It’s not going to happen. The cat is well out of the bag.
This has been a really good and frank discussion about some of the problems facing comics retail, but what has you excited about comics right now?
I fucking love comics. I’ve loved comics since I was a kid. I finally sat down to read Zoe Thorogood’s It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth. It’s amazing. It’s also out-of-print. But there’s still so much good stuff coming out: it’s not just mainstream Marvel comics. And, look, I love Kieron Gillen. I love Al Ewing. I love Tom Taylor. But I just get bogged down by the fact that whenever I sit down to the [final order cut-offs], it’s 17 covers for one comic, and constant relaunches.
But as a creative industry, I think we’re seeing some of the best stuff right now. You have new voices: someone like Ram V, with The Many Deaths of Laila Starr. Ram is really going to go amazing places. There’s so many people doing such amazing work, and it kills me that the publishers are so held down by “what if we did another variant” as opposed to publishing stuff for new customers.
So have you been able to get customers who come in for superhero comics, or because they saw Marvel movies, interested in people like Zoe Thorogood, or Kate Beaton, or Ho Che Anderson? People that they might not otherwise have known about?
Yeah, all the time. We’ve always trained our customers to diversity their reading. We always recommend, “If you like this, read this.” If you like Gillen, try [his non-superhero series] DIE or Once & Future, kind of get people into different publishers. And then it’s easier to get them to read other creators they might not know about. I want you to read more stuff because, inevitably, you will get tired of superheroes. And you either quit comics completely, or you go, “You know what? I’m going to read more Image stuff instead.” And we’ve been training our customers to do that ever since we started. It’s in our interest for that to happen, that the customer doesn’t get sick of comics. And it’s also in their interest to open their horizons to new creators and books.
Because there’s no such thing as comics marketing, you know? Marketing is a post on Twitter and Instagram, and if you read Batman, you might see an ad for Nightwing. There’s no coverage by the press for comics that aren’t just Wham! Bam! Pow! Batman. And in continental Europe, bandes desinées are recognized more as an art form, and you’ll see papers having reviews of graphic novels.
How do you change that perception in Anglo-American comics, then?
I have no idea. Start putting out ads in newspapers, and maybe publishers sending copies of graphic novels to reviewers. Maybe they already are, and maybe newspaper reviewers don’t want to review them. But there needs to be more proactive action to get people to understand that comics are fucking amazing.