As of Sunday 12th April 2020, there were over 1.78 million worldwide reported cases of COVID-19, with the assumption that actual numbers of infection are far higher, due to shortfalls in nations’ testing regimes. The Financial Times’ reporting of John Hopkins data suggests that while Spain and Italy are showing plateaus in the deaths caused by COVID-19 infections, the majority of countries with outbreaks, including the US, are still seeing an acceleration in these figures. New Scientist this week reported on three potential exit strategies for nationwide lockdowns that are currently in effect:
1) Hold - by waiting until infection numbers plateau to near-zero, before shifting to aggressive containment of any fresh outbreaks;
2) Build - allowing existing healthcare infrastructure to recover from the first wave of infections, before increasing existing healthcare infrastructure to cope with a second;
3) Shield - dropping lockdowns while extensively protecting those in at-risk categories, such as immunocompromised patients and the elderly.
However, due to the number of asymptomatic cases that the disease is causing, resources needed to build infrastructure to sufficient levels, and countries’ failure to implement proper testing/contact-tracing programs for suspected cases, the above strategies carry with them a very clear risk of second-waves of outbreaks, in the absence of a vaccine for the disease.
Given the relatively long incubation period of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, countries are seeing periods of up to a month pass before the beneficial effects of social-distancing protocols can be reported, resulting in protracted closures to large sections of the economy, which the World Trade Organisation predicts will cause a fall in trade of up to 32% globally. Closures of all but essential businesses are also causing record levels of joblessness, with Bloomberg reporting that the US will experience a 25% fall in GDP, and see unemployment hit 12.6%, a figure not seen since the Great Depression. This rise in people out of work, coupled with an inability to physically visit stores, is having a demonstrable effect on the retail sector, as you’d expect, and The New York Times is reporting close to a 75% decline in sales of books, compared to this time last year.
Even if the current administration does operate counter to World Health Organisation advice, and lift restrictions prematurely as a number of European nations are doing, urban areas can likely expect a gradual restarting of the economy, rather than a quick return to business-as-usual. As the pandemic progresses, and individuals, communities and businesses adapt to lockdowns, long-term business planning needs to be entered into if a return to pre-COVID normality does indeed rest on the development of a vaccine, given the far-reaching implications that will have on the economy. We’re starting to see this filter through to the comics industry and the wider community, not just limited to the direct market.
As always, due to the speed at which this situation is developing, it is highly recommended to look to local health directives, with regards to current best-practices, and specific stay-at-home/shelter-in-place requirements, as well as the World Health Organisation’s resources and advice for the public.
As small businesses and creators adapt to the new economics of the pandemic, and the struggles it brings with it, a number of new sources of financial relief/guidance are becoming available:
• As well as their list of financial aid sources for businesses and comics creators/employees, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has a set of resources for remote retailing and stores engaging with their customers online, as retailers shift to e-commerce, with an upcoming webinar on utilizing social media.
• The stimulus bills (including the CARES Act) passed recently in the US contain provisions for aiding retailers and small businesses, including tax credits for employee wages and paycheck protection loans, while Economic Impact Payments have been expanded to include those who would not normally file with the IRS.
• Artist Relief, a coalition of national arts grantmakers, is distributing $5,000 grants to artists experiencing dire financial emergencies, who have resided/been working in the US for the past 2 years and are over 21 years of age, and applications to the program are open now until April 24th.
• The Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) have a number of funding schemes (supported by various publishers) open to comic retailers, bookstores, and booksellers, with applications for financial relief open now until April 27th, and expedited applications available for individuals.
• Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld are continuing to auction off sketches, and you can catch up with the support they’ve been able to give to comics retailers so far in The Hollywood Reporter’s round-up, including some interviews with recipients.
After last week’s upheaval in the direct market, Diamond Comics followed up their stoppage of payments to vendors with implementation of a partial payment scheme of 25% monies owed over the next 6 weeks, and the remaining 75% of deferred payments being issued in equal portions spread across 13 weeks following that. Diamond’s senior leadership team are also taking 50% pay cuts, and the company is receiving payment holidays from landlords and “other providers of professional services”.
However, this leaves publishers with a 75% shortfall of expected revenue for the next 6 weeks during a time when economic uncertainty is already rife, with Image Comics having laid off 4 staffers due to the pandemic, and questions still remain as to Diamond’s cash flow and credit lines, in the face of this (self-described) ‘aggressive action’. The temptation for individuals to throw “easy” solutions for saving comics out into the air is apparently a strong one; and Image Comics recently released a statement reiterating their position in supporting local stores, following quickly after a fairly tone-deaf interview with company-president Todd McFarlane, promoting his crowd-funding campaign for a new Spawn toy (which, incidentally, has raised over $1 million in less than a week).
As the pandemic progresses, publishers are starting to implement long-term plans for how their titles will be released over the coming months, attempting to avoid flooding the market once a semblance of normality returns, and pausing work schedules where necessary.
The Beat have been updating on specific publishers’ plans, but the general thrust appears to be those publishers reliant on Direct Market channels halting releases during April/May, looking to the future for re-scheduling releases for new titles, and more flexibility for those publishers with access to book channels. Recent updates include:
• Humanoids shifting all planned releases up to June to September/October schedules;
• Valiant giving a pencils down order and steering clear of digital-only releases for new titles, as well as a change in the senior editorial team;
• Shonen Jump have temporarily delayed their weekly publication schedules after a member of the editorial staff was diagnosed with COVID-19;
• Lion Forge announced a deal with Starlight Culture Entertainment to produce a COVID-19 focused animation, which comes after the dismissal of all employees at Lion Forge Labs earlier this month;
• Tokyopop have announced their April and May titles will be delayed, due to various parts of their publishing chain having shut down operations due to the pandemic; and Seven Seas’ manga distribution has a mixed publication schedule for the next two months, depending on whether they’re linked to the book channel or Diamond Distribution;
• Rebellion have responded to the pandemic with a rescheduling of graphic novels ranging from a few months to being bumped through to 2021, while their weekly and monthly periodicals (including 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine) will be printed and distributed as normal.
Ultimately, publishers’ options remain linked to their access to book channels - those tied to Diamond’s distribution system are likely going to be in a state of limbo until such time as the direct market returns, or alternate (viable) channels can be implemented. As the majority of direct market publishers appear to be eschewing digital distribution for new titles, in favor of supporting bricks-and-mortar stores, a number of them have taken to embracing the promotion of existing books that can be purchased via #NTYCBD, or New To You Comic Book Day.
The rescheduling of most publishers’ new releases to late summer (at the earliest) also reflects the cancellation of most summer comics events, traditionally the venues in which these would be launched. The main hold-out on this front is still San Diego Comic Con, the cancellation of which could have serious repercussions for the licensed book market, which has so far been able to weather the storm, thanks to sales in essential businesses like Target and Walmart. The size of SDCC at this point means that preparing to cancel the event involves a lot of stakeholders, including local tourism authorities, and the event organizers promise a statement on the decision soon, but the suggestion of a move to an “online component” gives an idea of what to expect.
Digital programming would seem to be the order of the day, when it comes to comic events for the foreseeable future, and a number of announcements were made over the last week with regards to online “virtual” conventions for this year, including:
• First Second’s Comics Relief Festival, which includes programming looking at the various stages of how comics are made, and will take place on Saturday 18th April;
• Mainframe Comic Con, which will be broadcasting live from Chicago Comics, with virtual appearances from guests and publishers, taking place across the weekend of the 25th and 26th April;
• Due to the temporary closure of the Cartoon Art Museum, the Queer Comics Expo will be moving online, with a free virtual convention, including an artist’s alley and livestreaming programming, taking place on the 16th and 17th May, with registration and exhibitor applications open now;
• The East London Comics Art Festival have announced that 2020’s edition will be taking place online, with a formal launch for the digital edition coming in July;
• The Hero Initiative are launching a number of fundraising experiences today, with the roll-out of Hero Initiative Live events, which will allow comic fans to virtually connect with creators, during the pandemic, raising money for comic creators who need emergency medical aid.
I’d like to close out this week’s update by highlighting a sentiment raised by Earth Prime Comics’ Damon Savage, in Keith Silva’s interview with him last week, here at TCJ.
Comics, whether being bought from stores, direct from creators, or from those publishers with online distro, are being helped massively by mail orders, and those who continue to carry them, putting their own health at risk to do so, at a time when the current administration is increasingly hostile towards the USPS.
So, as Damon puts it - “Let no one ever again doubt the work ethic or the loyalty of FedEx, UPS or USPS workers. FUCKING GANGSTERS! Each and every one!”