As of Friday 3rd April 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has surpassed 1 million recorded cases around the world, with the US currently tracking with both the most cases and the highest daily death-count. While continental European nations, such as Italy and Spain, are starting to see a plateauing of their numbers, thanks to strict lockdowns, the US is currently in the acceleration phase of its outbreak. To-date, 43 states have issued stay-at-home orders, in order to prevent the overwhelming of healthcare infrastructure. A regularly updated list of lockdowns, with full details as to each state’s order, can be found on the CNN website.
The current US administration has confirmed that federal social-distancing guidelines will remain in place until the end of April, at the earliest, but the forecasting for these measures is seen by many as a long-term prospect. While China, where the virus is believed to have originated, is now shifting into a suppression model for their domestic outbreak; the US, much like the UK, has failed to implement stringent testing and contact-tracing protocols, which are seen as fundamental to preventing rapid spread through communities. It’s also early days in terms of determining whether to expect follow-up waves of infection, in areas where outbreaks have initially plateaued, as the strength of the immune-response to the virus is still unknown.
Given the above, the measures in place in areas still seeing acceleration of numbers infected within the populace are very much necessary. However, these restrictions are also having a clear and sustained effect on unemployment numbers, currently at a record high in the US, due to business closures. As the comics industry reacts to this rapidly-changing situation, there have been a number of developments throughout the last week, both with regards to the direct market and independent creators.
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.
For those businesses and creators struggling financially, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has a comprehensive list of resources available throughout the US, as well as an upcoming webinar on Wednesday 3rd April with instructions on how to access government relief loans for businesses. The Beat is also using its small press and indie comics news round-up articles to bring together emergency funding sources, with details of programs in the US and Canada, available to artists struggling because of the pandemic.
While temporary hospitals continue to be built in repurposed convention centers around the world, ReedPOP and SDCC still remain hopeful as to their upcoming summer media events. However, given that the first recorded case in the COVID-19 outbreak in China happened in November, and their government is only just moving to suppression rather than containment 5 months later, with staggered lifting of lockdowns, a ‘business-as-usual’ view to summer months in the US would seem premature. Delaying decisions to cancel large-scale events are financially hurting those who attend, in an already uncertain time, as they attempt to navigate the refund systems of a travel industry also in flux. Reacting to the situation, the small-press/zine community have taken a more practical approach to loss of income from cancelled events, with Denver’s is PRESS holding the inaugural Quaranzine Fest across social media at the weekend. If you’re looking for ways to support small-press and zine creators at the moment, then looking up #QuaranzineFest on the popular channels is a good place to start.
Compounding issues for comics retailers around the country, the direct market had an extremely tumultuous week; one that was difficult to keep pace with, at times. On Tuesday 31st March, following their shutdown of comic deliveries a week previously, Diamond Comic Distributors reported that they would also be stopping payments to vendors, which, given their monopoly of distribution, is likely to hit mid- and small-scale suppliers hard, with knock-on effects to the creators who work for them. Publishers continue to show varied responses to the shutdown of direct market distribution, and The Beat has a comprehensive round-up of these, but the actions of Diamond in this regard can’t be expected to help business relations on either end of the pipeline.
On Wednesday April 1st, following Diamond’s announcement, ComicHub put forward a plan to combine digital and print distribution through its digital point of sale software, which was seen (very quickly) by some as the single answer to the direct market’s problems. Less than a day later, however, a number of (very reasonable) questions were being raised as to the feasibility of this unilateral plan; and it was quickly shelved on Thursday April 2nd, following a fairly comprehensive retailer backlash. Former Diamond executive Bill Schanes then returned to the fray, denouncing the publishers and distributors operating during this time, speaking up in support of Diamond’s actions over the last week. It’s unlikely that any unilateral ‘plan’ of that manner will succeed by putting the cart before the Big Two, and failing to have DC or Marvel come on board prior to announcing that it will be the savior of the direct market.
Retailer operations at the moment are very much dependent on local ordinances regarding business access, and a number of publishers are winding down work on new titles in the short-term, while staggering their future publication schedules. These measures are due to a wholly absent distribution chain, and to prevent stores from being overwhelmed with new stock, if and when the direct market resumes. As the pandemic continues, however, given the work-for-hire nature of most direct market comics production, increasing numbers of freelancers may need to turn to financial assistance to get by, and the outlook for smaller publishers remains troubling. In order to support those retailers still able to operate, via curb-side pickup or mail orders, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has put together a comprehensive list of currently active stores in the US and Canada, while the Comics Industry Collective's 28 Pages Later has a crowd-sourced global list of stores, and the services they're offering. Similarly, last week's COVID-19 article here on TCJ has options for directly supporting individual creators and publishers, where financially able.
In terms of maintaining a supply of new stock to customers currently stuck at home, Drawn and Quarterly recently promoted the work of Bookshop, which is helping independent bookstores continue to operate during the pandemic. Bookshop works through an online selling platform and profit-share system, which connects customers to the wholesaler Ingram. However, as the UK market has shown, while inventiveness can help businesses in the short-term, they still remain locked into existing distribution infrastructure. Once the supply-chain is no longer able to function, as those publishers with access to a book channel and their wholesalers wind down operations, then the issue of stock once again becomes key.
New Scientist’s editorial for 18th March contained the epidemiologist’s saying that “if you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic”, attempting to convey the difficulty in predicting how the current situation will play out. I hope that comic stores, and book stores, and publishers, and creators will be able to weather this period of upheaval, but I can’t help feeling it will need a more concerted effort from the big-hitters for this to be the case.