Dammit Jim, I’m a Comics Retailer, Not a Doctor!

(An anonymous, shorter version of this essay was given out as a pamphlet this week at the annual ComicsPro meeting between publisher and comic shop retailers in Charlotte, North Carolina.)

In the last few months, many experienced and intelligent comic retailers (Brian Hibbs, Chuck Rozanski, Joe Field, Phil Boyle, and more) are postulating a pivotal moment for the Direct Market. In fact, this ComicsPro meeting has been advertised far and wide as the place to have a hand in helping to fix it. Yet, in this little curio I’m going to argue that as retailers our focus should be working toward the death of the Direct Market, the backbone of comic sales for decades. Or rather, I suppose I should say, to stop trying to resuscitate it. Because, folks, it dead.

To be fair: I am an inexperienced, sloppy, unorganized comics-shop owner with less than ten years of experience and an operation on a different scale than most of the aforementioned names. Therefore, please feel free to disregard everything written here. I have no way to prove to you that what I am stating is true, it’s just how I see the lay of the land from where I am standing and my limited understanding of the history of the Direct Market.

My Understanding of the Direct Market

Bear with me, because I need to get my basic and probably incorrect version of the history of the Direct Market in here, to help make my point.

The Direct Market, as it was conceived, was implemented to help readers of comic books find, and be kept appraised of, the comic books they were often unable to track down easily in the willy-nilly world of newsstand distribution. For comic fanatics it was a godsend, and when it finally took off nationwide it not only helped sustain and boost sales, it actually created and perpetuated entirely new generations of readers and creators.

How so? Well, in conjunction with the very robust newsstand market of the day, comics readership grew in leaps and bounds; readers would come across a comic at a young age at the grocery store, pharmacy, toy shop, newspaper stand, or local corner store. Those with a burning desire for the four-color funnies would, invariably, track down their local comic shop and be introduced to a wider range of books they never even knew existed!

A strong example of the power of the Direct Market is the "black-and-white boom" of the late '70s and early '80s, which was far more successful selling to the “tuned in” crowd at the local comic shop than the earlier underground comics of the '60s and early '70s had at head shops and alternative/adult magazine stands. The growth for this kind of content at the shops and in magazine form on the newsstand exerted pressure on the dominating forces at DC & Marvel who have alternate successes trying to do more “mature” books throughout the '70s and '80s, until or around about the introduction of the DC Deluxe Format (I believe only available via the Direct Market at first) which begets Vertigo, which brings in yet another audience of fans not common to the comic market...

And then, of course, the '90s.

You knew it was going to come up

The '90s are a mess. I once heard a retailer say, “We were buying up everything in the damn catalog. With all our 'Death of Superman' money, why not stock more?” Of course, that was the boom before the bust; the '90s were very rough on comics and comic shops. Whose fault it was, like whom to blame for the market’s current predicament (see above: re: it’s dead) can be debated left and right, continuously. The simple fact of the matter was, after the dust cleared, aside for a few exceptions, any shop left or starting up approached things with a cautious and more diversified portfolio. It was simple common sense that you couldn’t survive without “Wall books,” Magic cards, or something else (preferably multiple something additions) to better diversify your selection for the widest range of people. For a comics shop to survive, they had to do a lot more than they used to, and a lot of it didn’t actually have to do with comics.

And then… time marched on. Newsstands began to die; Archie went digital, Marvel made Iron Man an international celebrity, webcomics weren’t just for comic fans anymore. Soon, technology advances and everyone’s gone digital- CEREBUS has gone digital, for Pete’s sake! You can read your favorite comics in hi-res on a handheld device costing as little as $100.  More so, movies are now translating some of the best special effects of comics, the real mind-shattering can’t be CGIed superpowers level stuff, directly to the screen with very few hiccups, time and time again.  

So Here We Are

Not literally, as I am referring to a temporal location, not a physical one.

The comic market today: Marvel & DC are putting out more than fifty different series each month, every major “real” publishing house has their own graphic novel imprint and The New York Times has more comics in it as articles and reporting every year. Surely, we are in a Golden Age of Comics. Comics are kicking butt left and right and nothing seems to be stopping them. Costa Awards, National Book Awards, Man Bookers! Margaret Atwood and Ta-Nehisi Coates! On the web, whatever that even means anymore, we communicate with memes and read comic after comic while scrolling through social media. Every damn piece of Ikea furniture comes with a comic book of instructions to put it together! As my customer Tony, an octogenarian who fell in love with comics through the work of Harvey Kurtzman, always says, “Will Eisner would cry with joy if he saw your store!”

Comics are not dead; they’re more alive now than they’ve ever been. And that’s a big part of why the Direct Market is dead.

So What’s my Point Already?

Like… for real…

So, if comics are doing so well how could the Direct Market, the source of generations of readers and creators for DECADES, be dead? Furthermore, how come I’m the only one saying it’s already dead and not just in crisis? All the other retailers out there are here, looking for solutions, writing think pieces and it would appear, doing their very best to keep it from dying. So where do I get off saying this, huh?

 To explain, you first have to accept a hard truth, one that I have come to grips with over the course of many years: Comic Retailers are the WORST PEOPLE to help save the direct market. Bold statement, right? I mean… I just said I didn’t do research, so what can I use to back it up? How could all these people with so much to lose not be perfect to help fix it, to set it on the right course? The answer is easy, really; THE DIRECT MARKET IS ALREADY DEAD AND THE RETAILERS ARE THE ONES WHO KILLED IT. Comic retailers are moaning over the corpse of their beloved while gripping the bloody knife in their hands! 

In all the years I have been ordering comics I’ve watched publishers and creators perform all sorts of bizarre acrobatics to satisfy the people they are assured are their “real customers.” I have seen them launch new lines and abandon them after horrible sales and I have seen them re-start titles, universes, numbering… countless times. And every time they do, retailers are there to tell them they missed a spot, or did something that made the rest of their efforts meaningless, or standing there with their hands out asking for more and more.

I have spent years talking to all sorts of retailers around the country and world and despite the wide breadth of comics and material out there, most of them still follow the post-90s logic that comics themselves are not enough in their stores. They fill them with Pops!, gaming tables, thousand-dollar statues; wise measures during the days of austerity after the '90s, but ludicrous in the day and age when nerd culture and pop culture are one and the same and every Walgreens sells Pops and Magic cards.

Moreover, the general attitude of the comics retailer is one of privilege. I have seen retailers furious about exclusive content at major chains the same way they demonized the same-day sale of digital comics; it’s simply not FAIR for other places to have things they sell as well. I’ve seen retailer representatives from multiple publishers chased out of online groups (rare) and basically shouted out day after day (common). I see stores closing their doors and reminiscing fondly over the days when they made their weekly operating budget in the first few hours of New Comic Book Day. I have watched as the direct market proponents have made bullet point lists that look more and more like the demands of indecisive kidnappers as they backtrack and change their plans with every new think piece.

Demand after demand after demand. To what end? To make it easier for them to sell books to customers, to make customers visit their shop more often, to give collectors more confidence in their purchases of multiple issues or to reassure old fans things aren’t changing that much? Demand after demand after demand.

And you know what? The publishers are listening less and less. There is accounting, there are NUMBERS. Analytics. The fact of the matter is that comic shops, for all their years of being the gate through which comics are kept, are no longer the only place to find comics. Heck, walk in to your average comic shop and ask for Amazon’s top 10 selling Graphic Novels (updated hourly, their website tells me) and you’ll be lucky to find five of them, I bet… Let me check… Nope, I only have four of them currently in stock and my shop is one of those that go out of its way to focus heavily on graphic novels and trade paperbacks!

At the end of the day, the very purpose the Direct Market was made for is GONE. So many factors have shifted and changed in the world of print, the world of comics, heck in the world itself, that the very CONCEPT of the Direct Market is akin to some quaint idea of years past, like a local butcher or an automat. So many realities of printing that drove sales into comic shops, like the newsstand, are dead and so many others are changed irreparably by technology such as eBay, tablets, and Amazon. The Direct Market, as it was, is long dead but all of us comic shops are keeping on like it’s not, raising a fuss to beat a dead horse.

That’s not to say comic shops don’t serve a purpose. Comic shops, despite some retailers’ refusal to see it, are so much MORE than the Direct Market. In fact, I would say that with the depth and breadth of material coming out on a weekly and monthly basis from just the publishers carried in the Diamond Comics distributor catalog, the comic shop is even MORE of a requirement. More and more, many customers are coming in not looking to be let through the gate but to explore the world they already know or to discover something they think they’ll like but that they hardly know.

Just this morning I helped a dad pick the right Spider-Gwen comic for his daughter after she loved #1 of the new series but he forgot to do anything about it for three months. Every day, I help grandmas find gifts or collectors grab back issues or new readers pick a series they want to try. I help people who are trying to sell their art, or comic collection. I talk about “nerd stuff” with just about anyone who walks through the door and I enjoy every second of it (Ok, not EVERY second, we all know how some customers can be).

Every day a comic shop somewhere is hosting an author event, a drink n draw, a book club, or fan hangout. A comic shop is raising money for the community or having a benefit, there are trivia nights and movie nights and game nights and dark knights and new title launches and sales and conventions and free comic book day. We are SO MUCH MORE than the Direct Market, so why don’t we finally accept its death and put our energy into the reason it existed in the first place: helping people find comics?

The comics shop of today has so few margins and so much competition in every market; we can’t keep pretending there is a system to fix the Direct Market or even a reason to fix it. The obsession over a system that was created to work in a world that no longer exists and has not had any major oversight or overhaul in decades is detrimental not to just the individual stores that chase the shrinking audience but to the work put out by the publishers and the general practices of distributors and fans. You’re unhappy with a publisher or a line or a reboot? Tell your customers, speak with your orders. You’re tired of not having a rep at Diamond or the terms they set? Get other distributors for EVERY SINGLE THING YOU CAN. My store is packed to the gills and my weekly Diamond bill is a fraction of most of the shops my size because I have somewhere near a dozen different distribution streams.

Retailers please stop appealing to DC and Marvel, railing at Diamond, and generally acting like there is something to salvage. Let’s move on and support the sort of work we want to see and want to sell from the publishers and creators we want to bolster. There is a giant audience out there looking for comics and stories to excite them, so stop focusing on the things getting in your way and let’s, as an industry, turn our attention on the works and publishers who help us get to where we belong in this new golden age of comics. You want to sell loads of Pops and host weekly card events- that’s great! People love that stuff. Retailers must be aware there is a wide range of actual comics and comics-related books out there that can be sold using the same amount of space and resources as hosting gaming or carrying toys-items which I’ve mentioned are just as readily available elsewhere as the trade paperbacks and graphic novels stores often claim they can’t shift in the same space. If you’re not selling a product, of course don’t carry it, but don’t act like it’s the fault of Amazon or Barnes & Noble when they have posters and statues you’re selling at a steady clip at the same discount.

There are representatives from loads of major publishing houses as well as many prominent comic book ones here, right now, for you to talk to. Instead of focusing on trying to win back shares of single issues or return the value to collecting, why not speak to them about what comics they are putting out, in what format, and WHY. See what terms are like for your shop to get Marvel TPBs from Hachette (returnable!) or DC at Penguin Random House. Do something that looks toward where comics are and where they are going, instead of where they have been. If this is the meeting that will change the course of the comic market, use it to finally push FORWARD instead of the incessant back-pedaling we’ve been doing for more than a decade.

Stop trying to bring back a heyday that’s not socioeconomically possible and start living with the reality in front of you. Only once we face that the Direct Market is irreparably broken and a remnant of a bygone era can we create the new solution to improve comic sales.