Can comic books survive the coronavirus era?

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Can comic books survive the coronavirus era?
Racks of comic books at headquarters for DC Entertainment in Burbank, Calif., April 9, 2020. Like every other business that has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, comic-book publishing is in considerable jeopardy — proprietors of comic shops across the country say that what once looked like a promising year of business has evaporated amid state-by-state policies that have required the closure of their stores. Rozette Rago/The New York Times.

by Dave Itzkoff

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Comic-book superheroes are used to finding themselves in life-or-death situations and fighting back against seemingly impossible odds. But who can they turn to when comic books themselves are imperiled?

Like every other business that has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, comic-book publishing — a wellspring of material for countless hit films and TV shows — is in considerable jeopardy.

In recent weeks, the industry has been throttled at every juncture. Comic-store owners have shuttered their shops and the distribution of new titles has been frozen. Writers and artists continue to produce work, not knowing how or when readers will be able to see it.

The dollars at stake are substantial: In recent years, sales of comics and graphic novels in the United States and Canada have topped $1 billion annually, with printed comic books accounting for more than a third of that figure, according to an analysis by Comichron and ICv2, sites that track the comic business. Digital sales contribute about $100 million to that total.

But now, neither the people who make comic books nor the veteran observers of this industry see a quick solution; they cannot predict whether the current calamity will eradicate only some stores and publishers or an entire, decades-old model of doing business.

“I do think this is an extinction-level event,” said Heidi MacDonald, editor of The Beat, a comics culture website. “It’s life-changing for everyone. This is a whole industry that lived on very thin margins. There’s no port in this storm.”

Publishers of every size recognize that they are at risk. Dan Buckley, the president of Marvel Entertainment, which is home to Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Avengers, said in a statement, “This crisis is having an unprecedented impact on every aspect of our lives and requires patience and perseverance,” adding that he remained optimistic that comics “are here to stay.”

The proprietors of comic shops across the country say that what once looked like a promising year of business has evaporated amid state-by-state policies that have required the closure of their stores.

“I went from thinking about giving myself a bonus to not paying myself,” said Rod Lamberti, who runs Rodman Comics in Ankeny, Iowa. “Now the worst-case scenario has happened.”

Mike Sterling, who operates Sterling Silver Comics in Camarillo, California, said he saw “an enormous surge of business” just before a statewide shelter-in-place order went into effect there in late March.

“I don’t know if people just wanted to build up a stockpile of comics to read at home or there was a general sense of unease driving a need for more escapism,” said Sterling, adding that phone-in sales remained strong for several days after he locked his doors.

But these stores were dealt a further blow when Diamond Comic Distributors, the company that supplies them with the comic books and graphic novels of most major publishers, announced that it would stop shipping new comics to stores beginning April 1. Diamond has also been making deferred payments to publishers and other vendors from which it buys the merchandise that is sold to stores.

Calls to Diamond’s offices in Maryland were not returned. But in a statement on the company’s website, Steve Geppi, its founder, wrote that Diamond’s “publishing partners are also faced with numerous issues in their supply chain, working with creators, printers and increasing uncertainty when it comes to the production and delivery of products,” adding that its own freight networks and distribution centers were under significant strain.

In his statement, Geppi encouraged retailers to “let loose your own creativity” as they try to sell merchandise already in stock.

Sterling said the loss of new merchandise at stores like his “breaks the chain all the way around.”

“I can’t make money, so Diamond can’t make money off me, and then the publishers can’t make money off Diamond,” he said.

Though most comic books are available in digital formats, many fans value the experience of visiting stores in person, browsing the racks and soliciting the opinions of other readers.

G. Willow Wilson, who writes the fantasy series The Dreaming: Waking Hours for DC and the science-fiction epic Invisible Kingdom for Dark Horse, said that shops were an important social hub. Unlike other media that people have grown accustomed to consuming at home, she said “comics still rely on actual stores and the communities they provide.”

“We are now deprived of those gathering places,” she said. “The loss of that community has been really disruptive to people.”

Other writers and illustrators say they are going forward with the work they were already engaged in before the pandemic and trusting that their titles will eventually be published on schedule, more or less.

“For me, little has changed,” said Greg Capullo, a veteran comics artist who is drawing the coming DC series Dark Nights: Death Metal. “I’m just proceeding as if all of our release dates are going to go off as planned. Whether that ends up being the case or not I guess remains to be seen.”

Chris Eliopoulos, an artist and founder of Virtual Calligraphy, a studio that handles lettering and other production duties for Marvel, said that his company has not yet seen a slowdown in work.

“Editors and freelancers have been doing their jobs and we’ve been getting pages in,” Eliopoulos said. “I’ve been one of the lucky ones and I haven’t felt any major repercussions at this time, but I’m sure it’s going to happen. I’m sure we’re going to feel it in a week or so.”

Indeed, Newsarama, a website that covers the comics industry, reported that Marvel was pausing work on about 15% to 20% of the titles it intended to publish in May and June. (A spokesman for Marvel confirmed this report.)

Whatever the outcome of all this upheaval, no one expects Marvel or rival DC, which publishes the adventures of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, to fall by the wayside. Though their parent companies, Disney (which owns Marvel) and AT&T (which owns DC), have sustained steep financial losses during the pandemic, these imprints are viewed as crucial pipelines of superhero characters and story lines that can be adapted into television shows and blockbuster films.

“They are relatively cheap research-and-development departments for some big movies and TV shows,” said Rich Johnston, founder and head writer of the comics news site Bleeding Cool. “They generate all this intellectual property and if you pick up a comic book, you’ve got all the design done for you.”

Whether their smaller competitors can also ride out the months ahead remains uncertain. “What you might end up seeing is a feeding frenzy where bigger companies jump in and start buying up stuff — distributors, printers, publishers — on the cheap,” Johnston said.

He added, “In the meantime, a lot of people are going to lose their livelihoods.”

For now, some shop owners are sustaining themselves through mail-order and eBay sales of graphic novels, anthologies and collectible back issues. Some have also benefited from online fundraisers held by celebrity artists or from organizations like the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which provide emergency relief. (DC said it is donating $250,000 to this foundation.)

While these retailers await a solution to their distribution roadblock, they also fear that dedicated customers who go in each Wednesday to satisfy their weekly craving for new comics will be broken of this habit and won’t return to stores.

“Maybe at some point I can open my doors again,” said Ryan Liebowitz, who runs Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles. “But if they’ve been sitting at home without buying new comic books for two, three months, they might go, ‘Eh, it was fun for a while but I don’t really need them anymore.’ Maybe they’ve re-evaluated what’s important to them.”

Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of several DC titles, including its flagship Superman and Action Comics series, said that although “things are very up in the air on almost every conceivable level,” the industry would eventually right itself as it has after past catastrophes.

Recalling the period after 9/11, when he wrote for Marvel, Bendis said, “I very specifically remember feeling and being told that we might be done, totally. And then three weeks later it all bounced back. I think something similar will happen here. We’re going to figure out how to fix this and get back to work.”

Now, as his social media fills with memes and cartoons depicting doctors and nurses in Superman costumes or showing the Man of Steel paying homage to medical personnel, Bendis said, “It’s a constant reminder of what the iconography means and what the character means.”

Moments like that, he said, were also illustrations of why comic books and the characters they chronicle were bound to survive. “It’s a very simple, literary equation,” Bendis said. “That’s someone who is trying to be their best self. That’s what he’s about. Let’s all try to be that, too.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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