Houston, She Has A Problem – Running A Comic Store, Today
By Jen King, owner of Eisner nominated Space Cadets Collection Collection near Houston, TX
Morpheus Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know *exactly* what you mean. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world.
Like Neo, I have started to have an uncomfortable feeling about the world. In this case, it is the world of comics. Let me tell you some history about what I have experienced in the comic book industry and why I am worried now.
I have been in the industry since 1995 when I opened my first store called Planet Comics in Midland, TX, a city still reeling from the effects of the oil crash of the 80's and the blood was in the water already for the comic book industry, having been glutted by the excesses of speculators being burned by foil covers and industry crossovers. My store was neat and clean and I was helpful and maybe a little bit of a novelty as the only female store owner anyone knew. I bought air time on TV during Fox Saturday morning cartoons, smack dab in between The Tick and the X-Men and had regular radio ads. Within a year the last competing store in town sold the rest of their stock to me with no hard feelings and although the industry was still tenuous at best, I made a good living at selling people things to read.
Then in December 1996, Marvel declared bankruptcy. The industry was in distress and distribution of comics was a mess at best. I can remember it being a very tense time, as where and when our comics would be coming from came into question. It shook the customer base as well.
My store made it through this dark time in comics history, but it wasn't without pain and sacrifice, which every store that survived (and many didn't) can attest to. People like Brian Hibbs, as he writes in his must- read book, "Tilting at Windmills", know this first hand. It was a gluttony of variant covers, blind bags, gatefolds, lenticulars, multiple-cover issues, and title re-launches that pandered not to the comic readership, but to people hoping to make a quick buck. They bought multiple copies of each issue and then tried and sell them at a profit, but everyone was doing it. There were thousands of comics in the hands of people who had no intention of ever reading them. Because the demand was high, stores had to buy lots of extra copies for the shelf just for the speculator market. It was good for the till in the short term for some comics, but stores were often stuck with huge orders that they couldn't sell through. Why would a store in Midland, Texas need 100 extra copies of the poly-bagged marriage of Superman? In case someone wanted 50 copies on release day, of course, but I got stuck with many of them, like many stores nationwide.
Now for the point of this tale: Beginning in 2014, the comic book industry started to feel very familiar to me. I had a sense of deja-vu. It bothered me then and my alarm bells are sounding now. It started with DC Comics and the lenticular covered comics. Then the variant cover comics (1:10, 1:25, 1:50 etc.) started showing up across the industry. Recently, Marvel had the audacity to require a 200% order increase from a previous hit title in order to receive their much-lauded "Hip Hop Variants", which they then printed in a free handout for customers. Variants. Variants. Variants. Variants aren't aimed at the reader, they are aimed at the speculator, and when they realize that the high prices that they paid for them won't remain high for long, they will become disillusioned, as they were 2 decades before, and the industry will suffer for it.
The comic that made it crystal clear to me about how much we have forgotten is Dark Knight III. Something to the tune of 52 stores bought enough copies to earn the 1:5000 original sketch variant by Jim Lee. I'm sure they are beautiful, as I am a huge fan of Lee's art, but that's 260,000 copies of the regular issue that those 52 stores have to sell. Many will fill $1.00 boxes or be given away as free issues and flood the market and those copies aren't even including what the other stores worldwide bought. What I am saying is that I would not buy futures in Dark Knight III stock.
Diamond thinks that the industry is healthy, having reported sales increases over last year. Those numbers were bolstered by the huge numbers of copies of Star Wars titles, Secret Wars, and Dark Knight sold, many of them in order to receive the rare variants. What Diamond sees is the number of comics that stores bought, not what the stores actually sold through. I wonder what story those numbers would tell and how many of those copies actually sold at full price.
I worry about the industry a lot. I worry that store owners are making decisions to buy more comics than they need or can sell, just to get the variant cover for it. I don't think it's sustainable for any but the very largest stores that can sell though all of the extra comics. I worry that comic book store owners won't draw a line in the sand and let comic book companies know that what we want is great stories and art to sell to our customers. I'm worried that the stores won't be able to just order what they need for their customers and ignore the allure of the quick dollar of the variants.
Here is the crux: Not everyone in the industry has the retailer's best interest in mind, so we have to be smart and think of the future and what it holds if we stay on our current course. Here is a quote overheard from a comic book publisher during the Diamond Retailer Summit regarding the high purchase requirement variants: "If they are stupid enough to keep buying them, we will keep making them."
I might be the sound of one drummer drumming, but I hope not for all of our sakes.
I will leave you with another movie quote, this time from Inception:
Cobb: An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.
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