If you read the headlines, you might firmly believe that the comic book industry is in a state of total, imminent crisis. Back in 2017, a "Meet the Publishers" panel at San Diego Comic-Con kicked off a storm when the heads of DC Comics states an intention to "stop the collapse of the comic book industry." DC eventually insisted it was something of a misquote, but the sentiment created a very real sense that all is not well in the comic book world. At a time when comic book adaptations are bigger than ever... public interest in the actual comics seems to be waning.
More recently, veteran retailer Brian Hibbs presented a barnstorming "State of the Industry" address at the ComicsPRO Annual Meeting, confirming that comic book retailers do indeed seem to be in decline. By his estimate, up to 10% of stores in the United States have closed over the last year (the entire speech is available on industry website ICv2). Needless to say, Hibbs' warnings of watching the entire industry "crumble away" have given rise to a flurry of new speculation online, questioning the health of the Direct Market complete with exaggerated claims that DC Comics is about to be shut down, and Disney is killing Marvel Comics, too. Suffice to say, these rumors are completely unfounded.
But just how bad are things in the comic book industry? Is this all just a storm in a teacup, or is it really a matter of Heroes in Crisis? It's not an easy question to grasp for casual fans, so let's take a look at the evidence, and then examine just what publishers are doing to correct the problems.
Are Comic Book Sales Declining?
The comic book industry was at its most recent peak in the 1990s, before a major slump - which almost led to Marvel Comics going bankrupt - saw sales drop from levels that they may never equal again. Looking at Diamond's sales estimates, at first glance it seems that the comic book industry has stabilized (see chart visible above). In reality, though, the data hides a lot of problems. The main issue is the retail model of comics themselves, which involves retailers purchasing comics from Diamond Distribution, then selling them on to customers. Diamond's figures only cover retailer purchases in the United States, and that's a very limited dataset.
If every one of a retailer's purchases sells, then they're fine. The reality is very different. Too many books aren't selling, and that's due to a variety of causes: constant relaunches, cycles of miniseries and first-issues, where retailers struggle to estimate just how many copies they need to actually have in stock in the first place. Worse still, industry figures have suggested that a solid 90% of stock that comes off the shelves has zero value as an 'archived' back issue. That's according to Phil Boyle of Coliseum of Comics, who spoke firsthand in an editorial for ICv2 of his own losses on issues going unsold in the first weeks:in which he gave a sense of just how bad things are getting.
"No one is looking for a 3-issue mini-series 6 months removed unless it features a new character and there’s a rumor circulating about his/her inclusion in a movie that was possibly green-lit. Between February and October we had, at cost, nearly $100,000 in books that were taken off the stands. 60% were instantly unsellable. 30% will languish if they’re still here in 3 months."
The result is that comic book retailers are being forced to shut down. The celebrated Mile High Comics in Glendale, Colorado made headline with its closing in January of 2019, after nearly 29 years in business as one of the largest comic shops in the country. Manager Charles Rozanski posted a heartfelt Facebook post in which he explained the closing in clear, but concerning terms: "I fervently believe that the economics of comics publishing simply no longer allow smallish neighborhood comics shops to be successful."
The Direct Market is Part of the Problem
While the bulk of comic book sales are indeed believed to be through this so-called Direct Market, it's important to note that Diamond's figures don't include other crucial sales channels. Digital sales, meanwhile, are a complete unknown. There have been throwaway comments over the years that online sales of some books, particularly those of younger heroes, actually exceed physical copies (particularly Marvel's Legacy Heroes like Spider-Gwen and Ms. Marvel), but of course it's impossible to evaluate. Meanwhile, there are also no details for Marvel's sales deal with Scholastic, which sells books like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
All this seems rather strange, given comic book adaptations have never been more popular, and superhero brands have pervaded popular culture to the degree that an Aquaman film can gross over $1 billion worldwide. That suggests the problem is to do with the entire retail model. So with that established, let's dive into exactly how the Direct Market works.