A ticking time bomb went off in an 82-year-old American industry last week. Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, Diamond Comic Book retailers, the primary distributor of almost all physical comics, announced the suspension of deliveries of new comics starting April 1, with no announced date of resuming business. Additionally, they plan to lay off redundant employees.
If you’re a fan of comics, this news is not surprising. Coronavirus exposed the flaws in the economy and turned bad business errors from annoyances into fatalities. Like every other business, comics shops are struggling, especially since they rely on in-person foot traffic. Publishers have delayed release schedules for everything. Creators are announcing “pens down” letters and Kickstarters. And all of this is in the face of an already decreasing consumer interest in comics.
The comics industry has been in freefall for years; not a month goes by without a story of a 30+ year-old comics shop closing. In 2017 alone, over 50 comics shops shuttered their doors permanently. Sales of comic books on the direct market are falling fast, with sales from comic shops now less than 50 percent of comic book sales total; something not seen since comic shops began. Fewer sales are purchased from shops, and seldom are they western comics.
These sales figures instead are Scholastic novels meant for 8-year-olds or Japanese manga. And no, less than 15 percent of sales are digital, not nearly enough to account for this loss. The direct market is the lifeblood of the industry, and the patient is bleeding out
Visit your local comics shop, and what you'll quickly notice is the new issues of Marvel's American Chavez or DC’s Harley Quinn gathering dust. That back issues of older comics, like the excellent 2013 Injustice series, are hard to keep in stock. But people are not buying new comics, and shop owners are suffering for it.
Substantial issues with the business model have been apparent for 30 years. These problems started in the 1990s, with scams by publishers to trick shops into purchasing variant covers and trying to make the sales numbers look bigger than they were. It was during this period that comics shops became the primary purveyor of comics; audiences dwindled drastically due to the games played on consumers (and, of course, the internet), and structural problems with the business model became permanent.
These problems only got worse in the 2010s, as competition for eyes increased due to Netflix and an internet that made reading comics illegally a hassle-free experience. In response to this, comics tried to find a new audience and cover up their shortcomings by becoming the wokest vanguard in the culture war.
Marvel is a perfect example: Since 2015, Marvel has made Captain America a Nazi, Iron Man a black woman, Hulk a Marxist Korean teen, there’s a much media touted Muslim Ms. Marvel, and practically all the X men have been made gay en masse. Marvel is just one company, in a four year period, and that’s before we even get to 2020’s Snowflake and Safe-Space.
Which is frankly insane because let’s be brutally honest, the people that buy comics are not woke and never will be. Instead of listening to their consumer base, Marvel was listening to leftist media. The consumers that buy comics are overwhelmingly white guys in their 30s and 40s.
You know who’s not buying comics? Broke female millennials that follow AOC on Instagram. They may say they’re nerds, they may beg publishers to get woke, but based on the countless times Captain Marvel has been canceled and rebooted in the last few years: they’re purchasing very few comics.
That Marvel and DC have decided to cater to this broke yet woke demographic and alienated the people that buy comics is foolhardy. When you consider the state of the comics industry, this move is downright suicidal.
What’s worse is that it’s likely that instead of solving these problems, Disney and AT&T, owners of Marvel and DC respectively, will abandon publishing physical comics altogether.
Disney released its 2018 “Annual Financial Report," which shows that sales for Marvel and Star Wars comics were way down. Disney has a history of killing off profitable divisions that don't perform as well as expected, and it's hard to believe they'll tolerate comics much longer. DC is doing no better, and many are asking if AT&T will continue publishing comics if they are not profitable enough to fit into their current media plans.
The two biggest players in comics might soon stop publishing physical comics altogether. Coronavirus ended shipments at least temporarily. The fans that you’d think would read comics during the shut-in are binging Netflix or playing games instead. How can comics survive this?
Comics will always exist in some form, niche digital outlets for superheroes, and independent Kickstarter comics. The huge sales for manga show that even if western comics disappear, Japan will pick up the slack. But as a mainstream concoction their days are numbered.
I love comics. Watching the American format die-off is like watching a loved one die of cancer. That the next stage of nerd culture might mean leaving comics behind is heartbreaking. But it wasn't fans that crashed this industry; it was publishers that decided to ignore systemic issues and mock fans instead, capped off by the hand grenade of the coronavirus.
So it’s true what the nerds prophesied long ago, for comics at least, Get Woke, Go Broke.