Laughing at Sunshine

Hello! Missed me?

Yeah, I took a month off from the column (the BookScan piece broke me, as it often does) and I've metaphorically been staring at the blank sheet of paper the last few weeks, because, frankly, this is the two-hundredth and twenty-second of these columns, and writing without repeating oneself is always a trick at that stage; and, further, the column is titled "Tilting at Windmills" and not "Laughing at Sunshine" for a reason. But the last few months have been reasonably quiet for "big picture" retail problems -- in fact, from my position, the comic book industry appears to be heading in the right direction in most ways this second.

In February, I attended the annual ComicsPRO members meeting, and, as usual, it was one of the most productive and collegial weekends of the entire year -- there's something really powerful about comic book retailers getting together, and inviting our partners to come along, rather than the other way around. Having a weekend where the focus is on business and stores and the market, rather than signings and collectibles and consumers makes it an incredibly valuable show. If you're a retailer, I strongly urge you to try to fit it into your calendar -- you'll walk away with pages full of notes from your peers that can make your store better, stronger, faster.

I run a mature store (some might say "old" at 24 years), and am totally full of myself, and even I walk away with dozens of ideas that end up making me more money over the course of a year.

As I probably mentioned last time, one of the largest focuses at ComicsPRO have become the Publisher Speed Dating, where groups of 3-4 retailers move from table to table, meeting with a new publisher every five minutes or so. The time is just short enough that we have to clearly focus on our concerns, but just short enough to keep your brain moving! We were up to 24 participating publishers/vendors this year, and I don't think there was a single one of them who didn't also walk away with pages of excellent, highly-focused notes on how to make their businesses stronger as well.

The repeated refrain from every single attending retailer was how well business is doing -- I heard so many positive numbers and percentages of growth that one might think people were lying... except that national statistics are backing our individual experiences up -- the national market is up a staggering 19.78% Q1 2013 vs Q1 2012, and that's the "dead quarter." That's also after a yearly growth of 14.72% of 2012 vs. 2011, so things are going in what appears to be the overall right direction, and we're also seeing the second consecutive year's rise of the total number of comic book stores.

So, yeah, comics are thriving, and even more specifically, print comics are thriving in a way that many pundits did not see coming -- unlike virtually other media's experience in the face of new digital release models, the physical market for comics is growing -- in fact, if I'm doing the math correctly, it appears to me that just the increase of physical sales in 2012 was larger than the entirety of the digital market combined! That is phenomenal for a medium that too many people are quick to write off as "dying."

That's not to say that there aren't still challenges -- certainly a percentage of that growth is coming from marketing stunts that may not entirely represent sold-through comics, and multiple covers and the like have nearly brought the industry low several times previously; but the sense I have from my brethren is that most are not letting their reach exceed their grasp, knowing full well the mistakes of the past. Still, we have to remain vigilant.

We also live in an industry where a significant number of comics being published today are probably not making a living wage for anyone involved -- comics that sell just five thousand copies into a national market are probably netting the creators something less than $50/page -- but I generally think that economic Darwinism really does work well in the comics industry, and that most of those poor-selling titles are a result of market rejection of the work itself, not a symptom of dysfunction of market as a whole.

Again, I think that we need to celebrate and be enthusiastic about the success of a national market nearly entirely derived from independently owned and operated "mom and pop" storefronts; almost a purer expression of market-driven capitalism can not be found, because we are missing much of the distorting factors that infect formula-retail in most other sectors. And I am thoroughly pleased that the number of outlets is steadily growing -- certainly, in my consulting business I'm currently working with several retailers nearly ready to open their own stores.

What fascinates me sometimes is just how many different models exist for comics retail, and just how viable most of them are -- it is altogether likely (if not downright probable) that any two given stores will have significantly different product mixes and foci, and all of them are valid. Despite the complaining some non-retailers like to engage in, if a small store is in business five years or more after opening, they have to be doing something right to serve their local clientele. They may not carry every comic you like, or engage in every possible "best practice," but the truth is retail is hard in the best of times, and the number of stores increasing, with sales increasing in this economic climate and moment in history where many traditional retail models are failing shows that people really want comics.

The other thing I find deeply satisfying about this moment in time is that it really seems to me that the majority of our significant publishers appear (at least from the outside) to entirely have their stuff together -- I don't feel any concern that the "midlist" publishers, everyone from Image and IDW and Dark Horse down to your BOOM! and Oni and Valiant-level publishers are not in any immediate threat of going out of business. Even the "art publishers" like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly look from the outside to be incredibly solid. Most houses seem to be capitalized well enough to pay and be paid on time, and all seem to be in various states of expansion -- that's a pretty great situation for the market to be in, because the more vibrant competitors there are, the stronger the market is.

Look, nothing is perfect, and the Direct Market has many pitfalls and potholes it is going to have to negotiate and pave over, there is no doubt on that score, but it's been a good winter, and a really boundless spring is just upon us as we launch into Free Comic Book Day, and the gateway to a strong year behind it. Barring someone doing something stupid, I think 2013 is going to be another fabulous year for comics, both the industry and the medium -- we're living through another golden age in terms of the depth and breadth of exciting comics that are available to us.

See? Happy columns are pretty dull to read! I'll try to find something to complain about for next month...

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of HYPERLINK ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization, even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer! Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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