Comic books are a mainstay in modern pop culture. From the summer blockbusters to the cartoon series, all the way into annual comic book conventions, people of the world can identify with comic book culture and its cavalcade of heroes and villains. The fandom originates from the pages of the comic books that help shape the state of their industry today. Due to the culture’s recent rise in popularity, one would assume the sales of comic books are at an all-time high. Last year, a report stated that very fact. However, there are now different means to obtain comic books. At one time, weekly titles were only available in local, brick-and-mortar shops that specifically sold new comic books. However, now there are many different digital applications that allow people to purchase comic books. The proliferation of so many innovative methods for releasing new comic books makes tracking the overall bottom line difficult. So, how does this digital revolution effect local comic shops?
A recent article from Movie Pilot reports that Marvel Comics suffered a significant hit in sales last month (February, 2017). One of the reasons—aside from competition—is likely due to digital sales through new comic-media apps. Diamond Distributors tracks the bulk units sold to the retail shops, but doesn’t track the digital sales (nor the individual comics sold by the local shops). The only merchants who have the true finger on the pulse of most comic book readers are the retailers. The question that must be asked in this digital age of publishing is: what does it take as a local vendor to make sure your pre-purchased comics sell?
Oral Frier is a comic book retailer in Orlando, Florida. He stands behind the glass display case presenting colorful comic book fodder at A Comic Shop each Wednesday. Frier gleefully greets the customers picking up their weekly pulls as well as the new possible readers interested in their local comic book shop. The store’s owner, Aaron Haaland, has a video blog that is featured weekly on BleedingCool—a popular pop-culture website. The store is nationally known, and has many customers in eastern Orlando. Whether the customer is loyal or late to the game, Frier welcomes all people with a smile. He knows that the comic book industry tries hard to make all books approachable for any reader. One way Frier attributes his success of selling comics to new readers is due to “retailer summits that give those in the industry insight as to what to expect in the upcoming months.” He continues, “You have a pretty good idea of what’s coming.”
Nick DeCicco spent a portion of his professional life working in comic book retail. I worked in retail for 10 years,” Nick says. “Specifically [in] the comics and memorabilia [industry] for 3 years.” He spent most of years within the now defunct Hobby Spot, another comic book and memorabilia retail shop in Orlando. “If I could have stayed and talked shop with people and made more money I would have for sure. Not enough people buying to give people raises, etc.” He reasoning is understandable. Did it have to do with the growing universe of new comics readers see on the shelves every year?
Readers often complain about the many comic book publishers like Marvel and DC Comics produce annually. Unfortunately, potential comic book readers often conduct research online about different series and see articles bashing the convoluted stories in unexplainable timelines, which can deter those potential readers from ever getting into a comic book series. Frier states that, “people are often hesitant to start a series because they believe they’ve missed too much. I hear this a lot when I recommend a particular story arc in a series that doesn’t begin with an issue #1.
In this modern era of comic book publishing, many long-standing titles get rebooted or roll back into new volumes starting with “#1.” Friar says, “with new readers, it gives them easy access, so they feel like they belong.”
DeCicco agrees in regards to the new readers. “I think comics restarting gives kids and new readers a chance to feel like they can begin from the start and keep up with [the respective series] instead of the daunting task of going back or getting and trying to read compendiums.”
These new strategies make reading comics may be somewhat approachable, but at the same time overwhelming for new customers, which leads to readers losing track of which new series to jump on. However, even with the seemingly endless amount of new volumes of comics, readers can always touch base with their favorite characters from time to time. “I have worked in the comic book retail industry for the past six years,” Friar says. “I am constantly reading and I think that is a vital part of selling books. I’m not saying you should read every single book weekly, but you should attempt to at least peruse a series you aren’t actively reading from time to time to see what is happening.”
Could the constant start-stop-restart methods of storytelling be another reason why it has been hard to track sales of different titles? Possibly. The retailers have to do the best they can pushing books into readers’ hands and cash into the retailers’ register. High-priced issues are often promoted by publishers as a jumping on point. This results in most titles shifting back to issue #1. “If it is done with restraint, it is a great way to get readers both old and new on a title,” Friar adds. With the prevalence of comic book lure all over Hollywood, merchants like Frier do what they can in order to gain new customers. “It is a two-pronged approach,” Frier explains in regards to gaining new readers. “If someone wants to start with X-Men, I like to start people with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men or Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. The X-Men line is [historically] convoluted (hell, it is still convoluted to me, and I read it religiously), but those are solid places to start. That usually does the trick.”
As more comics are published digitally and in print, companies like Comixology and Diamond Distributors will likely come up with new, accurate ways to track the weekly sales of comics. Until then, the best place to gain a real idea of what flies off the shelves is through local retailers, like Oral Frier, who experience a myriad of sales and opinions on a daily basis. As the culture of comic book readers expands further into mainstream pop culture, the future of the comic book industry—although often hard to understand—will continue to spin stories that sell.