Comic Shops and COVID-19: The Developments to Now

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on life as we know it, leaving no [...]

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on life as we know it, leaving no industry untouched in recent weeks and months. Particularly hard hit has been the comic book industry, specifically local comic book stores. With stores closed nationwide, we are exploring the impact the pandemic has had on comic book retailers by looking at how the direct market functioned prior to the pandemic, the current state of things, as well as the way forward as the world tentatively begins to attempt to reestablish normal. Previously, we broke down the fundamentals of the comic book direct market by looking at what Diamond Comic Distributors is, how the direct market functions, and what day-to-day operations looked like for local comic book shops prior to COVID-19, including the challenges they faced. Now, we're taking an updated look at everything that's happened with the comic book industry thus far: the disruptions, shutdowns, cancellations, and other developments that have contributed to the ongoing limbo the industry remains trapped in.

The first major indication that the coronavirus pandemic would have wide-reaching impact on the comic book industry goes back to March and Seattle's Emerald City Comic Con. Seattle, Washington was the early epicenter of the pandemic in the United States with the first confirmed case in the United States detected in the city on January 21. It didn't take long for additional cases to be confirmed and by March, there were major concerns about whether ECCC would go forward as scheduled on March 12. On March 4, ReedPOP, which also is in charge of other major conventions such as C2E2 and New York Comic Con, announced that participants would be offered a full refund. Two days later, the convention was cancelled outright. Two weeks later it was announced that the convention had rescheduled for August 21-23, 2020.

After the cancellation of ECCC, other major events in the comic book industry also began to be disrupted. The Diamond Retailer Summit, originally scheduled for April 10-12, also cancelled. WonderCon announced on March 12 that it would be postponed, though on April 17 the convention was officially cancelled. San Diego Comic-Con, scheduled originally to take place in July was also cancelled, with the announcement stating that the event would return to the San Diego Convention Center from July 22-25, 2021.

Beyond the convention front, the pandemic saw shifts in individual cities and localities that would ultimately lead to big impacts on the retail and distribution fronts as well. Cities across the country began closing schools and shuttering non-essential businesses. California issued the first statewide stay-at-home order on March 19. Other states soon followed suit and, as a result, comic book shops were either closed (as most were deemed "non-essential") or were very limited to how they could operate their business -- such as having to offer curbside pickup or mail order only.

As Chase Magnett's previous breakdown of events noted, any disruption to the business of comic book stores has a major impact on the entire North American comic book industry as local comic book stores are responsible the overwhelming majority of weekly sales for new issues. With the stores closed or limited, things began to change on the publisher and distribution end of things very quickly. On March 17, Image Comics announced plans to make comics returnable for retailers during the pandemic. This was a huge move since, as we explored briefly in the first part of this series, comics are not returnable for retailers, something that places an often challenging financial burden on shops.

Soon after, Free Comic Book Day, one of the largest sales days for the comic book industry and a fan-favorite event was cancelled on March 18. Marvel Comics announced on March 20 that they would be offering additional discounts for retailers on titles released between March 18 and April 8. The biggest development, one that would make those discounts moot, came just a few days later. On March 23, Diamond Comic Distributors announced that would stop receiving shipments at their warehouse for the indefinite future, a move that effectively shutdown distribution in the direct market and made Wednesday, March 25 the last New Comic Book Day with, at the time, no end in sight.

From there, things began to change and shift at an even more rapid pace. On March 28, DC Comics finally entered the conversation. They announced that they would make all comics released through the end of June returnable for retailers and also announced that they were looking for alternatives to distribution -- complete with reference to the creation of a "multi-distributor model" that would circumvent the Diamond shutdown. Two days later on March 30, DC announced they would limit their digital releases for that week. Marvel Comics also announced that they would also limit their digital releases for the week, taking even a digital New Comic Book Day for April 1 off the table.

On March 31, Diamond announced that they would stop payments to vendors due to cash flow problems thanks to the closure of their customers (which would be comic book stores). Publishers began announcing publication schedule changes. On April 13, Diamond announced that due to continued cash flow issues, they had begun furloughing employees, though four days later on April 17, they also announced that they expected to resume shipping operations in mid-to-late May.

DC also made a major announcement on April 17. While they made changes to their publishing schedule and scaled back the number of titles they would be offering, the publisher also announced that they planned to begin selling new comics on April 28 -- with the help of two distributors: Lunar Distribution and UCS Comic Distributors which ComicBook was later able to confirm are Discount Comic Book Service (operating Lunar Distribution) and New York's Midtown Comics (operating UCS Comic Distributors). On April 25, Diamond announced that they planned to resume distribution on May 20th and, on May 1, Marvel announced that they will resume releasing comics on Wednesday, May 27.

That leads us to now (which, as of the date of this article's writing is May 16, 2020) and while things are starting to shift back to something more normal with Diamond resuming operations next week and shops across the country beginning to open back up as cities and states relax their stay-at-home orders, the events of the last two months have had a major impact on local comic book stores.

In our next installment, we'll explore what impact the pandemic has had on stores, the new challenges they've faced and what various stores have done in an attempt to stay in business while the industry remains in flux.