This essay was written as part of the capstone of Dr. Robyn Crummer-Olson’s Book Marketing course.

To understand the plight of the brick and mortar comic book store, you must first understand the evolution of the direct market. In brief, the market adjusted to the desires of its aging base and neglected to bring in new customers, a trend it has largely continued to the present day. Neil Gaiman predicted the boom and bust of the comics market as companies eagerly sold variant covers to the same story to shops and speculators expecting to flip them for a tidy profit, ignorant of what made Action Comics #1 so rare. His analogy to the apocryphal Dutch Tulip Craze proved apt.

Patterns have continued much the same, however, and comic shops have maintained at a post-bust population of about 2-3000 in America ever since (Thanos snap joke, anyone?). Experiments have abounded and, overwhelmingly, when those experiments target readers who have been neglected since the mid-20th century, women and children, they have proven successful, while myopic appeals to the so-called base have tended to result in playing the hits to a crowd increasingly reticent to buy the t-shirt at best and massive failures at worst. The ensuing predictions about the future of direct comics sales market (and the stores that depend on it) are culled from a range of sources but all basically agree that the future involves more robust marketing to underserved, under-tapped, or entirely untapped readerships and a shift to a model that sees publishers collaborating with stores to sell in the long term rather than the short.

The unlearned lesson of the peril of variant covers continued to even 2012 with Marvel’s Marvel NOW! initiative providing increased discount on non-returnable copies of Uncanny Avengers #1; the shops may only have had to sell a fraction of these and a few lucrative bulk purchase variant covers to break even, but the glut of the content in bargain bins did no favors and overinflated estimates for what a #2 or the next new #1 might move (Johnston 4). Declining dividends for shops as their customers become savvy to the frequency of new #1s (the subject of a Squirrel Girl cover joke) only further erode publisher-shop relationships. It bodes ill that Dan DiDio’s own invective against speculator marketing came shortly before his ouster (Terror).

Much hay has been made of shifts to digital from print, but overwhelmingly the market has borne out that print and digital content imbibers are distinct sections of the market and no threat to longevity, provided content is created for them (Steirer). DC found success with its Walmart Giant books which package short new stories in with reprints of older material and which are sold, like Archie digests and newsstand comics of yore, by the registers, with the idea being that parents will purchase them for their children. The new content is then eventually repackaged in trades for shops to no apparent loss of revenue and only an increase in customer base for the outreach to non-specialty-shop-going customers. (Johnston 1)

One of the major growth sectors in comics since the pandemic, has been licensing platforms like Tapas and Webtoon which offer original and licensed foreign content. Most have subscription or ad-sale models (similar to Marvel and Comixology Unlimited and the now-defunct DC Universe) or will put up the first few “episodes” of comics for free while subsequent installments have to be purchased. In many cases, they will then partner with publishers for print editions of the same content. Each provides different types and levels of marketing for creators, however. Futekiya, a popular yaoi/shonen-ai (gay male romance manga) engages in social media marketing. Others rely on users to know the platform or for creators to establish a brand via their own social media which then leads users to the hub of their content (Joe).

Another growth area has been YA titles of existing properties, including DC’s young adult line that kicked off with a Raven (of the Teen Titans) graphic novel, and sublicensing like Marvel has done with Star Wars, Spider-Man, and Captain Marvel, to IDW for young readers titles has proven successful, as well as with Scholastic for prose novels about its characters. Besides creating new logos and repackaging old content under new imprints, however, the substance of DC’s changes remains in question, with the open secret in the industry being that Warner Bros (DC’s parent company) is actively fielding offers to license publishing rights out entirely (Comics Retailers Assemble!).

            COVID has also coincided with Calvin Reid’s Bad Idea, a print single issue only (for now) publisher attracting big name talent and marketing exclusively to comic stores and without variant covers. It is too early to get hard numbers on sales impacts, but such experiments have proved beneficial in the past, as in the Boom! Studios example discussed below (Reid 1).

            Even prior to COVID, marketing for comics was increasingly shifting online. Diamond’s regular catalogue of is primarily viewed online and its advertising is minimal. DC and Marvel, as well as Image, have/had long put out their own catalogues as Previews inserts which included longer samples and more marketing collateral at their own cost. That’s shifting online, too.

            Conventions have also historically been a major part of publisher’s marketing pushes, but the vast majority, at least by their own reports, tend to only break even through their convention slots, with their freebies, tabling costs, and travel and shipping expenses eclipsing their actual profits. Fantagraphics reported that it estimated net gains for shifting its marketing online in the wake of convention cancellations (MacDonald).

This is not to say, however, that individual books have not been harmed by the cancellations, as Top Cow’s Henry Barajas had sales of his own book, a timely graphic biography of his LatinX labor organizer grandfather, eaten into because the direct sales and outreach opportunities evaporated and left no immediate recourse (MacDonald). It’s timeliness, like that of Derf Backderf’s latest, a graphic history of the Kent State shootings, made it prime for a book-tour and outreach to, particularly, librarians, though they have presumably found other ways to move their content to libraries hungry for it and were able to make up short-term losses with crowdfunding, the unexpected sales boom, and platforms like Humble Bundle.

            Many companies and stores with active social media had an easier transition to online sales and outreach, with one creator immediately turning his home studio into a quasi-convention booth and livestreaming commission drawings and videos for his fans (MacDonald). Stores also found success selling through their back-catalogues as they moved inventory into hastily assembled online marketplaces that allowed them to increase the range of their buyers.

            Most in the industry see the changes under COVID as permanent, with future conventions boasting both in-person and remote ticket offerings, evening the playing field for many already expensive and overbooked conventions (MacDonald).

            Comic shops are adapting, too, as many already had after the speculator bubble. They curate their offerings to their own tastes and those of the communities they serve because it’s long been impossible to carry everything on the shelves. Pull-boxes of comics ordered by request for customers made this easier. Returnability programs like Boom Studios’ #BuyWhatYouBelieve also help companies to market to overfilled shops because they provide incentives for shops to carry their books while lowering the risk to the shop owner and placing the onus on the publisher to provide marketing collateral. Boom! habitually provides displays, double sided posters, and other paraphernalia. That initiative was announced at ComicsPro/con by Boom Studios Filip Sablik and was accompanied with iPads placed on the surrounding tables (and an early solicitation through Diamond) so that retailers who didn’t have their computers with them could preorder on the spot (Johnston 2)

            Other comic shops have long doubled as gaming centers and sold tabletop RPGs and cards to attract a broader customer base, and such retailers anticipate that comics publishers will become more tapped into gaming release schedules to avoid poaching their own sales, as one shop owner noted occurred when Avengers Endgame debuted on the same day as the new Magic the Gathering expansion, taking customers out of shops and making them less likely to buy the comics which ostensibly share a customer base with the film (Johnston 3).Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) has also notably not innovated to increase FCBD buying and customer retention (Johnston 3)

            What most retailers have realized is that films and shows don’t sell comics alone. Historically, movies have exercised more influence over the comics than vice-versa, with Mystique’s portrayal in X-Men (2000) corresponding to a change in the comics, just as Avengers Assemble was published as a comic for fans of the movies who wanted to read about that particular team (McAllister, Gordon, and Jacovich). Companies have to cross-market and time such campaigns more effectively. The recent failed Hellboy saw more sales of the comics, for some shops, than did Endgame for Avengers. Reprints of older material are also a major seller s and it behooves companies like Marvel to keep their back-catalogue, particularly works which are influencing films and television in print and in stock (Steirer) as well as older jumping on points for franchises like X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills or The New Mutants (Clarke). Publishers and creators also find greater success putting out personalized collateral for shops (signed bookplates, posters, etc) because these increase the chances that customers will buy expensive titles in a shop rather than through discount online retailers (Johnston 5). (O’Leary) Store exclusive variants are a similar program, but plagued with the problems of their general market forebears. Many shops are also demanding new, diverse, and representative content to meet their customers’ needs (Reid 5).

            None of these initiatives works on its own. They must be coupled with consistent marketing pushes or what Rich Johnston proclaims “if Marvel want to make some money, they probably need to spend some money too. On promoting the books somewhere other than where current comic readers are looking. (Johnston 4).

            In brief, no one strategy can or will change the face of comics marketing. The successful experiments and combinations we have seen, however, point to the inevitable future of a medium where collections are king, periodicals a niche (and less of a gauge for the success of collections down the line, as they have erroneously been used for decades), and where publishers partner with retailers and creators to meaningfully encourage sales through the more lucrative direct market. Amazon and discounters are going nowhere, but shops have shown increased willingness to abandon publishers who leave them holding the bag. The key question is not whether, but which publishers will play the long game of creating life-long customers.

Works Cited

Clarke, M.J. “The Production of the Marvel Graphic Novel Series: The Business and Culture of the Early Direct Market.” Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics, vol. 5, no. 2, 2014, pp. 192–210.

“Comics Retailers Assemble.” More to Come from Publishers Weekly, 26, Feb 2021,

Gaiman, Neil. Gods & Tulips. Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 1999.

Joe, Ryan. “Digital Comics, Digital Payments.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 261, no. 39, 2014, p. 36.

Johnston, R. (2020, April 20). Dc expands digital first comics – or are they digital seconds? Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

Johnston, Rich. “BOOM! Urges A Comics #RetailerRevolution, Announces New Kieron Gillen Comic, At ComicsPRO.” Bleeding Cool News And Rumors, 8 Mar. 2019,

Johnston, Rich. “Comic Store in Your Future- Avengers: Endgame Hurt Sales, Unlike Hellboy.” Bleeding Cool News and Rumors, 17 May 2019,

Johnston, Rich. “The Goosing of Marvel NOW with Variants And Discount.” Bleeding Cool News and Rumors, 3 Nov. 2012,

Johnston, Rich. “Comic Store in Your Future – A Look Back At The 2019 Past.” Bleeding Cool News and Rumors, 24 Dec. 2019,

MacDonald, Heidi. “Comics Without Cons.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 267, no. 27, 2020, p. 33.

McAllister, Matt. “Blockbuster Meets Superhero Comic, or Art House Meets Graphic Novel? The    Contradictory Relationship between Film and Comic Art.” The Journal of Popular Film and             Television, vol. 34, no. 3, 2006, pp. 108–114.

O’Leary, Shannon. “A Look Inside the 21st-Century Comics Shop.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 267,     no. 12, 2020, pp. Publishers Weekly, 2020–03-20, Vol.267 (12).

Reid, Calvin. “Is a New Published Called Bad Idea Actually Good for Comics?” Publishers Weekly,     vol. 266, no. 28, 2020, online.

Reid, Calvin. “2019 North American Comics Sales Hit Record $1.21 Billion.” The Publishers Weekly    vol. 267 no. 1, July 13, 2019

Reid, Calvin. “At San Diego Comic-Con, Diversity in Content and Consumers is Key.” The Publishers            Weekly vol. 264, Iss. 31 (Jul 28, 2017): 4.

Salkowitz, Rob. “Marvel Trade Books: Going Big, Young, and Strong.” The Publishers Weekly vol.      267, no. 4 (2020).

Salkowitz, Rob. “DC Comics Leaving Its Legacy Behind.” The Publishers Weekly vol. 267, no.5 (2021)

Salkowtiz, Rob. “Tapas Sees Big Gains for Digital Comics.” The Publishers Weekly, 2021, pp. The        Publishers weekly, 2021–01-20.

Salkowitz, Rob. “Comics for a Mobile Generation.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 267, no. 21, 2020, p. 10.

Steirer, Gregory. “No More Bags and Boards: Collecting Culture and the Digital Comics Marketplace.” Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics, vol. 5, no. 4, 2014, pp. 455–469.

Terror, Jude. “Dan Didio Calls Out Speculator Marketing Driving ‘Appearance of a Healthy Industry.’” Bleeding Cool News and Rumors, 8 Aug. 2019,  calls-out-speculator-marketing-driving-appearance-of-a-healthy-industry.