Comics Distribution (and Evolution)

As news of comic convention cancellations continues to come in, I’ve been feeling the pangs of convention withdrawal, both as an attendee and a vendor. I’ve also spent the time staying indoors to revisit my comic convention and think back about how I first discovered comics. 

 

My first pangs as an avid comic collector and reader started young. Already a fan of Looney Toons and Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons and comic strip collections (particularly Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, at the time), I was primed for the art form when I came across a spinner rack of comics while tagging along with my parents to the local five-and-dime as a child in the 80s. At the time, comics were somewhat ubiquitous, shelved on spinner racks or with magazines at drugstores, convenience stores, and booksellers. They were easily accessible and discoverable, and a natural hook (and inspiration) for me as a budding cartoonist. 

 

As comics left the magazine racks (not enough profit margin for the overhead), direct market comics shops became more prevalent. While the drug store only had the latest issues, whisked away by the magazine distributor when the new copies came out, comic shops often carried back issues, enabling the cultivation of a comic reader’s fandom. For me, my discovery of comic book stores provided an opportunity to track down the iterations of Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Wanderer, a book I first found at the local 7-11. Of course, the direct market also introduced me to independent and small press comic publishers, especially the DIY self-published comic creators that served as major influences.

 

Comic retailers continue to be a mainstay of the industry, despite news reports earlier in the year casting a dire light on their survival during the double-whammy of the COVID pandemic and a DC/Diamond Distributors separation. But what the quarantine and sheltering-in-place also provided was a nice reminder that comic retailers and conventions aren’t the only place to get your comics fix—or, on the flipside, get your comics out into the world as a creator. 

 

The internet is, as always, a great equalizer and platform to reach an audience. Including, in the case of comics, customers and patrons. Looking over the comics bought over the past few months, while my LCS continues to be a constant, I’ve only increased purchases and transactions directly with the comic creators.

  • With print-on-demand publishers, comic creators can sell their wares directly to readers, skipping the direct market for an even-more-direct market. It also enables creators to market their published projects to other publishers—and break into Diamond and direct market retailers as a result.
  • Patreon enables fans to show their appreciation by supporting creators with monthly low-cost subscriptions. In exchange, creators often provide exclusive content, peeks behind the curtain, and opportunities to buy limited run material. Done right, it’s mutually beneficial, and a great way to build relationships between comics creators and fans. 
  • Crowdfunding platforms—like Kickstarter and Indiegogo—allow comic creators to build an audience and finances for their projects upfront. From the Richie Rich/political parody Ronald Rump to a new take on the public-domain-character Octobriana from Street Angel’s Jim Rugg, I’ve discovered—and supported—projects that are both completely new-to-me and the latest of favorite creators. (And I’m keeping an eye out for the Blood & Roses revival from ShoutFyre’s own Robert Hickey and Bill Nichols!)

 

In short, while new stories like to call comics and endangered species, there’s also a reason 2019 was comics’ biggest sales year yet. Just as comics evolved from the spinner rack to the direct market, the distribution and reach of comics have grown to more than just Diamond (and DC). As a result, the industry only has an increasing number of readers and channels for comics creators. To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

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Steve Stegelin

Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic)  BOONDOGGLE