Before the spread of the coronavirus, comic book fans would flock to their local store and pick up the week’s new releases every Wednesday. New issues are released in the middle of the week, and it is not uncommon to see fans debate the story or artwork of a comic with fellow patrons or staff members. It’s a kind of community, and all part of being a comics fan.
“I have been buying physical copies since 1988,” Walter Myrick said. “Part of reading comic books to me is actually going to a comic book shop, talking to shop owners and other fans.”
Now, that sense of community is gone.
COVID-19 did something neither World War II nor recessions were able to; it forced comic book companies to halt publication. The industry’s largest distributor, Diamond Comic Distributors, shut down in late March before resuming business on May 20. No new releases from Dark Horse, IDW Publishing, Image Comics, Marvel Comics, and Valiant Comics graced the walls of Philadelphia shops for almost two months. DC Comics, which had partnered with Diamond for over a decade, switched distributors to Lunar and UCS Comic Book Distributors and resumed publishing in April.
Likewise, comic book stores had to close their doors as part of the effort to stem the pandemic. Stores rely on managing and selling subscriptions, as well as fans of a title stopping by to pick up the latest installment from their local shop on the day of publication.
With few new comics bringing in sales, some stores could close for good.
“Ontario Street Comics will not be one of those closing,” William “Bill” Fink, owner of the shop at 2235 E. Ontario St., said. “I will do whatever is necessary to keep my store in business.”
Though coronavirus has slowed things down, Fink refuses to consider ever shutting down.
“The only way that would happen is if I had gotten sick and died,” he said. “Even if that happened my family would most likely still keep it going.”
Comic book retailers have encouraged fans to buy back issues to support stores. Some stores have offered curbside pickup or have begun mailing orders to customers.
TKO Studios, an independent comic publisher, launched a campaign to keep stores funded. When customers shop for TKO books online, the company will donate at least half of the book’s cover price to a store of the buyer’s choosing. Customers select which store to support at checkout.
“It definitely works,” said Eric Partridge, manager of Fat Jack’s ComicCrypt, the oldest comic book shop in Philadelphia, located at 2006 Sansom St. “We get a check every other week.”
But even with the help of programs like TKO’s, Fat Jack’s is still in trouble, both from COVID-19 and previous financial difficulties.
Rising health insurance premiums for employees and an increase in the store’s rent threaten to outpace revenue. Regular customers have cut back on purchases because of their own financial problems, and there have been fewer people interested in buying higher-dollar items like comic book collections and full-series runs.
Despite obstacles, Partridge remains hopeful.
“We’re clawing our way through,” he said.
Slowly, stores have begun to open back up. Some are once again offering in-person service, restricting the number of many people allowed in the store at once and requiring masks.
“It’s a different experience getting comic books wearing a mask,” Myrick said. “Not being able to physically go into some shops. And not being able to hang out and talk to owners and fans in the shops.”
While the fans excited about Wednesdays’ new issues are starting to come back, some of the bigger events, like comic book conventions, are still on hold. San Diego Comic-Con, which has been going on since 1970, was canceled and replaced with Comic-Con@Home. Keystone Comic Con, usually held at the Philadelphia Convention Center, also canceled its in-person event and announced an online gathering instead.
“Comics fandom is, for me, all about in-person events,” Nico Meyering, who has been buying comics for most of his life, said. “I love [conventions], I love Free Comic Book Day.”
In-person events give fans like Meyering an opportunity to connect and share critical perspective, and even expertise.
“One of my hobbies is comic book history and disability representation in fandoms,” Meyering said. “I’ve given several talks at comic cons. Sadly that’s all ground to a halt. I know there are virtual events, but it’s not the same to me.”
It’s still too soon to tell what long-term changes there will be to the comic book industry, if any, as the pandemic is still ongoing. But, fans like Meyering and Myrick are hopeful their favorite local shops will hang on.
“We 100% need to support the comics shops and the employees who work there,” Meyering said.
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