Comic Books Are Getting Totally Boned Right Now
If the comic book industry was a person, it would be an 87-year-old geezer coughing ominously and taking fever shits every ten minutes. In case we're being too subtle there, what we're saying is: not content with threatening Tom Hanks and Idris Elba, the year from hell might end up killing comics as we know them.
You might have heard that Diamond Comics, the company that distributes around 99% of all comic books in America and the UK, decided to stop doing that for the first time ever because of COVID-19. On April 1st, comics stores (the ones that are still open) just didn't receive any new issues from Diamond, which handles DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Archie, Valiant, and basically everything that isn't Christian pamphlets, unlicensed My Little Pony erotica, and crossovers between the two. Publishers are also telling artists to put down their pencils and limiting the number of comics they put out digitally due to the very real fear that, if most fans figure out how to read Batman online, comics stores will instantly go bankrupt.
You might be thinking, OK, so comic stores go away and everyone has to buy their comics digitally and maybe print them out themselves if they live in a no-phones-in-the-toilet household. What's the big deal? The big deal is that most of the publishers' revenue these days comes not from the comics themselves but from stuff like toys and t-shirts, and no one's better at moving those than your friendly (if you catch him in a good mood) neighborhood comic book guy. The publishers need the stores to stick around, at least until someone figures out a way to download novelty Hulk hands and such.
But wait, aren't movies based on comics making approximately all of the money these days? Can't they just grab a few hundred millions from the catering budget of the next Avengers movie and use it to finance comics for the next decade or so? Not really, because pretty much every industry except mask, soap, and microwave pasta manufacturing is under huge financial stress right now, including massive media companies. Disney (which owns Marvel) is so volatile that there were rumblings about Apple swooping in and buying them, while AT&T (which owns Warner Bros., which owns DC) was recently asking if anyone had a spare $5 billion to lend them.
Now combine that with the fact that many of the suits at those companies (the boring office suits, not the tight spandex ones) only see comics as intellectual property farms. As in, a way to keep the rights to characters that might one day turn into movies or Slurpee cup decorations, but not a serious, big boy business in itself. If the mega-companies need to tighten their belts, these silly little publishers might be one of the first things to go. We're sure they can think of other ways to keep the rights valid, like printing a few panels inside every pair of superhero-themed undies or something.
While some comics stores wonder what the hell they're gonna do if their bread and butter goes away (sell actual bread and butter?), others have been preparing for that day for a while. Mile High Comics has been one of the largest comics retailers in America for decades, but according to founder Chuck Rozanski, today new comics account for "less than 20%" of their gross revenue and "pretty much zero" of their actual earnings. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has attended Comic-Con, where the main attractions are no longer comics but the free movie-related swag and the possibility of getting to pee next to a former cast member from Lost.
Still, it sure won't help the publishers that conventions are falling like flies, and even after this is all over, it's hard to imagine anyone being in the mood for diving through masses of mouth-breathing nerds for a while.
The comics industry might only be able to survive in a dramatically scaled down form ... which ... wouldn't be such a bad thing, maybe? Remember, Marvel was only publishing about a dozen monthly comics during its most revolutionary period in the mid-'60s, while DC was putting out around 34 (which already included too much fluff). This January, Marvel alone published over 100. One of the reasons the industry ended up in this hole is that, after massively expanding the number of titles in the '80s and '90s and inevitably falling on hard times, their solution was "let's expand even more massively."
Perhaps not every B- and C-list character needs its own monthly comic, guys. Hell, maybe the A-listers don't either. Give us one or two big, meaty graphic novels per year for every character people can actually name. Make each new installment of Superman or Captain America an event, like the Harry Potter books or whatever the kids are reading now (Minecraft strategy guides?). Maybe then general audiences will start giving a crap about comics again. If COVID-19 ends up saving the comics industry from itself, it ... OK, it still wouldn't be worth it. But it'd be a nice little bonus for getting through the end of the world.