Comic books are not hot and the pundits are worried. Sales numbers aren’t what they were 20 years ago. A headline in the Toronto Star last March even read “Hero deficit: Comic books in decline”.
But, if comics are dying, someone forgot to tell the people who sell them.
“The audience for comics is growing and growing in a way that it hasn’t since the end of the Second World War,” said Peter Birkemoe, owner of Annex area indie comic shop The Beguiling. He said that this was due to expanding ideas of what comics are. Comic books are no longer necessarily the adventures of Archie and the gang, or of heroic men and women who wear spandex.
“Now there are comics for all sorts of different people,” Birkemoe said. “You have a larger potential audience. You have more readers.”
Sales numbers for comics have gone up about 23 per cent over the last two years, according to numbers from ICv2.com, a pop culture news site.
Sure, there’s evidence you can toss around to show that comics are dying. Around 10 years ago, there were two comic book shops in the ever expanding Yonge and Eglinton neighbourhood. There are now none.
One of those shops was a branch of Silver Snail, which, with its Queen Street West branch, is still one of the largest comic book stores in the city. George Zotti, manager of the Queen Street store, said that the midtown Snail closed down because of rent increases.
“It’s not like the sales weren’t there,” he said.
Though Yonge and Eglinton now has no dedicated comic shop, BMV, a used bookstore, sells old issues, and does well with it.
“Comics always sell,” manager Terry Grogan said. “People are always looking for the characters that they grew up with.”
Okay, but there’s also the fact that your average comic shop is going to sell more than just comics. The plethora of action figures or guides for role-playing games around a comic book store might seem like a crutch to prop up the comic book end of business. Grey Region, on Yonge Street south of Wellesley Street, even has a small internet café set up at its front.
The computers were indeed brought in to boost revenue in the 1990s, according to Grey Region’s manager, Josh Kostka. Use of the computers has gone down, but that doesn’t have him concerned.
“Every year for the past five years, we’ve been selling more than the previous year,” he said.
Grey Region may have sold more over the past few years, but comic books have still taken a hit compared to the highs of the early ’90s, when the top selling comic book in a month would sell hundreds of thousands of copies more than a top seller will now. The big focus of the comic book market then was collectibility. “That bubble was very small,” Zotti said. “Comics were selling for a lot of money then, but like anything else, it just went bust.”
The ’90s saw the major publishers use gimmick after gimmick to sell comics, according to a recent column by author George Khoury on comicbookresources.com. Eventually, readers found themselves worn out by a bombardment of different covers for the same comic and major stunts like Superman’s death and resurrection. Readers stopped caring.
These days, people do care. Major news outlets carry stories on major changes to characters, like the recent ending of Spider-Man’s marriage. Japanese comics, known as manga, sell more and have and even have a large presence in mainstream bookstores. The Indigo bookstore at Yonge and Eglinton has four and a half bookcases full of nothing but manga. The Japanese stuff even tends to bring in female readers, according to Chris Giancoulas of One Million Comix on Yonge Street, breaking up the sometimes held perception that comics are a boy’s only club.
Comic books have undeniably expanded their pop culture pull. The films based on comics are the obvious examples. It helps that a lot of them end up with positive reviews. The New York Times Magazine serializes graphic novels in its pages. Book reviews in newspapers sometimes review graphic novels. Comic books even show up in the classroom.
A recent trip to the English section of the bookstore at the University of Toronto at Scarborough showed two graphic novels available on its shelves. One was the indie comic book memoir Persepolis. The other was Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
“Someone in the bookstore actually commented, ‘What kind of course is studying this? That’s not a real book,’” Professor Alexandra Peat said of the Batman book, which she taught in a course on dystopia.
Peat has found that some students view comics as being just a step up from picture books.
“There’s two things to fight against,” she said. “First, you have to show students that they’re not just about superheroes. They can be about ordinary life and ordinary people and also about politics and history. And even if they are about superheroes, it doesn’t mean they’re simple and easy.”
Although comics can be literary, not all of them are. Some are just for fun, and some are intended for kids, though kids’ comics don’t sell well and little ones aren’t often seen inside the walls of a comics shop.
When kids come into Giancoulas’s shop, he said that they are not likely to pick up a comic. They are more likely to buy some Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh! merchandise. Kostka said that only once every couple of years will a kid come in and buy comics on his or her own. The comic book market has aged. Most comics are no longer intended strictly for kids.
In 20 years time, traditional print comics will be dead due to the aging market, Kostka speculated.
“They’ll still be making comics,” he added. Although he said that he was not an expert on the future of comic books, he speculated that digital comics, which major comic companies have only begun to dabble with, might eventually take over.
But, for right now, things in the comic book market are not bad. It was an hour before close on a recent Tuesday night at Silver Snail as Zotti talked to a reporter. The phone behind him rang often. The shelf space set side for the newest comics was empty to make way for the next morning’s barrage of new titles.
Customers passed in and out. One was even a young girl, maybe twelve, with a woman who looked like her mother. The two of them went to the kids’ comics in the back, the girl grabbed something, and they walked back towards the cash. Other customers flitted in and out as the store edged toward close. The Snail was not packed. But it was not empty.
The interview started to wrap up. The reporter asked Zotti if he had anything to add. Zotti paused for just a second and shrugged.
“I think sometimes people want the shock of ‘The decline!’ of anything,” he said. “People are like, ‘Oh my God!’ Really, until books disappear, comics will still be around.”