How To Save Comic Books

Atomic Comics in Arizona closed its doors this week. Atomic Comics was arguably the most famous comic book shop in the world. It was featured in the movie Kick Ass. They had four stores in Arizona. They are now bankrupt and the owner is losing his house. Over the last few months my local comic shop, Comic Book Ink, had a big push to solve a $30,000 debt. They just barely made it. Movies based on comic books have never been more popular. And yet, comic books seem to be dying.

I’ve been collecting comic books since I was twelve years old. I started collecting in 1989 and never really stopped. I was there for the beginning of the 1990s boom where a single issue could easily sell over a million copies in a given month. Now there are months when the most popular book in the industry sells less than 100,000 copies. And there are signs that things are getting worse.

I am someone who enjoys reading and rereading comics. I don’t collect them as an investment. I collect them as an archive. I enjoy the stories. My 13-year-old son is currently reading my Marvel comics. He just finished reading the Onslaught crossover.  He absolutely loves these stories every bit as much as I do. (Yes, Onslaught wasn’t the best crossover.) My son and I talk about the high and low points. We talk about what’s gone on before and what’s going on now. And I can’t help but wonder if he will catch up with the current comics before they stop publishing.

What is killing comics? There are no easy answers. Some say video games. Some say the Internet. Some say it’s just technology in general.

The one thing almost everyone agrees on is that it isn’t a lack of quality. The comic books being published now are some of the best comics that have ever been published. Part of this is due to the phenomenal talent of the creators. Part of this is strangely enough the fact that comics are less popular than they’ve ever been. With less titles being put out every month, there are less creators working on comics and generally speaking the quality creators are the ones who’ve been able to survive the cuts.

A lot of people point to digital comics as the bullet that’s killing print comics. These days you can bit torrent comic books the day they come out for free. So why spend the $2.99-$3.99 for the issue at your local comic shop when you can download it without spending a dime or leaving your chair? For me, the answer is that I want comic books to continue. For example, I know that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal is some of the best crime fiction currently being produced in any medium. It’s so good that I want to give these people money so they’ll keep making more. So when I go to my local shop and buy an issue of Criminal, yes, I know that some of that money is going to Marvel, which is owned by Disney, and it’s not as if Disney needs any more money. But I also know that some of that money goes to the creators and some of it goes to my local comic shop so that next month there will be another issue and there will still be a place to buy that issue.

I realize that not everyone thinks like this. Some people just download and share whatever comics they want and don’t spend any money at all on comics. I would argue that these people wouldn’t buy a lot of comics even if digital comics weren’t available. I know it’s all the rage to blame digital pirates for lack of sales of everything from music to movies, but I just don’t think that’s true.

So if it’s not quality and it’s not technology, what is it? Personally I think it’s the death of the newsstand. It’s that you can’t buy comics at 7-11 anymore. My first comic wasn’t bought in a comic book shop. It was bought in a convenience store. So was my second one. It wasn’t until later that I finally ended up going to a comic shop. As a kid, I’m more likely to go to the corner store than I am to go the comic shop. Why did I first go to my local comic shop? Because I missed an issue. And then, because the guy behind the counter was smart, he mentioned that if I just wrote down a list of the titles I wanted, they would hold them for me.

I know a bit about the comic book industry, but I’m not sure why convenience stores stopped carrying comics. It might be that during the boom time of the 90s there were a dozen comics shops in any given big city. Now you can count them on one hand. (Often on one finger.) You need to get comics in the hands of kids again and kids don’t just walk into comic book shops.

With the success of so many comic book movies, one solution is giving away comics at the movie. This is rarely done and when it is, it’s done with a comic book that you can read, but it will likely never be reread. Why? Because the comic in question is essentially filler. It’s rarely written or drawn by any of the big names of comics and it is a story that takes place outside of continuity and doesn’t ‘matter’.

I think it was Steven Grant who came up with the proper way to give away comics at movies. You give away the first issue. End it with a good cliffhanger. Then you say that the second issue is available at your local comic book shop. That issue you ALSO GIVE AWAY. By making the second issue free, you get more people walking into the shop. And once a kid walks into a good comic book shop, I’m betting he’ll show up for issue three next month.

While I’m a 36-year-old guy who collects comic books, they need to be aiming for kids my son’s age. And they need to be looking at how to get comic books into their hands. Whether it’s making them available at convenience stores or in movie giveaways, the key thing here is get the kid to read a few comics. If we can’t get comics in the hands of kids, I don’t see much future for the industry.

I’m not the first one to think of these ideas and I’m far from the most knowledgeable when it comes to the comic book industry, but I do love comics. It’s a medium that tells stories that can’t be told anywhere else. Comic books have been on the verge of extinction before. But that’s one of the great things about comics. Just when you think a favorite character is dead and gone, they come back. Here’s hoping comic books can make a similar resurrection.

-Jack Cameron