In last month's column, I explained why I think that local comics shows have become such an important element in the current comics marketplace, especially as a mechanism for comics dealers to recover working capital from otherwise unsalable inventory. I'm writing today's column from Kansas City, where I am in the process of participating in Chris Jackson's wonderful Planet Comicon. This two-day show is quite different from the one-day events that I wrote about last month, most specifically in that it has a plethora of guests. The dealer's room also has about triple the number of comics dealers exhibiting that you would expect to see at most local shows. With those two distinctions ignored, however, the basic functions of the show are not all that much different from the local shows I described in last month's column.
So why do I feel a need to write to you about this convention? Well, for starters, it has to do with a conversation I had at dinner last evening with several dealers who drove up from the Dallas area to participate in the convention. During the course of dinner I was asked quite a few questions about my current views on the state of the comics industry. My initial reactions were actually pretty negative, as I think at any market that is not giving good value to its consumers is teetering on the brink of being obsolete. I am also more than a little bitter at what I perceive as having been insanely stupid moves on the part of the publishers during the past few decades, such as the "Death of Superman" debacle (which I believe was the catalyst for the comics market crash of 1993), and Marvel's moronic belief during the late 1990's that they could self-distribute. Upon reflection, it seems to me that the unbelievable hubris and stupidity of those who run the comics publishing houses has consistently undermined the efforts of the rest of us to bring comics into the mainstream. Every time that those of us who actually supply and support the comics reading public start to build the market, yet another dimwitted and self-serving ploy by the publishers tears apart the very goodwill that we have been working so hard to create. Think Spider-Man/Mary Jane for the latest installment in how to alienate long time readers, and damage a valuable franchise...
After about an hour of my complaining about the current state of the comics world, someone at the dinner table asked me if I saw anything GOOD about what was happening in the comics world right now. My answer to that question was a bit enlightening even to me, as it crystallized a concept that I have been considering from different angles for quite some time, but had yet to form into a single theory. Simply put, I believe that today's comics market has split in half. On the one side of the equation are the traditional comics shops, which are rapidly morphing into bookstores. On my recent trip to England, I was amazed to see that even shops in that part of the world are manifesting this trend, with only one UK store I visited leaning heavily toward back issues, while all of the rest of the stores that I visited could barely be recognized as carrying periodicals at all. This same trend seems to be manifesting here in the USA, with more and more comics shops eliminating their back issue departments entirely, in order to devote the vast majority of their working capital and floor space to exhibiting staggering selections of new comics trade paperbacks and hardbacks.
At first glance, this trend among comics shops would seem to indicate that the back issue market is in the doldrums. Nothing could be further from the truth. With (by my estimate) well over one billion back issue comics now sitting in closets and garages all around America, there is a constant return flow of huge numbers of back issues into the secondary market each year. In point of fact, I believe that there are now far more back issues selling each year than at any time in history. I also believe that the overall dollar volume in the back issue market may well be greater today than the combined sales of all the new comics publishers, put together! The only thing that has changed is that those back issue sales are now being transacted almost exclusively at comics shows, in private sales, and via the Internet. The fact that back issues are no longer in their highly visible locations in comics shops, however, does give the impression that they are somehow no longer being collected, but this is a completely incorrect assumption. Quite the opposite is true, as it is the only ability of most local comics shops to effectively retail back issues that has failed, not the overall back issue comics market.
Returning to the subject of the convention here in Kansas City, an unusual trend manifested itself here yesterday, which mirrors precisely what I've seen at the one-day shows I've attended during this past six months. To be specific, attendance at the convention yesterday was up substantially over this same time last year. That substantial increase in fan participation cannot be attributed to the guest line-up, as Jim Lee was the headliner last year, and he is arguably the biggest draw in the entire comics world. Many fans did, indeed, come to the show to meet this year's primary guest, Berni Wrightson, but what I really saw happening was that enthusiastic demand for back issues was the driving element that caused this year's sudden growth spurt. Just as I've seen at many of the small shows I've attended this year, fans were buying entire long boxes of cheaper issues at the bargain dealers, and then frequently also purchasing a select few more expensive back issues to fill in runs. On the other side of the financial spectrum, trade in key Silver Age issues was very brisk, with many rare issues selling out to dealers before the show even began The Golden Age dealers with whom I spoke were also all quite pleased with yesterday's sales. Amazingly, not one single back issue dealer with whom I spoke expressed the slightest dissatisfaction with their sales at the Kansas City convention, which is a real rarity at any comics show.
Where I'm leading to with all of this is that I am gaining a considerable sense of optimism that a substantial portion of the comics world may well be able to go on for quite some time, even without any new comics being published at all. The disconnect between the new comics world and the back issue market is growing ever wider, especially as the cost/value equation continues to so strongly favor back issues. As a fan I overheard speaking with his buddy yesterday at a huge "All Comics Fifty Cents" booth clearly expressed "why should I pay $2.99 for a new comic, when I can get six decent back issues here for the same money?" That realization on the part of many comics fans may be bad news for the new comics publishers, but it certainly bodes well for the overall comics market. I would by no means ever advocate for a market devoid of new comics, as they provide the critical new stories without which our medium would inevitably stagnate as an art form. That having been said, however, I think that we're seeing a strong trend away from new comics being the primary cash flow for the entire industry (they were upwards of 90% of total sales in the early 1990's...), which I believe actually gives us more strength moving into the future. With low priced back issues now becoming the point of entry for many new collectors, we are seeing the rapid return to a comics industry growth that is based on a very affordable price point of $1.00, or less, per comic book. With the new comics publishers seemingly unable to deliver readable comics priced at a dollar, it is rapidly becoming evident that the secondary market is now providing the best values for serious comics fans. This is a seismic shift in our industry, the full ramifications of which are yet to be completely understood.
In closing today's column, I would once again advocate for your taking the time to attend local comics shows whenever you can, either as an exhibitor (even if you're just selling off pieces of your private collection), or as a fan. The comics world is changing quite rapidly these days, and the nexus of our future may well turn out to be these dynamic one-day comics shows popping up in motel banquet rooms all across America. Without a doubt, whenever there's not a larger comics show to attend, you'll find me on almost any given weekend at a one-day comics show somewhere in America...
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