The comic book industry may not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but it has withstood the worst economic decline since the Great Depression fairly well.
According to industry estimates, sales to specialty retailers rose 1% to $324.66 million between January and September. Experts say that it's too soon to say whether they will show a gain for the year because of the importance of holiday sales. But if sales do decline, it would be the industry's first drop-off since 2000. Those figures do not include sales of comics and graphic novels at Barnes & Noble (BKS) and other book store chains.
"I think that everybody would be happy with that," said analyst John Jackson Miller, who is also a comic book writer, in an interview. "There had been conventional wisdom for a lot of years that comics do well in a recession. The truth is that the record has been kind of mixed."
Comics, though, seem to flower during periods of economic stress. Indeed, Miller points out that comics nearly died in the 1950s, and the Internet stock boom years of 1994 to 2000 were terrible for the industry. The Golden Age of comics, which witnessed the birth of Superman, Batman and Captain America, began during the Great Depression. Characters such as the X-Men and the Amazing Spider-Man emerged during the Silver Age of the 1960s.
Comics emerged as collectibles in the 1970s and attracted a wave of speculators in the early 1990s, which boosted the values of both new and classic comics. Since then, the market for newer comics crashed while the older titles have seen their values increase. Today's comic renaissance is lifting old titles and new ones, and boosting business at the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 comic book stores in the U.S.
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"Comics in some nerdy way have become hip again," says Duncan Brown, chief operating officer of Newbury Comics, a 29-store chain in New England that sells comics and other pop culture merchandise.
The industry continues to be dominated by Marvel Entertainment Inc. (MVL) and DC Comics (which like this blog is part of Time Warner Inc. [TWX]). Marvel recently agreed to be purchased by Walt Disney Co. (DIS) for $4 billion. This year's best selling title was issue No. 583 of The Amazing Spider-Man, which features a picture of President Barack Obama on the cover.
At the end of last year, the lack of orders were "a little concerning", said Dan Manser, director of marketing for Diamond Comic Distributors Inc, the sole distributor of comics in the U.S. Those worries were apparently misplaced.
Titles including Archie Comics, which started around the time of Pearl Harbor, are boosting sales with contemporary story lines. For instance, after decades of indecision, Archie finally decided to marry the brunette temptress Veronica. Comics aimed at children are also selling well
Fred Mauser, co-president of Archie Comics Group, tells DailyFinance that the popularity of the new storyline "caught us and everyone else by surprise. ... Things are looking up quite nicely."
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His sentiments were echoed by IDW Publishing, which scored big this summer with official prequels and adaptations for hit movies such as Transformers, Star Trek, and G.I. Joe. The company also increased its presence in digital comics.
"IDW had our best year ever last year," said AnnaMaria White, a company spokeswoman. She declined to speculate about this year's sales because of the importance of the holiday season, though she said she expected them to be strong.
New specialty shops are popping up across the U.S. to take advantage of the comics boom. "We have seen a steady interest in people opening comic shops," said Manser, whose company is based in Timonium, Md., "The barrier to opening a comic book shop is pretty low."
According to James Simes, owner of Isotope, a comics store in San Francisco, his city has seen about four new comic book shops open over the past two years. Isotope, he says, is seeing an increase in sales thanks in part to an influx of French tourists.
"There is this whole wave of new-style comic retailers," he says. "I honestly think that San Francisco loves comics and can handle more stores."
Indeed, many comics stores host live events and art shows, or, in the case of Des Moines, Iowa-based Cup o' Kryptonite, sell super hero-strength coffee.. Like many stores, its sales are increasing. Co-owner Matt Johnson says comics are popular now because people want to escape the harsh realities of life.
"You need something to distract you from the average terribleness of the economy," Johnson said.
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