In recent years, it seems impossible to run across a piece on the American comic book industry that doesn’t include the ominous declaration, “Comics are dying.” However, this sentiment does not appear to resonate with local shop owners. “I’ve been hearing that for, I don’t know how long,” says Dan Mercurio, owner of Boom Tube Comics, a local comic shop operating in Milldale, CT.
Boom Tube Comics—like the fictitious interdimensional teleportation devices used by the DC villain Darkseid, which the store takes its name from—launches the customer into a world of color the second they step through the unassuming drab wood front door. The thousand square foot storefront is stuffed floor to ceiling with comics, graphic novels, and pop culture memorabilia.
The newest releases line the walls on forward-facing wall racks. A full-sized cardboard cutout of Aquaman sternly watches over a kingdom of collectables in small transparent boxes to his left, while a similarly intimidating cutout of Weasel—the hideous but endearing CGI abomination played by Sean Gunn in 2021’s The Suicide Squad—stares down anyone daring to make eye contact, from its position in the center of the store.
A convention photo of Mercurio and Stan Lee, the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, who in later years continued on as the unofficial public face of the company, rests on the wall behind the cash register. Although Stan Lee and many other similarly-talented creators have since passed away, Mercurio doesn’t feel the industry at large faces a downward spiral, but rather, that the field is opening up for independent creators.
“I stack a ton of independent titles, as well as all the Marvel and DC titles. We carry probably more independent comics than the average comic book store, that’s for sure. I think it’s an important part of the business.” Dressed casually in a Boom Tube Comics t-shirt, tan pants, and a black zip-up jacket, Mercurio keeps his hands in his pockets, often gesturing with his shoulders to emphasize his points. “Independent comics will take chances and do things that Marvel and DC just don’t have the stomach for. Independent comics give new creators chances, and they take chances on stories that I don’t think will be printed in the bigger books.”
With a total estimated industry value of $7.14 billion in 2021, growing to $7.79 billion in 2022, the comic book industry doesn’t appear to be in any immediate danger, and in fact, is expected to maintain a steady growth rate of roughly 10.5% through 2030, according to industry market reports from Grand View Research.
Publishers Weekly expands on this, noting that “sales of comics and graphic novels rose 62% in 2021 over 2020.” However, that has not slowed the outpour of news stories voraciously proclaiming that the end is nigh for the US comic book market.
Even the shutdowns and societal restrictions implemented during the height of COVID-19—which effectively snapped out of existence 1.8% of US small businesses with the same brutality of Thanos, and temporarily shut down another 41.3%—did not entirely dampen people’s desire for comic book entertainment.
“We were down 90%. And for those two months, we were closed. But I came in every day and maintained my relationship with my customers,” Mercurio said, standing opposite a wall full of new Marvel releases, the covers of which seem almost to blend together in an array of vivid primary colors. “We did curbside pickup, and people came and bought stuff. It was enough for us to get by for a couple months.”
Once the stimulus checks began going out and the job market began to slowly recover, customers once again looked to comics as a way to escape the grim tedium that had become the new normal. “There was a big surge,” Mercurio recalls, as a full-sized poster illustration of the DC Comics character, Swamp Thing looms ominously behind him, “because suddenly there’s a lot of money in the economy, and a ton of people found themselves with lots of time on their hands.” While this surge was temporary, business these days remains steady.
Looking at the national market, the only reduction in growth according to a report from Comichron, is a notable drop in new title releases from all the major publishers across the board. The study included figures from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and others for the years between 2015 and 2022. Between 2016-2019, Marvel, the foremost leader, produced over thousand new periodicals per year, whereas in 2020, this number dropped to a low of 715, comprising a 40% reduction for the company. Similar drops were found across the industry.
Mean and lean appears to be the rule of thumb across the industry, and it’s hard to argue that these cutbacks aren’t warranted. Like any other business, it’s boom or bust, and no publisher wants to find themselves on the latter end. Luckily, while there are always spikes and falls in the market, the demand for comics is not something that will likely evaporate overnight.
“I mean, if you’re looking at DC Comics with Action Comics and Detective Comics, they’ve been around for eighty years now. It’s a hobby that people just get into. I have younger people in it, as well as older people. So yeah, I think it’ll always be around.”
Community is a theme that recurs often when discussing the day-to-day life of operating a comic shop. One of the busiest days of the year for any comic shop is Free Comic Book Day, an annual national event, occurring on the first Saturday of May every year, which over two-thousand-three-hundred local stores participate in. This year’s Free Comic Book Day stands out as something a bit more special than usual for Mercurio. “That’s our fifth anniversary. And the day after, we’re going to have an artist, Mike DeCarlo, at the store.”
An accomplished comic book artist, DeCarlo’s fingerprints can be found across the industry, including in several highly-acclaimed works like Batman: Death in the Family, a controversial 4-part miniseries that centered around Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, kidnapping Batman’s sidekick Robin, aka Jason Todd, and beating him to death with a crowbar. In a bold creative move, DC publicly invited readers to vote on whether Robin should live or die. The final tally comprised 10,614 votes. By a slim seventy-two vote majority, fans decided with gleeful abandon to murder the underage ward, for the crime of being perceived as too abrasive. Definitely not one of the shining positive examples of community. R.I.P. Robin.
Mercurio hopes that bringing in other known comic creators and setting up other similar events will help prove a long-term draw for both existing customers and newcomers alike. So long as there are stories to tell, and artists to tell them, local comic shops aren’t likely to pack up anytime soon.
Daniel Lenois is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header image courtesy of Daniel Lenois.