Looking Back | COVID and Comics

The COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a bumpy year for the comics industry.

Today we kick off a series that looks back at the biggest news trends of 2020, starting with the COVID-19 pandemic and how it impacted the world of comics. Watch for more posts all this week.

COVID-19 was already on the radar when I attended C2E2 on the last weekend of February 2020, but it was still just a vague shadow in the distance. There were only a handful of cases in the U.S., but we knew more were coming. Some folks Tweeted that they wouldn’t be hugging or even shaking hands, but most people went ahead anyway, happy to see old friends after a long winter apart. The folks at McCormick Place put in extra hand sanitizer stations. And since China was already coming out the other side of their epidemic, I spoke to a couple of publishers about how the brief shutdown over there had affected their schedules. Like many of the 95,000 attendees, I roomed with friends I hadn’t seen in months, had lunch and dinner with more friends, attended panels in rooms that held 200 or more, and walked around the crowded convention floor.

C2E2 2020

In retrospect, that seems incredibly reckless. We knew there was a risk at the time, but we underestimated it. It’s hard to change your behavior based on something that hasn’t happened yet, let alone something that hasn’t happened in your lifetime.

One of the topics of conversation at C2E2 was Emerald City Comic Con, and wasn’t it a pain having two conventions back to back like that. It meant a lot of travel and time away from home for the creators and publishing staff who were working both cons. By the end of the weekend, some folks were starting to wonder if they should cancel their reservations.

Then things started moving fast. C2E2 ended on Sunday, March 1. By March 4, a number of publishers had pulled out of ECCC, citing their concern about the virus. Two days later, ECCC announced the show was being postponed until the summer.

Then suddenly it was upon us. On March 11, actor Tom Hanks announced he had the virus; the entire basketball season was canceled after several players on the Utah Jazz tested positive; and the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 had reached pandemic status. Nothing has been the same since then.

The impact the pandemic has had on the comics industry is immense. The cancellation of every major comic convention in North America had big impacts on the travel, tourism, and convention industries as well as publishing. Many creators and publishers shifted gears to online events, a trend that continued throughout the year, as even the biggest events such as Anime Expo and San Diego Comic-Con went streaming-only.

Retailers were immediately affected. As the virus spread, cities and states mandated store closures and issued shelter-in-place orders. Many comics shops shifted to delivery or curbside pickup rather than close down entirely, but some had no choice. Publishers, creators, and retailers offered suggestions for how readers could support their local comic shop at a time when states and municipalities were issuing a patchwork of COVID-19 control measures, from the lightest of recommendations to mandating that all non-essential businesses close down. At that point, the pandemic still looked very different depending on where you lived.

Diamond broke a traditional barrier and allowed the comics that were due out on March 18 to go on sale a week early. Then came the news that Free Comic Book Day was going to be postponed. (Marvel later announced they would release their FCBD comics in July, and eventually the event became Free Comic Book Summer.)

The hammer fell for retailers and readers alike on March 23, when Diamond announced that it was suspending distribution; comics with on-sale dates of April 1 or later would not be shipped until further notice. This impacted not only the comics channel (for which Diamond is the sole distributor) but also publishers who used Diamond Book Distributors for bookstore sales: Image, Udon, Action Lab, and a host of other publishers, most small, some new.

In response, a number of publishers, including Archie, BOOM! Studios, and IDW, announced various measures to deal with the situation, including making new product returnable (for retailers) and canceling or postponing upcoming releases. Many publishers also cancelled their planned digital releases of comics that would be coming out in print.

With conventions cancelled and shops shuttered, creators and publishers came up with creative new ways to reach the public, including the #SixFanarts challenge, in which creators invited the public to suggest six characters for them to draw fanart of. Artist Dewey Bass created an unofficial Spider-Man fan comic with an important message about social distancing. And creators banded together to form a new group, Creators4Comics, to raise money for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) which supports independent bookstores and comic shops. Binc later announced the formation of the Comic Book United Fund to support comics retailers specifically, and a group of female creators established The Insider Art: Female Comic Book Retailer Fund to support female and nonbinary comics retailers.

In April, Diamond announced that it would resume operations in mid- to late May, but already something had changed: DC was moving forward with two other distributors, both of them large retailers, and they dropped Diamond altogether as their distributor. This was one of the first signs that the COVID pandemic was going to have long-term effects on the comics industry, and it evoked reactions from retailers, publishers and Diamond co-founder Steve Geppi. Marvel, on the other hand, not only stuck with Diamond but delayed its first round of new comics until May 27, a week after Diamond started running again, although they did release some comics digitally before that.

Meanwhile, Diamond prepared to swing back into action, with a special “Back the Comeback” campaign that included placing a special logo on the covers of some comics, in order to make them more collectible—a move that drew raised eyebrows from some creators and observers.

Back in March, the pandemic felt like a temporary situation. Schools were closed, offices went remote, but initially it seemed like that would only be for a few weeks. As time went on, though, and both cases and deaths continued to rise, the realization slowly grew that we were going to be in this for the long haul. By the time New York Comic Con announced it would be going virtual, in August, it was clear that there weren’t going to be any major conventions this year (although a few small local events did take place).

Despite the disruption of comics retail, sales of graphic novels in the book channel were strong for two reasons: With schools closed in many areas, parents were buying more books for their children, and with entertainment options limited, adults turned to streaming anime which in turn drove sales of manga. These sales boosts chiefly benefited mass-market and online retailers, however, as many independent bookstores and comic shops had to either close or reduce traffic. For those who like hard numbers, Milton Griepp summed up the state of the industry in his latest White Paper at ICv2.

There were several hopeful signs toward the end of the year: The development of a vaccine raised the possibility that life could someday get back to normal, and the machinery of comics events began creaking back into motion. Free Comic Book Day has been rescheduled to August 21, and C2E2 and Emerald City Comic Con announced that they would both take place in December 2021. They’re scheduled back-to-back again, so everyone will still have that to complain about.

C2E2 2020

The post-pandemic world, when it arrives, will be very different from the one we left behind. Some shows (such as Book Expo America) won’t be back, some stores won’t be reopening, and there will be structural changes in the comics industry. DC has not returned to Diamond, and many publishers’ offices will continue to operate remotely for the foreseeable future. I spoke to a number of California-based publishers about how they adapted to the new conditions and how they expect to be doing things differently going forward, and their answers were as varied as the publishers themselves.

2020 was a year like no other, but the comics industry showed remarkable resilience. Tossed abruptly into an extreme and rapidly changing situation, comics folk showed amazing creativity and generosity of spirit. That bodes well for the future, and I’m hopeful that the new normal will be better than the old normal, once the dust settles. So wear that mask, get the vaccine and keep buying comics. It’s been rough, but the end is in sight.

I’ll see you at C2E2 in December!

C2E2 2020

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