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The Life And Death Of The American Comic Book Shop: How A Distributor Monopoly Is Killing It

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The Life And Death Of The American Comic Book Shop: How A Distributor Monopoly Is Killing It
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Some people wouldn't be caught dead inside a comic book shop. If that describes you, Curtis Sullivan totally invites you into any one of his three.

“How can you know you don’t like lobster if you never tried it?” he says, incredulity incarnate. “Don’t close doors. You like to read, love art, stories, characters? Comics are you. You just don’t know it yet.”

Sullivan, who opened his third Vault of Midnight comic book store last year in Detroit, is an exception that proves a rule.

The comic book store, a quaint bit of Americana or a dank haven for misanthropic dorks, seems to be perennially on its death bed, the victim of a monopolistic distribution model that keeps killing off its independent outlets, only to see new ones rise like so many Whac-A-Moles.

If it weren’t for the passion of people like Sullivan, there wouldn’t be comic book stores. Which is good riddance for some people, but not those who see them as conduits in a creative ferment that feeds a multibillion-dollar entertainment business.

Go ahead and Google “Mark Millar.” The geek from Glasgow has generated at least $2.5 billion in storylines and influenced the whole tone of the Marvel movie universe. Comics writer Keith Giffen created the "Guardians of the Galaxy" as pop culture knows it, but all he gets is a tiny name-check at the end of the credits scroll.

How A Pulp Medium Is Killing Itself

Comics are the spawn of pulp fiction — based on the cheap wood pulp used to make the dime novels that created modern genre art — and often ahead of their time. The rise of the superhero genre of the 1940s was a repudiation by immigrant Jews such as Jack Kirby and Joe Shuster of Hitler’s claims of a master race.

The problem with comics is they were so successfully resurgent since the 1960s that the Big 2, Marvel and DC, began printing new No. 1 issues over and over because it was like printing money for people investing in the growing collectibility of the medium.

Like the housing market in 2008 or the tech bubble a decade earlier, the whole comic book speculation game collapsed in the 1990s. It was the Great Depression of comic books, and recovery remains elusive.

The problem then exists now: The two big players — Marvel and DC, today owned respectively by Walt Disney Co (NYSE: DIS) and Time Warner Inc (NYSE: TWX) — bought into a single distribution idea that begat Diamond Comics Distributors, Inc., the concept that created but is perpetually killing the comic book store.

The Destruction Of Direct Sales

Sullivan is among an almost unanimity of comic book retailers who say Diamond is bad news. Retailers must pre-order a set number of issues, which makes new titles a gamble. Everybody orders "Spider-Man" or "Batman," naturally.

But if the pre-order’s aren’t sufficient, then a brilliant new title can be DOA. Exhibit A: New York Times best-selling author Ta-Nahesi Coates' brilliant “Black Panther and The Crew” was canceled with the advent of issue No. 2. Marvel gave the creators another four issues to wrap up the storyline, which was mighty white of them.

“If there is a central problem it is one, big distributor making the retailers the customers. Some of these books are dead on arrival. They cancel 'Black Panther and The Crew' on No. 2. If I am Marvel, I market that book, put it online for free,” says Sullivan.

Diamond’s PR person did not respond to a request for comment.

Bucking The Stereotype

Sullivan’s three shops buck the stereotype, most wickedly nailed by the recurring Comic Book Guy on “The Simpsons.” They are brightly lit, clean and shiny places. Each store has a separate table with strictly “Wonder Woman” comics to cater to new fans enthralled by the critically acclaimed new movie.

He stages events, gatherings, pub crawls that draw people out of the house and entices them to interact with other people.

He figures his foot traffic is 52 percent female, which is considered an anomaly in the comic book world, where old white guys write most of the books and buy most of the comics.

Yet even some people inside the industry blame gender and ethnic diversity for a slide that began long before the comics were pressured to diversify.

These people are wrong, says Sullivan. One of his most insanely popular titles is “Ms. Marvel,” about a super-powered Muslim girl from New Jersey.

“I wish I knew what was wrong with people,” says Sullivan, with a heavy sigh.

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