Comic book shops fight the evil forces of recession

Staff WriterJune 18, 2011 

Comic book retailers are enjoying the collateral benefits of a bumper crop of big-budget movies featuring superheroes created decades ago by industry giants Marvel Comics and DC Comics.

Ken Pleasant, the owner of Capitol Comics in Raleigh, estimates that sales of titles focusing on characters that recently hit the multiplex or are about to do so - "Thor," "X-Men," "Green Lantern" and "Captain America" - have jumped 20 percent or more. In addition to the comics that have long focused on their exploits, sales have also been boosted by new titles launched to capitalize on the big-screen adaptations as well as collections of back issues printed in book format, commonly called trade paperbacks or graphic novels.

"People go to the movie and want to learn more about the comic itself and whether the movie follows the comics," Pleasant said.

The comics industry could use some supercharged sales. Once considered recession-proof, sales of comics sold by comic shops declined 2 percent in 2009 and 2.2 percent last year and have continued to fall this year, calculates John Jackson Miller, the author of a series of "Star Wars" comics who also maintains a website devoted to the industry, The Comics Chronicles.

The number of comics shops in the Triangle has shrunk in recent years along with declining sales.

Capitol Comics shut its Hillsborough Street store in February and consolidated its inventory at its other Raleigh store off of Glenwood Avenue. Tales Resold in Raleigh shut its doors in 2008.

Tommy King, who owned Tales Resold for more than 25 years, said his decision to close the store was triggered by a rent increase. But in the back of his mind, he was concerned that today's comics are mostly geared to adults rather than youngsters, who are more oriented toward video games.

"I could see the business was going to have a rough time in the future," he said. "If you don't have any new blood in it, there is nobody to replace them."

Strength from fans

Others see a brighter future. Alan Gill, owner of Ultimate Comics in Durham, has expanded his retail space. Last August, he consolidated two of his three stores but in doing so added 600 square feet for merchandise by moving into a bigger space.

Gill said he has plenty of customers who are "young family guys."

"That's the best kind of customer because they are getting their kids into comics," Gill said.

A similar demographic is making the comics big-screen adaptations into hits. "Green Lantern" opened strong in its limited midnight run Thursday, drawing particularly well among males over the age of 25, according to the Hollywood Reporter, which tracks box office sales. On Friday, the film opened in more than 3,800 theaters and is expected to repeat the success of "X-Men: First Class," which made $55.1 million its first weekend, and "Thor," which debuted at $65.7 million, according to the trade publication.

Brian Willis, 29, an information technology analyst who lives in Youngsville, used to purchase his comics online but made a conscious decision to buy local after Capitol Comics closed one of its stores.

"I actually buy more comics now," Willis said this week while shopping at Capitol Comics' remaining store. "When you see them, you flip through them, it's easier to make that spontaneous purchase."

Capitol Comics' bread and butter is die-hard fans who buy dozens of titles a month.

"A few get as many as 100," said Pleasant. That makes for a pricey habit, given that comics cost $2.99 or more.

Wendy Holler, 34, a technical editor who lives in Cary, said she prefers not to add up how much she spends on the three to four comics she buys every week, plus the occasional trade paperback.

"That's why I don't eat my lunch [out]," she said. "I brown-bag so I can buy comics."

Comic book shops don't rely totally on sales of new comics. In addition to selling action figures and posters, they also sell back issues, including classics that can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

The Foundation's Edge store in Raleigh has nearly 100,000 back issues for sale.

Co-owner Rick McGee said sales of back issues started to decline beginning in the late 1990s when a chunk of that business migrated to the Internet. But they've bounced back in recent years now that fewer stores carry them.

"We started getting people from as far away as Virginia and Tennessee," said McGee. Today Foundation's Edge sells about $2,000 worth of back issues a month.

The graphic novel

Chapel Hill Comics in downtown Chapel Hill has de-emphasized back titles. In fact, unlike most comics shops, its sales aren't dominated by superhero titles.

Roughly two-thirds of the store's comic sales come from graphic novels, and just a small percentage of those titles - 5 percent to 10 percent - fit into the superhero genre, said store owner Andrew Neal.

"A lot of the people who shop with us are casual customers rather than the dedicated, weekly comic fans," said Neal.

Perhaps that's why Neal typically only sees a small uptick in sales when a new superhero movie is released.

Still, movies can have a major impact on his cash register receipts. Movies such as "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "Sin City," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and "Watchmen" - all of which started out as comics - attracted lots of curious customers who wanted to learn more about their origins, he said.

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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