Comics biz suits up for Free Comic Book Day

Is the current economic climate kryptonite to the comic-publishing industry? Local sellers and artists spill some ink on the eve of Free Comic Book Day

photo: Julé Malet Veale
Comic relief Mike Crossman sees opportunities for new comic distributors.

Calum Johnston opened Sackville Street's Strange Adventures 17 years ago. Today it's one of the most popular comic-book stores in Halifax.

"I've always liked comics," Johnston says, "and I like sharing them."

The economic downturn has flipped many businesses on their heads as they struggle to make ends meet. But as they get ready for Free Comic Book Day, an event held on the first Saturday of May at participating stores, when some comics are given away free, Strange Adventures seems so far unaffected.

And watching a father in Johnston's cramped basement-like store explain who The Joker is to his small son is at least some proof.

The economy, Johnston says, "hasn't really affected the amount of people; it's just that people are more choosy."

Jay Ryan, manager at The Last Gamestore in Dartmouth, agrees.

"The funny thing about a recession or a downed economy is that even if people don't have a lot of money the one thing they will spend money on is to entertain themselves," Ryan says.

But where stores haven't seen a change, what about creators?

For local graphic-novel writer Faith Erin Hicks, even in a recession, creating is a full-time job.

"It's more than a nine-to-five job," says the Ontario-born writer, whose work includes last year's Zombies Calling, which won her a Joe Shuster Award, an annual set of awards handed out to Canadian creators.

Hicks' work in comics began online but she quickly realized her love of creating comic books.

"I didn't really think of making a career from it...but yeah, I just fell in love with the medium while I was doing the online stuff."

Hicks came to Halifax for work in animation but wound up fulfilling her dream to become a full-time comic writer when animation work dried up last year.

"I feel so strange because it's kind of like I was forced into my dream job," she says. "I always figured when I made the choice to work in comics full-time I would make that choice. It wouldn't be me basically losing my job in animation."

But a change at Diamond Distribution, the major comic-distribution company in North America, may hurt some smaller publishers like Hicks.

Since the end of February, Diamond no longer ships any title they will not buy at least $2,500 of, up from $1,500.

Ryan thinks these changes could be a result of the comic industry changing from a "collectors' market" to a "readers' market."

Ryan points out that in 1992 when Spawn #1 hit stands, it sold a million copies, where today, even the best comics sell half of that.

"It goes back [to] the '90s when the comic market was a collectors' market. In a collectors' market there was a variant cover and a chrome cover and whatever, and so a lot of people bought three or four issues of #1," Ryan explains.

Mike Crossman, owner of the Monster Comic Lounge on Gottingen Street, understands Diamond's reasoning but thinks the new plan could backfire.

"I think that it will be bad for them in the long term because these small publishers will still want to put their stuff out," he says. "Diamond's had a monopoly for a long time so this may provide an opportunity for someone to step in and start distributing, starting with the small publishers."

Johnston worries it could end badly for some publishers trying to get into the comic business.

"A lot of new publishers are trying to get their feet wet with graphic novels without the expertise and so we're already seeing some layoffs and closures in the publishing business where they just weren't prepared for the business at hand."

Johnston's not afraid for the fate of comics because, after 17 years, he's seen how people react when the economy is down.

"It's similar to the entertainment business---that in tough times you want to take your mind off your troubles," he says. "Some people choose alcohol, some people choose drugs, some people choose movies and some people choose comics."

Free Comic Book Day, Saturday, May 2 at participating local stores, including The Last Gamestore (590 Portland, 278 Lacewood), Monster Comic Lounge (2091 Gottingen) and Strange Adventures (5262 Sackville).

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