Comics Publishing & Retailing

By | Thursday, March 19, 2020 Leave a Comment
Let's walk through the interesting dynamic that is comics publishing, as it relates to something like a pandemic. It'll be fun!*

So any institution of importance (and now also the White House) is recommending people generally practice social isolation. I'm sure you're already sick of hearing about this, right? So I don't need to go through all that in detail, but in general you want to stay away from being in close proximity to people -- particularly large groups of people -- so you're less like to catch and/or spread the coronavirus. To that end, many businesses have had their employees work remotely from home if at all possible. Fortunately, here in the 21st century, it's possible to do that in a way that would have been much more challenging even 20 years ago. (It was technically doable -- I was doing some remote work as early as 1994 -- but it wasn't easy.) Let's look at the different aspects of getting a comic published and into your hands as a reader.

First, and most obviously, the creators themselves are working from home already. The idea of a "bullpen" of creators working together in one office is quaint, but several decades out of date. Many creators have studio space either set aside in their home, or at a separate location where they can sit down and do the creative work for their comic. Whether that's writing or drawing or coloring or whatever. They do their work in isolation, and then (generally) send it along electronically to the next person in the chain. Since they're mostly working alone already, they can continue to make comics with no real change.

In general today, if you've got an office job that involves sitting in front of a computer most of the day, you can probably also work from home. And you've likely already been asked to. This includes the employees at many publishers. If you're doing budget analysis work for Dark Horse, or negotiating IP licensing for Marvel, or participating in editorial coordination for a summer crossover at DC, you can do that from home. It might not always be ideal, but it's doable. Maybe more phone calls and emails and video conferencing in lieu of in-person chats, but you're still able to communicate in any number of ways with the people you need to interact with on a day-to-day basis. So those aspects of publishing comics can continue unabated, if perhaps they might be a little awkward for the first week or two as people get accustomed to different processes and work environments. ("Sorry about my dog barking in the background!")

A printer inspects an uncut comic sheet
Where it starts to get tricky, then, is in the physical printing of comics. The art files were already being sent to the printers electronically, so there's no change there, but there still have to be people on hand to operate the printing presses. Make sure the paper is feeding into the press properly, the ink vats are sufficiently topped off, etc. While there have been a great many automations put in place in the printing industry, there's still a fairly hefty manual component. Fortunately, given the size of printing presses, and the relative ease with which they run any more, you can still have them fully manned while maintaining a reasonable distance between most press operators most of the time. The guy making sure paper is feeding in properly, for example, is probably half a football field away from the guy checking the finished pages coming out the other end. Now, printers might want to institute some other precautionary measures to minimize other interactions -- cutting out staff meetings, perhaps, or staggering lunch breaks -- but I think they should be able to continue with minimal disruption for the time being.

Distribution and delivery is likely in a similar boat. While there does need to be some interaction between people, the majority of the work here is done in relative isolation. Finished comics are stacked in palettes at the printers and are loaded onto trucks by one guy in a forklift. A single truck driver then drives the truck to a Diamond warehouse, and the palettes are unloaded via forklift again.

Now, the sorting after that is again a pretty manual process. Diamond has a decent video of what that process looks like. You can see that, while the employees generally aren't right next to each other most of the time, they do have a reasonable amount of interaction, not to mention passing the same boxes and books from one person to the next...
I have yet to hear anything about Diamond implementing changes in work procedures to keep employees isolated from one another, and I'm not sure if they would do so until it was mandated by the government. As I see it, this is probably the weakest link in this comic production chain with regard to a viral pandemic like we're experiencing. I don't know if/when that might change or how exactly fragile it is, but this would probably be the place to keep your eye on if you're interested in following the production through-line right now.

The actual delivery to comic retailers would be similar to getting the books to Diamond in the first place -- individual forklift and truck drivers mostly -- so there aren't likely to be any major concerns there. But then, of course, is the retail locations themselves. As I noted on Friday, many are already seeing individuals readers foregoing their regular comic book runs to avoid the crowds that happen in shops, particularly on Wednesdays. Many have instituted curb-side pickups and even home delivery in order to ensure they can remain open and, from the anecdotal evidence I've heard thus far, this seems to be working reasonably well at least in the immediate term. (I actually noodled the idea of a comic drive-through back in 2016; I wonder if someone will attempt to implement one in the wake of this pandemic.) Of course, time will tell which shops are able to make these modifications work as social isolation continues for weeks or months; I certainly hope they all can get it to work well so they can remain open.

Obviously, I don't know what the future holds, but it seems to me that Diamond is the key to comics production continuing. That's partially due to the type of business they are, but also due to their monopoly on said business. If we had more comic distributors out there, a disruption of one wouldn't grind the entire industry to a halt. But, again, if this policy of social isolation is enforced at state or national levels, that would be a moot point anyway since anyone doing that type of work, regardless of what company they worked for, simply could not do it remotely. I don't think we're going to need to go that far, but we'll have to wait and see.

* It isn't.
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