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As superheroes dominate big screen, Colorado Springs comic book retailers report mixed sales

October 28, 2017 Updated: October 28, 2017 at 10:35 am
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Brother and sister Martin and Laura Davidson, owners of Kapow Comics and Coffee, pose for a portrait as they hold comics of their choice, in their store on Wednesday October 18, 2017 in Colorado Springs. The comic store just celebrated a year in business in August. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

The mighty Thor battles his green-skinned "friend from work," the Hulk, in "Thor: Ragnarok," arriving in theaters Friday. Two weeks later, "Justice League" lands on the big screen with Batman, Wonder Woman and more.

On TV, Barry Allen chases down bad guys on "The Flash," a young Bruce Wayne forges his destiny in "Gotham" and the X-Men universe expands on "The Gifted."

Comic book characters continue to fly high on the big screen and small. As for the comic books, the picture's a bit more muddled.

Sales of comics and graphic novels were up 5 percent in 2016, according to an estimate by ICv2 and Comichron, which track the industry. But that growth was fueled completely by graphic novel sales through bookstores and online; sales of comics, including sales in comic book shops and digital comics, were flat. And this year has seen a slump; orders of comics and graphic novels by comic book stores were down 10 percent as of September compared with the same period the year before. (Such monthly figures do not show how many comics landed in the hands of consumers and do not reflect sales in bookstores and other venues but are still considered a key barometer of the industry.)

"It's definitely been a soft year all the way around," says Doug Scott, owner of Escape Velocity Comics.

Sales of Marvel titles have been particularly disappointing, he says; Marvel and DC are the two biggest players in the industry.

Rows of comics that are displayed at Kapow Comics and Coffee on Wednesday October 18, 2017 in Colorado Springs. The company, just celebrated a year in business, in August. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Escape Velocity has long had a presence in downtown Colorado Springs, originally as Bargain Comics, and opened a second location next to the Cinemark theater complex at First & Main Town Center on the east side of the city in 2013. That location was seen as a way to connect with the popularity of comic book movies, Scott says. While some movies, such as this summer's "Wonder Woman," stirred up some business, he says, there's usually not much of a bump. He'd like to see DC and Marvel put more effort into marketing the comics to moviegoers vs. marketing the movies to comic book readers.

"We're all going to see the movies anyway," Scott says. "We've asked many times for them to maybe give out a free comic on opening night or put a message up about the Comic Book Locator or something to say, by the way, there's this whole medium with continuing adventures."

Amanda Salmons, owner of Muse Comics + Games, says comic book movies featuring familiar heroes such as Captain America or Batman rarely cause a lift in sales.

"But superhero movies like 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' and even 'Deadpool' to some extent, are different," she said via email, since they feature lesser-known characters. "Most people didn't have 'GotG' backpacks and sheets as a kid, and a funny, interesting movie does lead them to want to get to know the source material more. So those kinds of movies do result in a spike in sales of the comics."

Muse expanded in the spring, moving two doors down from its original location on North Academy Boulevard to a space 21/2 times larger than the old store.

"We were running out of room for books and having to turn people away for events," Salmons says. "It's great having a new, larger space to grow into, and it's great to be able to accommodate more people at our events."

This past year, she says, "has been a tremendous year for us and sales are up in every category, including Marvel and DC singles, compared to the same period last year."

Kapow Comics & Coffee, on North Nevada Avenue near the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, celebrated its first year in business in late August.

Business has been up and down, says Martin Davidson, who owns the store with his sister, Laura Davidson. "We've had some really good months and some not-so-good months."

Laura made the jump from corporate America for a chance to have her own business; Martin is a longtime comic book collector and seller. "We opened up the store basically with my collection," he says. He came up with the idea to start a combination comic book-coffee shop after seeing a similar business in Omaha.

"In general, we feel pretty good about the first year," Laura says. While some customers stick to either the coffee side or the comics side, the vast majority make purchases on both, she says.

Kapow is one of at least a half-dozen comic book shops in the Springs - "an abnormal number of comic book stores for the population in Colorado Springs," Salmons says. "The Diamond sales rep who travels to visit stores has frequently told us that it's one of the most saturated markets in the country." (Diamond Comics Distributors serves comic-book retailers worldwide.)

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Chris Hemsworth, left, and the Hulk in a scene from, "Thor: Ragnarok." (Marvel Studios via AP) 

Attracting new readers

One challenge for comic book publishers has been to attract new generations of readers.

Local retailers see progress on that front.

"There are a lot of young kids," Martin Davidson says, "and there's a bigger influx of females coming in, too. When I first started collecting, girls were not interested."

Muse, Salmons says, "has a good-sized children's corner, and we encourage kids to make themselves comfortable and read the books there. Younger generations are getting involved in the industry, and especially getting involved in comic conventions, and they are making comics their own." (The Springs is home to the Colorado Springs Comic and Toy Con; GalaxyFest, a pop culture and comic con; and the Colorado Springs Comic Con.)

Scott sees new readers coming in, especially drawn to titles from smaller publishers such as Boom or AfterShock. With the more established characters and titles, "it's still a bit of a struggle."

Marvel in recent years has added new, diverse characters such as Ironheart, Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl and a female Thor. Such characters are helping bring in "an all new audience" and are crucial to keeping that new audience, Scott says.

But Marvel has suffered, he says, from having core characters "off the board." Iron Man, for example, "has basically been missing in action." The publisher seems to be remedying that through Marvel Legacy, an initiative that promises "to usher in the dramatic return of dozens of its most beloved heroes, villains, teams and artifacts."

A Marvel executive created a stir in comics circles this year when he relayed some retailers' complaints about its new characters.

"What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity," he told ICv2. "They didn't want female characters out there." The executive, David Gabriel, vice president of sales, followed up with a statement that fans and retailers are excited about the new heroes and that the publisher would be sticking with them.

"Diversity wasn't the issue with Marvel's problems; that was the easy go-to answer for the comics news sites to run with," Salmons says. The real issue, she adds, was "event fatigue" - weariness with big, crossover events that promise to change the status quo and require a lot of a reader's time and money - and the fact that "Marvel was restarting almost every series every 12 issues or so to get more No. 1's on the stand. It wasn't diversity, it was the feeling that they seemed to need to change everything all at once. You could've replaced Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man with other white male characters and you would have had the same complaint - they made major changes to their core line every few issues."

Marvel and DC's passion for reboots is good and bad, Scott says. "On the one hand, supposedly it would be a great place for new readers to jump on. But then it also provides a jumping-off point for the established reader. It really comes down to the execution and quality."

Salmons, past executive director of ComicsPRO, a trade organization for comic book retailers, believes the future of those retailers hinges on moving away from reliance on sales of new comics churned out by the publishers.

"Successful stores continue to branch out as pop culture stores rather than be strictly single-issue-comics stores," she says. "As the single-issues market goes through its inevitable ups and downs, our sales are steadied by having several different product lines to complement new comics."

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