SDCC 2019: The Business of Making Comics With Shamdasani, Nicholson, Gorinson, Sablik, Lenaghan & Young

by Hannah Means Shannon

Vulture’s Business of Making Comics Panel at SDCC 2019 featured Dinesh Shamdasani, Hunter Gorinson (both of Hive Mind), Filip Sablik (Boom! Studios), Hope Nicholson (Bedside Press), Tim Lenaghan (Diamond), and Robert Young (Borderland Comics and Games). 

Abraham Riesman of Vulture hosted the panel and opened by talking about the “upheaval” that comics are facing right now and interesting possibilities arising.

Asked about the moment they felt “ensconced” in comics, Shamdasani said that the weighty responsibility of bringing Valiant back was part of that. Nicholson said the moment she realized she was “stuck in” was in booking meetings with local trade organizations, learning about organizing grants, and more. Then she felt she had a chance to make a “go of it”.

Gorinson spoke of working on the Valiant launch team, and reaching the point where X-O Manowar launched to record breaking sales numbers as a key moment.

Sablik reflected on working in the Diamond service department, and in his second year moving to the purchasing department and going to SDCC. Being at SDCC on preview night and walking the floor led to a moment of realization that one of his favorite cartoonists actually cared what he thought, Sablik said.

Lenaghan said that feeling that retailers relied on him to do a job made him realize that he really did have a job in comics.

Young ran a shop in North Carolina in the 90’s, left comics, and came back to comics in 2011, and bought the actual shop he used to work in. That was definitely his moment.

Asked how “broken” they thought the Direct Market is, and whether people are overreacting to that idea, Nicholson said that none of her publishing actually relies on the Direct Market. For her, it’s bookstores and grants that keep things going.

Young said that his shop is having their best year in the 35 year history of his story. Shamdasani said the Direct Market isn’t broken, it’s just that every aspect of comics has some problems. In his time at Valiant, their Direct Market sales continued to increase. He feels that you have to focus on the “pop culture stores” as well as more traditional comic shops. Creating an experience along with the product is key to reach customers. Gorinson added that the “doom and gloom narrative” happens in cycles, every 6-7 years. He feels we are at the tail end of a “boom period” that started with things like the New 52. “There’s only so long the hype train can keep running”, he reflected, and recommended a “reset” and “taking a deep breath”.

Sablik spoke about the comic shop as being a “third place” for people, beyond home and work, and for some that might be coffee shops or other locations. If customers are just getting into comics, getting in through video games and TV shows, the logical step might not be suddenly going to a comic shop, but some other type of location. Nevertheless, the Direct Market has managed to sustain itself over decades and continues to grow.

Lenaghan described the current Direct Market as a “natural contraction” in a trend that has always moved upwards over the last 30 years. Operating in a small industry, people in comics face the same challenges that a lot of small industries face. Comics has penetrated the “larger popular consciousness” in a way that goes far beyond its position when he was a kid, he said. Now it’s about explaining why comics are special to the wider sphere.

Sablik added that the way that the Direct Market model was built on knowing how many issues of certain comics, like Batman and Spider-Man can be sold. Therefore it was built on a non-refundable basis. But the disruptive factor now is that there are many Batman books, for instance. It slices the audience up into smaller pieces, making the math much more difficult for retailers. Young confirmed that a 3000 line order form has to be filled out for his shop, which is doable, but difficult.

Asked how they see things changing in the next few years regarding bookstores, Nicholson said that her publisher is still at the beginning of that journey. Before that, sales have been made directly to customers, and then for the last five years, through grants. Other publishers she knows sells to schools and libraries also, so bookstores and Direct Market might be part of a publishing plan, but not exclusively so.

Nicholson called out the “For Your Consideration” packages sent to retailers by Boom! Studios as something innovative and helpful. Sablik said that it only made sense in the context of Eisner voting, with so many comics being published, to bring attention to certain titles in this way.

Sablik mentioned partnering with Graphite as a new platform for generating content. He said he was proud of the “risks” Boom! has been willing to take, such as that partnership with MySpace, which helped expose people to content.

Young said that working with Shamdasani and Gorinson on a Valiant “Bloodshot Bloodrive” gave people Bloodshot t-shirts for donating blood. It gave the shop a lot of exposure and seemed innovative to him.

Asked about the “interplay” between print and digital, Sablik said that Boom!’s digital sales have increased year over year, but so have their print sales, so it’s been less visible.

Gorinson reminded everyone of the prediction that digital would skyrocket and print plunge, but instead print has made a massive comeback. There’s a “tangible” aspect to comics that’s in the “DNA of the industry” that’s coming out in this trend, Shamdasani added.

On the subject of changing audiences, and the “explosion” of youth comics, as well as creating “permanent readers” over time, Sablik said the first step is to make young people feel comfortable in the comics space. Many people have been drawn to comics in the past because of feeling like “outsiders”, but that can lead to an “insular” and “clubhouse” attitude that resists expansion.

There’s no easy answer, Sablik commented, but there’s so much content coming from mainstream book publishers that the onus is on comic publishers and retailers to take part and not be left behind.

Young mentioned taking part in ComicsPro, and seeing a lot of retailers working to try to stock graphic novels for this market, with kids who are consuming graphic novels rather than comics. He feels we need more OGNs in a few years because those people will continue to be graphic novel readers, not periodical readers.

Lenaghan spoke about being “good stewards” of these new customers, and helping them age into the next logical reading material as well as encouraging them to expand. Many stores are heading in that direction, but it’s not something that can happen overnight.

Gorinson said that optimistically, we’ve already had several “huge wins” on that front, including the sheer volume of graphic novels that kids are now reading. Getting readers to understand the comic book page is a big win because then the whole medium is open to them.

Nicholson spoke about the need to get more graphic novels on educative curriculum, however, as a key area that needs expansion.

Asked about one thing they wish people understand, but currently is misunderstood about the comics industry, Nicholson said that people assume it’s “fun”. And it’s not, it’s a business. It is a passion, and therefore important to publishers, but built on work.

Shamdasani commented that comics is an industry where people “absolutely love” their field in a way that gaming, TV, and film people don’t always, in his experience.

The business of publishing comics is a “thin margin business” where everyone is undervalued, but it’s still a medium where you can go quickly from idea to execution with the least expense, and it’s “staggering”, Sablik said. “It’s key”, Shamdasani agreed.

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