Diamond Comics Distributors, the main distribution company in the U.S., stopped shipping new books on April 1, prompting a cascade effect. Diamond’s distribution monopoly meant that publishers no longer had access to stores––or rather, whichever stores are still open and making sales during the pandemic. Instead of releasing new comics exclusively in digital format, Marvel chose to halt production entirely, furloughing some employees and sending “pencils down” notices to writers and artists.
The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for comics publishing in the U.S., an industry in which many workers are self-employed and lack health insurance and in which independent stores were already struggling.
Diamond’s shutdown has already had a serious effect, with DC Comics ending a 25-year, exclusive contract in order to start distributing comics through other companies. Meanwhile, Marvel seems to be sticking with the status quo, resuming traditional distribution on May 27, a week after Diamond will start shipping comics again.
Marvel’s press release lists only five comics for its first week back: Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, Marauders, Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, and Venom. Production will gradually ramp up after that, with new titles announced for each week up to July 8.
The choice to halt production instead of releasing digital comics has been confusing to some, but there’s a lot of overlap here with the current conflict in the film industry. While digital-only publication is technically viable, in the same way that Hollywood studios could theoretically release any movie online, it would completely change the publishing ecosystem.
Paper books have historically been prioritized over digital sales, and brick-and-mortar stores are an integral part of comic book fandom. The combination of the coronavirus and the Diamond shutdown puts many of those stores in serious danger, and publishers don’t want to exacerbate the problem by changing their entire distribution model overnight.
So for the moment, DC Comics is releasing only a handful of comics in a digital-only format while Marvel chose to take a break, gradually resuming work as the industry starts again to support more in-person sales.