There's nothing funny about the comic book business

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Columbia University on October 15, 2000.

Nobody wandered over to the comic section of the store.

Perhaps surprisingly for a place named Comic Heaven, the thin trickle of customers roaming this Sunnyside shop Wednesday afternoon seem interested in anything but comics.

Even the owner, Yeun Cho, doesn't really care about the slim periodicals. "I don't read them," she said. "It's so far away, so fantastical. I'm not interested in that."

Superhero exploits have never captured Cho's interest, even when she opened the shop seven years ago. Her cousin started making out like a bandit -- one not caught by, say, Superman -- after opening a comic shop in Brooklyn, and Cho figured it was a good industry to get into.

"At that time, the comics business was growing," she said, explaining why as a non-fan she entered the business. "I don't have any other skills, except in retail. I have dedication and I work hard."

Her hard work barely has managed to keep Comic Heaven afloat.

"It's not a very successful shop," she said. "Compared to when I started, I'm practically not making anything."

The comic business boomed in the mid-1980s, when collectors started bidding wars, searching out rare early books. Those heady days ended in the early 1990s, soon after Cho opened her doors.

Some collectors still stop by, she said, mentioning a 1962 Incredible Hulk comic she sold for $50 three years ago, but none of the collectors are long-time customers. The rarer books Comic Heaven still has in stock line the top of the walls, safely encased in plastic bags, with $20 and $30 price tags decorating many of them.

Cho doesn't even dream of getting that type of money for them anymore.

"Most of them are wallpaper to me," she said. "People don't even want them for free."

Cho's fortunes don't look like they'll be rising anytime soon. The comics industry is continuing to nosedive, with analysts saying the industry's largest player, Marvel Entertainment, might be out of business by the end of next year.

The company's shares lost 40 percent of their value over the past month, as investors reacted to Marvel's burgeoning debt, which peaked last week at $250 million. The company doesn't forecast making a profit anytime soon; after losing $49 million over the past four quarters, it's likely to see another $20 million bleed away over the next two quarters.

In its latest quarterly report, covering activity through the end of June, Marvel's gross profits dropped 13 percent, from $31 million in 1999 to $27 million this year. That gave the company a net loss of $10.5 million this quarter, compared to a loss of $9.1 million a year ago.

"I don't think it's going to make it," Warren Ellis, one of the industry's hottest writers, said about the industry during a recent interview. "If you caught me on another day, there might be a different answer, but I just don't see it. The major players just aren't ready for change."

Ellis, who has worked on X-Men books for Marvel as well as several creator-owned series, said the industry must make radical changes if it wants to stay viable. "Comics are moving toward becoming a cult art form," he said. "If that happens, comic shops will die."

Cho can easily see such a dire end for Comic Heaven.

The shop owner was reluctant to discuss her store's financial situation, but called it "dismal," with the money coming in barely covering the $950 she spends in rent each month. "It doesn't even pay for my time," she said. "I'm just happy when I can pay the rent here and at home."

The store's profit is the only money the Cho family lives on. Her husband -- like Cho a Korean immigrant -- spends his time writing unsuccessful novels, she said, making Cho the family's sole breadwinner.

Despite signing a new seven-year lease last week, Cho isn't very optimistic about the shop's ability to continue brining in money. Her comic book sales are down about 30 percent over the past seven years, and her other products aren't selling very well either.

"Back then, when I first opened, I sold comics and sports cards -- and if one didn't sell well, the other would," she said. "Now, sports cards are doing the same as comics. They're both doing bad."

Cho has diversified Comic Heaven in other ways, stocking her shelves with toys and Beanie Babies and installing a few video game machines, including a circa 1989 Neo-Geo fighting game with huge pixels. The games may be her most consistent money maker, she said, gesturing at the crowd of kids clustered around the machines on a Wednesday afternoon.

"Everything else doesn't sell very well," she said. "Toys are not a big product, Beanie Babies aren't as popular, and nobody collects sports cards anymore. I used to buy (cards) by the case. Now, it's one box. It lasts for weeks."

She's had to cut down on her comics inventory as well, ordering fewer titles and fewer issues of each.

"I just get the majors," she said. "I don't do all the comics. I don't want to buy stuff that just sits around."

Unfortunately, she said, just sitting around is what most of her inventory does. On Wednesdays, when the boxes of comic books arrive at the store, about a dozen customers will show up to buy things. Another 20 or so will filter in throughout the rest of the week.

Cho still tries to lure passersby into the small shop, which has a cracked tile floor and walls badly in need of a cleaning. Posters for the Star Wars movie and the Magic: The Gathering game cover up the worst of the dirt.

The door is plastered with posters advertising Pokemon and Digimon, Cho's best sellers, while Batman and Superman posters decorate the large front windows, blocking all but the most persistent sunlight from the room.

This Wednesday, nobody seemed interested in comics. Most of the customers headed straight to the video games, pumping quarters into the old machine like they might hit the jackpot. Over the course of an hour, two customer asked Cho for sports magazines -- one baseball, one basketball -- and one pre-teen stared at the Witchblade figurines swinging lethal-looking plastic swords scant inches from the head of Curly, the teddy bear Beanie Baby.

The only steady stream of customers was an unending trek of elementary school kids buying Pokemon cards with pocketfuls of nickels. Pokemon is also the only thing she sells that captivates Cho's interest.

"I don't play it," she said, perhaps a tad defensively. "I just watch the show. I like to watch it."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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