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  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    The Comic Store owner John Lawrence smiles at customers as they walk in the door as a myriad of comics hang in plastic sleeves behind him recently.
  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    An issue of "Iron Man 2.0" awaits purchase on a shelf at The Comic Store recently. Owner John Lawrence said he has about 150 new titles in his store, with hundreds of back issues.
  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    John Lawrence, owner of The Comic Store, stands next to long boxes of back issues of comic books in his Nashua store recently.
  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    Back issues of Spider-Man are among hundreds of titles available for purchase at The Comic Store in Nashua.
  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    Action figures of all kinds, including Batman, center, can be purchased at John Lawrence's store, The Comic Store, in Nashua.
  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    The Comic Store owner, John Lawrence smiles at customers as they walk in the door as a myriad of comics hang in plastic sleeves behind him, Saturday morning.
Sunday, November 13, 2011

DC reboot gives needed boost to local comic book stores

Stop me if you’re heard this one before: A publishing industry faces huge changes caused by the Internet, struggles to hold onto established customers while attracting newcomers, institutes practices that enrage some business partners and then, out of desperation over slipping sales, tries interesting things that leave independent dealers vulnerable.

It sounds like the music business, or the video-rental business, or the bookstore business, doesn’t it?

But this tale involves comic books, and the independent retailers in question are people such as John Lawrence, who has owned The Comic Store in Nashua for three decades.

Although many of his sales come from tabletop miniature gaming such as “Warhammar 40,000” and card games such as “Magic: The Gathering,” comics are still almost half his business, as well as the heart of the whole store.

Business is fine at the moment – he just expanded, moving to Northeastern Boulevard after more than 20 years in what he still calls Simoneau Plaza – but Lawrence knows the future is far from settled.

“I can run this store right and still fail because of decisions others are making,” he said ruefully.

That uncertainty is ironic, because since Superman graced the cover of “Action Comics” No. 1 in 1938, the reach of comics’ fantastic world has never been greater.

“I’ve been joking that the geeks have won, between superhero movies, TV shows like ‘The Big Bang,’ fantasy movies,” said Tim Pendergast, manager of Chris’ Cards & Comics in Salem, another independent retailer of comics and related items.

Yet, while the offspring of comics dominate the culture, comic books and comic stores aren’t reaping the rewards.

Sales are falling

Sales of the traditional printed books have been sliding for years, from the high six figures to barely 100,000 for best-sellers and far fewer for most monthly titles. Independent publishers have shrunk or closed, and even the Big Two of Marvel and DC are struggling.

Consider the Newbury Comics store on Daniel Webster Highway South, No. 8 in the New England chain. Despite the corporate name, comics make up only about 10 percent of total sales, said store manager Jurie Magararu, and their display space is dwarfed by records, T-shirts and other items.

Then there’s the dreaded digital realm, which has shattered so many retailers and industries. DC Comics, home to Batman and Superman, as well as innovative series such as “Fables,” which twists ancient folk tales, and Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, is trying to bulk up online income by releasing digital versions at the same time as printed books.

That doesn’t sound good for the local comic store, which counts on people showing up each Wednesday to buy the new releases.

(In a related issue, DC sold Amazon exclusive rights to its comics on that company’s new computer tablet, which led Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million to yank all of DC’s printed publications from their shelves. Local stores might benefit from the fallout of this battle of the retail titans.)

On the other hand, the comic book industry has also been rattled in a good way by DC, which this summer launched a reboot of virtually all its titles. Decades-old story lines were ditched, with even Batman starting over, and funky new characters were created, including a superhero who’s a gay Hispanic.

“The New 52” initiative has been a hit so far, with DC claiming sales of 250,000 copies of “Justice League” and total sales of 5 million books in the first six weeks, the company’s biggest sales in more than 20 years. Sales are helped by the fact that DC kept the price of most comics with 20 pages of story line at $2.99, while most Marvels are $3.99.

They also reflect the fact that superheroes still rule the comics world, despite the way Japanese manga and mainstream graphic novels have expanded the world of illustrated storytelling (Marvel has brought out a comics version of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey”).

At Newbury Comics, Magararu has expanded the space given to new releases partly because of the DC reboot, which he said makes him happy because “I’m a comics guy.”

“We see new faces every Wednesday,” he said.

Story is more important

In Nashua, Lawrence agrees that the reboot is doing well, partly because DC has concentrated on the story line as much as the artwork.

“The better-selling comics tend to be better written,” he said.

He attributes much of the industry’s recent problems to “dumbing down” story lines in the 1990s in a misguided attempt to bring back more teenage boys, who were once comics’ core readers but whose attention is now diverted by computer games.

“Superheroes start as a postadolescent power trip fantasy, but games fill that role now,” Lawrence said, adding, in a reference to the first mega-popular first-person shooter game: “Had ‘Doom’ existed when I started, this store wouldn’t be here.”

One of the effects of story-driven comics such as the “Fables” series is that women now make up about a quarter of buyers at The Comic Store, he estimated.

New customers are good for any business, of course, but are particularly needed in comic books, which have long been dependent on the collector.

One of those is Jon, who works “in the financial industry” and lives in Nashua but otherwise demurred at identifying himself when collared by a reporter at The Comic Store’s checkout counter.

Jon said he has been buying comics regularly “since I was 13,” with a pause during college because of a lack of funds. He has kept most of his purchases, and they now fill 60 “long box” storage containers, each of which can hold around 250 copies. Such collections aren’t uncommon among comics fans.

One of the great things about comic books, he says, is the continuity they provide in an ever-changing world.

“The Flash was there when I was 10,” he said. “I come in and The Flash is still here, and I’m 38.”

Even better, he says, is that his 1-year-old will soon be old enough to read alongside him, a generational handoff that stores hope will become the norm.

Will digital versions win?

Comic stores are depending on folks like Jon to help ward off the threat of digital comics.

“We have a very loyal customer base that likes the physical object,” Pendergast, of Chris’ Cards & Comics. “… It becomes a different thing on the computer. Trying to flip through a comic on your iPad or what have you, it changes the experience.”

“People want to see it, hold it before they buy it,” Lawrence said.

Cynical folks might respond that similar sentiments from fans of record stores and video stores – or printed newspapers, for that matter – haven’t slowed the retailer-destroying transition to digital versions.

Whether comics will buck that trend remains to be seen. Matt Caravella, of Milford, a sophomore at Daniel Webster College, hopes so.

“I like to hold the comic book in my hand,” he said, dismissing versions available for computers.

Caravella, who became a Batman fan when watching cartoon versions as a child, still regularly buys printed books. He thinks the DC reboot is shaking up the whole field in a good way.

“A lot of my friends are getting back into it,” he said, bringing a smile to Lawrence’s face nearby.

The Comic Store is adding a room to host tabletop and card gaming sessions to boost the non-comics side of the business as a hedge in case Superman’s new story line doesn’t keep soaring.

For now, though, he’s hopeful.

“We’re here for the long haul,” he said. “I hope.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.