Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary
















Home > All About Comics

Buying Comics
posted October 10, 2004
 

Buying Comics -- The Short Form

1. If possible, figure out if you're looking for something in a book format or something in a magazine format.

2. If you're looking for a book, go to a bookstore, a comic book shop advertised in your local yellow pages, or an on-line bookstore. Use as much information as you have -- title, publisher, ISBN number, or the names of any authors -- to track down what you want and make your purchase.

3. If you're looking for a magazine, go to a newsstand or comic book shop. Use as much information you have --- title, publisher, or the issue number -- to track down what you want and make your purchase.

4. Don't know where to begin? Browse through magazines at a back issues comic book dealer like www.milehighcomics.com to find the information you need. Browse through books at an online retailer like www.book.com. Check for older books through a used bookstore sorter like www.bookfinder.com.

5. If all else fails, and you know the publisher, try the publisher themselves to order directly or be directed to someone who can sell it to you.


Buying Comics -- A Longer Discussion

Format

You buy comics the same you do any other book or magazine -- by either purchasing it at a bookstore or newsstand, or ordering it from someone. It helps to know the basic format to know the best places to begin shopping.

Comics come in several formats. Each has its advantages and adherents.

Comics' primary formats are serial comics and trades. Serial comics are periodicals. Trades are books.

Others prominent formats include the album, the mini-comic, the manga book, the strip collection, and the manga anthology. There are also collectible comics, in both serial comic and trade form.

Serial Comics

The serial comic, sometimes called floppies or pamphlets, is the traditional format for comics. It is what is commonly known as a comic book. These are the comics kids used to buy at the drugstore and roll up and put in their back pocket. They generally range in price from $2 to $4.

This is the form used by many comic book companies to publish serial adventures in a timely fashion, say every month. It is also a format used by cartoonist authors to release parts of stories in serial form as they are completed.

Superman, Amazing Spider-Man, and Eightball are all examples of the serial comic.

Serial comics tend to be moved off of the stands after a undetermined period of time. After this, they may be available from comic book shops or on E-bay as collectibles.

Serial comics can still be found on many newsstands, and in nearly all comic book shops.

Trades

Trades, sometimes called graphic novels, collections, or even "trade paperbacks," from which the term "trades" is shortened, are comics in book form. They are published in different shapes and sizes, although a popular way to think of them is as a very thick serial comic, a comic book with a spine.

Some trades are published for the first time that way, the same way a book from a big-name author like Tom Clancy, Stephen King or John Grisham is released. Other trades are collected from serial comics into trade form the same way a DVD might collect the season of a television show. They generally range in price from $5 to $30.

Trades have become the most popular form of comics recently because of the economics of book publishing vis-à-vis magazine publishing, various issues of price point for the dedicated audience, and the fact that a longer format generally reflects what today's artists, writers and cartoonists are trying to do with the medium. Maus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Understanding Comics are all examples of trades.

Trades can be purchased the same way you buy books: by picking them up when you see them on sale or by ordering them via their name, author, ISBN number and/or publisher.

One difference is that many trades are offered through a distributor called Diamond Comics Distributors, Inc. These books have a "Diamond Ordering Number." Think of that as a special locating number used by companies that do business with Diamond. This includes all comic book shops. If you are ordering through a comic book shop and know that number, it may be easier for the shop owner to order it.

Other Formats

Albums are a standardized book format made popular in Europe. They look like magazine-sized hardcover books. Like trades, they are priced, marketed and sold as books. Tintin and Asterix are popular series whose component adventures have long been sold in album format.

Mini-comics are handmade comics of wildly varying shape and size, and with a few exceptions aren't sold through retail avenues at all. They are discussed in their own section. King-Cat and National Waste are examples of popular mini-comics.

Manga is the name given Japanese comics and those that want to look like them. Many people see manga's growing American ubiquity as a victory for the standardized book format favored by publishers like Tokyopop -- small, colorful, and less than $10. Other than their obvious popularity, such volumes are clearly marketed and sold as affordable, serialized books.

Manga anthologies in Japan are giant paperback books printed on cheap paper. They are affectionately known by some as "phone books" for their size and the quality of printing. The newsstand magazine Shonen Jump is the closest American cousin to this unique format.

Most comic strips are sold as books. One variation in format -- a kind of half-sized, wider than it is tall paperback -- is known within the book trade for its relationship to strip comics due to the success of the Garfield comic strip collections.


Where Can I Buy Comics?

These days you can find comics in any number of places, although some formats are much harder to find than in their 20th Century heyday.

Treat superhero serial comics and manga anthologies as magazines that are carried some places where magazines are gathered.

Treat non-superhero serial comics, most trades, albums and manga books as books that are carried many places books are sold.

Good places to keep an eye out for comics are retail superstores, newsstands, bookstores, and especially comic book shops. They are also for purchase on-line and many are available directly from the publisher.

Retail superstores like Wal-Mart may carry some manga trades and a few Marvel/DC superhero books. The saturation of such items is spotty and irregular.

Newsstands in grocery stores and bookstores frequently carry Shonen Jump, a few Marvel/DC superhero books and the superhero comics-focused magazine Wizard. Some DVD rental outlets and music stores may also have newsstands, and whether or not comics are carried there has a lot to do with the person doing the purchasing for the individual outlet.

In addition to sometimes carrying comics in their periodical sections, most large bookstores and several smaller ones carry manga in book form, trades featuring collections of superhero comics, newspaper strip compilations and the book-length offerings from the art/alternative comic book publishers.

Used bookstores are an increasingly great place to find trades, including those out of print. They are practically the only place to find older comics-related books, such as out-of-vogue newspaper strip compilations and hardback collections of gag cartoons collected from venues like The New Yorker and Punch.

You can also, if you live in a city that has one, go to a comic book shop.


Why Comic Book Shops?

If you ever have more than a surface interest in comics, it is almost certain you will eventually seek out a comic book shop. While it is possible to buy music at Wal-Mart and pick up movie rentals at a grocery store, fans of those media will almost certainly find themselves in a music store and DVD rental/purchase place at some time or another, even if it is only on-line.

A comic book shop -- or comic shop -- is any store that carries a substantial number of comic books, either new ones or older, collectible ones, or, usually, both. They are a great way to buy comics regularly, to buy a lot of different kinds of comic books all at once, or to find and browse through various new and different kinds of comics.


Comic Book Shops Historically

Save for a few trailblazers, comic book shops began to spring up in various locations in the middle 1970s. They eventually replaced the newsstand as the primary place to buy comic books. As comics became less a mass medium in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and a medium of specialized and intensive interest, comic shops offered distinct advantages. Not only would more knowledgeable fans prefer to shop in places where all the books they wanted would be regularly available, comic shops could offer publishers a system of non-returnable purchasing newsstands could not.

Non-returnable purchasing is the cornerstone of the comic shop's ascendency. Comic shop owners buy many of their comics from specialty distributors at a larger discount than newsstands. They cannot return them if they do not sell. When instituted this seemed like a good idea from the retailer's point of view because 1) shop owners felt they knew their customers and the field and could order smartly, and 2) most shops sold back issues in addition to new comics, and the old issue bins could be the home for anything that didn't sell right away.

For publishers, non-returnable purchasing meant companies could maximize the effectiveness of their print runs and sell directly to a savvy consumer. A happy bonus was that smaller companies could enter the field without having to obtain as much capital as was previously necessary to sustain returns, and with a much better chance of reaching their specific target reader.

Although many feel that taking comics away from the exposure of mainstream locations and into specialty shops has hurt the comics medium in the long run by not encouraging new readers, this "Direct Market" system almost certainly saved American comic books by providing an economic model more in line with who was purchasing comics and how they purchased them.

The Direct Market has at times been very fragile. There are currently between one third and one quarter of the number of stores that existed when the Direct Market was at its early 1990s height. Without returns, comic shops are much more vulnerable than bookstores and newsstands to such factors as publishers flooding the market, publishers not delivering material in a timely fashion, and their own mistakes in over ordering books they end up not being able to sell.

As publishers have begun to realize that pursuing short-term goals that harm the Direct Market retailer has a significant impact on sales over time, many such abuses have been scaled back. There are also more veteran retailers than ever before, and a wider range of potential customers.


Why Are Comic Shops Occasionally Controversial?

As befits a system of independent retailers, many comic book shops have a somewhat intimate, slightly at-odds relationship with some comics readers. For a period of time in the 1980s and 1990s comic shops were the overwhelming major retail option for comics fans. Therefore, their unique shortcomings both individually and as a group reflected on the medium perhaps more than record stores and bookstores reflected on their respective media.

A common complaint is that many comic shop owners have a very focused interest in superhero comics, even certain kinds of superhero comics. Fans of other kinds comics may find these stores largely useless or even detrimental to the art form in their monomania.

I personally love all comic book shops, sometimes against my better judgment. When I was a kid, all comic books were purchased at a newsstand. This had been the primary system for the dissemination of comic books since 1938. The best comics selections in my Indiana hometown were at branches of Ross Supermarket, with branches of Marsh Supermarket a close second. The kids I knew that read comics were spinner rack connoisseurs, with an intimate knowledge of what stores had what comics and when. If you wanted older comics -- not for collectible purposes but to read some of the stories you missed -- then you bothered kids with older brothers, went to garage sales incessantly, and scanned the tables at flea markets. If you were particularly brave, you might order a catalog from the back of a comic book itself, probably from some guy living in a garage apartment who had lots of old comic books.

Since then my hometown added a pawnshop that sold old comics, a used bookstore that served as the area's first real comic book store, and finally a long-running small shop in a nearly abandoned shopping mall next to the river. Having lived in several towns and having visited several others, I've shopped in both very beautiful comic shops and some real interesting retail spaces: a church basement, a seedy second floor walk-up in a big urban center, a converted railway building, and a large rack that bounced from record store to record store over an eight year period. I enjoyed them all.

It's hard to stay neutral about comic book shops, but if they didn't exist, comics readers would sit around daydreaming about how wonderful it would be if they did. The growth of comics trades into bookstores and the existence of on-line avenues for purchase makes the comic store seem less omnipresent, and today it is much easier to forgive their peccadilloes.


What Makes A Good Comic Book Shop?

Any shop that fulfills your needs is a good one, and only you can decide what those needs are. If you're a fan of Spider-Man and find a comic book shop that sells only Spider-Man comic books, you will likely enjoy that comic book shop no matter how well it meets anyone else's needs. Similarly, your standards for good service and a presentable store interior may vary greatly. When I was 14, I found the gritty atmosphere and old-magazine smell of some comic book stores romantic, an indication of pulp treasures to be unearthed. Today, I want a store that's sparkling clean and easy on the back.

Having visited a number of comic books shops, I believe there are four factors on which they may be judged.

1. A Comfortable Shopping Experience -- The best comic book shops are clean, well lit, and have enough room to move around. Looking at the comic books and items for sale should never be a chore. Although the cost of renting space sometimes works against it, one should be able to see the comics on sale and how much they cost without routinely squatting, standing far away, or pulling things out of boxes. Like all stores, the atmosphere should not be foreboding, malodorous or unfriendly.

2. A Knowledgeable and Friendly Staff -- Comic book readers can have very specific desires or really vague ones; it helps any retail establishment that serves them to have reasonably aware and helpful staff-people on hand to answer questions. By knowledgeable I mean standard general retail skills such as keeping aware of the shop's inventory and being up on major releases. Comics is so specialized it would be impossible to out-expert every customer on every possible subject, but a generally helpful person willing to do a little digging on the tough questions can be a godsend.

A friend of mine uses what he called "the mom test" on comic book shops. He feels that any retail establishment should be able to help his 60-year-old mother buy something, no matter how clueless she might appear or how many questions she might ask.

3. A Store Bigger than the Four Walls -- Comics is an international medium with tens of thousands of titles available for sale. It is unlikely any single store will carry everything, and in a smaller town there may be a relatively modest inventory. Many comics fans are very unforgiving on this perfectly reasonable concession to reality. But while a store has to make decisions about what to actively carry, there is no excuse in this day and age for a retailer not to help a customer beyond the limits of their on-site inventory. Comics offers many options for retailers to order material in, or to track down books for their customers, or to recommend other avenues for purchase. One hopes that this is always a service that is offered customers.

4. Something Special -- Just about every comic book shop that gets used should offer up something other than a few items for sale. A shop may simply be really convenient, some may have a really impressive number of European books; some may carry homemade comics; some may also serve as their town's gaming center; others may carry independent prose books; still others may offer regular customers a subscription service, whereby one orders in advance and certain comics are held for you, usually at a discount, or other incentives. If you have the option of stores to choose from, whether on vacation or in your home area, these sort of special touches can be a big deciding factor.


I would never presume to tell someone where to shop and where not to shop, but I might suggest that if you don't get these four things out of your comic book shop, you might remain open to alternative avenues for purchasing.


Alternative Avenues for Purchasing

We've already talked about new bookstores, used bookstores and newsstands. You may also wish to buy comics from on-line retailers, and in many cases, directly from the publisher themselves. Some on-line retailers discount heavily and may have access to a wider inventory. Buying from the publisher themselves guarantees they will carry the item offered until the print run is totally exhausted. Some comics readers also like to buy from publisher as a way of pledging support to a favorite company.

In addition to placing directly below lists of comic book shops, my favorite comic book shops, and used bookstore search engines, I have also provided list of publishers who offer their books directly to the public and various on-line retail options.


In Summary

If you are seeking new serial comic books (Amazing Spider-Man): try a comic book shop, a newsstand, or an on-line retailer of new comic books.

If you are seeking trade collections of brand-new or previously serialized material (Maus), European album-style books (Tintin in America), manga books (Chobits), and newspaper strip compilations (Fox Trot): try a comic book shop, a physical bookstore, or an on-line book retailer.

If you are seeking out-of-print collectible comic books (Amazing Spider-Man #50): try comic book shops, used bookstores, and on-line back issue dealers.

If you seeking out-of-print trades (Zot!), older strip compilations (Thompson Is In Trouble, Charlie Brown), or classic gag cartoon books (The Addams Family): try used bookstores and on-line sources.

It is always good to know as much as possible about the book you want: its specific name (not just the character), its volume and issue number if it has one, its publisher, its authors, and its ISBN number if it has one.


Buying Should Be Fun

The one thing I remember about riding my bike to the west side of my hometown to find new comic books and going downtown to the pawn shop was that it was fun -- comics were scarce, and finding them took effort. Some comics still take the effort, while others are as close as my local Albertson's. I am determined, and you should be to, that the experience remains fun.


RESOURCES

Lists of Shops

If there is a comic book shop near where you live, it can probably be found looking in the Yellow Pages, under either "comic books" or "bookstores." Very often the larger comic book stores in town will take out a display ad as a way of differentiating their business from less capitalized rivals. The same is true of used bookstores, although they will not advertise with an eye towards displaying their comics holdings.

There are also comprehensive and specialized lists of comic book shops in the following locations.

The Master List
Comic Shop Locator Service
Comic Book Resources' Locator List
Indy Magazine's List of Indy-Friendly Shops
List of European Comics Shops
Slave Labor Graphics' List of Comics Retailers
Drawn and Quarterly's List of Comics Retailers
Fantagraphics' List of Comics Retailers


My Favorite Shops

There are the good comic book shops, and there are the really, really good comic book shops. The really good ones are worth visiting when you go to the city in question, seeking out at conventions when they have a booth, and occasionally buying items from just to support them on principle. In these days of consolidation and cheap service, the independent retailers that own comic book shops should be celebrated when they do something very, very well.

Listed below of some of my favorite stores in North America, all of which exceed the four factors listed above. I always make an excuse to visit them I'm nearby, and you should, too.

The Beguiling
601 Markham St
Toronto, Ontario
Canada, M6G 2L7
416-533-9168

Million Year Picnic
99 Mt Auburn St
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-492-6763

Comicopia
464 Commonwealth Ave
Boston, MA 02215
617-266-4266

Two Million Year Picnic
286 Thayer St
Providence, RI 02906
401-272-0941

Jim Hanley's Universe
4 West 33rd St.
New York, NY 10001-3302
718-351-6299

Midtown Comics
200 W 40th St # 2
New York, NY 10018
212-302-8192

Atomic City Comics
640 South St
Philadelphia, PA 19147
215-625-9613

Big Planet Georgetown
3145 Dumbarton St NW
Washington, DC 20007
202-342-1961

Big Planet Bethesda
4908 Fairmont Ave.
Bethesda, MD 20814
301-654-6856

Atomic Books
1100 W 36th St
Baltimore, MD 21211
410-662-4444

Big Planet Vienna
426 Maple Ave E.
Vienna, VA 22180
703-242-9412

Laughing Ogre
4258 N High St
Columbus, OH 43214
614-267-6473

Comic Carnival
7225 N Keystone Ave
Indianapolis, IN 46240
317-253-8882

Big Brain Comics
1027 Washington Avenue, South
Minneapolis, MN 55415
612-338-4390

Muse Comics
2100 Stephens #107
Missoula, MT 59801
406-543-9944

Comix Revolution
606 Davis Street
Evanston, IL 60201
847-866-8659

Quimby's Queer Store
1854 W North Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
773-342-0910

Chicago Comics
3244 N Clark
Chicago, IL 60657
773-528-1983

Star Clipper
379 North Big Bend Blvd
St. Louis, MO 63130
314-725-9110

Atomik Pop!
918 W. Main
Norman OK 73069
405-329-9695

Funny Papers
2025 Guadalupe #132
Austin, TX 78705
512-478-9718

Austin Books
5002 N Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX 78751
512-454-4197

Mile High Comics
9201 N. Washington
Thornton, CO 80229
303-457-2612

Alternate Reality
4800 South Maryland Pkwy Ste D
Las Vegas, NV 89119
702-736-3464

Meltdown
7522 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90046
323-851-7283

Golden Apple
7711 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
323-658-6047

Lee's Comics (Mtn View)
1020-F N. Rengstorff Avenue
Mountain View, CA 94043
650-965-1800

Lee's Comics (San Mateo)
2222 S. El Camino Real
San Mateo, CA 94403
650-571-1489

Comix Experience
305 Divisadero Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
415-863-9258

Isotope
1653 Noriega St
San Francisco, CA 94122
415-753-3037

Flying Colors
2980 Treat Blvd
Concord, CA 94518
925-825-5410

Comic Relief
2026 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94704
510-843-5002

Hijinx Comix
2050 Lincoln Ave
San Jose, CA 95125
408-266-1103

Comics Dungeon
250 Northeast 45th Street
Seattle, WA 98105
206-545-8373


The Virtual Shops

I like to browse, but every so often I need to find a comic immediately. That's when I tend to access on-line stores and services. The on-line stores are also good when buying a lot of books at a time and when seeking a specific discount.

It should be noted that most of the comic shops listed in the previous section include a web site; many are happy to do mail order over the phone.

Mars Import
A great place for hard-to-find American trade paperbacks and one of a handful of North American sources for European comics albums.

Lone Star's On-Line Comics Service
A full-service comic book store, including back issues and new releases, plus comics supplies. This site offers an easy to use interface with some intermediate steps, and even a way to get rid of unwanted material in trade.

Amazon's Comics and Graphic Novels Page
This is a reasonably new gateway page for Amazon.com's surprisingly steady and well-discounted service in trade paperbacks and collections.

Mile High Comics
A back-issues retailer that carries very recent issues as sort of brand-new back issues, if that makes any sense. Mile High frequently runs discounts and sales according to what the owner has been buying in terms of other people's collections. Some people feel they overprice in general, but I find the sales reasonable and the service pretty solid.

Alibris
This is a used bookstore search engine useful for rooting out out-of-print trades and compilation books.

Bookfinder
This is a used bookstore search engine useful for tracking down out-of-print trades and compilation books.

E-Bay
Many people sell comics, particularly collectible comics, on-line through the auction services, of which E-Bay is still the most widely used. This is also a good place to find peripheral items related to comics, including original art.

Comic Art Collective
Although this is primarily a site through where alternative cartoonists sell their original art, sometimes books are listed as well.

The TCJ.com Comic Book Marketplace Forum
The fourth forum listed here is where readers of the comics magazine go to list e-bay auctions and sometimes directly sell their comics to interested parties. Many on-line communities have similar forums, but this is a particularly good place to go to hear about mini-comics, indy comics and art comics from people who may not usually sell such items.

The Company Stores

Perhaps more than any other kind of publisher, a comic book publisher is likely to see customers wanting to buy directly from them. Many have sites for just this purpose, and some do a thriving mail-order business.

Ordering directly from a company also is a great way to put money directly into the hands of a favorite publisher, and to get on whatever mailings lists exist for announcements of future releases.

As far as I have been able to ascertain: Image, Marvel, DC and Alternative Comics do not sell comics and books directly from their sites.

Adhouse Books
AD Vision
Antarctic Press
Avodah Books
Dark Horse Comics
Devils Due Publishing
Drawn and Quarterly
Dreamwave
Fantagraphics Books
Gemstone Publishing
Highwater Books
IDW Publishing
Slave Labor Graphics
Tokyopop
Top Shelf Comics
Wizard Entertainment
Viz LLC


*****

Any missing or inaccurate information, or anything you'd like to share on the subject -- please e-mail me here.