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The counter at Aftertime Comics in Old Town Alexandria.
For most, Wednesday is probably better described as Hump Day: the day when you can just glimpse the approaching weekend. For some people, though, Wednesday is something more special—-it’s New Comic Book Day, or the day when comics published that week go on sale at local specialty stores.
Now that statement has to be qualified like crazy, at least on the business side. The comics actually arrive days earlier, via UPS, from Diamond Comics Distributors, the Timonium, Md.-based major source for comics. Diamond buys the comics from companies for a fraction of their face value, and then resells them in bulk to individual comic book stores for a larger fraction of their face value. The comic book store then sells them to the reader for another fraction of the face value and hopefully makes a profit therein, because the main difference between this, the direct market system, and the old system of buying them on a newsstand or at a convenience store, is that the comic book store owns whatever it buys. Overstocked comics are not returnable by the store, as they are from newsstands or bookstores. A comic book store owner walks a thin line between under- and overordering—-with cranky customers on one side and bankruptcy on the other.
The direct market arose in the mid-1970s because many collectors couldn’t find the comics they were looking for on the spinner racks. When comics sold for a quarter, stores had little incentive to keep a good stock because the profits were literally pennies—-and the distributor wouldn’t cooperate anyway. The store got whatever was in the bundle that was tossed off the back of a truck. In a mashup of headshops and minor-league publishing, comics publishers began selling directly to fledgling comic stores. New comics arrived on Friday, so collectors could stay up as late as needed to see how Spider-Man dealt with the Jackal once and for all.
Accidentally, a new social occasion emerged. Collectors began gathering to buy their comics at the earliest possible moment, so they could see what exciting new adventure had befallen their favorite hero that month. In spite of bankruptcies, monopolies, and speculation, this system is still tottering along. Joel Pollack of Big Planet Comics says Wednesday is usually the biggest day for the store, although sometimes Saturday brings in more customers. And surprisingly, given the amount of attention paid to the graphic novel now, periodical comics have been a growing market for him for two years.
So one special thing about Wednesday is getting your formerly four-color hit (I’m sure printing presses utilize far more colors these days), but another is the community. If you read comics regularly, you probably have a subscription or pull service at your favorite store. All the local stores offer them and most send out e-mails earlier in the week alerting you to what’s coming out that week. And since comic book readers are creatures of habit—-or else they wouldn’t be reading serial fiction, right?—-they stick with the same store, stop by at the same time each week, and see many of the same people. “It’s like a bar,” says Jeff Thompson, a children’s book artist who clerks at Big Planet on Wednesday. You go in, ask for your comics from the back room, browse what’s new on the racks, and exchange opinions with other people you vaguely recognize about whether this or that title is worth reading. These days, with the price of a basic comic book just rising to $4, you do some quick math—-especially if you’re thinking about getting that $50 collection of 1962 Ant-Man stories—-while gossiping about whether another Spider-Man reboot is a good idea. Continuity has been a part of comics culture since the 1960s, when Marvel Comics used it to encourage people to buy all its titles, and now it’s become part of the wider culture, as reboots become necessary in Star Trek and other franchises.
I’ve been going to Big Planet since 1986, when Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns dragged me back into comics hard. I don’t even want to think about how much money I’ve spent on comics since, but I’ve made some good friends there, and enjoyed a lot of good times in the store and with the comics I’ve bought there. D.C. has some good stores in the area beyond the Big Planet chain. There are some other chains, like Fantom Comics in Union Station and Pentagon City Mall. Beyond Comics is in Frederick and Gaithersburg, Md. Laughing Ogre is in Burke, Va. The Comic Shop Locator can help you find a store. Independent shops that I know of can be found in Old Town Alexandria, Vienna, the Del Rey neighborhood in Alexandria, Wheaton, and Falls Church. Each store has its own personality—-stop in on a Wednesday and do some people-watching, and maybe try something new that came out that day. The staff should be glad to give you a tip or two. Or possibly 30—-watch out for that.