Tough times for comics trade

Wong took over Comics Mart in 2007 and changed their business concept last year. Aside from selling comics, the outlet also focuses on the gaming segment, including board and trading card games.

IN the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, the four lead characters Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj are often seen visiting their local comic book store.

They are depicted fumbling through shelves to find the right comics, bickering over the last copy and spending money on these collectables.

However, one is unlikely to see this in a local comic bookstore in Malaysia.

While the sitcom is fictional, the comics fan culture does exist in the United States and other parts of the world.

Conventions are held to celebrate comics, predominantly in the US, spearheaded by the biggest annual event in comic “fandom” – the San Diego Comic-Con International.

In Malaysia, the comic book culture pales in comparison.

Faizal's prized possessions - Silver Surfer #1 and The Avengers #8 that can fetch about  US$5,000 (RM1,6242) each if both are in prime condition. 
Faizal's prized possessions - Silver Surfer #1 and The Avengers #8 that can fetch about  US$5,000 (RM16, 242) each if in prime condition.

Various factors such as rising costs, changing times and advanced technology has led to a decline in the comic book business.

The few local fans have also found other sources to feed their hobby, leaving the local comic book trade struggling .

Today, although comic book shops still exist, they have diversified and games and merchandise have become their core business.


Better days

Comics used to enjoy a strong presence in Malaysia with fans flocking to bookstores to get their hands on the latest issues.

“Back in the 1980s, comics sold so well that fans had to go from shop to shop to find their copies,” said long-time comic book enthusiast Davin Arul.

Fans would scavenge for prized issues at bookstores, said collector Faizal Mukhtar.

“I was happy to find a 1963 The Avengers #8 comic in an old magazine shop.

Wong says comics make up less than 5% of The Comics Corner's entire business. 
Cheah says comics make up less than 5% of The Comics Corner's entire business.

“It was the first appearance of Kang the Conqueror, and it is now valued at about RM1,000. I only paid RM8 for that issue,” said Faizal, who also operates online comic book shop

The comic book scene had a large fan base in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it saw the birth of local comic book stores such as The Comics Corner and The Mind Shop.

The comic book trade was at its peak in the 1990s with big demand for every issue.

“In 1992, Superman #75 sold out everywhere when it was released. When word got out that it would be available at my shop, people queued up before the shop opened,” said Davin, who used to own a comic book shop - The Final Frontier.

“I had to limit customers to one copy each as many wanted to buy three to five copies each. The issue was sold out in minutes.”

He also recalled how Spiderman #1 was the shop’s best-selling issue.


Tough times

The craze proved to be short-lived and soon there was more supply than demand.

“It was a ‘false boom’. People bought multiple copies of these special issues thinking it would grow in value, but it didn’t,” said The Comics Corner co-owner Kelvyn Cheah. “Subsequently, many sold the issue at the original price they bought it.”

By the early 2000s, the introduction of trade paperback comics (an all-in-one collection of one particular comic storyline) at major bookstores as well as rising costs from rental, freight and processing charges caused a further strain on comic book traders.

A standard comic book averages RM16.80 while trade paperbacks retail at RM52 to RM68 each, sometimes even cheaper at book fairs.

Cheah admits even collectors like him, own trade paperback versions for cost and convenience.

“It made more sense as one book would give you the entire collection.”

Davin, whose business folded due to increasing costs, said that it was difficult to compete with major bookstores, books fairs, the rising freight charges and other costs.

Comics Mart owner Wong Khai Hoong also found it hard to compete with online stores which provided fast delivery when new issues were released into the market.

“No one was willing to wait when they could have their comics almost immediately,” he said, adding that shipments of larger orders would often meet with unexpected delays.

Comics shops continued to feel the pinch when e-comics became available online. Comics can also be downloaded via smartphone apps.

“The new way to buy comics, which is simpler, easier and more cost-efficient allowed more people to join the comics bandwagon,” said Faizal. “But it did not help local comic stores.”


Moving on

The marriage of comics and film helped to revive the comics business. When X-Men, Spider-Man, The Avengers and Iron Man were made into movies, younger audiences became interested in the characters and storyline.

Cheah said comic books also became popular again through special edition covers to attract buyers.

At that point, however, traditional comic shops had already changed their focus and had moved on to more profitable business segments.

“The comics scene does not produce enough long-term readers anymore and while movies have provided a boost, people want to buy more merchandise instead,” said Wong.

As such, he said, they have switched their focus to the gaming segment, emphasising board and card games.

Wong said he holds weekly game events and provides space for players to gather and interact in his shop.

The Comics Corner had diversified into the trading card business in 1998, which Cheah said had protected the company against decline of comics.

“We had received requests for sports cards in the late 1990s and that’s when we saw value in going into the segment. We started out with sports cards then gaming cards which has become a major part of our business now,” said Cheah.

Continuing trade

Although comic books take up less than 5% of its business, Cheah said they still import comics.

“Comics have become a part of us that we don’t want to let go,Despite the decline, there’s still hope, but perhaps more marketing is needs to promote it.”

Brimming with optimism, Faizal said cultivating a new generation of collectors is not entirely impossible.

Through his role as the Malaysian Comic Activist Association (Pekomik) president, Faizal actively engages more than 1,300 followers with the latest trends and recommendations.

He added both the writers and companies’ have the responsibility to keep comics alive.

“People get bored too easily, so comic content has to be re-invented and move with the times, and set new trends. The same goes for us — we need to be the trendsetter and decide what people need before they know they need it,” said Faizal.

There are about 400 to 500 comic titles being produced weekly and businesses have to decide what to bring in and how they would interest customers.

With the right approach, Faizal has faith comics could make a comeback and appeal to different market segments.

“If people are fascinated with the movies, I’d gauge their interest from that perspective; if they’re into movie merchandise, I would capture their attention with a comic-related back story. Anything is possible.”

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