Grant Charlton. picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Grant Charlton. picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Comic books and graphic novels are "the future of the written word and literacy", says Dusanka Stojakovic of New Africa Books, which publishes Kwezi, a local comic book series about a young SA superhero.

The series, written by Loyiso Mkize, is enticing young readers who, Stojakovic says, are "entranced by the visual". The first issue of Kwezi is in its third print run. With 1,000 copies per print run, Kwezi has become the best-selling local comic book in SA.

It’s not the scale of the North American market, where popular US comic titles that are not one-offs or collectors’ items print about 100,000 issues each month. But Stojakovic says you can make good money from the sale of comic books, graphic novels and related merchandise. And it’s encouraging young people to read – with such success that the Gauteng department of education’s library service hopes the comic will be included in the school curriculum.

Things haven’t always been this way. In the 1990s and 2000s, comic books and related merchandise were a niche industry, with typically tight margins. But the dynamics have changed, especially since Hollywood started producing blockbuster films based on Marvel and DC comics.

Grant Charlton, who has sold comics for about 30 years, puts the comic book and graphic novel revival at about 2008, when Warner Bros released The Dark Knight (for which Heath Ledger was posthumously awarded an Oscar). It was part of DC’s rebooted Batman franchise — a comic book staple since the character first appeared in 1939.

Can you make money from selling geek merchandise or running events? There are probably easier ways to make a million
Grant Charlton

As evidence of this revival, comic stores are now opening in super-regional shopping centres in SA. Heroes of Games & Comics (HGC), for example, recently opened a branch in the upmarket Melrose Arch mall in Johannesburg.

The company started in 1999 with a single store at Lakeside mall in Benoni, where it mainly sold toys, says regional manager Thabani Zondo. Just under 20 years later, HGC — which now makes a large portion of its profits from selling children’s costumes — has the Melrose Arch store, as well as one at the Bedford Centre. It will open its Sandton City store on Friday. And, says Zondo, it plans to open a store in Fourways next year.

Charlton has followed the ebb and flow of comic book and pop culture trends since the late 1980s. He says the industry has grown tremendously in the past eight to 10 years.

"At the turn of the millennium, comics and everything related to them tended to be niche. This has changed since Marvel, DC and other companies began to produce blockbuster movies and pump money into their properties," he says.

However, he says the SA market for these products is still quite small compared with other countries.

Charlton was one of the first people to sell modern comic books in SA, having opened Comic Corner in Braamfontein in the early 1990s. After that store closed, he ran Outer Limits in Melville from about 2000 to 2016. The business was "fairly profitable", but he left the suburb for a new opportunity in Randburg, merging the company with gaming and DVD store Anime Worx to form the Nexus Hub. The hub differs from HGC stores in that it is much larger and sells a much wider variety of graphic novels, comics, novels, figurines, card games and board games. The hub did well at first, but 2017 was particularly hard and the business lost about a quarter of its sales when ratings agencies downgraded SA and the economy went into a recession, Charlton says.

What it means:

It seems to be an industry with potential, if one considers the success of Africa’s first Comic Con

This year has been better. The hub is still establishing itself as a diversified seller of comics and other geek merchandise, he says, but it should become more profitable over time.

In North America, combined comic and graphic novel sales amounted to $1bn last year, according to research outfit Comichron. And while numbers for SA are difficult to come by, the success of Africa’s first Comic Con, held in Johannesburg in September, suggests growth potential in the local market. About 45,000 people attended the three-day event, and organiser Carol Weaving, MD of Reed Exhibitions Africa, says tickets sold out before the gates opened.

Sinderella Costume Hire, in Johannesburg, imported costumes specially for the event – and had rented out nearly all its stock before Comic Con even started.

Due to the success of the event, the Comic Con organisers have extended next year’s event to run over four days, over the Heritage Day long weekend.

SA’s major booksellers have not been left out of the action.

"The area where we’ve seen Marvel and DC … movies drive growth, alongside Comic Con, is in what we categorise as ‘children’s graphic novels’, which are generally superhero-based," says Ben Williams, general manager for marketing at Exclusive Books. "We’ve seen year-on-year increases of well over 100% in this category for the past two years."

But Williams acknowledges that comics and graphic novels make up a fraction of the book group’s sales.

It remains to be seen if business will boom for the likes of HGC and the Nexus Hub, especially after SA exits its current recession. But Charlton says he is happy to be able to make a living from his passion. "Can you make money from selling geek merchandise or running events? There are probably easier ways to make a million. I could have worked as a chartered accountant for longer, but I wouldn’t have met as many people and had as much fun," he says. "I don’t regret my career for a second."

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