It’s time to get nostalgic this week, friends. In the past 10 years, we’ve gotten comics about most of the great TV shows (and toy properties) of my childhood — G.I. Joe, TransFormers, Thundercats, He-Man, and so forth… most, but not all. Today I take a look at four 80s properties that have remained buried since the 80s, and rank their chances for a resurgence.
But in this week’s classic EBI, I’m drifting back to the great comic book crisis of of 2005: the decision to raise the prices of $2.25 comics to $2.50.
Heh. Ah, we were so young.
Everything But Imaginary #107: The Next Great Crisis
Those of you who, like myself, feverishly watch the world of comics for news learned this week that another great Crisis is about to be unfolded. Something that will leave us dumbfounded. Something that will leave us breathless. Something that will no doubt change the world of one of the two biggest comic book companies forever.
I refer, of course, to the announcement that Marvel Comics is raising the prices of all of its $2.25 books to $2.50. Not that there are that many $2.25 books left in the first place, but this does mark a major shift for Marvel and a major shift for people’s wallets. Sure, 25 cents doesn’t seem like much. Taken by itself, it isn’t much at all. But if you buy ten $2.25 books a month, that’s an increase of $2.50, and if you’ve got a strict budget for comics, that means one less comic you’re able to buy, which means decreased sales, which multiplies by the number of readers who will have to make that cut. And it’s worse, of course, the higher the pricepoint goes — $2.75, $2.99, $3.50, $3.99…
DC Comics isn’t blameless here, of course. This month they snuck in a much smaller increase that many fans didn’t even notice – all of their $2.95 books jumped to $2.99. But the company still has a few $2.25 books, including all of those comics aimed specifically at kids, which is a good thing. Pricing a comic book out of a child’s reach not only defeats the entire purpose of publishing a children’s comic in the first place, but even worse, cuts off a gate for the potential future comic book readers. If no kid can afford to buy comics, how will he grow up and become a regular reader with a pull list and a compulsion to hit the shop every Wednesday?
Now that the announcement is being made, however, I’m hearing from all quarters about readers planning to cut Marvel Comics from their pull folders. And in many cases, it’s not the books that don’t need their support, that will sell anyway like Astonishing X-Men or Amazing Spider-Man, it’s books that are critical winners but don’t have a huge following like District X.
What does this tell us? I’m no businessman, I’ll admit that right up front, but I can put two and two together and come up with four. Marvel is raising prices, one must assume, to recoup higher production costs. When the cost of making a comic goes up, the only ways to get the money back are to increase prices or sell more copies. I think we can all agree on that. However, a price increase (except on books with a hardcore fan base, like those mentioned above) will almost always be accompanied by a drop in sales. And there aren’t enough comic book fans to go around to begin with. Can any company really afford to price itself out of the reach of its audience?
Marvel is putting out a slew of new titles in the coming months as well – a revitalized New Warriors series, a new Thing ongoing, and a new miniseries called Gravity, all for example. But if comic fans can’t afford the books in their folder now, how do you convince them to start purchasing new comics at three dollars apiece?
I spent a good amount of time this weekend discussing this with a buddy of mine. Mark happens to manage a comic shop of his own, and was particularly taken aback by the news of the increase. “It’s just going to get the long time readers to stop buying the books they normally do because they can’t justify spending $30 a week on books they read once,” he said.
His solution to the problem? Well… it’s kind of a drastic one, so get ready for it.
“If I have a $20 a week budget right now, I can buy say 7 books a week,” he said hypothetically. “Drop it to $2 a book, you can now buy 10 books a week, a net sales increase of 3 books, increasing circulation and advertisers.”
Now would the production costs of creating a comic book make this feasible? Well it’s obviously not impossible, because some companies do that very thing. Beckett Comics puts out books for $1.99 an issue. They’re a bit shorter than regular titles from Marvel or DC, but the quality of the paper stock is much better, and the quality of the story and art are top-notch.
And for those of us who don’t care as much about paper stock… why can’t that be cut to a less expensive stock? I realize some people, those who are more geared to the artistic end of comics as opposed to the story end as I am, would be upset by such a move. But there are many people that would gladly take a cut in paper quality if it meant their monthly comic book bill would no longer outstretch their car note.
Marvel and DC could take a note from Archie Comics, actually. Sure, laugh it up if you want, but Archie Comics are currently priced at a comfortable $2.19 a regular issue (and not much more for their 100-page digests). A weird number, perhaps, but other than Beckett it’s the most reasonably priced comic company on the market. And they have two things the Big Two don’t have – a more traditional paper stock, and a heck of a lot of readers. It doesn’t reflect on the Diamond sales chart, but if you factor in the number of Archie comics sold on newsstands – to kids, mind you, the same ones who are finding it harder to afford Marvel Adventures Starring Spider-Man – you’ve got a juggernaut that outstrips almost any X, Spider or Bat-comic you care to mention. Most comic fans don’t realize that, but it seems clear to me that Archie knows something the other publishers don’t.
So why not at least try to appeal to both classes of reader? In the 90s, one of the few things Marvel did that I thought was a good policy was start releasing two editions of many of their top-selling (X-Men, Spider-Man) comics: one on regular newsprint for $1.50 and one on higher-quality glossy paper for $1.95. No other changes, no variant covers, no exclusives – just a lower-priced alternative for someone who’s in comics to read them and not to collect them.
Speaking of variant covers, that’s something else that’s getting increasingly disturbing to me. In the 90s, the comic book market was flooded, then abandoned and almost shattered by an influx of speculators, people who swarmed to buy thousands of copies of “hot” books like Youngblood #1 or Superman #75 in the hopes of filing them away for a few years and then using them to pay for their children’s college education. Eventually, though, it dawned on them that if thousands of people have millions of something, there will be no demand for it and the price will stagnate. Those Youngbloods were about as rare as Jefferson nickels. So the speculators left in the same droves that they arrived in.
That said, anything that feels like an effort to cater to the speculators is something that bothers me, and that’s what the new crop of variant covers feels like to me. I don’t mind a variant cover once in a while, for a really big issue that deserves it, but in recent months Marvel has been cranking them out at warp speed. Aside from the “Director’s Cut” issues, there have been variants on titles like Ultimate Fantastic Four #13 (not special except that it’s the first issue of a new story arc), Astonishing X-Men #4 (which was special in that it featured the surprise return of Colossus, but the variant cover featured him on it and ruined the ending of the book for anyone who hadn’t read it yet) and Ultimate Spider-Man #54 (which was special only because they recolored the “movie” Spider-Man in the issue and released it as the “Arachno-Man variant”).
Then there’s New Avengers. It’s a good title. It’s a solid seller. It’s a book that moves itself. So why is Marvel releasing each of the first six issues with at least one variant cover?
To promote their new artists, it would seem. Each of the artists doing a variant is part of what they’re calling their “Young Guns” program. While I don’t like variants in most cases, I can accept that they want to promote the new artists. But if that’s the case, to push these new talents to the forefront, why is it the variants will decrease in number with each of the six issues? Why is it going to be impossible for everyone who wants a complete set of the six variant covers to get them all, simply because there won’t be as many of #2 as there were of #1, or as many of #3 as there were of #2, and so on? Does that promote the artist, or does that simply drive up the value of the book on the back-issue market, which like the variant/hologram/foil cover craze of the 90s, is only driven by speculators, who never last and who deflate the market when they leave? And how many times can a speculator bubble burst before what remains is too small to sustain the artform?
Let me put it bluntly. What difference does it make how “hot” a new comic is right now if, 20 years from now, there’s nobody left buying comics at all?
I don’t mean to sound like I’m picking on Marvel – they’ve got some of the best characters and best talent in the business. And let’s be fair, DC does variant covers as well, but not nearly with the frequency that Marvel does, and when they do, those variants are usually a 50:50 ratio, meaning that neither cover will be worth more or harder to find than the other. The exceptions to this are when they put a variant cover on a second or third printing of a book. I don’t have a problem with that at all. Second or third printings simply ensure that everyone who wants a copy of a comic will be able to get one, and changing the cover, either by making it a black-and-white “sketch” cover or changing the artwork entirely, differentiates it from the first print. That way you know at a glance which printing of the comic you’re getting (compared to the old days where you had to search the tiny print on in the indica to find where it said “SECOND PRINT”) and if you’re the type who likes variant covers, hey, there’s a bonus for you. But even with a different cover, these second and third prints almost never appreciate in value the way a first print does, and therefore are of no use to the speculators, and don’t contribute to that dangerous bubble.
That brings me to another point – reprints. Some companies don’t do them at all. These companies, I think, are only hurting themselves. Granted, most of the time the books that sell out entirely wind up being collected in trade paperback form down the line, but that’s another thing entirely. Some people prefer the monthly books to paperbacks. Others may get used to waiting for the paperbacks and drop the magazines entirely, quashing the initial sales numbers, causing the books to fail and preventing the trade paperbacks from ever being printed.
If a book sells out and there’s enough demand for a second print, why not do it? It costs the same to print, it costs the same to the reader, and it puts that book in the hands of as many people who want it as possible. Which means that people who may have skipped issue #2 because they missed issue #1 now can come back, which translates to higher sales in the long run. Marvel is getting better on this point – they’ve been doing more reprints lately, and their “Must Haves” program (which collects three or four comics in a relatively inexpensive edition) is a really good thing. Getting those early issues in the hands of more people will translate into higher sales for future issues.
That brings us to something that Marvel does very well that other companies – DC in particular – could take note of. A while back, Marvel started prefacing almost every one of their comics with a “previously” page. It’s a quick introduction to the characters and a bit explaining how the story led up to the current point. It makes it easier for a reader to jump in on any issue and start to grasp what’s happening.
DC very rarely does this, and when they do, it’s usually because the writer works it into the comic book. The writers of Gotham Central are particularly clever about this, they usually start the issue with a one-page recap disguised as a news broadcast or a perp’s rap sheet, which just happens to give the reader everything he or she needs to know to get into the issue.
Then there are books like Lucifer, which leave new readers completely in the dark. This is one of the most dense, layered titles in DC’s Vertigo line, and has a very dedicated fan base. I think a rich, detailed, complex comic book is a great thing. But the problem with Lucifer is that it’s so detailed, so complex, that it’s almost impossible for a new reader to come in and start to enjoy the title. I’ve been reviewing the book in DC’s advance packs for about 16 issues now, and I’m still clueless half the time. Lucifer needs, at least, a previously page. Some fans of the title have told me that not every comic needs to be new-reader friendly. I’ve got to disagree. Let’s say your comic book starts the first issue with a readership of 50,000. Almost every comic takes a hit with issue #2, first of all. Then, naturally, a title loses readers to attrition – readers who grow bored or drop the title due to monetary concerns or just quit reading comics altogether. That readership will dwindle. And if there’s no place for new readers to join in, then the comic can’t grow, and eventually will dwindle to the point where it’s no longer economically feasible to keep producing it. Now writer Mike Carey has announced that the title will end relatively soon – with issue #75, I think – completing the story he set out to tell. Having that definite ending in sight will probably keep the fans on-board through to the finish line. But other titles without a clear-cut ending place and no way for new readers to join in won’t have that advantage.
So there you have it, friends. The biggest problems, in my opinion, facing comic books today, the things that are leading to the real crisis. And I don’t say this as a doomsayer. I’m not saying this to make anyone bail, I’m not saying this to quash all hope. I’m saying this because I love comic books, I love ‘em like oxygen, like water, like double-pepperoni and sausage pizza. And I want us all to look at these problems and fix them. Now. Before it’s too late.
I’ve offered some suggestions here. Some of them, for one reason or another, may not be possible. I’m no economist. But we have to start somewhere, and until some ideas are put forth, nothing will change. Like Scott McCloud said at the end of Understanding Comics, I’m not writing this to end the debate, I’m writing this to start one. Fans. Retailers. Creators. Publishers. All of us together need to be ready to talk about this, to shape the future, and to do what it takes to keep comic book around long enough for our children to hand them down to their children. Or even to throw them out while their children are at summer camp. That’s what parents tend to do, so I’m told.
So let’s talk about it. Now. All of us.
Let’s try to save comics together.
FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: March 16, 2005
My Uncle Todd threatened to disown me if I didn’t pick this as my “Favorite of the Week,” and while I refuse to bow to familial pressure, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Birds of Prey #80 was really, really good.
I almost gave the honor to Adventures of Superman #638, which was a surprisingly touching portrait of Lois and Clark’s relationship, but the conclusion of Birds of Prey simply blew all other comics from last week out of the water. There’s a major revelation in this issue, something I never saw coming but which makes perfect sense and drastically changes the way these characters will relate to each other for a long time to come. Gail Simone hit another home run this issue.