Today is the third and final installment in my EBI mini-series where I crunch a few numbers and try to determine the “real” issue count of some classic comics. Some of the answers are a little surprising…
But going back to a classic EBI, on Sept. 22, 2004, I took a long took at a subject of major importance: comic book prices. Boy, it’s a good thing we never talk about that anymore, isn’t it?
Everything But Imaginary #81: The Price Point
When I started reading comics in the mid-80s, they cost 60 cents a pop. Now to some of you, I know, that makes me sound like an old fogey. You got in during the $1.50 or $1.75 days. To others, it makes me sound like a whippersnapper. Why, back in your day comics were only 50 cents, or 35, or a quarter. If there is anyone on this site who remembers picking up a 10-cent comic on a regular basis, let me know.
Comics soon shifted to 75 cents on me. Nobody likes seeing prices go up, but at least, I thought, this was a nice round number. I could get two comics for a buck fifty. Four for three dollars. That’s not bad.
As the years went by, of course, prices crept higher. $1. $1.25. $1.50. I cringed at $1.75. I went apoplectic at $1.95. Now, sadly, I miss those days. Flip through the prices next time you get your comics. You’ll have some $2.25s if you’re lucky. Plenty of $2.50s, no doubt. Mostly, you’ll find $2.95 and $2.99 staring you in the face.
Prices go up, I know that. But can you name any other product that has exhibited a 500 percent increase in the last 20 years? And for that matter, what about salaries? Are you (or your parents) making 500 times what you made in 1984? It’s so weird — paper products are skyrocketing in cost while technology prices, relatively, go down. Once it cost you a fortune to buy a calculator, now they give them away free in cereal boxes. Which is lucky, because you’ll need a calculator to figure out what you’re spending on comics this week.
There are plenty of reasons given for a price increase, of course. My favorite is low sales. You bump the price to fund a comic that’s not selling in bulk. Okay, on paper that makes sense, but it really irks me when the price jumps like this for a project that the publisher has done nothing to promote. One of the best comics on the racks, Fantastic Four, jumped from $2.25 to $2.99 a month ago, without even that cherished sojourn at $2.50. So I ask you, Marvel Comics, why? This title has one of the best writers in comics, one of the best art teams, some of the best stories for the last few years, some of the best characters for the last few decades, and the book hasn’t been this good since John Byrne was on it — coincidentally, back in the mid-80s, just when I started reading it. Say what you will about Spider-Man or the X-Men — Fantastic Four is the heart of Marvel Comics.
Yet the price jumps 74 cents with little fanfare. Not that I expect them to roll out the red carpet and say, “Hey, we’re jacking up the price!,” but it would have been nice to see them make an effort to sell the title for a while before resorting to a price increase. This is, pardon the pun, a fantastic comic book. If you can’t sell it, a pox on you, not on Mssr.s Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo. This title’s got it where it counts.
Another factor is often the format. Glossy covers, cardstock covers, glossy paper – sound and fury signifying nothing. If it keeps the price down, I’d much rather have a regular cover and regular newsprint… y’know, they way they’ve been printing comics since the 1920s without anybody freaking out over it. Frankly, I hate glossy paper. I live in Southern Louisiana, where standard humidity is approximately 972 percent for almost the entire year. (For some reason, February 3 is usually rather dry.) When it’s this humid, glossy paper sticks to your fingers and the ink smudges. It’s hard enough trying to touch the cover of a comic book, knowing it’ll have a thumbprint if I’m in contact with it for too long. Imagine that on every page.
The book that spurred me to this debate this week, to be honest, was G.I. Joe vs. the TransFormers II from Devil’s Due. I got the first crossover last year, enjoyed it — even reviewed it for this very site. And even at $2.95 an issue, I intended to pick up the sequel. But the first issue wasn’t $2.95. It was $4.95.
And I don’t care how many extra pages or “special features” you cram into a comic book, that ain’t the way to start a miniseries.
This is the main reason — in fact, the only reason, that I do not purchase any comic books from IDW Publishing. I love Steve Niles’s writing. I think he’s doing some of the best horror stories in comics. 30 Days of Night was fantastic. Dark Days was terriffic.
But a regular comic from IDW carries around that hefty $3.99 cover price. And that’s simply more than I’m going to pay. I’ll wait for the trade paperback. Which is all well and good in and of itself — I love trade paperbacks, they’re a great way to read comics. But if everyone decides to wait for the trade paperback, the series won’t sell enough copies to warrant collecting it in a trade paperback, will get canceled, and will fade into obscurity. There are a lot of real gems that could be lost this way.
Kid’s comics drive me the craziest when it comes to this. It’s bad enough for adults and teenagers, who theoretically have a bit of disposable income, but pricing comics out of a child’s range is a disaster. Marvel and DC, to their credit, do price their kids’ comics in the lowest price tier — $2.25 for Marvel Age Spider-Man, Cartoon Network Block Party, Teen Titans Go! and other such titles. Archie, last I checked, was priced at a seemingly arbitrary $2.19. The point is, it’s at the lower end.
But is it low enough to get new readers?
Let’s say you’re eight years old. You get an allowance of $5 a week. You have enough money to either buy two comics books — which you will have read a half-hour after you get home — or to rent a video game, which you’ll get to play for three days before you’ve got to return it.
There’s some math I think most of us can do even without a calculator.
The worst, absolute worst offender on a regular basis is Gemstone Comics, and what makes it the worst is that they’re the best. Gemstone has the license to publish comics based on the classic Disney characters — Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and the like. Donald and Mickey each have a monthly comic with a $2.95 price point — steep for a kid, but at least in the range of normality.
But some of the best comics Gemstone publishes, classic Carl Barks stories, new Don Rosa stories, fantastic stuff by William Van Horn and Pat and Shelly Block, go into Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, two series that are published in 64-page “prestige format” collections each month, with a monolithic $6.95 price tag. That’s seven bucks for an Uncle Scrooge comic, friends. Gemstone, in fairness, is following the lead of the previous license-holder, Gladstone Comics, which began the practice of aiming these two old, cherished titles at the Disney “collector.”
You know what? Chop each of those issues in half. Put them in a regular format. Give them a price that kids can afford and you will help to spawn the next generation of comic book fans. The collectors will buy the books anyway.
And it’s not just the reader who gets hurt by high prices. It’s the retailer too. A few weeks ago two of my best friends, two guys who have read comics as long as I have, two guys who will actually argue until they run out of breath that they know more obscure comic book trivia than I do, announced to me that they were giving up comic shops and ordering their comics from an online retailer, because the comics online are cheaper.
And you know what? I can’t blame ‘em.
I have no problem with online stores. I shop them frequently, whenever I miss an issue off the rack or I’m looking for a trade paperback I can’t find anywhere. But websites can’t draw in new customers like a brick-and-mortar store can. (And brick-and-mortar stores could be doing a lot more to get new customers than they are now, but that’s another column.) And browsing the listings on a website just can’t compare to walking past the racks, hoping to spot that elusive issue of JSA from the corner of your eye.
I’m not an economist. I don’t know what can be done to lower prices. But I do know that if something isn’t done, we’re going to keep losing readers to TV, to movies, to video games, to attrition, and we won’t get the new ones to keep this art form alive. These prices are the enemy, guys. And they may be a foe not even the Fantastic Four could beat.
FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: September 15, 2004
Those two buddies I mentioned may lynch me for this, because I know they haven’t enjoyed Greg Rucka’s run on this title, but Adventures of Superman #632 was his best issue yet, and walks away with favorite of the week. Now the main problem my pals seem to have is that Rucka, in their viewpoint, is focusing too much on the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit and not enough on big blue himself. That’s a valid argument, and I don’t even disagree with it, I just happen to like what’s being done with the SCU. That said, this is hardly the case here. Lois Lane, embedded in the middle east, has been shot, and Superman is racing faster than a speeding bullet to save her… but sometimes even a man of steel can be too late. This is a great issue, a gut-wrenching issue. You can see the pain and agony in Superman’s face as his wife fights to survive and he, for once in his life, is rendered helpless to do anything. This is real heart, real emotion, real Clark Kent — and the current writer of Action Comics could stand to take lessons from this issue as to how Superman should be written. The last page is one of the most powerful I’ve seen in a core Superman comic for a long time. This one’s a winner.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast and the weekly audio fiction podcast Blake M. Petit’s Evercast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page, and check out his new experiment in serial fiction at Tales of the Curtain.