Courtesy of an acquaintance of mine who draws the rather awesome all-ages comic Reed Gunther (plug, plug), I was led to the following article charting the increase in comic book prices from 1938 to 2011:
What was interesting to me here was that I had always assumed the prices of comic books were simply a natural result of inflation, the same way the vending machine at my office wants $1.25 for a Snickers Bar that 25 years ago would have cost me 35 cents. We’re having to spend more money, but we’re also making more money, so it all evens out, right?
Apparently not so much. I don’t know about the snack food industry, but the article basically is showing how much the purchase of a single comic book in today’s economy impacts the earnings of people at the minimum wage level, versus how much of an investment it was in times past.
Now you can argue that this factor or that factor isn’t being considered, but no one denies that the comic industry has been struggling at least since the collapse of the market in the mid-1990s. The charts may make your head swim, but the beginning quote from DC Comics EIC Dan Didio is telling:
“The truth is people are leaving anyway, they’re just doing it quietly, and we have been papering it over with increased prices…We didn’t want to wake up one day and find we had a bunch of $20 books that 10,000 people are buying.”
The problem, of course, is that raising prices even in small steps on a luxury item is something that eventually has adult collectors deciding they can’t afford to keep doing it (or at least scaling back), and, perhaps more importantly, is preventing new readers from giving comics a chance.
Would your average kid from a poor immigrant family be willing to shell out for Spider-Man if the monthly issue’s price point was less than a dollar? Well, I could draw some parallels there to other immigrant families with not-so-great English skills and meager income, like those scraping their way through the Great Depression to produce folks like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. To be fair, both were already working in the comics industry in some form by the time Action Comics #1 hit the stands, but there were a heck of a lot of people who bought that magazine.
And a heck of a lot of people who lost it later, or threw it away, or the neighborhood dog got to it, which is one of the reasons it goes for so much money now compared to the 10 cents of its publication. Again, we’re talking 10 cents of 1938 money, but comics remained pretty darn easy on the wallet all the way up through the 1980s, despite everything else rising. I remember clearly that I could buy an issue of Uncanny X-men for close to the same price as a candy bar. Now your average comic at your friendly local shop is $2.99, significantly more expensive than even that $1.25 vending machine. I know it’s perhaps spurious to be drawing macro-economical conclusions from personal experience, but buying decisions aren’t made by your average person from a macro-economic perspective: they’re made from the perspective of monthly budgets, or on the younger end, perhaps monthly allowances or whatever a kid can get from mowing lawns and the like. An eight year old kid isn’t going to have my perspective of the decades that the decision of ‘candy bar’ vs. ‘comic’ is no longer one of roughly equal in price luxuries, but a kid is certainly going to have a perspective coming from only having a few dollars in their pocket for a whole week.
Hell, I grew up in what I would certainly consider a middle class environment, but if comics were priced the way they are nowadays, even proportionately to the time, I probably would only have been reading them for as long as it took for the elderly proprietors of Another World Comics to wake up from their frequent naps and shoo me away.
Backtrack to the 1950s, well before my lifetime, and a rolled-up comic in a kid’s back pocket was a pretty common image. You bought one at the drugstore, not instead of the candy but in addition to it, and then got it nice and sticky as you read. Imagery lurid enough to give a modern collector heart attacks, but it shows a kind of love, the kind only possible for something that made the tiniest of dents in your childhood funds. It also led to an availability and popularity so broad that the adults eventually felt they had to crack down on comics the way they now feel obliged to with video games.
Even then, the Seduction of the Innocent hysteria and subsequent straitjacket of the Comics Code Authority didn’t kill comics, and many a famous creator of the modern age still remembers picking up their first Fantastic Four at a corner store (still 10 cents in 1961!).
I’d say it might be the mid-90s that hurt the industry the most, as the speculation frenzy (and all its holo-foil variant trappings) drove prices up, with people suddenly willing to pay well over a dollar for an issue which would surely, surely (don’t call me Shirley) become a collector’s item worth many times that down the road. That all collapsed, but the prices didn’t. The prices, as DiDio admits, keep creeping upwards as fewer and fewer units can be counted on being sold, and the high water mark of almost half a million Spider-Man subscribers in the 90s becomes the profit baseline that stockholders and parent companies of the Big Two demand. Keeping that same profit level with 1/5th the audience? Yeah, that’s gonna be rough. Do comics really need to be priced at $2.99 to keep Marvel and DC (and Image, and Dark Horse, etc. etc.) from going under? I know from a small self-publishing standpoint, selling print issues of our comic at even $2.99 would be a loss, but price-per-page drops rapidly once you’re ordering thousands of copies at a time. Of course then there’s still distribution and marketing and salaries, and I don’t know enough about the ranges for all that to even pretend that my mythical $1 or $1.25, 32-page comic book would be a feasible business model for a big company.
I’m talking across the board, not just promotional issues — the rule rather than the exception. Maybe it’s just not possible anymore, for whatever reason, to get a comic back down around the price of a candy bar, but it’s sure leaving a lot of back pockets empty. It’s especially sad to contemplate for a comic like Reed Gunther which I think could find a great audience with kids, but unlike the Scrooge McDuck comics of yore can’t be found on a common magazine rack while mom or dad does their shopping, and even if it was, it’s not at that magical “Fine, I’ll buy it if it’ll stop you from whining” price point that helped so many of us young’uns get our fix back in the day.
DC is gambling on their reboot to attract a new generation of readers, but even the most compelling story is going to end up gathering dust on the shelf if no one picks it up, and at $3 a pop in the midst of a recession, who’s going to take that leap? I guess another argument is that there’s just too many entertainment alternatives out there for comics to compete with, but hell, they competed just fine against television, and that was free.
For a good portion of the 20th century, comics were something it seemed like everyone could afford, and find wherever they went. Then it all gravitated to specialty shops and the prices got higher and higher, and… well, I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say it’s gotten elitist, a “mass media” that no longer is in reach of the masses. There was a small renaissance when bookstores started carrying trade paperbacks, but the bookstores are now dying the same way the newsstands did, and besides that we’re again talking items that generally retail for $15 to $20 apiece.
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe the math or the conclusions are wrong… god knows “voodoo economics” often seems like a redundant phrase to me. But I really just didn’t think about how bad it’s gotten until I considered the price of a candy bar. There’s no question people still respond to superheroes and love them, but the birthplace medium of Superman and Spider-Man has become something much less accessible than the movies based on them. The back pockets are empty, especially in the case of kids who also can’t afford an iPhone to stuff them. Comics could be something to fill that gap, giving a lot of entertainment for a little pocket money, the way they did in the old days. Passed around, candy-stained, dog-eared (dog chewed?)… enjoyed. Stories made up of images that even someone who isn’t a native English speaker can still enjoy and follow. That’s the sort of niche that comics had once, but have since lost.
At this point, I don’t know if it’ll ever come back.