Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Comics Should Be Cheap

The worst thing comics ever did was to start taking themselves too seriously. They are a trash medium plain and simple. They were to be read for quick and easy entertainment (in the school yard, on a lunch break, between brain surgeries) and then pitched in the trash. The reason that some of the goldie oldies got to be worth so much is that some of them were actually good and people actually held on to them and kept them in good shape for several decades. It was this dismissal by society at large that allowed comics their creative power. When no one's paying attention you are free to do what you want, and comics have often tested the boundaries of thought, graphic innovation, and good taste.

Now I say this with nothing but love for the medium in my heart. It's my favorite art form hands down. But I have watched them slowly grow from subversive anonymity to pop culture prominence in my lifetime and how that has choked them creatively and commercially in the process. Where comic books were once available in every grocery store, newsstand, and grocery store in this country, they are now only available in a handful of specialty stores in cities of modest size or larger. I grew up in a rural area outside a small town in Middle America and managed to get my hands on comics on a regular basis. Were I a youngster in that same area today, I might not even know what a comic book was. And where comics were the playground of giants like Jack Kirby who wove grandiose, eye-popping, cosmic opera pop art masterpieces, so often these days we are given very grim and serious fare of superheroes so conflicted by inner turmoil that goes on for (and crosses over with) dozens of issues that it's hard to imagine it's fun for anyone to read except the most hardcore, long-time comic fans. Even the once-promising sons of the exploding indie movement have settled away to their own artistic endeavours (or been squeezed out by Diamond's tightening grip) and left a hole where the next generation of auteur titles should be.

But market availability and content both pale in comparison to the true enemy of the single issue comic - prices. While the dedicated fanbase doesn't seemed bothered with driving out of their way to comic shops to pay premium prices on their favorite titles, there are very few new people - potential fans - who will see the appeal or reward in this. And now that we are staring down price increases again in the face of skyrocketing costs from the worst financial crisis of our lifetimes, it will be interesting to see how many of the true believers will still be willing to spend their shrinking disposable incomes on the pamphlet adventures of their beloved super-characters. $3.99 folks! A dollar jump in some cases. That's a big reason why I earlier predicted here that we are at the breaking point for the traditional comic market and may see the unavoidable jump to digital downloads. The question that has been on my mind for some time now (and others) is why exactly do comics cost so damn much? I remember a time when I could a comic for less than the price of a can of Coca-Cola. Now sodas are in larger plastic bottles and a little over a dollar (or just a dollar if you are scouting for the best prices in certain vending machines) and comics are now staring down a FOUR dollar cover price. Sure the comic market is much smaller now due to the retreat into the direct market (albeit their own fault) and paper and print quality is much better (not entirely necessary though) and there's just general cost inflation over time, but how do the prices of yesteryear match up with today's exactly? Well thankfully Rich Johnston over at LITG has come up with a chart that compares just that...

(click for largerness)

So yeah. Wow. Somehow what should be a $1.09 has become three dollars and is about to make another big jump in this year of economic turmoil and tribulations. What is the justification for this? I would say that the creators are being paid better but I know that some writers have to maintain several books a month and often times the artists take commission work or jobs outside the industry to supplement their incomes. I have seen photo spreads of Joe Quesada and Steve Geppi's really, really, really nice homes and they seem to still be doing exceptionally well however. I'm not sure what's in store for the future of comics honeslty but sacrifices are definitely about to be made and I would recommend that anyone who likes the way business is being done these days to take a nice long sentimental look around.


Yedna said...

My goodness. This post is quite an eye opener. As a kid, I too picked up my first comics at grocery stores. Maybe it's because I've grown up with analog comic books, but, the experience of reading comics online just isn't the same for me. I'm guessing it's because the artist doesn't hold pencil to monitor. That, and that kind of ubiquitous availability cheapens the product. It's really sad to watch the availability of this medium disappear.

Charlie Wilkins said...

I don't think I could ever buy a comic just to watch it on a screen. I need something in my hands, I need that physical product. I like that I have to turn the page, I like the feel of the paper between my fingers, I like getting angry at the ill-placed ads (damn you, Marvel!) and I like plain reading these things. It seems a waste just to have them be downloads, cheap, nothing things that don't add anything to what comics *used* to be. I'm not a real collector, I don't buy two copies of everything, one to keep, one to read, but I do appreciate that these mean something to me, you know?