One Fan's Opinion: Issue #19

Thu, December 15th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

So-- I was thinking the other day-- about comics (again)...

"Action Comics" #80 from 1945. Just $.10!
In the '40s, it was pretty typical for each comic book to contain numerous stories of varying lengths. Often they were six to ten pages in length. Continued stories happened on occasion but that was an anomaly. Most stories were complete. Most comics had a variety of different features. Few characters started out with their own books. Superman debuted in "Action Comics," Batman debuted in "Detective Comics," Captain Marvel debuted in "Whiz Comics" and so on and when characters proved popular they were given a solo title in addition to the one which they shared with others, but even in their solo books there would be back up stories and one-page gag strips and text pieces (comics had to include two pages of text in order to be sent out as second class mail for subscriptions and such. In the early days, that meant text pieces. Years later, it meant Bullpen Bulletins and letters pages). For your dime, you got a lot of comic book goodness-- 64 pages of goodness, in fact.

As time went on, that changed. As paper prices soared, and with a war going on (accompanied by war shortages) comics lost a 16-page signature and became 48-pages in length. Later still, they dropped to 32 pages. And it didn't always make sense-- a book might go down to 32 pages for a while then pop up to 48 pages for a while. There was even a time when comics had just one staple (again, war shortages were to blame)!

The first continued story that I know of that was of any considerable length was the Monster Society of Evil, a 25-part serial that ran in "Captain Marvel Adventures." But each chapter was roughly eight pages long and each issue had several other stories, which were each complete, so even though you were getting a chapter of a long serial you were getting several complete stories as well.

Book-length stories were, for the most part, unheard of. Sure, there were tories in "All-Star Comics," but even that was a little deceptive because each issue was broken up into a string of mini-adventures drawn by different artists and featuring different characters. The book would start out with the full Justice Society, but successive chapters would have solo stories of Hawkman or Wonder Woman or Wildcat or whoever and then there would be a concluding chapter that featured the full team once more.

The first regular book-length comics, that I'm aware of, came around in the '60s with the Justice League and the arrival of Marvel Comics. By that point, there were more ads in the books and fewer "other" features. DC books continued to have one-page funnies for most of the '60s. Marvel didn't-- they had the required two-page text pieces and occasional pin-ups (later on, the text pieces gave way to letters pages and bullpen pages, remember? Just making sure you were paying attention). Stories at Marvel during the '60s started out at 25 pages, but by the end of the decade every book was sporting stories no longer than 20 pages.

They also started having continued stories on a semi-regular basis, although each chapter was a dense, satisfying read by itself.

During the '70s the page count continued to drop. There were a couple months where Marvel books had a split page-- two half-page sized pages, which made the books, technically, 19 story pages in length. At one point they decided to make all the books longer (both Marvel and DC) 48-pages in length (including ads). Marvel did that for one month only. DC had 48-page books for a few months, running 25-page lead stories and filling the remaining pages with reprints and ads.

DC ditched that format shortly thereafter. Marvel books were undercutting them and given the choice of spending 20 for an all-new 32-page Marvel book and 25 for a 48-page DC book with reprints in it-- I'd imagine too many fans chose the Marvel books.

Over time the page count decreased and ads filled their place. Books went from 20 pages to 19 pages to 18 pages. At one point Marvel's books were technically 18-pages long but two of those pages were actually drawn as a single page and they looked like hell (as a kid, I often referred to these pages as "cheapies" and I never understood why there seemed to be two pages that looked like crap in every Marvel book. It wasn't until I saw some original art from these comics, years later that my growing suspicions were confirmed). Shortly after trying that bold experiment, Marvel books went to 17-pages and DC was right there with them.

As a reader that was a lot of ads to swallow. Out of 32-pages, 17 were story, one was devoted to letters, one to a bullpen type page and the rest were devoted to advertising. But the ads were clumped together in spreads. You could easily flip past them because few ad pages faced story pages.

And creators made it work. That period of time gave us Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin on the "X-Men," Frank Miller & Klaus Janson started drawing "Daredevil" and a large number of books were awesome. Creators worked within the existing parameters and it worked well. A good number of comics had stories, which were self-contained. Hell, Wolverine was introduced during that time period and Byrne was the most popular artist in comics--drawing "Avengers," "X-Men" and the "Fantastic Four." Jack Kirby was on "Captain America," the "Eternals" and "Black Panther" and life was good. The stories themselves had a lot of story in them. Despite their length, those were satisfying reads!

"Whiz Comics" #152 from 1953. Still just $.10 cents!
Comics ballooned in price and page count in 1980 going from 40 to 50 (the first 10 bump in the history of comics) and from 17 pages of story to 22 pages. I wasn't in comics yet (as a pro) so I can't say for sure what the thought process was in making this jump. It seemed as though they decided to do more pages in order to justify the larger price increase. I'd imagine that increasing the price to 45 and keeping the page count at 17 pages of story was considered, but that they opted to go for the full dime and give readers more material. Writing shorter stories can be difficult. Especially superhero comics where subplots are often abundant and the creators need to introduce a situation and get characters into and out of a conflict. More pages meant more flexibility. As I recall, DC initially jumped to 25 pages of art while Marvel jumped to 22. DC gradually cut back and both stuck at 22 where they have remained to this day.

At that time comics cost about the same as two candy bars-- which was pretty much the case since their introduction. These days, comics cost about $3 and candy bars cost nowhere near $1.50. We've managed to outpace inflation, it seems.

Now, granted, the production values have never been higher-- the paper, the color, the printing on everything, across the board, is vastly superior, but I wonder how much of that is for the audience and how much of that is for our own benefit? Do fans demand better color? Better printing? If comics could cost $1.50 instead of $3.00, would fans seek out the books printed on toilet paper that looked like ass?

Hard to say.

Readers tend to buy the books they want to buy regardless of price. The few times that rolling back prices was tried, it was a dismal failure. Marvel did 99 books a while ago and readers didn't flock to them in droves. If there's a choice of a book that looks good and one that looks bad, readers will choose the one that looks good.

At Image, we have no paid ads (or mostly none-- every now and then somebody strikes a deal, but that's more the exception than the rule). My book, "Savage Dragon," is almost always pure content from cover to cover. In most cases, creators have opted to dump whatever ads they run (generally house ads) in the back of their books. They execute a standard 22-page yarn and follow it up with a letters page, a pin up or two and a big fat ad farm that runs until the end of their book. We've had books running as many as ten ads following the story (and, oddly enough, we've gotten complaints from readers about the quantity of ads, which have appeared in our books-- even though it's the same number that were running in books from other publishers).

Marvel and DC can't do that. Theirs are paid ads and those paying for them want their ads noticed not ignored. And advertisers know that ads clustered in the back of a book or grouped in two-page spreads can be easily skipped and aren't going to get them the bang they're after. By placing single-page ads next to story pages they are assured that you will see these ads.

And yes, it is annoying as all hell, especially when the publishers are expanding their books from 32 to 48 pages and adding 16 additional pages that are nothing but ads. With books so packed with ads and no additional editorial material of any sort, is it any wonder why so many readers these days are waiting for trades?

At this point Marvel and DC books have more advertising pages than story pages and, unlike the '70s, those ads can't be avoided. Not only that, but the ads are far more in your face. Who can overlook a giant photo of a head with stitches in its lips or those god-awful "Tobacco is wacko (if you're a teen)" ads? It's nearly impossible.

But, what can be done? The revenue these ads generate help make the books profitable and it's not as though anything's setting the world on fire these days. These books need everything they can get-- be it readers or ad revenue!

The thing is, with the advent of trade paperbacks collecting story arcs and "decompressed storytelling," readers are getting less and less actual story per issue. Sure, there are a lot of panels with reaction shots and a lot of ping pong dialogue where characters debate minutia and advance the narrative nary a hitch, but fewer events actually occur in a given 22-page installment. The stories need to be padded so that they make a nice fat collection. The more pages, the thicker the spine and the easier it is to see it on a bookshelf. So, even though readers are getting 22 pages in a comic book, they're often less satisfying, as a read, than the 17 page story from the mid-'70s. Readers are getting story fragments instead of stories.

If you asked a writer in 1940 how many pages it took to tell a story he'd likely say six to ten. And each comic book would contain several stories in it. In the '50s stories were typically shorter than that as publishers tried to give readers the illusion that the 32-page comics had as much content as the 64-page books of old. Often comics would have four stories per issue plus several one-page humor strips. Ads were nearly non-existent. In the '60s the answer would be 20 pages, in the '70s 17 pages, in the '80s it would be 22. And today, at least six issues or 132 pages seems to be the norm!

1980's "Daredevil" #165, coming in with a $.40 price tag.
Try to have a modern writer write a six-page story. It's almost impossible for them to wrap their brains around the concept and the end product is severely lacking. I bought a recent anthology from a "major" publisher. Most of the stories made no sense, went nowhere and were, essentially, to be continued.

What the hell was that?

There are still a few guys out there that can pull that kind of story off, I'll grant you, but it seems to be a dying art.

So how many pages does it take to tell a story? There's no one answer to that question because all stories are not the same. Some are a lot more complex than others. A roughly 17 to 22-page chunk seems to be one that writers and artists have been able to work with pretty well for the last 40 years or so. Bumping it up any higher would cause a lot of deadline problems for most artists.

Comics in other countries are often serialized in smaller chunks and collected later. Comics in Japan are broken up into 20-page chunks and those contain considerably less information than our comics do (although each weekly book features 20 or more fragments of different serialized stories for about $2 a copy so readers don't have a lot to bitch about).

I'm not sure where all this is headed. Certainly the current 32 to 48-page comics stuffed to the gills with garish ads vying for our attention are no longer of much reading value. I'd suggest reading more, fine Image comics at this point, but I'd be accused of being a company shill and lord knows I don't need that kind of grief. Still, I do think that more people at Image are thinking of the 32-page book as being a worthwhile format. As a reader whose dad bought comics and was exposed to comics that span nearly the entire period of published periodicals pertaining to pictorial literature, I've gained an appreciation for the format and I encourage others to do the same.

Each issue is somebody's first issue and could be their last issue. All of us should do what we can to make sure that every reader who's plunked down their money to peruse these periodicals gets their money's worth. If we don't, the periodical is doomed.

And I, for one, think that would be a damned shame.

But that's just one fan's opinion. You may feel otherwise.

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