In a recent Cup'O'Joe column, Joe Quesada raised the specter of another price rise for comics, and sent a few out there into something of a tizzy. And rightfully so; no one wants to spend more on something they're already getting.
On the other hand, why wouldn't anyone be expecting it?
My CBR colleague Rich Johnston was kind enough to prepare a chart this week comparing the rate of price hikes for comics to the rate of inflation over the last 31 years, and comics prices outpace inflation about 3:1, with Rich concluding a standard comic book should currently cost about $1.10 rather than $2.99. But this is deceptive. Rate of inflation is an average, but the comics industry has peculiar circumstances. Like all print media – show me one that isn't suffering at the moment – comics have specific requirements. Notably paper.
The cost of paper rose dramatically in the '70s, causing publishers of the day to steadily raise prices at a rate unheard of in the business (where 10¢ was the going price for decades; a more accurate chart wouldn't compare prices to inflation starting in 1977, but in 1934) and, when combined with the collapse of the newsstand market and severe circulation declines, to seriously discuss discontinuing publication altogether. And this was while they were still paying talent pitiful rates. (Until the early '80s, talent pay scales in comics rose even slower than the cost of the books.) With demand way down – which paved the way for the fan-centric (specifically the superhero fan-centric) direct market – the choice was to either pack it in or raise prices.
Because the '70s also brought big changes to economic theory, thanks mostly to American automobile manufacturers, specialists in Big Cars. In what we now laughingly call "The Energy Crisis" (where oil soared to the astronomical price of $30 per barrel – today they're panicking about the possibility of it dropping to $30 per – and ~78¢ per gallon) Americans abandoned big Fords and Pontiacs in droves for little Hondas and Toyotas. How times have changed, huh? Homegrown carmakers and dealers suddenly found themselves loaded down with lots of new cars nobody wanted to buy. Traditional supply and demand capitalism operates on the theory that if there's no demand for your product, you bring the price down until it's low enough to generate a demand. (If you bring the price down and there's still no demand, it means it's time to look for a new line of work.) As demand outstrips supply, prices rise as a factor of scarcity; the rarer a desired item is, the more you can charge for it.
Which is great if you're controlling all the factors involved besides supply and demand, but when you start factoring in costs of business, etc., you're quickly doing a tightrope walk. When you're paying numerous salaries, the price of the steel you require is spiraling upward, and you're staring down the business end of bad business decisions and an inability to adapt to changing times?
If you're the auto industry, you raise prices, and the principle becomes: the fewer people that want your product, the more you jack up the cost, so your bottom line remains more of less the same in any case. If only one in three of your cars is likely to sell, charge three times as much for it. In theory. What, you've got competition from foreign carmakers selling a superior, cheaper to run product for a fraction of the price? Invoke nostalgia and sexy images and wave the flag. ("Muscle cars are what made America great, don't trade your birthright of raw power for that girly economy stuff, and hot chicks dig hot cars, man!") And, as it turned out, watch your business go down the toilet, learn to love government subsidies, and whatever you do, whatever you do, don't make any significant adjustments to your business plan or product no matter how much of your market falls away, because if you can just hold out long enough, the pendulum will swing back your way.
Which is also how the comics industry has generally played it. The difference between the auto industry and the comics industry is that, at least in modern America, people need cars, so it's a matter of who's going to sell one to them, though "staying the course" can (and did) mean letting new competitors get a grip on the market. But, unless they live in one of the rare parts of the country with superb public transportation, even if they lovingly nurse their current car along, sooner or later people have to replace their cars. Comics don't have that luxury.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned the lovely myth that comics do well in recessionary times. Joe brings it up in his article as well. It's based mainly on comics becoming a hot entertainment choice in the Depression, when they were ten cents a pop. So were matinee movies, which also cost ten cents. I went to a matinee a couple of weeks ago, it cost $8 (here; I have no idea what matinees now cost in New York and Los Angeles) and the theater was mostly empty. But the post-war also saw a decline in America's economic fortunes, as the war stimulus was no longer there (though the Cold War was gearing up to take its place) and a flood of potential workers back into the workforce jacked up unemployment rates, new pressure on supplies jumped inflation, etc. Comics sales at the time? Down. The '70s were an era of economic deflation, and comics sales plummeted at the time. Doubtless correlations could be drawn between rising comics sales and a suffering general economy, but it's like when your daily horoscope in the newspaper accurately predicts you'll get unexpected money in the mail. It doesn't mean there's anything to astrology, it just means (in the words of the great Gorilla Monsoon) even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
If anyone's pinning their hopes on the current economic crisis raising comics' fortunes, they're in for an awfully rough time.
I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: in the early '90s – one of the other times the economy was in doldrums but comics sales were rising, for various reasons, not the least of which was the stupidity of people taking their money out of "unsafe" financial instruments like banks and investing in "sure-fire" collectibles like comics and baseball cards that would just increase and increase and increase in value forever – Dark Horse Comics introduced their "Comics Greatest World" line, and hired me to write X. Which sold pretty well. For seven issues. The eighth issue was expected to be a hot seller, since it featured the hot chick character Ghost in an era when hot chicks on covers sold comics (the story had originally been done as a two parter, set in X's city and involving X plot threads) for a comic Dark Horse cancelled before the serial saw publication, then massaged into a single issue of X) and was sleekly drawn by Matt Haley in a "good girl" art style. By all reckoning it should have done gangbusters, given the market conditions of the day.
Orders were substantially lower than for earlier issues, and sales never got better afterward.
I got a call from the editor after the sales figures came in, and he was baffled. He ran through the list of all the positives on the issue, and couldn't figure out where they went wrong. On paper, it looked like a runaway hit. I thought about it a minute and said, "Um... that's the issue where the price jumped from $1.99 to $2.50, right?"
He said, "You think that had something to do with it?!"
I don't think it had everything to do with it, but I think it had a lot.
People don't need comics. Much as all of us would love it otherwise, they don't. Every time prices rise on the standard 32 page comics package, two things happen: much of the audience makes new decisions about which series they'll stick with and which they'll abandon, and much of the audience stops buying comics altogether.
I'm not going to say the 32 page package is dead. It isn't. For many, it's the comics equivalent of comfort food since it's so familiar, for publishers it's still a much more economical package than graphic novels or anthology magazines and minimizes, to the extent these things can be minimized these days, the financial risks of publishing comics. Some smaller publishers have even figured out how to make quite a bit of money selling very few comics, but that often depends on keeping staff costs down and applying what's now popularly called "alternative revenue streams." (When a publisher I work with pushed a $15 graphic novel at San Diego this year by offering a free t-shirt with each purchase, the much greater interest in the t-shirt, and a subsequent chat with Bob Chapman, whose Graphitti Designs kills on t-shirts every year, convinced me the publisher had the wrong business plan. He should've sold the t-shirts for $15 and given away a free graphic novel with each purchase. He'd likely have quadrupled his sales.)
And there's a certain portion of the comics audience that loves the 32 page format and grows very grumpy should anyone suggest it has outlived its usefulness. But even they fall away, little by little, as prices rise. Almost no one has bottomless pockets. Everyone makes decisions on whether they're getting enough value for their money, or time, even when they're emotionally attached. Comics publishers, at least since the direct market was concocted, have depended mightily on readers forming emotional attachments to the material, or, in the vernacular, fans. Except there hasn't been a strong, focused fandom for comics in years.
Even where they still exist, every time prices rise, even those slip away, little by little. When that happens, publishers are left with a harder core of fans, but a smaller core. As with cars, theoretically the higher price equalizes the overall profit picture as the number of customers declines, but at some point you reach a point of no return, where the number of customers is simply not enough to provide the required financial support. People may always have to buy another car sooner or later, but, as a general rule the world of comics is flat: when people leave comics they never come back.
But comics are cyclical in their way, even in 32 page form. They have one great hope: every so often some content appears that galvanizes new public interest in comics, drawing new readers back in. That's where the cycle starts again, but, as prices have risen, increasingly it's interest focused on a specific product, not the medium. In those cases the challenge is to galvanize interest from the specific to the general, and it's a challenge publishers are rarely up to. (Even in the '60s, when Spider-Man was drawing huge attention to Marvel, few of Marvel's other books came anywhere close to that sales level of interest.)
The fact is that, except for a faithful few, the 32 page package is simply not perceived as value-for-money anymore, and the higher the price goes the less it's perceived that way. Sure, smaller publishers already sell that package for $3.99, but what numbers are they selling? It's a specialty item for a specialty market, like Hummel figurines, and the question isn't whether publishers will raise the price but when. Marvel, given its better visibility and better known name brand, stands a better chance of weathering any sales hit from raised prices than DC, where some very uncomfortable and unpopular cancelations would almost certainly occur, and of rebuilding its audience to some extent. The question for the market is whether Marvel raising its prices to match IDW's would make IDW more competitive with Marvel (or give companies like Dynamite and Dark Horse a leg up if they didn't similarly raise prices) or whether it would just be more of the limited cash pool in the industry flowing Marvel's way? Traditionally the latter has tended to be the case, but price hikes are filled with booby traps. How loyal is the Marvel audience now, and at what price point do they decide they're simply no longer getting their money's worth? And if they decide that, do they move laterally to other publishers and other comics, or do they move on?
Sure, you can say, "Comics might be more expensive now, but compare them in value to other entertainment options." You can say that, but I'm not who you'd have to convince. It's not like comics are the only media business in these straits. Newspapers, even the major papers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, are in severe decline, and the record industry is a nightmare of lost profits and collapsed sales. Network TV viewing is down another six-some-odd percent this year. And all of these cling faithfully to the past. That may be a clue right there, maybe not. Only movies seem somewhat resistant, but they've taken to marketing themselves as an experience, and looking to those "alternative revenue streams" – DVDs and pay-per-view, among them – to firm up the bottom line. They have adapted to the world, culture and technology around them, and stayed at least relatively healthy.
Adaptability has never been our industry's strong suit; it's too enamored with the concept of the illusion of change, and its faithful too enamored of no change at all. But the faithful aren't enough.
"Your list was so fantastic and thorough that I wouldn't even try to compete with it. The only point I'd quibble on is the last one. As you said, choosing a manga to fill this role is a tough one. SHONEN JUMP seems to me to be a bit of an iffy choice... it may be the most successful anthology, but it wasn't the first successful one: before Tokyopop was Tokyopop, they published the anthology MIXXZINE. The title had supermarket penetration, as well as the first American appearance of the Sailor Moon manga. One could argue that MIXXZINE was more significant in that way, by blowing open the door for shojo manga, the first time comics had been successfully marketed toward teenage girls in decades. I think that seems more in line with the rest of your list as far as "changing the business or the perception of it."
A couple other notes: you mentioned NAUSICAA, but it's worth mentioning that it wasn't actually Viz's first series. A full year earlier, they simultaneously released MAI THE PSYCHIC GIRL, AREA 88 and THE LEGEND OF KAMUI through an agreement with Eclipse (similar to Image's early deal with Malibu). All great titles, though none of them made that big of a splash...after all, only one of the three (MAI) is still in print. And Marvel did eventually finish the full-color AKIRA run (the last 5 issues, #34-38, shipped after a year or two break).
I'm curious to know what you'd think of this nomination for the #20 spot: RANMA 1/2 Part 12 #1, the final regular issue of that series, and the one that announced that Viz was abandoning the 32-page monthly comic format entirely for the now standard $10, ~200 page trade. That one book marked both the death of manga in the floppy format (only Dark Horse continued to publish that way, and then only two titles) and the declaration that manga had more or less forsaken the DM for the bookstore market."
I see the wisdom in all your arguments, though for the moment I'm sticking with SHONEN JUMP, since that was what really made manga a household word in America, not that it didn't have plenty of help from everything that preceded it. But I gave serious consideration to RANMA, since that was the series that kept Viz in business, though I hadn't considered #12 specifically. The first volume of the trade-only Viz was my other choice for the slot, and maybe a better one, but I couldn't find out what volume that was.
"I'd include DAREDEVIL #168 (Frank Miller's first solo scripting on his run in the title) as one of the more significant comics in the modern era. The way Miller added characters and elements to Daredevil's past and interpreted the character in the context of the book's history seemed unusual for its time. I also wonder if his work on the title and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS a few years later was a precursor to the downbeat and jaded tone that is so prevalent in contemporary mainstream comics.
If you were making a top 30 list of significant comics would you include STAR*REACH? That comic seemed like a groundbreaking model for the independent publishers of the 80's, with early work by Chaykin and Sim too."
Probably. I might include DD #181 there too, though I'd actually be more inclined to include, #191, the final issue of Frank's first run, since that was the real break with "the Marvel style." But, you know, all these rationales are fluid...
"I think with your skirting the obvious, and more recognized milestones such as WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS in favor of AMERICAN FLAGG!, you kinda end up a bit short with inadequate transitivity. Simply put, Howard Chaykin's work may have shaped the creation of WATCHMEN and/or DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, it doesn't mean it's what molded the entire comics business.
WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS are, of course, the ones that kick-started the spread of mature storytelling across the superhero mainstream; improving the medium's mileage; so their place in history is pretty much clear.
Just because this piece of work may have had a particular impact to the author, it does not necessarily it having the same level of impact to the readership or the trends; much less be as significant. It's peculiar edge may have been a spark, but it was still Alan Moore who presumably took all its' values and harnessed these into shifting the tide, and with the phenomenal magnum-opus he did. He could have read practically anything out there; if he still makes a WATCHMEN out of those, they will all have been beside the point.
It's like saying the Pixies made grunge explode onto the mainstream, and not NIRVANA, because they inspired Kurt Cobain. That would be a false argument.
Same with THE AUTHORITY, which got nary a mention there. Grant Morrison's JLA may have established the ' widescreen ' style, but it was Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch ( along with Laura Depuy ) who honed it, and whipped it up into quite a game-changing phenomenon for comic storytelling and dominant trends toward the next millenium. Both that and the Ultimate line are the real defining comic works of much of this era - aesthetically, approach and sensibility-wise - especially in making pro-active, heightened socio-political engagement and repeated revisionisms fixtures since.
Which all goes back to WATCHMEN.
If we are to conveniently overlook DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN's significance with that logic, then might as well scratch AMAZING SPIDER-MAN off the lists. It wouldn't have been there if it weren't for SUPERMAN, anyway. And SUPERMAN would not have been there if it weren't for pulp fiction, etc."
Again, you make good points, but SUPERMAN, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and AMERICAN FLAGG! all stand out as demarcation points – sea changes - in American comics history. Which doesn't necessarily mean any of them were the apotheosis of what they represent to comics, but that doesn't make them less significant. Yes, I left other demarcation points off the list - Tom Spurgeon cited Art Spiegelman's terrific RAW as a glaring omission, and I don't disagree with that, while over at the Permanent Damage Message Board someone got irate over the omission of CEREBUS but there were a lot of factors to weigh and I only had 20 spots to fill. If you think you have a better list, nobody's stopping you.
"I reread the first five issues of AMERICAN FLAGG! the past week after thinking about your column on the most influential comics. It was the first time I'd read these issues since 1983 when I was a senior in college. I wish the comic were brand new because it was such a breath of fresh air at the time. The closest comparable comics I can think of being published today would maybe be CASANOVA or ARMY@LOVE. I wonder what company would publish AMERICAN FLAGG! today and if a comic like this could make it serially anymore?"
Did Image ever release that AMERICAN FLAGG! collection they've threatened for so long? I suspect the company that would publish AMERICAN FLAGG! would be the one willing to give Howard the deal and money he'd want to do it. Kind of narrows the field. As for making it serially, I'm not sure anything will be making it serially before too long...
Sorry for all the political stuff that follows, but there's just so much craziness going on in the McCain camp, and it's the last week before the election. (For those few areas left in America that don't have early voting, anyway; I voted last weekend, and have had a robocall, sometimes two, from Winky Palin every day since telling me to be sure to vote, 'cause John McCain's a maverick, y'know hey.) (Seriously, she says that: vote for her and John McCain 'cause they're the mavericks! Beau and Brent, I presume.)
Seems despite all the McCain-Palin talk about how Obama's a traitorous appeaser by showing willingness to have discussions with leaders of countries that oppose us (though not "unconditionally," as McCain keeps insisting) turns out The Ghost, who recently "appeased" North Korea, now plans to open diplomatic talks with Iran, though word is the White House is waiting until after the election to publicly announce it, so as not to further undermine the McCain campaign. And Winky Palin says the president is the worst enemy they have...
Speaking of Winky, someone wrote to mention that for all McCain's current screeching about Obama being a "socialist" – for talking about doing what McCain said should be done when the Ghost's big tax cuts for the rich went through originally, increase taxes on the rich and cut taxes more for the middle class – she currently presides over a state that pays its citizens to live there. A socialist utopia if ever there was one. I feel compelled to add that Alaska's largesse is underwritten by the rest of us; it's the result of "royalties" paid the state by oil companies – a nice way to say taxes, innit? – which cheerfully pass on the cost to the rest of us here in the lower 48 in the price of our gasoline. (This just in: THE NEW YORKER's running an article this week on Palin's brand of socialism.)
But Alaska may not be Winky's idea of utopia anymore, since they've taken to calling her (and obstreperous, newly convicted, Sen. Ted Stevens) on those pesky ethics charges, which extended from Winky and her husband having to testify over Troopergate. (She wasn't especially worried since she had named most of those to the board investigating, but then the board went and hired an independent investigator just 'cause state law told them to.) First they start going into weird billings where she was trying to make the state pay to cart her kids around with her on appearances. Then an article popped up buried deep in the second section of my local Sunday paper, where Winky's big achievement, a new ~2000 mile oil pipeline, is being investigated for rigged bidding. Despite her claims of an "open and fair" process, the bidding terms were written to exclude major companies and favor the ultimate winner, TransCanada Corp. – whose lobbyist, Marty Rutherford, Palin named to head the bids committee, where the lobbyist's former partner lobbied on TransCanada's behalf. Palin was told it was illegal for the governor to contact bidders, and she promised not to, then did anyway. On top of that, Winky's administration changed the rules so that rather than have to build the pipeline without a state subsidy, by winning TransCanada was in line for a half billion dollar subsidy, despite the company not having the financing to build the pipeline in the first place. So maybe Winky does have the stuff to be VP; she's certainly willing to follow in Dick Cheney's footsteps.
And, of course, the Republican ticket's "maverick" image was beaten up with the revelation of Winky's spending spree - ~$2500 per day since the Republican convention - and the subsequent fallout within the campaign. In campaign terms the clothing expenditure makes some sense but at a time when people are increasingly frightened of losing their jobs, homes and retirements funds, it was very bad publicity. Then again, the Republicans started it a few years ago mocking John Edwards' $400 haircut, so they really should've known better. What was worse was Winky going "off-message" to explain herself, that it wasn't her buying those clothes, and she doesn't get to keep them, it was those pesky Republican insiders and campaign managers that made her do it! In retaliation, campaign workers complained that Palin had stopped following the script. Wait, following the script? They meant she'd been following the script? Of Republican party insiders, and the lobbyists running the McCain campaign? How is it that "mavericks" and "reformers" have been following the script provided them by Washington insiders?! (For those tempted to write and educate me, it's a rhetorical question!) So much for that image, doncha know?
This just gets better and better. First Democrat John Murtha, who represents the area in Congress (anyone want to give odds on his reelection prospects?) says western Pennsylvania is racist, then McCain says he agrees with him. (McCain's been having an awful lot of slips of the tongue lately, and that was far from the worst.) Now a McCain campaign worker in the state decided to win voters over to the Republican cause the hard way: by carving a "B" (for Barack) into her face, somehow blackening her own eye, then claiming she was attacked, beaten and robbed by a black man! Who, she alleged, told her "You are going to be a Barack supporter" while physically punishing her for supporting McCain. (What tipped cops she was lying? The "B" on her face was backwards, like someone had done it in the mirror.) Not that I think the McCain campaign pushed her into a ploy overtly calculated to spike race hatred, but they sure were quick to spread the story. No wonder McCain agrees with Murtha; he apparently can't enter his own campaign HQ in Pennsylvania without tripping over racists... L. Brent Bozell's right wing Media Research Center was also eager to spread the story far and wide, though all mention of it seems gone from their website now...
So, anyway, election next Tuesday. Could McCain still pull it out? Sure, though early voting makes hash of any "October surprise," and a good chunk of the country is so eager to get this damn election over with – the season really does go on far too long now – so their ballots are already cast. I'm hoping Obama wins, more for peace of mind than anything else. If Obama wins, I suspect rather than dancing on anyone's grave (I'd like to take this opportunity to remind both candidates don't really give a rat's ass about ideology, they just want things to run fairly smoothly without too many people – especially too many people they know personally – getting hurt in the process, so rather then treating your victory as the end result of cosmic destiny keep a little humility and regard it as a lucky fluke) Democrats well simply be relieved. But, especially at this point, if McCain manages to win, Republicans will be unimaginably insufferable...
Speaking of which, seems electronic voting machines in West Virginia, and Tennessee, and Texas, and Missouri, and North Carolina are already flopping votes cast Democrat into the Republican column. The one known case of Republican votes flopped to Democrats, in Tennessee, turned out to be a hoax by local Republicans... At least none of them carved a backwards B into their cheeks...
Notes from under the floorboards:
Don't forget that my ODYSSEUS THE REBEL webcomic drawn by Scott Bieser is currently running at Big Head Press, while Boom! Studios continues to run TWO GUNS online. Both are free, so you're out of excuses. Go! And Image still has the action-adventure graphic novel THE SAFEST PLACE available, with maybe Tom Mandrake's best art ever, so pester your retailer for it if you haven't got it already.
Hmmm... seems the Pentagon wants to develop robot hunters to en masse hunt down "uncooperative" people. Doubtless the applications can be urban as well as military. In case you missed it, we are science fiction now... Coincidentally but not exactly disconnected, the ACLU has released their map of the "Constitution-free zone" in the USA, where Constitutional protections are routinely ignored in the cause of "National Security." Not surprisingly, the zone is everything within 100 miles of any national border. But it happens to include most of our major cities and a large chunk of our population...
The Christian Science Monitor has become the first longrunning newspaper to abandon print and go completely digital online.
NBC moves the excellent cop show LIFE to Wednesdays 9P starting Nov. 5th. And my apologies to both Robert Forster and Fred Ward, as I mistook the former in the ads for HEROES (NBC, Mondays 9P) for the latter. Quick glimpses sink ships.
Anyone who's been waiting to sample the glories of Blu-Ray (the format has not been especially embraced by American consumers) will be happy to hear players are predicted to sell for around $150 this Xmas, a substantial drop. The price of Blu-Ray players has been cited as the major factor in the format's slight saturation of the market even after rival HD-DVD bit the dust earlier this year. If players still don't sell at the lower price, they may have a problem...
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there may be one or more secret clues cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, so if you find any of them, just file 'em away. Good luck.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.