With fans and retailers becoming increasingly vocal about the rising prices of comic books, one creator has thrown himself into the mix to find out what can be done to combat the trend. Tim Seeley, creator of “Hack/Slash” at Devil's Due Publishing, wanted to see if there were ways to create cheaper comics and, if production of such were possible, whether these comics could effectively find their audience through retailers and the reading public. CBR News spoke with Seeley about his initial efforts, his own thoughts on independent publishing, and the complexities of price points.
With Marvel Comics now introducing several new regular series at $3.99 per issue, a $1 increase over the previous $2.99 standard, Seeley said told CBR, "This is the first time that I've been really surprised at some of the prices that were going up. I do think $3.99 is pretty expensive.” He noted that fans have voiced their outrage online but was unsure if this would translate into changes in their buying habits. Seeley was also interested to see if there was a way small and independent publishers could work against this system.
To this end, he conducted an informal survey of retailers to discover whether they could benefit from cheaper comics, quality titles which could bear lower price points due to lower-quality paper and lower page-rates for creators. “I don't demand the kind of price of like a Jeph Loeb or Ed McGuinness or someone like that, and part of the cost of that book is paying bigger-name guys,” Seeley said. “The retailers that I talked to about it obviously brought up the comparison point of people doing 99-cent introductory issues--but that's always kind of a fool-you thing. Because it's trying to get you to try something new, but what if it was consistently sold at that price? What would a lower price point do to get new readers to comics?”
Seeley noted that it may be difficult to attract new readers if $3.99 becomes the pricing standard. “But if you're an old-school fan and you just have to know what's happening with Batman, you'll pay $3.99. That's an easy sell for Marvel and DC to do.”
He continued, “What are we doing for new readers, for teens, when are we doing to do stuff for them? So I emailed a lot of retailers, all the ones I thought were guys with really good ideas and experience with retail. Suggestions regarding a lower-price monthly book from Seeley’s small sample were “completely across the board,” and he was interested in circulating a questionnaire for a more comprehensive study.
"I got like 13 [responses]. I only have limited access, because I'm just some guy and these are the stores I went to. That's why I'd like to do an actual survey, maybe even get Diamond to back it up, those are the kinds of numbers I'd be really interested to see,” Seeley said. “Especially because the responses I got, it was so diverse. And then there's a lot of things, too, I know I was talking to Pat Brower at Challengers Comics; in his store, he does a lot more trades than monthly books. I asked about doing cheaper trades. But let's say I wanted to do cheaper trades, something like a $9 trade. To pay for the trade, I've still got to put out a monthly."
Noting Image Comics’ $1.99 titles including “Fell” by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith and Matt Fraction and Gabriel Bá's “Cassanova,” Seeley said that the comparison between his idea and those books is apt but imperfect. "They're just lower page count, they're not printed on cheaper paper or anything else that would make them cheaper. They're just shorter books,” he said. “And they're also geared for the trade. The impression I got was that those started out selling well, but maybe because they weren't quite monthly they didn't sell that great in monthly format. But I know 'Cassanova' sells very well in trade and I would have to think that ‘Fell’ does, too.”
Tim Seeley also recalled Marvel Unplugged, an ill-fated initiative from 1995 in which Marvel published 99-cent monthly titles, with stories taking place outside of continuity or in between previously published comics. “They were on shitty paper, the art wasn't great on a lot of them, but they were just supposed to be cheap,” he explained. “They were an abysmal failure, and I was curious as to why that was. What a lot of retailers said is that a book that costs $3.99 or a book that costs $1.99 or one that costs 50 cents takes up the same rack space. So for a retailer, especially in the current way comics are sold, rack space is at a premium. There's a lot of books out every month. If you can make $3.99 off a BOOM! book or an IDW book, a 99-cent book that isn't an incentive book but is just always that cheap is maybe not an incentive for anybody.
“So there's got to be a balance found somewhere--which is, it sells enough for the retailers to say, ‘If I devote this much rack space to it, I'll make up for the $3.99 book’ -- so you'll have to sell three times as many. Which is tough. How do you do that? I'm pretty sure I can't get Art Adams to draw me a book that I can sell for $1.99, or Mark Millar to write it."
One cost-saving measure Seeley considered was cheaper paper, but some research discovered that this may no longer be possible. "The basic thing with printing now, because it's all digital, basically all you're always paying for is the plate changes and the paper. It used to be you could say, well, I'll put it on a shitty stock and I can charge less because I'm only paying this much. I paid half of what I did for glossy paper. It turns out, with digital printing, you can't really print on most of that shit. And in fact, they buy the stuff in so much bulk because they do all their printing on it, that if they do switch paper stocks it's more expensive. Obviously, there are specialty printers, but you look at the big printers like Quebecor, it would cost more for me to do it that way. I think you could probably find other printers that would do it that way, you could probably go through China or Mexico, that would do it for cheaper, maybe even an old school technology. But that's one of the problems even with doing black and white books. There's just not a lot of black and white books anymore, because it doesn't really cost any less. It used to be probably three times as much to print in color as [compared to] black and white. With digital printing, it's maybe like 1.5 times more to do color. When you're looking at what your sales are going to be, that makes it tougher too."
Cheaper paper, though, has long allowed manga publishers in Japan to produce phonebook-sized anthologies on a weekly or monthly schedule at very little cost to readers. But anthologies can be a hard sell in America, and Seeley believes this would be exasperated by a manga-esque volume of Western-styled comics. "The guys that read most of the [American] stuff don't like manga. And manga fans don't like American comics, usually,” he said, acknowledging that there is some crossover. “I actually like the format of those big fat manga magazines, where the paper turns from orange to green and they just don't care. It's cheap, it's content, and then when they put it out in a digest, it'll be nice. That would be a great thing. I would love to see that because that would be more about getting good ideas out there and seeing what sticks and then turning around and doing trades of it.
Seeley said that he sees the prejudice against anthologies as stemming from a focus on continuity among Marvel and DC fans. “They view anything that comes in an anthology as not important to their overall picture. The main title is where the stuff happens that I've got to care about,” he said.
Comparing the reading habits of US and Japanese comics readers, Seeley said that the American approach can often be seen as “a delivery system for a character that they follow,” whereas in Japan “a creator can do a twelve-part story and never revisit those characters again.”
Aside from reducing the quality of paper, Seeley listened to other ideas about producing cheaper comics. "What I liked was, [Isotope owner] James Sime, who is just an idea machine and very much into trying to expand the fan base, he had the idea of having a company putting out multiple titles, with a lot of really talented guys who can work for cheaper,” Seeley said. “I don't need to work super-expensive, and I can write and draw and ink my own stuff. Other guys that can do that, we can do it cheaper since we're not splitting it up, we don't have seven guys on one book.”
Even assuming that such an endeavor would produce comics of comparable quality to Marvel and DC's output, Seeley noted that there are other barriers unique to comics publishing, and that there is a chance that lower-priced books could be perceived as lower quality precisely because they’re cheaper. Seeley added that brand loyalty creates another obstacle for independent comics competing for fans' dollars.
Acknowledging the limitations of his survey, Tim Seeley said that his main goal was to keep fans and retailers talking about the economic side of comics in a productive manner. "I understand why Marvel's raising prices, and I understand why DC will follow. It's expensive to do these books. It's expensive to print them,” he said. “But we have to all be more proactive about it. Fans have to be more proactive about it. If they don't want to pay $3.99 for everything, if they'd like to still get a lot of comics and not just three, I think that they have to tell their retailers what they want, and they have to tell Marvel and DC and Image what they want.”