PRICE POINT AND THE RISE OF THE 20 PAGE COMIC
Publishers are raising it and lowering it. Fans are freaking out. Creators are caught in the middle.
In the last couple months, both Marvel and DC have teased new initiatives to lower prices on their monthly comics. Marvel is lowering some of their series to $2.99. DC is making all of their series $2.99, but also lowering page counts from 22 to 20 pages. As I currently write books for both companies, these initiatives affect me in a big way.
Actually, Marvel's move affects me in an indirect sort of way. Everything I write for Marvel is currently priced at $3.99. It's been like that for probably a year or so now, and I imagine that's not likely to change. Now, of course I don't ask for my books to be $3.99. That's not my decision. But like most writers, I'm not about to admit to being overpaid and beg you to take some of this money back.
All I can do is give readers the best stories I can for their four bucks. Of course, that's what I've always try to do, regardless of the price point. It's not like I save my A game for the $3.99 books and just bring my B or C game for the lower priced titles.
So how do you make readers feel like they're justified in spending their four bucks for your book? For the new "Wolverine" series, I asked to have back-up stories added to the first arc, in part so I could explore some secondary characters, but also because I wanted to try and give readers more bang for their buck. Some fans, though, actually complained about there being back-ups, as if they were merely an excuse for Marvel to justify charging that extra buck. Basically it's the old "damned if you, damned if you don't" conundrum.
For the most part, readers paying four bucks for their monthly comics just want to know that the story they're reading "matters," that it's somehow relevant to the big picture of the Marvel U. And that's where I think we get into some tricky territory.
I understand that times are tough and readers have less money to spend on their weekly pull list, and if it comes down to choosing between a book that's seemingly vital to following the overall story of the Marvel Universe and one that's seemingly inconsequential, a lot of fans are gonna go with the book that "matters" more.
This puts me in a tough spot as a writer.
I prefer stories that are less continuity heavy and more new-reader friendly, as both a writer and a reader. But it's hard to do those kinds of stories right now. It's especially hard to do them when they're priced at $3.99. My recent "Wolverine Weapon X" series was meant to be a new-reader friendly series that was light on continuity, but it was priced at $3.99, like the other more "relevant" books. It ultimately didn't prove as successful as Marvel was hoping. So now I'm writing "Wolverine," which in some ways is simply a continuation of what I was doing in "Weapon X," only set on a bigger stage and featuring events that will have a much greater impact on the character overall. I'm still having fun, still getting to tell the stories I want to tell. I just feel like I need to be more conscious of playing with the big toys more and doing stories that are ultimately more "relevant."
It sucks to see good books fail in part because they're viewed as less relevant, because they're not as tuned in to what's going up at the top of the totem pole. It happens all the time. That's why I'm happy to see Marvel lowering some of their prices. Hopefully those lower tier books will have more of a shot. Those of us at Marvel and DC have really done all we can over the last few years to make readers want the big books, the events and crossovers and tie-ins and such. That stuff can be fun, I know. I've written some of it myself. It's a hard gravy train to get off of sales-wise. But it stops being fun when we lose good books because they don't seem important enough to the overall picture.
At the end of the day, the only thing that should really be relevant or important is whether or not you're reading a good story.
How much you're willing to pay for it, well, that's up to you.
So back to DC, and their recent announcement that all their monthly titles were dropping to $2.99. Sort of lost in that announcement was the fact that pages counts are also being cut. The original talk sort of downplayed that reduction, like losing those two pages wouldn't really matter. It was even suggested that with today's reliance on more decompressed storytelling that some writers could even benefit from taking pages out and moving their stories along.
A couple things bother me about this.
First of all, the fact that as a DC creator, I didn't hear about this change until the same time everyone else did. No matter how you slice it, this page reduction amounts to a pay cut for all DC creators. In my case, not a big one, since the bulk of my income is made at Marvel. But still, if you're basically asking your creators to take a pay cut in order to finance a reduction in cover price, you'd think you'd at least give those creators some sort of heads up.
Now you might argue, well, just because you're losing those two pages, that doesn't really have to amount to a pay cut. After all, you can just go right from one script into the next and continue working, making up the difference. True, but that's assuming that it takes less work to write a 20 page script than it does a 22 page script, which I'm not convinced is true. I can almost guarantee you it takes Warren Ellis and Matt Fraction a lot longer to write their 16 page issues of Fell and Casanova than it does any of their 22 page comics. It's sometimes hard enough to fit a story into 22 pages. Taking pages away does not make the job easier. Even just two pages. Instead it necessitates that you either take stuff out of your story or dramatically change the way you're telling that story.
Now, pay-cut or no pay-cut, if losing those two pages is the only way to keep my series "Scalped" from bumping up to $3.99 (which I had already been told was going to happen, across the board at Vertigo), then I'm all for it. I just would've appreciated a bit of notice from The Powers That Be. I also don't think the loss of those pages should be so quickly discounted from a storytelling stand-point.
We won't know exactly how that loss has changed DC comics until January, when those new 20 page books start hitting shelves. I've written two 20 page issues of "Scalped" so far, and I'm still not exactly sure how it's going to affect me.
When I heard about the DC announcement, I was set to begin a brand new five issue arc of "Scalped." So just like that, my arc had lost 10 pages. That's quite a chunk. That's multiple scenes. When it's all said and done, will I end up with basically the same sort of arc I would've had to begin with, only with less splash pages or extended moments? No, I don't think so. We're on issue #42 of "Scalped" right now. I don't want to change the way I write the book. I love all the quiet, emotional moments in the series. I don't want to lose those. I think I'll just have to shift things around and pace my issues and arcs a bit differently. And at times, maybe I'll simply have to cut a scene I would've otherwise kept.
Like I said, I've written two of these 20 pages issues so far, and I'm still struggling with it. The first one I wrote, issue #45, had a lot of problems and had to be re-written. The second one came out much easier, but looking over it now, it almost feels too brief to me. I don't know, I think it's gonna take me a while to get a handle on this. Maybe readers won't even notice, but somehow, I doubt that. Either way, I'm interested in seeing how the 20 page comic ultimately plays out.
We just need more people reading comics, I think we can all agree on that. Whether they're picking up monthly issues or waiting for the trade or downloading them on their iPads, I don't care. Let's just get their asses in the seats...
And then do our best to give 'em their money's worth.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series ""Scalped"" for DC/Vertigo and ""Wolverine,"" "Astonishing Spider-Man & "Wolverine"" and "PunisherMAX" for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.