Back in the early days of comics, nearly every issue was an anthology of multiple stories. Granted, that’s partially because the stories were compressed to the point that what we’re used to taking five issues occurred in only five pages, but that’s besides the point. The anthology-based approach, which used to be the standard, has fallen out of style, despite attempts by different companies to bring them back into fashion. With comic sales constantly on the decline, an emphasis on anthology-based publishing could be the push needed to get new readers, and could be beneficial to both the Big Two and smaller independent companies.
First of all, the obvious question: why anthologies? There are a few currently being published, but none of them are selling particularly well; how could further promotion change that? To answer this, I look not at comics (at least, as we know them), but something similar: manga. Shonen Jump is a monthly magazine that prints translated manga here in the United States. According to their most recent media kit, Shonen Jump sells an average of 203,672 issues a month, which is approximately 40,000 more than the recently released Avengers #1, which sold 163,867 copies according to CBR’s sales estimates. The median age of Shonen Jump readers is thirteen, with 66% of the audience falling between the ages of eight and fourteen and 63% falling between the ages of twelve and seventeen. These are the readers that comic publishers need to bring into the fold to survive, and more anthology comics could very well do that.
Let me paint a picture in your head: you are a thirteen year-old child with limited monetary funds; after all, you’re too young to work, so you probably get what money you have from some kind of allowance. Supposing you have no particular personal favorites when it comes to comics, superheroes, anime and the like, which would you be more likely to buy: the comic that just focuses on one superhero or one superhero team for $3.99 (which is sadly becoming the standard comic price) or pay one extra dollar for a much larger magazine that has a variety of characters and stories. Granted, there are a lot of other factors: for example, your standard Shonen Jump is $4.99 for approximately 250 pages, with a price:page ratio of about two cents a page, whereas a $2.99 comic with 32 pages and a $3.99 with 40 pages cost about nine or ten cents a page, respectively. While there is the matter of black and white versus color and higher quality paper, I doubt your average thirteen year-old would care enough about either to spend seven or eight cents more a page for them. So how can comics compete with this for our younger generations?
When talking about anthology comics, it would be a huge mistake not to mention 2000 AD, which is probably the most well-known comic publication from the United Kingdom. For those unfamiliar with the comic, 2000 AD is 32 pages, but in those pages are five story excerpts, with each story being approximately six pages each. Like most American comics, the majority of these stories are serialized and cover the span of a few issues. Since there is no standard length for each story, odds are each excerpt in an issue will be in a different point in its respective story (in terms of from beginning to end). Therefore, even if you pick up a random issue and cannot find part one of a newly-started story, it is likely that there will be a story that is early enough to jump into (say, part two or maybe three). 2000 AD is£2.00, which converts to approximately $3.14, yielding a price:page ratio just shy of ten cents a page.
Both DC and Marvel have tried this sort of approach in recent years, with a great example (of both the pros and cons) being Marvel’s Age of Heroes. Also at 32 pages, this title is $3.99, with a price:page ratio of almost 12.5 cents a page. Each issue has four one-and-done stories of varying length by some of the comic industry’s most well regarded writers, including Kurt Busiek, Paul Cornell, Dan Slott, Rick Remender, and more. As to be expected with such a star-studded cast, the first issue sold fairly well, with CBR’s estimates placing it at 57th on the list, having sold 33,573 copies. However, by the following month Age of Heroes had lost the advantage of being issue number one and dropped to 81, falling below even the critically slammed Rise of Arsenal, selling 25,352 copies.Continued below
With such great writers onboard, I doubt that the drop had anything to do with quality; rather, there are two conditions which I feel may have been the biggest problem towards Age of Heroes’ success. The primary concern, and my biggest concern about comics in general, is price. As I pointed out earlier, Age of Heroes is $3.99 an issue, a price which is usually reserved for comics which are (supposedly) 40 pages. Combine this with the next drawback — relevance — and it’s hard to justify a purchase.
Now, when I say Age of Heroes isn’t “relevant,” I mean that not as a slam on the title but on the mainstream comics industry itself. With the ever-increasing focus on rapid-fire event-based storytelling in superhero comics, it seems that there are so many titles that have to be purchased just to follow what is going on in the titles a reader might actually want to read. After spending a significant amount of cash on the “required reading,” it’s hard for your average cape comic reader to justify shelling out $3.99 for 32 pages of one-and-dones that supposedly won’t be important in the long run (note that this isn’t how I view my purchasing habits, by the way). This current focus on what some critics call “continuity porn” is why many comic readers argue that superhero comics aren’t worth the time and money, and every year it gets harder and harder to argue against that point.
The only way for an anthology comic to be relevant, in the mainstream comics sense, requires a risky move: integrating events in these anthologies. By releasing a single anthology with the main story-line of an event as well as tie-in some stories, you eliminate some of the troubles that beset new readers regarding what they “need” to buy for these events and what they don’t. We can all hope that eventually DC and Marvel will stray away from this style of storytelling that requires the average reader to consult Wikipedia at least once an issue (remember people, you vote with your dollar), but until then this is the only way for an anthology title to be one of the Big Two’s highest sellers.
Independent comics, however, have none of these problems; indeed, they would probably benefit far more. As much as I talk about promoting third-party comics, I am just as wary as anyone else when it comes to spending money on something new when I’m not sure if I will like it or not. Comics from Image, Dark Horse, IDW and the like have to compete with the high prices set by Marvel and DC, and when you’re college student $3.99 can be a bit more than you want to pay for something you’re unsure of. However, if there was an “Image Magazine” or something similar that had a few different stories in it, it is more likely that one would be able to find something that falls into their interests, especially since the stories contained are most likely going to be more diverse than any anthology DC or Marvel would put out.
The final question remaining is that of page counts and price. Clearly, we can’t expect an anthology that costs $3.99 and has 32 pages to sell like candy. Unfortunately, as well as it works in the United Kingdom, I don’t see 2000 AD’s 32 pages working very well in the United States, even if it was $2.99 an issue; American comic readers (and those aforementioned Shonen Jump readers we are trying to sway) are used to a higher page count and such a dramatic shift to six-page excerpts probably wouldn’t fly well. Instead, I suggest a $4.99, 80-page comic (like the recent Invincible Iron Man Annual, with a price:page ratio of around six cents a page) with either four excerpts at an average of twenty pages each or five stories at an average of sixteen pages each. These excerpts could be ongoing sagas, two-parters or one-shots; whatever is available to publish at the time. It’s a risky maneuver, but I can guarantee that if one of the smaller publishing companies released such a comic, I would drop some of my Marvel and DC titles to make room on my pull for it, and I’m sure others would as well.