Welcome, you voracious viewers you, to the triumphant return of Multiversity 101! This week we’re going to look at some recent upheavals within the industry in the wake of the upcoming price shift by some companies BACK to a $2.99 price-point for standard 22 page comic books. We’ll take a look back at the $3.99 price-shift and the impact it had as well as analyze the key players and announcements made about the $2.99 realignment. We’ll also be taking a look at what exclusive signings and creator owned work have to do with things, the impact of printing and shipping costs, the rise of digital comics and ultimately (read: hopefully) determine just what those three small digits, whatever they may be, actually MEAN to the industry at large.
What are you waiting for? HIT THAT JUMP!
Rising cover prices on our favorite funny books have been a fact of life for comic fans since the very beginning of the medium when books went for as low as 10 cents (ironically, those 10 cent comics that still exist can now sell for up to six figures if you find someone dedicated…or dumb…enough.) When I started REALLY collecting back in 2000, the average price-point for a 22 page comic was $2.25, with oversized issues occasionally going as high as $2.99 or even *gasp* $3.50! At the time, even that was pretty high for my 13 year-old allowance, but it did allow me to follow a few series pretty consistently…even when I did have to beg for an extra dollar or two to afford those double sized anniversary issues or cardstock covers. However, much like my favorite immature punk bands grew and matured along with me (see: Against Me!), so too did the prices I paid for my comics. Often times it was a subtle change, rising a quarter or so every couple of years. By the time I got to college, $2.99 had become the average. Then the economy tanked, the banks lost all their money, millions became homeless and words like “recession”, “foreclosure” and “stimulus” were thrown around more often than the Jonas Brothers get laid.
Now, I was a mere Canadian college student at the time…and an art studying one at that…so I was already used to living cheap and pizza and beer were largely recession proof. So while most people in a higher income bracket than me were collectively pooing themselves, I was more or less unaffected by the recession. Then one day it happened: I went to my local comic book shop for my weekly fix and my bill was one whole dollar more than it should have been. But how could that be? There were no big anniversary issues, no double sized extravaganzas, no 32 page event mini-series…just five 22 page comics. After going through my stack with the store owner I saw it, clear as day: New Avengers #49, 22 pages, $3.99. Clearly there was some mistake…I was counting the pages wrong or there was gold mixed into the ink…something to make the issue above average (other than the phenomenal Bendis script and Tan pencils of course.) But no, there wasn’t… the recession had finally hit me too.
From that point, the shift was fast and furious: anniversary issues would come and go but the $3.99 would stay. Status quo shifts with extra pages would come and go and the $3.99 would stay. New series would launch at $3.99 and stay that way. Almost across the board, $3.99 was quickly becoming the norm and one thing was certain: a lot of fans were hurting. Sure, first DC and then Marvel began adding back-up features and bonus stories in an attempt to make a comic worth that price, but that did not make the general reading populace any richer. The comic reading public was very quickly divided into those fans that had the income and those that didn’t, whereas before purchasing habits weren’t quite as in sync with financial class lines.Continued below
I know that I personally had to drop several series to keep within my budget, and that there was a good year and a half where I did not branch out and buy any new series or minis because I simply could not afford to do so. Even when I turned to discounted pre-ordering services that send you all your books at the end of the month (thereby taking me out of many topical discussions) at a discounted price, I still found myself not buying everything I wanted to. Of course, some intrepid (albeit morally ambiguous) fans found a way around this, with the popularity of comic scans going through the roof, but the point remained the same: fans could not afford the comics they loved…and for a while at least, it looked like that would be the case for a while.
But of course, as these things tended to do, the world pulled itself back together…people found work, the economy stimulated itself and, while things are still not perfect, they got a little less bad, and just as subtly (or not) as they went up, cover prices began to come down again. New series would miraculously launch at $2.99, back-up stories would be cut along with that extra dollar and all of a sudden pull lists started to get longer again, slowly but surely. Flash forward to the eve of New York Comic-Con 2010, when DC Comics proudly proclaimed that they had listened to the anguished cries of their fans and drew a line in the sand (or fired a warning shot…whichever analogy you prefer) declaring that their ongoing series currently priced at $3.99 would unilaterally return to a $2.99 price-point.
The news was monumental: some people cheered, others winced, but for better or worse this was a sign of immense change ahead for creators and fans alike. However, the DC announcement was not all peaches and cream as many had taken it to be. Sure, some lamented the departure of the few solid back-up stories (namely Nick Spencer’s Jimmy Olsen and Jeff Lemire’s Atom), but the effects went deeper than that. Hidden in the fine print was the unavoidable fact that in addition to losing their back-up stories, these ongoing series would also lose two story pages per issue. Sure, to most fans this seemed like an acceptable loss…a few less two page spreads here and there and the ends would justify the means from a consumer standpoint. However, what many were quick to point out (including many of DC’s direct competitors) was that in an industry where creators are paid by the page, not the issue, this shift cause an immense impact to the lives of creators.
What many fans may not realize is that creators (writers, artists, inkers, colorists, letterers, etc.) that work for the big two publishers work at a “for hire” basis. What this means is they are given a flat rate, based on page count, to write an issue. Unlike musicians, there is no such thing as royalties for comic creators in this day and age. The company owns all rights to the characters, bought and paid for from the ones that created them. Which means it does not matter how many units are sold, how many extra printings are made, how many trade collections end up on university reading lists; by that point the creators have made all the money they are going to make on that particular comic. Sure a successful trade run will mean the continued existence of stories starring a given character, usually written by the writer that made them famous, but at that point luck has a lot more to do with it than production values. Of course, the math works a little differently for independent and creator owned properties (which is why Robert Kirkman is probably swimming in a pool of money as I type this), but I won’t get into that now. Hence, if companies start asking for fewer pages, that means less money that creators will receive, which means more creators looking for work elsewhere, possibly even outside of comics.Continued below
Which leads us to exclusive signings…sure, we see the announcements all over our favorite comic journalism outlets all the time, “so and so signs an exclusive agreement with *insert company*.” What does this mean, you ask? Well, the answer is obvious: once a company has enough faith that a creator will produce consistently profitable work (which is not the same as legitimately good work, but sometimes is), then they will offer them an exclusive contact ensuring them work for a determined amount of time, not unlike a salaried position. I would not be surprised to see an even greater wave of exclusive signings in the coming months as the industry realigns itself, because at least that means consistent work for a creator, even if it’s less work per issue. On the surface, this seems like a great opportunity for creators, and that’s because it is. In a way, this phenomenon is the industry saying that it appreciates individual creators and their work. However, this will have a direct effect on the creator-owned and independent output of said creators. Simply put: if Writer X is given assignment after assignment from Company Y, they will have no time to work on Creator Owned Book Z. I hope you like your mainstream super hero comics…because there is a very good chance you’ll be seeing more of them than anything else moving forward.
Another thing fans might not realize is just how much printing and shipping costs factor into cover prices (as indeed I did not until legendary writer and Boom! Studios Editor-in-Chief Mark Waid clarified for it for me). Apparently, Diamond Comics Distributors keeps a whopping 60% of any given issue’s profit, which on a $3.99 comic means approximately $1.40 going back to the company per-unit sold, which has to be used to pay the ENTIRE creative team and all the overhead costs on the issue. On a $2.99 comic, that means approximately $1.20 to cover all those costs. The next time a series you like starring an obscure character gets cancelled at the 5th issue, this is probably why. With an inflating economy, people need more money to make ends meet, and if a series is not selling well enough right out of the gate it will disappear simply because it is financially unviable to let it continue. Sure, there was always a cancellation line that books had to stay above into order to survive, but with that line higher than ever before due to rising costs, we’re going to see companies take few chances on cult favorite characters.
Back at Baltimore Comic-Con earlier this year, the aforementioned Mark Waid made the controversial proclamation that digitally distributed comic books should universally cost 99 cents to download. In an interview with Newsarama at NYCC later in the year, he clarified his argument by saying that the rise of illegally scanned comics was not something the industry would be able to effectively combat in the long term (since, after all, the music industry spent billions of dollars trying to do just that over the last decade and still failed).
Moreover, he came dangerously close (but never quite getting there) to praising said scanners for getting books to people that may not have access to a comic store, who would then order the trade off of Amazon. Ultimately though, his argument boiled down to this: if digital comics, which are cheaper to produce given the lack of distribution costs, entered the disposable income realm (which at 99 cents they absolutely would), then ultimately the industry would flourish…and to tell you the truth, I don’t think he’s wrong. Once individual Mp3s began to sell for 99 cents, the music industry did see a noticeable turnaround in overall sales since it brought the concept of purchasing music down to a cost that most people see as inconsequential (somewhere my father, who to this day insists that I do not know the value of a dollar, is wincing).
Sure, illegal downloading was still making them hemorrhage money, but they were at least making some of that back due to the convenience and instant gratification provided by Mp3s. To think that a similar method would work in the comics industry isn’t that crazy of an idea – see what recently happened with Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber’s Underground.Continued below
This brings us to the most recent (yesterday, in fact) announcement relating to this realignment: Marvel’s Point One Initiative. Immediately following DC’s pre-NYCC $2.99 announcement, Marvel declared that due to the success of its “Marvel Digital” subscription service, it would be launching some new series at a $2.99 price-point starting in January 2011.
A quick look at Marvel’s solicitations for January reveals that, yes, there are some new mini-series and one-shots that will be available for $2.99, in addition to the books that are currently available for that price, however the vast majority of the company’s “name brand” series (Amazing Spider-Man, 3 out of the 4 Avengers titles, Captain America, Thor, Uncanny X-Men and Invincible Iron Man, just to name a few) remain at $3.99. In other words, the books that the vast majority of people buy, as opposed to their spin-offs, will still cost more. However, assumably in response to DC’s price shift, Marvel has announced that starting in Februrary, several of those aforementioned “main” titles will be released with a .1 next to their numbering, signifying the start of a new major storyline or event within that series, and will ship for $2.99.
Apparently, the intent of this program is to draw new readers to these series using the .1 as a signifier to make the books stand out on the shelves. Finally, an extra issue of the series will be released that month so these new readers can receive a double dose of their new favorite books. And obviously this announcement is all well and good and puppies and kittens will fall from the sky and everyone will live happily ever after, right?
Closer investigation reveals that this is an admittedly clever bait and switch and that all this program will do is release these main books twice. First, the book will come out within the current publishing cycle priced at $3.99. Then, a month later, it will be released again with an extra digit on its numbering for a dollar less, thereby making that “extra issue” actually the normal issue scheduled for that month. Sure, this program may end up driving sales up on these titles, thereby allowing Marvel to lower the cover prices on them…but this whole thing just smells a little fishy to me, especially given the monumental fanfare with which it was announced. Re-releasing crucial debut issues for a dollar, as Vertigo and Image have done, seemed a lot more, well…honest, to me.
So, to recap: we’ve discussed the impact of $2.99 on the fans and on the creators, but there is one more class of fine people that need to be mentioned: retailers. In a stunning bit of theatric bravado during this year’s X-Men Panel at NYCC, legendary wordsmith Peter David asked the entire room if they’d like to see single issues sell for 2 dollars. Following a riotous round of applause, David followed it up with “well, how many of you who cheered would like to see your local retailers go out of business?” Silence overtook the room as the weight of this hypothetical was felt. David was right; selling comics for $2.99 would and indeed will have a directly negative impact on retailers.
While the companies themselves receive less profit, so too do retailers receive less profit from a cheaper comic. So, while some in the industry feel it is time to drop prices, you know what isn’t dropping? Rent, utilities and all other costs associated with maintaining a business. Therefore, retailers must sell more and more comics to a readership that, while growing, is not exactly doing so at insane levels, in order to stay in business. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but many stores will be unable to do this, leading more and more readers to the internet in search of comic books.
So what comes next? I’m not sure. Coming to a definitive conclusion for this article is proving increasingly difficult for me since on the one hand I love comic books and want the medium to flourish long enough for my children and grandchildren to enjoy it the same way I do. But at the same time I would like to be able to afford to enjoy it. Sure, my income is increasing as I grow older…but I see no reason to believe that comic prices will not keep growing too, despite this current movement to bring them down. As my priorities shift away from pizza and beer into more “big people centric” areas like rent and grad school, I worry that I will someday no longer be able to justify adding comics to my budget. Though, who knows if comics will exist as they currently do at that point?Continued below
Many creators, not only Mark Waid, see the future of the medium in digital distribution, effectively making the current industry a sinking ship being captained by a failing business model. Whether that turns out to be true remains to be seen, but I remain optimistic. Vinyl records were viewed as a long dead distribution method for years, and yet vinyl sales were up nearly 80% last year while CD sales continue to plummet. Market trends are largely foreseeable, but that doesn’t mean that a few surprises can’t slip through. For such an old medium, comics still have a bit of fight left in them, and if you’ve just read a 2,973 word article about them, you probably think so too.