KC Column: Is It Worth It?

Your pal, KC

Your pal, KC

As many of you have probably noticed, there’s been a lot of comics news and discussion lately. Nothing really new about that. There are always constant announcements about creators jumping on new projects, or leaving titles, or the seemingly endless discussions of why this is important (or isn’t), or dozens of other personality-based info nuggets that fly around the internets with alarming speed.

But much of the recent news has been different. As you saw on the blog here a few days ago, both DC and Marvel have announced that they are taking steps to knock back their price on the standard 32-page comic book. Actually, Marvel announced that, beginning in January, new standard-sized comics will be priced at $2.99. They have yet to clarify what changes, if any, will apply to their current $3.99 titles next year.

DC was the first to announce a price cut, effective in January, stating that their standard line of comics (with a few exceptions) will be 32 pages priced at $2.99. This means that current 40-page, $3.99 titles will lose their back-up features (some may appear elsewhere) and the cover price will drop to $2.99. DC has also announced that the story page count in their comics will drop from 22 pages to 20 in January (allowing for an additional two pages of ads).

While I think that the $2.99 cover price is obviously a much more attractive price point for a 32-page comic book than $3.99, it’s the dropping of the two story pages that is really the bigger issue — when you consider the historical context. I think that decision is actually going to be a colossal mistake. Plus, it’s a sure sign that folks at DC don’t remember their history.

First, a Digression to Do Math

One other thing about DC’s page cuts. Although one DC spokesperson indicated that two fewer pages an issue meant that “our artists can now have weekends,” what it means in real-world terms is that creators on regular monthly assignments are getting a pay cut.

Someone on a regular title previously got paid for 22 pages an issue for 12 issues a year. (Let’s be optimistic.) That’s 264 pages. Now, they’ll be paid for telling roughly the same amount of story at 240 pages total for the year. They’ve lost 24 pages of work, more than an issues’ worth, through no fault of their own. So, DC creators, you may have gotten your weekends back, but you also got an almost 10% pay cut. I somehow doubt DC’s decision-makers, at least those left at the company, are getting an equivalent decrease.

Back to the 70s: Declining Page Count

Beginning in the mid-1970s, comics were faced with declining sales as newsstands began to realize that they could make more money on higher-priced magazines and paperback books than they could on comic books. Since their profit was based on a percentage of the cover price, they made more money on a $1 magazine than a 50¢ comic book, so it made more sense for them to distribute more (and better-selling) glossy magazines than the cheaper (and cheap-looking) comic. So, as the 70s wore on, you began to see fewer and fewer comics on magazine racks, and even fewer retailers that actually carried any comics.

Also, ever-increasing production costs (not the least of which was a paper shortage in 1974, which ended up driving the cost of paper to unprecedented levels) took a big chunk of comic profits. Publishers tried to adjust to these mounting costs by raising prices, but back then, price jumps were smaller than they are today. It was usually just a matter of raising the cover price by a nickel or a dime.

Savage Sword of Conan #1

Savage Sword of Conan #1

The publishers could have upgraded the basic comic book package, improving the presentation and printing, but at that time, there wasn’t much evidence that such an effort would have paid off, as conventional wisdom indicated that comics were only read by kids. Publishers were scared to death of raising the sophistication level of the product or the price beyond the average allowance of an 8-12-year-old. Marvel did have some minor success with its line of black-and-white monster/horror, kung fu, and barbarian (e.g. Savage Sword of Conan) magazines aimed at older readers, but production-wise they lacked an essential (expensive) ingredient — color. Jack Kirby was also a visionary in this area, pitching DC three magazines aimed at older readers, but In the Days of the Mob and Spirit World were badly handled by the publisher and canceled after only one issue, and Soul Love (a black romance magazine) was never published at all.

In terms of standard comics, price increases were just not enough to offset the rising production costs and falling sales. Publishers felt that that they could not increase prices any further than what they already had, so they implemented cost-cutting in another way — they started reducing the story page count. It was a major turning point for comic books.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the standard comic book “guts” (not counting covers) consisted of eight pages of advertising and 24 pages of editorial content — made up of the comic book stories themselves plus features such as text stories or, eventually, lettercolumns and “hype” pages. (For many years DC also “tricked” fans by including 1/3-page ads on three of the story pages, making readers think that there were more complete story pages than there actually were.) By the time Marvel became hugely popular in the mid-60s, they had standardized their comics stories at 20 pages, plus two pages of letters and one Bullpen Bulletins page (featuring Stan’s Soapbox).

For a long time, story count never dipped below 20 pages, but as the 70s and early 80s wore on, page count steadily dropped a page at a time, eventually ending up at 17 pages — half the book, plus a page. Marvel for a time even pulled a more dastardly trick, asking their artists to draw two pages sideways (and smaller) on a single art board, so that they would only have to pay them for drawing one page (but printing it as two). Sharp-eyed fans can spot these pages in a second, usually by their lack of detail and “rushed” look, as artists obviously hated doing those. For a time, Marvel also ran two pages of half art/half ads in each issue so that they could claim they had 20 pages of story when there were really only 19 full pages of art (and creators were shortchanged again).

Declining Production Quality

This timeframe also coincided with a period of hugely restrictive production values, which further denigrated the look of  the comic books. Artists were forced to draw their original art on much smaller art board than they had previously used, which often meant much less room for actual draftsmanship. The lack of detail in panel backgrounds became obvious as panels had to be drawn smaller.

Plus, comics printing was moving away from using metal plates to plastic or to different printing methods altogether. This meant that the artwork was often reproduced horribly — solid black areas would print blotchy or streaked, and colors would smear or be off-register, printing outside the black lines. Ink lines (especially thin ones) would drop out completely, forcing artists to compensate. Inkers would ink with a “thicker” line to help prevent drop-out problems, making many of the comic books of that era look like already-done coloring books — and artist’s reputations would suffer because of these bad print jobs.

Further, paper stock had gotten so thin that you could actually see both pages (front and back) without actually turning the page. (Some wags call this the “Kleenex Age of Comics”.) As these comics have aged, anything printed in red has begun to bleed through the pages with such intensity that it’s actually a chore to read comics from this era.

Writers also had a hard time adjusting to the decreased page counts, especially since the addition of subplot elements and more space set aside for characterization were relatively recent additions to the writer’s toolbox. Some of these elements had to be sacrificed  (as well as two-page spreads or other flashy art stylings) to a lower page count, and the then-unbreakable “rule” that superheroic conflict (aka: fights) always came first.

I doubt that there’s much (or any) hard evidence that this decreasing page count and poor production quality caused a huge number of fans to flee the medium during this time, but many historians feel that it was a contributing factor to declining readership in this era. As I pointed out in my recent examination of 80s comics, eventually, creators fought for better production quality and space to create their magic (as well as many other important basic creator rights). Later, they got their say. The medium matured as readers responded to (and eventually demanded) better and more sophisticated storytelling, artwork, and printing and production quality.

But, of course, implementation of these improvements and rights also demanded a price in terms of paying more for comics — one that many fans and a huge number of new readers were obviously willing to pay. Because almost everyone back then (publishers, creators, customers) were often on the same page in seeking to make comics a mature artform, everybody in comics was (mostly) wonderfully rewarded — and the medium changed (mostly) for the better.

But now it’s 20-30 years later. Do you know where your comic books are?

2010: An Old Bad Idea

Before we get to that, let me explain why I think that making $2.99 comics with 20 story pages is ultimately a really bad idea, although right now — at this exact point in time –  it’s looking pretty good.

We’re spending too much time talking about the cover price instead of talking about the package. The 32-page comic book is ultimately a dead end. And it has been for a very long time, except no one really wants to talk about it. It’s the standard way we’ve been doing business for over 50 years, and nobody wants to change anything about it — because we’re too easily scared or sloth-like to really try anything new. Or because we live for the nostalgia, and you never really ever get over your first love or want those memories to change.

We’re all operating on the wrong premise. We think that comics have always been 32 pages — at least within our lifetimes — and that’s just the way that it should be.

Wrong premise. Going back even further than my earlier example, comics first got popular when they were 64 pages (or bigger) during the Golden Age of Comics in the late 1930s and 1940s. And they were “All In Color for a Dime!” Years later, when that particular package was no longer considered profitable by the publishers, their first thought was to cut the package (page count) rather than raise the price. That wrong decision lead to where we are now. If they’d been willing to raise cover prices, as magazines did, they may have kept their visibility on newsstands to the general public. However, magazines aren’t doing so well these days either, so it would have only been a temporary stopgap. But that’s why people get big bucks to run businesses — they have to keep making the tough decisions and develop new strategies for ever-changing markets.

So what is the ultimate answer? I don’t know. Comics have gotten so complex in the way that they do business today. A big part of the problem is that anything the publishers do has an impact on the existing Direct Market network of comic book retailers, a group that often seems even more reluctant to find new or better ways of doing business than the existing publishers. Anything the publishers attempt would have to take into account their other distribution partners, bookstores and internet stores, even though those parts of the market are not much interested in the 32-page format — just the eventual collections of them.

One thing is certain: the traditional costs involved with printing and production (as well as “invisible” costs like distribution) are not going away anytime soon. That’s why everybody is currently investigating the future of digital (paperless) publishing, which is making the Direct Market grumpy and fearful of the future. With cause. Because their business model demands the every-week presence of regular customers buying as many comics as they can afford to keep their doors open, anything that risks breaking that habit could adversely affect them.

Superman Family #185

Superman Family #185

I used to think that larger collections of new stories at fair price points would be the key to the future, but these days I’m not sure that is the answer. Comics have traditionally been bad at experimenting with large compilation formats. Back in the day, publishers tried higher-price-point items like treasury editions or mega-comics like 100-page Super Spectaculars. But these were always primarily reprints. In the rare instance that they contained new material, it tended to be really special (like Superman vs. Spider-Man) which skewed the sales beyond the norm. Conventional wisdom says that the anthology is mostly dead and past attempts (DC’s Dollar Comics such as World’s Finest or Superman Family or Marvel’s Marvel Comics Presents) only seemed to work when anchored by a stellar storyline or character.

Besides, in this “superstar” era of comics, could royalties even be fairly worked out for an anthology that needed a superstar creator to succeed? Or would such creators even be attracted to the format, knowing that they would have to share royalties with those not as famous?

One thing I do know, giant anthologies of single characters might actually be a godsend for movie fans walking into a comic store for the first time ever after seeing, say, the upcoming Thor movie. Instead of being baffled by the fifty different Thor projects available for purchase, of which probably none will be be anything like the movie they just saw, a retailer could hand such a product to a “newbie” and say “this is everything you need to know about Thor in the comic books.” And when they come back (and they will, because you know the power of comics), then you can point them at other selected Thor collections.

But I think there is something else that’s making a number of comics readers and fans currently walk away, and it’s not necessarily the cover price. It is, however, the giant elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

Actually, everybody wants to talk about it. All kinds of comments have surfaced lately about how disappointing many current major storylines are. It doesn’t matter what the price is, ultimately — people will pay for good work and avoid the bad. But instead of tackling the value question — is what we’re asking readers to pay a fair price for what they’re getting?  — most folks in the industry are more interested in pointing in a different direction and yelling “NOT ME!” as loud as they can.

The Big Question

In the 1980s, readers were faced with the development of new, better, and more expensive comic books in a seemingly infinite number of formats and prices — almost all of them different from the comic books they were buying (or maybe not buying) just a few years before. Comic readers had to take a careful look at each individual graphic novel, trade paperback collection, Prestige format miniseries, 12-issue maxi-series, upscale format special, or “hardcover” or “softcover” versions of their comics. In each case, customers had to decide “Is this worth it?”

In the 1980s, with the explosion of talent and new projects and new ways to tell and present stories, in most cases, the answer was “Yes.” With elaboration, thoughts like “I’m excited by this idea/creator,” “This publisher has a pretty good track record,” “ I loved the last thing they did, so I’m taking a chance on this,” “I have a few extra bucks and want to try something new,” or, just simply, “Wow!”

It’s 2010. The question is the same. “Is this worth it?”

What’s your answer?

____________________________

KC Carlson has been working in comics since 1972, where, at the age of 16, he was employed at the local magazine distributor, stripping the covers off unsold comics to return to the publishers. Since then, he has worked for DC Comics, Westfield Comics, Capital City Distribution, and many other places, either producing, distributing, or selling comics, as well as continuing to destroy comics at every step. These days, he usually always enjoys writing about them.

He is the sole author of the above thoughts. Written 10.10.10.

Classic covers come from the Grand Comics Database.

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USER COMMENTS11 Responses

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  1. KC Asks the Important Question » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] latest Westfield column looks at the history of comic price, production quality, and page count changes in the light of [...]

  2. Rich Johnston Says:

    It’s worth noting that many exclusive contracts guarantee a number of pages over a period of time. There also seems to be a concerted attempt to increase inventory. Both of which would make nonsense of the “weekends” spin in certain circumstances.

  3. WLLilly Says:

    Nice to see someone else remembered that 1970s number-of-pages/printing quality downward spiral !!!!!!!!!!!
    When did the 22-page length become standard , anyway ? I was sort of out of comics around the early 80s…

  4. John Benton Says:

    The only hitch in the “poor artists” discussion is that lately there appear to be no artists capable of completing twelve issues in a year. Every series I collect has been broken up with “guest artists” or some form of rotating creative team.

    Since your closing point is on whether recent comics are “worth it,” I’d point that out as a good indicator of why they may not be right now. The experience is too inconsistent, and fans can’t become attached to creative teams because they never know when they’re going to disappear on you.

    -J

  5. Eric Gimlin Says:

    I may be wrong, but I don’t think the initial page cut was to avoid raising prices; it was due to wartime paper rationing. This of course created a bad precedent which later was followed.

  6. Sunday Brunch: 10/24/10 | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources Says:

    [...] ITEM! KC Carlson asks: is the big price drop worth it? He examines some history of comics pricing and page count: [...]

  7. Speed Reading « Speed Force Says:

    [...] Westfield comics’ KC looks back at the history of comics pricing. [...]

  8. Sunday Brunch: 10/24/10 -Buzz Mixx Says:

    [...] ITEM! KC Carlson asks: is the big price drop worth it? He examines some history of comics pricing and page count: [...]

  9. Patrick Rennie Says:

    The comic publishing companies that survive will have to decide if they’re in the business of selling the package or the content. If it’s the package, your company goes under when the packaging isn’t popular enough. If it’s content, you profit by spreading it out over as many different packagings as possible without stealing too much profit from the other formats. So novels have hardbacks, trade paperbacks, mass market paperbacks, and ebooks. Movies have regular movie theaters, Imax, DVD, BluRay, pay television, commerical television, pay on-demand, and Netflix.

    This seems to be the year that all the big comic publishers have taken the plunge and added a decent electonic format. I banged on them for years for their terrible web presence, but now I’m not sure they were wrong. The industry leaders on the webcomic side are all daily comedies. Drama has a presence, but it’s about the same degree as the average newspaper comic page. Drama just does better in larger chunks, like a 22 page monthly or a full trade sized story.

    Now if they’ll just drop the DRM, we might actually get a format that won’t be obsolete in five years.

  10. Westfield Comics Blog » KC Column: Part 1 of 1 Says:

    [...] not, go here now.) I discussed how it relates to cover price, format, and comics publishing history last time in my column. This time around, I want to throw out a few more ideas and concepts to finish up the subject so I [...]

  11. Westfield Comics Blog » 10 Things I Find Reasonable About January ‘11 Comics (and a couple I don’t) Says:

    [...] on their promises and dropping many of their cover prices back down to $2.99 (although I have a couple of qualms about how they’re doing that). It’s a little unfortunate that DC neglected to announce in their [...]

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