As global recession looms, the price of our entertainment has become even more important to us. Entertainment, as a general rule, is supposed to be recession-proof, because people want things to cheer them up after they’ve just seen their house get repossessed. Comics, especially, were considered recession-proof because of how cheap they were – during the last recession, an issue of a Marvel or DC comic would set you back no more than a couple of dollars, and were frequently priced under a pound in the UK.
Not so these days. A shrinking market, coupled with expensive production, is driving comic prices ever-upwards. The price of an individual Marvel comic is already creeping up to $3.99 for a regular sized issue – 32 pages, with approximately 20-24 of story and the rest made up of ads. Once Marvel raises its prices, DC is rarely far behind. It’s a massive jump from the previous standard price of $2.99, which has been maintained for a couple of years now, but it seems that this may actually be the point that comics are finally becoming too expensive for most buyers.
For the first time, when the recession hits in full, comics will actually be an expensive enough luxury that they make enough of a dent in someone’s income to justify being cut out. It’s a difficult matter – the apparent response should be to concentrate on the quality of what you buy rather than the price of it – but that logic only extends so far. The proportional, rather than absolute value of a comic should be considered, because the price of individual issues is already rising well above inflation. Even the cheapest are far more expensive than they would’ve been a few years ago. If the price increases continue, combined with meritocratic purchasing, then eventually, the only comics readers left will be those with deep pockets or incredibly high standards. Hardly an ideal situation.
Increasingly, then, the smart way to buy comics is not to get the individual issues at all – collections are often much cheaper, contain no adverts, and while they come out less frequently, you get more story when you do buy one. After all, most comics released these days aren’t single-issue stories in their own right, but chapters of a larger work – would anyone buy novels in this format, knowing that it’ll work out more expensively? Publishers seem oddly determined to make buying monthly comics a stupid choice. If every comics reader stopped buying monthlies, though, the industry would probably collapse overnight. Monthly readers are essential to the big publishers’ cashflow, so we’re told, but if that’s the case, why are they the first ones to feel the burden of higher prices?
I’ve been buying comics for well over a decade, and the last year or so is the first time I’ve found myself dropping books for financial reasons. I’m a huge fan of Brian Wood, but after buying the first 3 issues of the fantastic Northlanders – each issue costing $2.99 each – I discovered that the eventual collection of the first 8 issues would be only $9.99. As much as I wanted to read it monthly, I just couldn’t afford to keep buying the single issues at that massive a mark-up. From now on, I’m getting the series in trade format.
Admittedly, that’s an extreme example, because Vertigo (Northlanders’ publishers) price the collections low to increase interest, but it illustrates perfectly how Marvel and DC seem to place the squeeze on monthly buyers in the hope that they’ll fund a more mass market collection that they can stock in Borders or on Amazon. Northlanders joins some of my favourite series – comics like Buffy and Ultimate Spider-Man – as ones which I only read every few months when a collection comes out.
“Waiting for the trade” (as it’s called) isn’t without its moral dilemmas, of course. In the case of some series, monthly sales are all that keeps them from being cancelled – without the monthly support, there might never be a trade paperback to wait for. Creators, too, might rely on the income monthly sales provide. Luckily, one trend on the rise for independent creators is to add “backmatter” into individual issues which then doesn’t appear in the trade. Essays and sketches are inexpensive to print in an issue, but excluded from trade collections, they reward monthly supporters of a series without damaging the integrity of the story on offer.
This kind of imaginative approach to single-issue presentation is one way to ensure that monthlies remain a viable format. Ultimately, if bigger publishers want to soften the blow of price increases, then perhaps they should take a leaf out of what smaller ones do and provide content that isn’t little more than thinly-veiled in-house advertising, and start thinking about whether they’re going to offer anything in return for that extra dollar – otherwise, they’re just going to give us another reason not to go into the comic shop this week.
James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous column can be found here.