Are Comic Books Dying?

Ask the average passerby how much a comic book costs now, and you’ll probably get a price ranging from $1.25 to $2.00 (along with the standard “I remember when they were only 12/35/50 cents” rejoinder, depending upon the person’s age and affability).

What you probably won’t hear is $3.99. And that, my friend, is the newsstand price of many Marvel comics right now.

I know, the price of everything else has skyrocketed, so why should comics be immune? Somehow though, this jump just seems flagrantly wrong. For one, it appears to be vastly exceeding the rate of inflation. Plus, we’re talking about comics, something historically perceived as inexpensive.

Something needs to be done—stat! Everyone has his or her own breaking point on pricing, and I think four bucks not only hurdles across that line, but turns around and spits in its face, too. And judging by the reaction of others, I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Are comics as we know them on a death march?

If you only visit comic stores for your monthly fix, or order them over the Internet, this price jump may be news to you, as the cover price there remains at $2.99 (at least for now). As I understand it, this is because newsstands can return unsold stock, while comic specialty stores can’t. The publishers run a higher risk shipping to newsstands, thus the higher pricing.

But everyone doesn’t have a local comic store, or buy enough titles to warrant a “pull list” at an Internet store.

Think about the casual fan, or the parent of a child who has just watched Iron Man and would like to read more about his new hero. Will these potential customers be completely shut out by this pricing? One would think so. I can’t see how this move will help the industry overall, especially when we’re deep in a recession. When it comes between choosing to eat or buying Weapon X, Wolverine has met his match.

Even before the recent increase, many readers have dropped monthly comics in lieu of trade paperbacks that collect multiple issues—often with better paper and no ads. In the comics world, trades are akin to DVD season box sets. You can either watch Lost week by week (like the floppies), or all at once without the ads (hello, Mr. Trade Paperback). More and more, people are opting for the latter. And who can blame them? Trade paperbacks are usually a better deal in terms of cost and format.

This poses the question: If sales of monthly titles bottom out, will they remain around for future trades/omnibus editions to collect? No more trades would effectively leave only the hardest of the hardcore comic aficionados as monthly customers—with very few new customers.

Goofy editorial decisions like the One More Day fiasco aside, I grant the businesspeople at Marvel with the intelligence and foresight to resolve the issue. As a possible panacea, they offer Marvel Digital Comics with an “all you can eat” subscription plan.

However, many back issues are not currently included. I had a difficult time locating any of the most recent and popular issues (e.g., Civil War # 1 and 2 are there, but not the rest of the series). Since recent titles would be the easiest to port over to the Web, one would think these would be the first to go up. Perhaps there’s a moratorium in place to prevent the sales cannibalization of the trades or monthly titles. If so, I’m not so sure this path is the way to go.

I think the audience for digital and those for print are two entirely different demographics. Digital books can be a hard sell to those who grew up with print; many—especially comic collectors—still want to hold the physical book in their hands and see it sitting on a shelf. The omission of recent issues in digital is only providing these potential customers with yet another reason to stay away from that format.

I haven’t bought a single issue of any comic for some time, and the high price is the prevailing factor. Perhaps comics, as we know them, will soon be a thing of the past. The real money appears to be made in licensing the characters to films, videogames, toys, etc., and Marvel is a business with all of the usual corporate needs to survive. But I can’t help but wonder if the public’s interest in the characters will remain strong if their intellectual properties aren’t properly nurtured.

No future titles may equal no future interest.

Even though I’m not a mainstay reader—Peter Bagge’s Hate and the Robotech titles were canceled a long time ago!—I don’t want to see comics die. But I, like many, am afraid that forking over $3.99 for what essentially amounts to 10 minutes of reading pleasure (at best) simply isn’t a sound decision. Especially when too many of The Big Two‘s current storylines only appear to be money grabs or stunts.

What’s your take on this? Should monthly comics go all-digital with trade paperbacks collecting issues for those who prefer print? Or should they take the manga route, dumping the slick paper for cheap newsprint (and lower cover prices)? And, if $3.99 is okay with you, what about $4.99 or $5.99?

I’m sure Spidey would love to hear your replies.

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