Jan 21 2009 6:20pm

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.

Tony Bussert
1. KingBoo
I get my weekly pull. I probably spend anywhere from $30.00-$50.00 per week. We are also getting ready to try to have a kid (we are in our early 30's). I work in tech and my wife is a librarian who actually writes about comics. I'm about ready to dumb all my pulls in the interest of saving money for the kid, which means I probably won't pass down my interest since it will pretty much vanish once I don't have the money to spend on them anymore. I think that is what will kill the comics industry unless they dramatically change something. I like the idea of going all digital and doing small numbers of trades. This would effectively kill off the local comic shop, which would suck, but I think it's necessary. They can barely make any profit as it is and the publishers and distributors just make it harder on them. With prices going up to $4.00 per issue the local shop is just not going to survive.

Your comment about the brevity of pleasure vs. price sure hits home. I can spend $1.00-$2.00 more on a good fantasy/scifi softcover and get at least a weeks worth of reading from it. Much better ROI. Or I can just go to the library and check them out for free. While I can also do that with comics, they are far behind and usually just trades.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
A digital archive is a nice bonus, for sure, but I think there will always be a need for the printed form. That said, I don't know why they think it's justifiable to hike the prices that far. I think they'll shoot themselves in the foot, doing that.
Edward Bear
3. sehlat
I'm perfectly happy with downloadable PDFs, as long as they're not drm-infested to limit me to a specific machine. If I buy comics these days, I get them (watermarked, which I find quite acceptable) via Drive Through Comics or the artists' websites. I just wish to hell Dark Horse would wake up and make James Hogan's magnificent "Two Faces of Tomorrow" manga-style story available in this format.

To be blunt, treeware comics are dead.
4. Ciatlynn
My favorite thing to do it go to conventions. They always have tones of dollar bins that allow me to go kind of crazy without breaking the bank. However i can see how that would a be problem for those who are truly dedicated to comics because it's not always a huge selection. I've only recently got into comics and to be honest i have always gone for the trade paperback for my reading... it's a more economical way to get quickly into the story line i've found myself interested in.
But i still say Pop culture conventions all the way. Not only can you get cheap comics but i always find that the vendors like to give me Swag with their company name on it.
5. davidellis
I stopped buying comics because of the price quite a while ago. There are plenty of good comics out there from what I occasionally see while browsing at newstands or from what I check out at the library in trade paperbacks (and hardcovers).

But I'm not willing to pay those prices.
Heather Massey
6. sfrgalaxy
Thanks for reading everyone!

King, many feel the same about videogames’ ROI. A $20 game that provides a month’s worth of entertainment can stretch someone’s dollars far more than five comics and one hour of reading.

David, that’s exactly how I feel, too. When both kids AND working adults are priced out of the comics market, who’s left? I just hope the industry isn’t so infatuated with Hollywood that it forgets who really butters its bread.
Dayle McClintock
7. trinityvixen
I stopped buying comics when they were $2-3 because I thought that those prices were outrageous. $4? Who are they kidding? I also stopped buying comics because they ceased to be their own realm and were given over to adopting things from the films based on them (vicious cycle) in order to attract non-collectors to the market. Marvel and others took their core audience for granted and assumed that they would like everything about the movies they made because it was tossing a previously marginalized group a bone. Except that that group wasn't grateful--at least, not enough to tolerate the comics being movie-fied.

However, it doesn't surprise me that none of this has penetrated with the execs. I think you give Marvel too much credit for having any business sense at all. Their two films with their own studio were wracked with problems because Marvel is being run by tight-fisted SOBs who bite the hand that feeds. They're dicking everyone on money (witness Jon Favreau's barely being hired back despite what he did for Iron Man; buh-bye Terrence Howard; go to hell, Ed Norton) at the same time that they are losing new-comic business, which means they will eventually have a finite and low amount of material from which to make movies. Now, with forty-odd years of comics to choose from, you can make a bunch of movies about the same characters over and over, but the profit will dry up as people get bored of the same-old, same-old. Which means the only way for them to stay afloat is to hawk the same shit over and over or find new characters (again, hello Iron Man) to bring to the theater for people. If they don't make new stuff, how the hell will they counter-act the boredom with the mainstays of their universes?

Moreover, what happens when the comic book hero phase of movies burns out, as it inevitably will? They're not planning for the future at all. This is how we got into a recession in the first place. Vicious cycle, like I said.
8. Patrick Rennie
Comics are in a transition period, but the artform itself is doing fine. Newspaper comics have following the general decline of that industry and were dinosaurs even before that. Floppies are still holding their own even at 3.99, which was the cover price of many of the top ten last year. The bubble on manga has finally popped, but it grew enough that it’s clearly going to remain part of the American comic scene. The webcomics industry is still undergoing a period of explosive growth even if the traditional big two of the artform, DC and Marvel, are dragging their feet.

I expect the days of floppies as the entry point for new readers is mostly over no matter what the price because most new readers are coming in from manga and webcomics. New readers for Superman and Batman are coming from cartoons and movies – and a probably buying the better deal for trades from Borders anyways. I expect the floppies will survive, but mostly for the collectors market for those who want to collect the format (instead of dinnerware with scenes from Star Trek painted on them because people will collect all sorts of absurd things).

My comic book shop has already made the transition. While it still carries a wide range of current floppies, its selection of trades dwarfs its collection of back issues even though it doesn’t even carry much manga.
Alexander Gieg
9. alexgieg
I've stopped purchasing the super-hero genre around two years ago. Not because of price, but for lack of creativity. It's reached a point I roughly know how the story or a whole saga will end after reading three pages, so what's the point?

Example: I remember a JLA story from a few years ago where the heroes (Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Etcman...) went to the past, battled some villain, lost, for some reason had to die an be locked in ghoul form (fully awake, mind you, no boring millennia-long hibernation) inside a cave for 3000 years, to emerge in the present, fight the villain again, win and be resurrected. Well, if this was a good story you'd think that after three THOUSAND years having nothing but reflecting and talking to each other, any human or human-like would come out either crazy, or with a completely changed outlook on the meaning of life, maybe both, or whatever. Evidently, they come out of it exactly as they've always been, no personal growth or development of any kind. And even before you start reading you knows that's how the (non-)story will unfold.

So, nowadays I still find myself at best browsing the latest issue of Ultimate Spider-Man, The Ultimates or Supreme Power, but even those are already moving towards the the average (lack of) quality they originally intended to surpass, so no sales to me.

Now, in the non-super-hero genres I've been pleased with Dark Horse's Conan and the Dark Tower-inspired series. Not to mention mangas. In fact, most of my comics purchases nowadays are of mangas. Sure, many, specially those targeted at male adolescents (shonen), are kind of repetitive rehashes of the same formulas, but there's still lots of creativity in the field, with actual character development and events that actually matter, and everything at a very good "pages per dollar" rate when compared to American comics.

Super-hero comics aren't doomed because of their price, although this surely helps to speed the process. They're doomed simply because they don't know how to change in a way that catches to the imagination of both new and old readers.
10. MarkDGuppy
Chalk me up as another person who would rather buy a trade than a floppy. A big part of it is the price, but another problem is a serious lack of diversity. I'll jump on anything that is published by Peter Bagge, and I was thrilled when they updated the Haunted Tank and brought back Booster Gold. Quite apart from the price, there is a serious glut in terms of characters like Batman and Wolverine crowding out everything else.
11. Dotan
It's worth mentioning Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield's Freakangels, which is released as a free, weekly webcomic online, but also collected into trades from Avatar press (the first one was published recently).

It seems like a field-test of a model that could potentially replace the floppies.
Chris Meadows
12. Robotech_Master
I've never bought comic books. They seem too much like the literary version of cigarettes to me: you have to keep shelling out month after month, you pay a lot of money for the little story you get, and you can't exactly go to a library to see what happened if you miss an issue.

As literary tastes change over time, old media drop out and new media are created. It may be about time for comic books to go the way of pulp magazines and be replaced by digital versions.

Of course, it's hard to say whether "about time" is a matter of years or decades…
13. overtheseatoskye
One advantage to trades that hasn't been mentioned: they have resale value. If I buy a trade and get tired of it, I can take it to the used bookstore or put it up on Amazon. In contrast, comic issues are so much rag paper - more like old magazines than books. There are a few exceptions, but I've got 10 longboxes in the basement that follow the rule.
14. ken8472
I stopped buying comics in the mid-nineties. This decision was mostly predicated by a growing disinterest in the genre as everything starting to look and read as clones of one another. From the art to the stories, there was simply no more variety to me anymore.

I was also motivated to quit because of the expense involved. Even at $2.00 per book, I was spending $30 to $50 per week! Something had to give and I had no choice but to walk away. I still miss it from time to time when watching the movies made from my favorite titles.

So, how could the comics industry save itself and re-energize the genre? Well, building on the ideas already posted here, here's my take:

1) Partner with Amazon (or Sony) and build a KindleComics reader. This would be a full color, electronic tablet that might incorporate a few minor animations and sound into the comics. Imagine a 'read-along' feature for sight-impaired collectors, or just helping kids to learn to read.

2) ALL new comics can be downloaded as PDFs to the KindleComics Reader for a nominal fee; perhaps $1 each. Your comics collection is now all digital and can be saved to your computer. A definite plus for those of us with dozens of long boxes taking up valuable space in our homes.

3) Utilize a Print On Demand service to allow collectors to buy issues that they want. Increase the price as the issue's value increases. After a certain period, stop offering that issue for print to maintain its rarity and value.

Let's face it, in any collection, there's really only a small percentage of those comics that are truly valuable. The rest usually sell for well below book value. Let collectors choose which issues they want to archive and which they just want to read for fun on their device.

Of course, this plan will essentially kill your local comic book shop, unless they are somehow incorporated into the downloading flow (e.g., you still go to the shop to download your comics), but I can't see that as an efficient strategy. Comics shops would probably have to close their brick and mortar stores and sell their back-issues online. It wouldn't be a total loss, but in all industries, new technologies and changing demands simply make others obsolete. Maybe it's inevitable that this was going to happen.

Given the popularity that comic book movies are enjoying right now, I would suggest that this is the perfect time to funnel those profits into the R&D of such a device and service.

Just my two cents. I'm eager to hear what everyone else thinks.
15. CBot
I'd always been a casual-to-regular comics kid growing up but put it aside in high school. In the past couple of years, I've been getting back into it but I only ever buy Trades -- No exceptions. The price point is much more reasonable, especially with the kinds of discounts online retailers can offer. Secondly, its just a better reading experience. At this point, I can't imagine reading 1/6th or so of a story every month. I'd much rather read the whole thing in a couple of hours on nice paper, etc. Not to mention that trades can actually be put on a bookshelf and remain easily accessible. Boxes of floppies can't compare.
Will Monthlies go away? I think so, in time. It'll take more of a shift towards bookstores, but as the direct market (comic specialty shops who live on monthlies) loses more and more market share, I think it'll happen. I, for one, won't miss them.
As for digital -- I'm not sure. I'm much more inclined to read text digitally on my Sony Reader than I am to look at comic scans on my laptop screen, but I think that's just a matter of the technology catching up to a point where a nice, not-backlit color screen (like e-ink) can be developed. What I think will never go away though, is print-on-demand availability for all the stuff that is going digital. I think readers will always like to have their favourites on a book shelf.


Dave Thompson
16. DKT
Trades are the future; you're spot on with the box set analogy. Besides, what kid today is going to wait a whole month (if the publishers meet the deadline - heh) to figure out how Spider-man will survive getting shot in the chest by Nick Fury?

I'm hopeful that the future will be more trade driven, so they come out like mini-series or seasons. I imagine that will also give comics writers and artists a whole different level of creativity (although writing monthlies certainly provides its own share of creative challenges).
Pablo Defendini
17. pablodefendini
I'm hopeful that the future will be more trade driven, so they come out like mini-series or seasons. I imagine that will also give comics writers and artists a whole different level of creativity

Spot-on. That's my feeling exactly. Scheduling creative runs around trades, like, say, Marvel has been doing with Astonishing X-Men (most notably with the excellent Whedon/Cassiday run) lends itslef to more cohesive storytelling.
Dayle McClintock
18. trinityvixen
Of course, this plan will essentially kill your local comic book shop, unless they are somehow incorporated into the downloading flow (e.g., you still go to the shop to download your comics), but I can't see that as an efficient strategy. Comics shops would probably have to close their brick and mortar stores and sell their back-issues online. It wouldn't be a total loss, but in all industries, new technologies and changing demands simply make others obsolete. Maybe it's inevitable that this was going to happen.

It sure seems inevitable. Look at Nobody Beats the Wiz, Sam Goody, or Circuit City, even, closing up shop. They were, save maybe Circuit City, heavily dependent on music sales to make their money. Along comes iTunes, and they're gone. (Circuit City failed in competition with Best Buy for the most part, but they also faulted in competition against online retailers for computers, one of their big sections.) This is a crisis facing publishing across the board, too, not just comic books. Borders might be next.

And yet? There are still a lot of holdouts. Streaming video has taken off, but purchased movies that exist SOLELY as digital copies have not. Things that are judged as "more expensive" (as opposed to $1 songs, etc.) make people nervous and they want backups. With literature and graphic novels, many people enjoy and even depend on the tactile connection with the page and the art. (In addition, some just can't read off screens for very long, no matter how gentle they are on the eye.) I think that's why the trade will trump the download, as DVD box sets still trump downloads. (Legal ones, I should say; given the amount of bandwidth dedicated to illegal downloads, it probably dwarfs legal DVD purchases. Then again, most bit torrented files don't tend to stick around--they're only for people who don't have TiVo or wanted to catch up on something. The majority of people I know who do illegal downloads end up deleting the file later.)
19. agent_torpor
Anyone who endorses digital comics is not a true comic guru. I defy anyone to have a quality experience on the toilet with your laptop, as opposed to a handy issue floppy.
20. agent_torpor
"If I buy a trade and get tired of it, I can take it to the used bookstore or put it up on Amazon."

Unless it's a heavy-demand TPB, you're not gonna fetch a quarter of the price you paid for the thing. Resale value is largely nil.

And a used bookstore will give you pennies on the dollar for the thing.
Dayle McClintock
21. trinityvixen
@19+20: I'm with you on the tactility issue, but I think you're wrong on the resale value, especially in floppies vs. TPBs. Now that Amazon and the like streamline the used book business, you can see fully half your money back on a TPB because you don't have to sell it cheaper to someone who then sells it again for a profit. You pocket the entire profit. (No middle man!) Floppies, on the other hand, are hard to sell as single issues unless they're exceedingly rare and worth a lot of money. In which case you're not talking about the kinds of comics upon which the future of the business depends but on the past from which it was built.
Pablo Defendini
22. pablodefendini
I defy anyone to have a quality experience on the toilet with your laptop

At the risk of providing TMI, I have to take umbrage with your statement. As a life-long bathroom reader, and someone who practically lives on the internet, I have plenty of quality experience with my laptop on the toilet (and no, I'm not talking about porn, thanks much. Get your minds out of the gutter!).

This aversion to reading off of a screen is an affectation of people older than, say, 20 (and I'm being generous here), and it's quickly becoming a quaint one, at best.

As some have mentioned above, once e-readers develop into a foldable, full-colour, high-resolution tabloid-size (or thereabouts), possibly touchscreen display capable of downloading new content every day, the floppies—along with daily printed newspapers and glossy print magazines—are dead, dead, dead. If this sounds too science-fictional, and if you'll excuse the self-pimpage, allow me to point you in the direction of a nifty proof of concept recently displayed at CES.
23. PaulG
I am a exclusive buyer of collections of monthlies. I spend anywhere from $50-$300 a month depending on what is coming out that month, and I am not anywhere close to my Comic Shop's top buyer. I am of the opinion that the monthlies could stop being published tomorrow and it wouldn't effect my comic love at all! In fact, collections (as Hardbacks and Trade Paperbacks) actually give Comics a place in Bookstores (Barnes & Noble, etc.) and could actually increase sales and advertise to a whole other group of readers.

Watchman and other great selling Graphic Novels proves that the market is still strong. Several monthlies that have bad sales actually have really good TPB sales, so are kept around for that reason alone.

The real reason people think comics are dying is that technology and brainwashed masses that don't know how to use their frontal lobes don't know how (or are too lazy) to read and use their imaginations! But...there are still enough of us dreaming Nerds too hold up the industry for another 50 years at least!
Dave Robinson
24. DaveRobinson
First, we already have a perfectly good reading format for digital comics and it's not PDF. I'm talking about CBR/CBZ which are basically just jpegs in a zipped or rared container format. It's not the same as a floppy or even a trade, but it's perfectly readable and much more user-friendly than PDF would be.

You can find a whole bunch of Public Domain comics at and see what I mean.

As to the price, what's truly scary is looking at Marvel's April 2009 solicitations: 57% of their output for that month is $3.99 and above in the comic shops. (Currently most of their titles are $2.99 in comic shops and $3.99 on the newsstands.) I don't know what the newsstand prices are going to be. Meanwhile, DC has only 14% of their titles for that month priced at $3.99 and above. What makes this particularly pernicious is that a large number of Marvel's $3.99 comics are standard 32 page floppies with 22 pages of story. DC does have a few such, but much fewer than Marvel and all of their standard-sized $3.99 titles are licensed comics.

I started buying comics in 1974 - and at that time I could buy anywhere from four to six comics for the price of a paperback - now I'm lucky to get two for the price of a paperback.

They're definitely pricing themselves out of the market.

I'm now in the position where a $75.00 slipcased hardcover is easier to justify to the SO than a floppy - she sees the value in the hardcover.

It's not looking good for the industry, and Marvel is by far the worst when it comes to this.
Madeline Ferwerda
25. MadelineF
I stopped buying comics in 1992-3 ish when I got sick of how Everything! Was! Bleak! We're so very hip!

Since then, knowing that was a fad that's bound to have passed, I've made a few runs at getting back into comics: drop $9-12, get 3-4 different ones... And they're all a tiny amount of pretty bland story.

Also, when a comic is full of ridiculously shaped women, in ludicrous clothes, who do stupid things, I stop reading it even if it's free and provided to me instantly via the internet.
26. agent_torpor
Also, when a comic is full of ridiculously shaped women, in ludicrous clothes, who do stupid things, I stop reading it even if it's free and provided to me instantly via the internet.

Oh no, we gonna do one of those tired feminism du comique rants now? Wake me up when your umbrage passes. ZZZzzzz
27. agent_torpor
@19+20: I'm with you on the tactility issue, but I think you're wrong on the resale value, especially in floppies vs. TPBs. Now that Amazon and the like streamline the used book business, you can see fully half your money back on a TPB because you don't have to sell it cheaper to someone who then sells it again for a profit. You pocket the entire profit. (No middle man!) Floppies, on the other hand, are hard to sell as single issues unless they're exceedingly rare and worth a lot of money. In which case you're not talking about the kinds of comics upon which the future of the business depends but on the past from which it was built.

Take a look at Amazon used prices for standard tpbs. You're not getting a great return on your "investment".
Dayle McClintock
28. trinityvixen
Oh no, we gonna do one of those tired feminism du comique rants now? Wake me up when your umbrage passes. ZZZzzzz

Considering that the comic book industry need all the readers it can get, the content of their books does have some bearing on their economic future. Just as you might be turned off by limp stories or cliched characters, many are turned off by hyper-exaggerated physiques. (I'm thinking of the runaway period where I think Jim Lee gave the Cap'n boobs.) If they need every reader, they can ill afford to continue hostilities in this fashion.

My point is that it's not a rant to question their business model from the art up. You can have the best business model in the world, but if the product is crappy or offensive, people won't purchase it.

@27: Still better than you'd get on the floppies. Also, books are hardly investments these days, trades or floppies both. The mistake of the 1990s boom was that people thought they could buy up the new stuff and make a profit off it.
Nathalie Gray
29. Nat
About Iron Man and its post-movie comics. When we saw the movie with our ten-year-old son, he was so STOKED to know this superhero had a truckload of comics in its past. He was salivating to get his hands on everything with his new favourite character. But at the store, he quickly changed his tune when he saw each issue going for 4$. Kid gets 5$ a week for allowance. So instead, he prints images of Iron Dude from the Internet and colors them. Not as shiny cool as holding a comics in his hands, but he still gets a kick out of trying to match colors and shadows.

Comics used to be the one thing you could buy as a kid that didn't cost all your allowance (and I *am* dating myself here). Not anymore, I guess.
Anthony Ha
30. AnthonyHa
I agree with most of the ideas here, and indeed recently decided to stop buying the few floppies that I was still purchasing and wait for the trades (the ending of All Star Superman was a bit of a tipping point) ... but it's rather odd to read a post titled "Are Comic Books Dying?" that doesn't mention the sales of a single comics title.

As Patrick Rennie notes, the 10 best-selling comics of the year are almost exclusively priced $3.99; despite the higher price, they sold 150,000+ copies each and outsold many cheaper books. ( Again, that doesn't *disprove* your points, but to speculate about sales bottoming out without discussing actual numbers basically forces us to extrapolate from our own feelings and those of random fans on the Internet. Which is maybe not the best way to go.
Heather Massey
31. sfrgalaxy
Wow, y'all have been busy!

Anthony, thanks for commenting! I originally included more comparative data on the sales and Marvel’s bankruptcy filing in the mid 90s, but I felt the post was growing too long to sustain most readers’ interest. Having said that, 150,000 for a best selling title is quite low historically. Some titles used to sell in excess of one million per month.

Comics aren’t going away next month, or the month after that. But as Nat’s point illustrates (breaking my heart in the process), they’re priced out of the range of kids, so you have no new incoming fans (bad news). And when many hardcore adult fans—people who have been reading comics for over 30 years—collectively throw up their hands, I have to wonder who’s left (REALLY bad news).

As a fan of the medium in general, I’m concerned. Perhaps, as some suggest, the industry is now in Shyamalan mode—dead and it doesn’t know it. I’d like to believe otherwise, but this current trending doesn’t appear to bear that out.

The JLA and Avengers’ clarions are sounding loud and clear; I just hope someone answers the call.
Rajan Khanna
32. rajanyk
Add me to the list of people who used to collect and no longer does. Partly is was because of the rising prices - I could get more value from a book at a better enjoyment to price ratio - and partly because I started to realize that a lot of the comics I was reading weren't that great. I pick up trades now which look better on my bookshelf, give me a storyline in one shot (with exceptions) and which I can gauge based on buzz ahead of time. I can, say, ask my friends who read monthlies how Iron Fist is and then make my choice accordingly. I do, however, see the costs of trades increasing, too - it's still paper and printing after all.

As to the future of comic books, what really bothers me is the trend by the larger companies to play to their base. I understand that for financial reasons, they need to grab hold of the current audience. But increasingly it seems like that's all they're doing, often at the expense of making things accessible to new readers. The cost has already been mentioned. But lately we've had a lot of dredging up of older storylines. Heavy continuity-based series, crossovers, etc. All of these things are fine and appeal to people like me who have the background and have been reading comics for decades. But there seems little balance between things for the new reader.

I realize I'm making generalizations here, but I do think that the mainstream comics industry has worked its way into a corner and they need to try to find a way out if they want to grow. I don't know that they're in danger of dying - not with the movies doing as well as they're doing - but I think something needs to change.
Dayle McClintock
33. trinityvixen
All of these things are fine and appeal to people like me who have the background and have been reading comics for decades. But there seems little balance between things for the new reader.

Really? I left off with comics in the earlier part of this decade because I thought it was suffering from the exact opposite problem--i.e. that the comics were being overly invaded by story lines and art that were deliberate sops to non-comic followers. Costumes changed, Rogue had an alias "Anna" (as in Paquin?), and Marvel alone launched the Ultimates line to give new readers a new version of characters they wanted to know but didn't have the time/money/inclination to read about over the 40 years of their history. Don't get me wrong--I loved Ultimate Spider-Man for a good long run, but after a while the new and old titles catering to new people bored me to tears, and I walked.
Rajan Khanna
34. rajanyk
I think that was their attempt to bring in the movie-watching audience which doesn't seem to have worked too well. Granted I'm not as immersed in the comic world as I once was, it seems like they are more concerned with their core audience these days. I mean Marvel is planning a follow-up to the Inferno crossover of 1989! I remember that (mostly fondly) but how is that new reader friendly when you have to have knowledge of a 20 year old crossover to get everything out of a series? DC returned to the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths with Infinite Crisis. Now there are collections of these things if new readers want to get caught up, but that seems like a poor way to get someone to try something out.
Nathalie Gray
35. Nat
"But increasingly it seems like that's all they're doing, often at the expense of making things accessible to new readers."

Exactly! When I grow up, maybe I can express myself this concisely.
Dave Thompson
36. DKT

Actually it was Rob Liefield that gave Cap the boobs. Jim Lee's illustrations of boobs tended to be ridiculous, too, but he knew enough to keep boobs exclusively on women. Just sayin'.

Also, I feel like I should point out that unless there's an incredible writer I like (Grant Morrison, Bendis, Joss Whedon, or David Mack) I'm less inclined to pick up a superhero comic I grew up with, like the X-Men or Batman. (Daredevil seems to be the exception -- they had a consistently good run of writing for about 100 issues. Although to be fair, I didn't grow up reading him.) Mostly now I'm reading Vertigo books or series that seem to have an endpoint.
Jon Evans
37. rezendi
Your timing is eerily good - TheMediaIsDying, a usually (though not always) reliable source, just reported major layoffs at DC.
Pablo Defendini
38. pablodefendini
Yeah. I'd like to find whoever originally hired Rob Liefeld and punch him in the fa—err, give him a stern talking-to. Actually, I'd like to find whoever is still giving that hack paying gigs and do the same. Jim Lee at least has a solid grasp of anatomy, which comes from spending some time in pre-med, if I remember my "How to Draw Comics" videos correctly (remember those, hosted by Stan Lee? I ate 'em up with a spoon when I was young). Also from those videos, McFarlane's advice: "When in doubt: black it out!" Classic.
René Walling
39. cybernetic_nomad
I'm a longtime reader of Bandes dessinées (aka BD, ie European "comics" -- think Tintin and Astérix, but also Valerian, Thorgal, XXIII and more). I was a latecomer to comics and never got into the superhero thing big time -- oh, I've got my share of Batman, Wolverine and other superhero comics, but alternative comics (Drawn and Quarterly is one of my favourite publishers) and manga caught my eye much more, and I also never stopped reading BD.

On a worldwide scale, graphic storytelling is doing quite well. It's publishers who limit themselves both in format (floppies) and genre (superheroes and not much else) who are really hurting.

A look at how many girls -- a market segment entirely ignored by Marvel and DC -- have purchased mangas in the last decade shows just how much those companies have missed the boat. (And yes, I'm aware of he problems the manga glut is causing to that industry, but I daresay they have a better chance of surviving because of their broader audience.)
Dayle McClintock
40. trinityvixen
@36, 38: I knew someone would correct me in due course. I should always wiki these things before posting. Thanks!

@39: Guilty as charged of buying manga. However, I justify myself and my purchases in that I wasn't just fangirling over bishies or anything. Rather, I was guilty of the old "watch the movie, then read the book" behavior as the only manga I ever bought were ones from which anime series I loved were made. (And even then, I think I only ever bought two series, and not even completely and yes I'm defensive for no reason!)
41. v47
And why choose Marvel as the benchmark? Based on what I've seen when I've been at the shop, not only do you see stuff like traditional publishers breaking into the graphic storytelling market with manga or manga-related stuff or books like the reprints of Persepolis, it also seems that, despite consolidation in the publishing industry, there's a thriving indie scene....not just on the web, either. Looking at just one niche of the market is like saying that folks will be priced out based on what season collections cost...I admit I most read by borrowing, and when I used to have a monthly subscription box, there weren't many titles that made the cut.
42. ken8472
Everyone makes a good point about TB's being the future. I agree with that notion, but considering that most TB's run around $20 or more, they've effectively priced out the young kids. When an industry is dying out, the key is to gain MORE customers, not less.

I also agree that the tactile nature of the comic book is part of its charm. However, something is driving up their cost, whether it's increased printing fees, delivery or whatever.

Digital downloads, though not a perfect solution, might help save the industry. Expensive printing costs, materials, labor and delivery would all be a thing of the past (at the unfortunate expense of alot of jobs).

It might seem a little cold and bleak, but the digital download, coupled with an effective/stylish e-reader might bring comics back from the dead.
Rajan Khanna
43. rajanyk
@v47 The indie market took a blow recently, too. Diamond, the main distributor, just upped the minimum amount necessary (dollar amount) for them to distribute your work. The end result is that a lot of indies will have to raise their prices significantly and this could definitely hurt them in the market.
Pablo Defendini
44. pablodefendini
I think it's generous to call Diamond "the main distributor". For all practical purposes, they're the only game in town, and you're right, Raj, their raising their threshold amounts hurts the indies mightily. A perfect example is Meredith Gran's recent foray into distribution.
45. Lenny Bailes
#9 & #24: I'm also a habitual (on-again, off-again) reader of superhero comics. I feel the same sense of frustration expressed in #9: that the creative spark in the superhero genre is currently at a low ebb. But I'd like to raise the point that there *are* current exceptions to the general trend (at least for me).

I feel an acute sense of loss at the notion that current creative failures at DC and Marvel in the superhero genre may lead to the closure of that market. I want people like Darwyn Cooke, J.M. DeMatteis, Kurt Busiek, Paul Dini, Ron Marz, Len Wein, Chuck Dixon, Gail Simone, John Rogers, Mark Evanier, Neil when he's in the mood, (and occasionally Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Dan Jurgens, Fabien Nicenza, and Geoff Johns) to continue being able to find paying work in the superhero genre. I want to see them produce superhero comics in which they're free to live up to the top of their demonstrated potential. That goes for their associated artists, too: Darwyn Cooke again, Dan Jurgens again, Alex Ross, Sergio Aragones, Keith Giffen, Shawn McManus, Rick Veitch, Gene Ha, Jerry Ordway, John Totleben, Kevin Nowlan, and many others.

I'm longtime comic book reader who progressed from being a childhood omnivore, to a forty-year bypass of the entire superhero genre.

The appearance of Sandman in the early '90s reawakened my interest, and I quickly backtracked to absorb the easily-accessible portion of Alan Moore's output. Presto! I became a superhero comic fan again.

#24: I agree with the obvious superiority of the .CBR/.CBZ digital format for comics to PDF. (Basically, all this consists of is placing the sequential JPEG images of each page into a ZIP or WINRAR archive that is decoded by a reader application. The Comic reader application (CDisplay is the most commonly used one for Windows) provides a number of user-friendly options: single or double-page spreads, ability to set height and width to accommodate different screen resolutions, adjust color settings, etc.)

It's my belief that economic forces may be one significant factor that's causing the disappointing creative efforts we're currently seeing from DC and Marvel, the two major publishers in the superhero field. I contributed some thoughts on this in an early comment thread on one of Jim Henley's posts

The rules are changing for publishers and creators in the comic book industry. There's much discussion about how it's no longer practical for them to distribute single issues that contain complete stories. My personal, subjective feeling about DC is that their Executive Editor, Dan DiDio, is shooting himself in the foot with his attempts to impose overarching, top-down editorial control on the DC writers and artists according to his own personal theories about what it takes to increase sales figures. The most interesting comics appearing from DC, these days, are ones not tied into the global framework DiDio is attempting to build, such as the Evanier/Aragones issues of "The Spirit".

I'm wondering whether the solution to both the price point and story quality problems might be for savvy executives in the Big Two publishers to set up a user-friendly electronic distribution system for almost *everything* that they publish. Marvel has taken some steps in this direction, but their solution isn't attractive enough, now, to lure a lot of the potential electronic constituency into leaving the pirate sites and their illegal .CBR/.CBZ releases.

FWIW, some of the pirate scanners place urgent messages in what they distribute, urging readers to buy the paper copies of anything they read and enjoy. I think that any successful electronic distribution scheme from DC and Marvel would want to include an "issue preview" feature, where you can sample some pages before buying. I know that I'd be willing to try a subscription to such a scheme from DC.

Some commenters in this thread have said that the paper and electronic buyer markets for comic books are separate and distinct. Certainly, that's true now. But I'm not sure it has to stay that way. (Someone smarter than I am may want to add a comment in this thread on why the forces that have driven the music industry to adapt electronic distribution would work differently for a user-friendly scheme in the comic book industry.)
46. Lenny Bailes
I wrote:
"Someone smarter than I am may want to add a comment in this thread on why the forces that have driven the music industry to adapt electronic distribution would work differently for a user-friendly scheme in the comic book industry."

OK. Obviously comic books are a visual experience, and there's no ancillary "portable comic viewer" industry akin to Sony and Apple's portable music players right now. Being a geek who does so many things through the computer, (listens to music, watches movies and tv shows, etc.) I tend to forget that everyone is not like me. Being able to read text on a Kindle is not exactly the same thing as looking at a comic book on one.

I wonder how much of the comic book buying market, we CDisplay users might become with good, legitimate electronic distribution systems for comics -- and whether a market for larger-screened portable comic book readers is something that might appear if good electronic distribution systems for comics became a reality. (This system might eventually be more cost-effective for comic book addicts with $50/mo. pull lists.
47. akaSylvia
At around age 10, my son started saving up his pocket money to buy comic books. I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I told him they were a waste of money and that he could get a book for just a little bit more that would last him much longer.

On the bright side, he ignored me and spent his money on the comics that he wanted (a wide and intriguing variety, now that I come to look at his bookshelf for reference). At 14, his reading material tends more towards books but he still does buy and enjoy comics as well.
48. MysaNal
We spent $50 a week at our local comics shop until I got laid off from my job last year. Economically, we just can't do it anymore. We've decided on the TPB route for stories that really catch our attention or writers we love.
49. Jan Scholl
Two years ago I just quit. I spent upwards of $150 a month with a 35% discount off the top. The stories no longer meant anything and the whole market was geared toward the art and slabbing. I don't miss any of it. I have a 50 year run of Superman (all titles) and may pass that on to a grandchild someday but the rest I will sell. Kinda sad, but I now need the cash to maybe move south.
50. Rubicant
Just took a look, and as I suspected, all the names I think of as big in the comic world are up on bit torrent, widely available for download. You can clearly see quite a few of them released in a PC viewer format each week at the same time.

If the comic books want to go the same way as over priced music, they are welcome to. But I think I already know the outcome.
51. Denise Dorman
Isn't it interesting that I won't think twice about spending that on a Starbucks coffee that lasts me 30 minutes, nor a subscription to Geek Monthly magazine or WIRED, but a comic, which requires SO much more talent (not just writing, layout & design, but also ILLUSTRATION, inking, coloring, lettering, etc.)is subject to such intense scrutiny over necessary price increases? Now's the time to be collecting them, because one day they will be gone. All gone. It breaks my heart.

Denise Dorman
Brandy Thomas
52. Roese
Just to comment on the tactile nature of comics and really books in general...Until there is a much better portable system to read them on at least some people will want a printed version. I, unfortunately am one of those people who if I spend too much time looking at a computer screen develop a pretty mean headache.

Also, does no one else read outside? I spend a lot of time reading outside, when at the lake, just sitting on the porch etc. as well as while waiting places or killing time over a lunch break. Most of the time I don't want to lug my laptop around with me just to read a book or comic. Or in the case of the lake who wants to take the risk of their electronics getting trashed.
53. RKB
What I wonder is why more comic book stores don't try to stay in business by way of the used book store method: have people bring back the comic books they don't want, pay them 10-15% of the original comic book price, and then put those comics in the dollar or two dollar bin. The comic book store would continue to sell new comics, just like some used books stores carry a selection of new books they know will sell. Young kids and teenagers who only have allowance money could also raid the used comic bin, thus be able to read and enjoy comic books. This would also draw the kids in to one or two new comics each month. Heck, I would go to the comic book store regularly if I could buy the comics I want used instead of right off the new shelf and I'm 31 years old. These days, the only time I can raid a 25-cent to a dollar bin is at comic book conventions, and they aren't exactly coming around where I live these days..
54. Tuke Togo
Denise, yes it'll be sad when the books go away, however as a comics fan, the current output mostly bores me, it seems that editorially the writers and artists are being shackled, so until the books are allowed to get better or at least more to my tastes I won't be buying them.
I stumbled on this article after having a similar conversation with a friend. I've been reading comics on and off again since the early 70s. I went all in during the 80s, and learned that were other interesting things out there besides superheroes - Krazy Kat, Terry and the Pirates, The Spirit, Little Nemo in Slumberland. And I also learned that I was spending too much money on books that I didn't care for. So I opted out and started buying trades. And honestly, the only superhero related stuff I bought recently was any book designed by Chip Kidd and Cooke's HB of The New Frontier.

I agree there is a serious lack of diversity in the comics industry, too many stories have become (in the wake of Year One and Dark Knight Returns) overly cynical, a lack of quality, the albatross that is continuity, and the high cost that prevents younger readers from reading. How many Spider-Man books are there and how many are really any good?

I don't mind paying money for something I feel is quality; hell I bought the Madman Gargantua, all the IDW Terry and the Pirates, and the Absolute New Frontier, but I have little appetite for being lured into spending money on floppies and slapdash crossovers so Marvel can fill their coffers.

For myself, I tried digital comics and I just can't do it. I bought some hardcopy editions and traded up to better editions, giving my first editions to friends. So the advantage of the trades are not always a resale value. Gifting a book or a trade is a great way of turning on friends to comics. Right now there isn't any mechanism worked out for sharing of gifting electronic media that uses DRM. And when all is said and done, I like stuff. And it's hard to fill a bookshelf with bits and bytes.

I don't know what they're going to do, but if they eliminate trades and push digital, I'm going to completely opt out. Honestly, I think if anything goes, it will most likely be the floppies. With the age demographic of comic book readers climbing (I read something like 38 years old), and with the economy being what it is, it's unlikely the industry can sustain themselves with a four dollar price-point--that's a whole lot of buck for suck a little bang.

57. Programmer #A-5
How to fix comics 100%, and it's as easy as pie.

1. NO MORE GRAPHIC NOVELS/TRADE PAPERBACK COLLECTIONS! I can't stress this enough, but the FRAGGIN' ADS pay for the comics. Get good prices for the ads in the book (there's 11 pages per 32-paged book + covers), and you have Point 2. And in reality, THESE DON'T ACTUALLY SELL! That's a fraggin' myth! Stop promoting this false myth! These are actually eating monies up from the publishers and retailers like no tomorrow, creating severe cases of dead inventory!

2. No comic book should be beyond $0.99! Period! I don't care if it's Tarot Witch of the Black Rose to Ultimate Spider-Man. Get those 11 pages of ad-space sold, get the price down.

3. Save paper. Cut the size down to "ashcan". Use a cheap, but keeps the ink on the sheet, think glossy cover page, and use thin, cheap newsprint for the interiors. Duh!

4. Make all stories self-contained with the monthly issue, and offer two or three stories, taking a page from Archie's or Harvey's 1960s format. It works, keeps readers, especially new readers, satisfied for their money's spent.

5. Made to order digital archive access. What I mean, is that a reader can order the comic issue for a Kindle or iPad, or even good ol' Windows, and if they want that issue for holding, a total price of $4 (includes taxes, shipping, handling, and printing cost) is applied, making a total of $5 of revenue earned.

6. Cater to the comic book shops. Face it, with Borders closed (mostly due to manga and graphic novel stock that doesn't sell), and Barnes & Noble looking to be online only, the comic book shop will be the ONLY place to obtain new monthlies.

7. Why stick to monthlies? Take a page from Japan, and have cheap, like $5 cheap, 1200+ paged weekly anthologies, printed just as cheaply as Shonen Ace, as an example. Imagine going into a comic book shop, and this week is Action Comics Weekly, containing 13 24-paged stories, from 13 differnt DC characters! Then the next week is Detective Comics Weekly, followed by Wonder Woman Weekly, followed by More Fun Comics Weekly! You get 13 issues a year, too! (An alternate idea to my monthlies idea.)

8. Gotta sell at schools, grocery stores, gas stations, etc. Again, gotta be cheap, too!

9. Use the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to destroy Diamond, as they wield too much power as just a distrubutor! In fact, the decay and death of comics can be blamed solely on Diamond's actions since their founding, and how they ACTUALLY CONTROL THE COMIC CONTENT YOU READ!

10. Monthly subscriptions to digital comic services needs to be $0.99 a title, with $0.99 per each additional title. That's of equal value.

(Also, manga and anime are dying in Japan, as the Japanese just don't care about those media anymore. It may not seem likely, but it's the truth.)

Many of you don't know where I'm coming from, or disagree. It's because you are actually ignorant, and are unaware, blind, or scared of what's in comics' real future, and how to make it survive. I buck the trend and offer REAL SOLUTIONS to the REAL PROBLEMS. I've given the solutions.
58. Jeddy
Children use to be the biggest buyers of comic books. Their continued interest helped in establishing the industry. If they were given a dollar as pocket money. They spent their money on buying cold drinks, ice cream and above all comic books, not just one but several. When comic books are beyond the buying power of children, comic book sales are going to affected. Those who have grown up reading comics also cannot afford them.

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