So the other day a lad and his grandmother came to the shop to look around, and everything was going well until the grandmother took a close look at the new comics rack and exclaimed “comics cost $3.99!?” It was a bit of sticker shock for her, as that was quite a bit higher than the new comic prices she remembered from her youth.
I mentioned this on the Twitters, and as the discussion continued from my initial post there, I realized there were two different issues that were perhaps being conflated. The first issue, and the one of greatest interest to those of us who regularly consume this particular artform, is that of perceived value. “Did I get my $3.99’s worth out of this comic?” “Did I just blow through this $3.99 comic filled with splash pages and no dialogue in two minutes?” “Did I just spend 20 minutes slowly absorbing the intricacies of dialogue and appreciating the beautifully-rendered art?” All questions we’re familiar with, I’m sure. And it is an important concern, that everyone from the reader to the publisher to the retailer needs to worry about: is the product worth it?
There’s no simple answer, of course. Maybe you don’t like the all-splash page comic with no dialogue, but maybe someone else loves the art in that comic and is thrilled to have huge images and no text to get in the way. Maybe I like dialogue-heavy comics that take me a while to read, and maybe someone else thinks if they wanted to read a prose novel, they’d have bought one. Everyone decides for him-or-herself if the price they’re paying for a comic is worth the value they get from it.
Anyway, we’re all comics people, we know all that. But the other issue I was thinking about, based on that grandmother’s response to seeing the price, was the very fact that the price itself is a barrier to new readers, independent of whether or not the contents could deliver on the cost of admission.
This isn’t a very deep topic, admittedly. “High price drives away customers” – no dur-hay, right? But it reminded me of when I wrote about DC’s “The New 52!” slug that they had on their covers for the last few years. For those “in the know,” it told us “hey, this is part of DC’s newly-rebooted continuity!” For anyone else who hasn’t read comics, it told them “you have no idea what this means, so clearly this isn’t for you.” Even though the New 52 initiative is no longer marketed as such (ending when it did just as reader Ray predicted), the phrase still exists on back issues and on the trade paperbacks and I still hear “hey, what does this mean” from folks new to the industry all the time.
Basically, it’s something on the cover that warns people not already reading comics “this is not for you.” And maybe the higher price points on the regular monthly series (currently averaging $3.99, with Marvel slowly getting us used to $4.99) are yet another warning. Okay, maybe it’s mostly a warning to people who remember when comics were ten or fifteen or thirty-five cents and have somehow wandered back into a comic shop only to discover 1) wait, they’re still making Howard the Duck? and 2) it’s $4.99 a throw? And I don’t think four bucks is too bad a price point for what you’re getting…that’s like a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards (I think…it’s been a while since I’ve had to sell any), or…fancy coffee, I guess? But it’s not “toss the guy a coin and not think about it” pricing…it’s not a significant amount of money, but it’s not nothing, either. And that’s just one more barrier to someone new to comics trying to decide if he or she really wants to take the plunge.
Again, this is hardly a new observation, but it brought me to think once again about what the breaking point is going to be. I’m sure those of us who were around a couple of decades back buying comics for, what, $1.25 or $1.50 each, would have laughed in your face if told we’d be buying essentially the same comics for $3.99. But here we are. And so far any comics that have been $4.99 or higher have had higher page counts or nicer production or some other aspect that improved the perceived value of the item. But then, so did $3.99 comics at one point. And so did $1.99 comics.
My thought was that eventually periodical comics would have to evolve into thick anthology magazines, front-loaded with ads to keep costs down, but attracting advertisers is a problem now for comics, too. So who knows where it goes from here…moving to a trade paperback-only model? Everyone moves to digital comics? Your pal Mike shutters his store and has to find a real job? I don’t know…it’s a thing I have to worry about, and it’s a situation that’s coming whether anyone likes it or not.
Boy, that’s cheery stuff, right? Anyway, this isn’t a “comics industry is doomed” thing, since people have been saying for decades that the business’s death is “five years away.” I’m just curious about what’s coming next, and hopefully whatever’s coming will appeal to new customers rather than try to block them out.
I wanted to post a brief note regarding pal Dave’s decision to end his blog, at least for the time being. He’s one of my favorite writers…smart, funny, and very insightful, with plenty of interesting things to say on a wide variety of topics which as I type it sounds like a remarkably generic thing to say about someone, but it’s really true in his case. I’ve never been much of a gamer, but his posts on the various games he’s played were just as fun to read as his occasional comics or movie post, which fell more within my specific wheelhouse.
I’m sorry he’s taking down his virtual shingle, but I’m glad he shared as much with us as he did. Plus, I still get to bother him on Twitter, at least until he blocks or mutes me. Thanks for all the good work, Dave, and hopefully we’ll see more from you in the future.