The Cost of Comic Books

Scott Marshall quotes an interview with comics artist Evan Dorkin regarding the price of comic books today:

The average price of a comic book in the US is around $3. Do you think, regarding the production and distribution system, that it is too expensive? What are the sales like nowadays in the US?

Sales are pretty depressing based on what they used to sell. I think a book that sells 100,000 these days is a blockbuster, and books were getting cancelled in the early 70’s that sold 250,000. Books regularly sold in the millions in the heyday of the 50’s. On a less depressing note, for all those sales, the older creators received no credit, little or no recognition from the readers, no royalties, no participation in licensing, no return of their artwork, few opportunities to get TV or illustration work because of their comics, etc. And they were often ripped off and exploited beyond belief. We sell far less, but we get far more out of it in some ways, and our creations are our own if we want them to be. Sales-wise it’s a car wreck, but creatively it’s a golden age right now. Some people talk about the “golden age” and the good old days of comics, but I don’t know if I’d trade places with the old-timers, despite the discrepancy in sales.

My feeling about the rising cost of comics is as follows:

It’s frequently overlooked that in the early 1980s the comic book industry moved away from using cheap printing processes on cheap paper and started using spiffy printing and coloring processes on high-quality paper (sometimes very high-quality paper). While computers have helped mitigate the costs of the production and printing process, the cost of paper is still quite high compared to what was being used 30 years ago. (I think the paper industry went through a period of shortage about 15 years ago, and that pushed prices up even higher. I’m not sure of the details, though.)

And of course there’s inflation. Inflation calculators such as this one show that what cost 50 cents in 1980 would cost $1.27 in 2005. While this is a broad generalization, my recollection is that the paper industry also experienced higher inflation than the general market in the 80s and 90s. So I think the combination of more expensive paper and inflation account for the vast majority of the rising price of comics from 1980 to today. (Creator recognition may also be a factor, but I’d place it behind these two.)

Here’s a good way to compare apples to apples: Consider a hardcover graphic novel’s cost and the cost of a hardcover novel with a similar number of pages. In general, they are competitive, in the $22-$30 range. The graphic novel is usually somewhat more expensive, but I think that is primarily due to being printed in color rather than in black-and-white. For instance, consider the comic collection Avengers Assemble Volume 1, which is 384 pages for $29.99 (retail), vs. Alastair Reynolds’ novel Pushing Ice, which is 464 pages for $25.95. The pages in the former are larger, too (which means it required more paper-per-page to print).

I think cost is a significant factor in declining comics sales, because so many people think that “comics are for kids” and should therefore be competitive with the cost of a candy bar, and those who are more open-minded often remember when comics were really quite cheap and don’t understand why they’re so much more expensive today.

Comic books are still cheap entertainment, but they’re not completely-disposable impulse purchases as they once were. And that’s because everyone – publishers, editors, creators and the core consumer base – wanted better production values, and got them.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

Review of the graphic novel Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel.

I said last week that the book Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is (to my mind) the second-best graphic novel of the year. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the best.

I’ve been a fan of Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For for over a decade now, impressed not just with her linework but with her facility for character and especially her ability to consider liberal politics from some unlikely angles. In recent years I’ve felt like the strip was perhaps getting past its sell-by date, as it felt not as fresh as it had in the past. Of course, perhaps every reader of a long-running serial feels that it was better when they started reading it, but still.

Fun Home, though, shows that Bechdel is not only on top of her game, but that she’s got the chops to be a heavy hitter in the graphic novel line too, if she chooses.

Fun Home is autobiographical, and is mainly about her father. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania with her parents and three brothers. Her father was an obsessive-compulsive when it came to remodeling the old house they lived in, and by day he ran a local funeral home (from whence the title of the book). But he was also emotionally distant and treated his family more as resources to be used than as people. He was learned and read constantly, but he also harbored a dark secret.

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The story is told in chapters that are more thematic than chronological: Her father’s obsession with the house, her father’s death, her own obsessive quirks as a teenager, and so forth. The book is a peeling back of different layers to reveal things about her father, her family, and herself. Bechdel – as you may have guessed if you didn’t already know – is a lesbian, and her own realization of this is wound up in the events of the book.

The running theme of the book is one of emotional distance: Her whole family was very distant, and the book is told in a similarly distant manner, deeply analytical in tone. Granted, the events of the book are over 20 years in the past, but the similarity is eerie, and oddly powerful because the sense of pain and loss still shines through: Pain at her father’s death, at her father’s treatment of her, the loss of a piece of childhood that many kids have, the loss of some important events in her life as they were overshadowed by her father’s secrets and death. Credit the clarity of Bechdel’s narrative for bringing this feeling home; I can only imagine how long she must have worked to get just the right words down on the page.

On the art side, Bechdel is one of the great contemporary comics artists when it comes to drawing everyday people and events and making them visually interesting. She works an interesting territory between cartoon stylization and photorealism (and there are examples of the latter in it true form at a few points of the book). Her work is a textbook example of making people’s faces expressive and distinct with just a few simple lines. And in Fun Home she also works in a two-tone medium, with a soft greenish tone used for shading between the solid black lines, which makes Fun Home just that little bit different from her usual work, and giving it the feel of old sepia photographs.

Despite her overall skills, I did realize one thing while reading Fun Home: Bechdel’s characters rarely smile, and when they do they often seem like enigmatic, Mona Lisa-type smiles. Although entirely appropriate for the tone of the book, this is also true of Dykes to Watch Out For. Is this a deliberate decision on Bechdel’s part, I wonder?

I was hooked by Fun Home from the very first chapter, which shows off all of Bechdel’s art and storytelling skills as well as anything she’s ever done. I’ve browsed the book several times since then, and it’s still fascination to page through, with little details revealing themselves on repeated viewing. The book is a masterpiece of the art form. What a great book!

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I purchased this week.

  • 52 #25 (DC)
  • Hawkgirl #57 (DC)
  • Jack of Fables #4 (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice #8 (DC)
  • Planetary #26 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Seven Soldiers of Victory #1 (DC)
  • New Avengers #24 (Marvel)
  • Castle Waiting #2 (Fantagraphics)

52 has a clever cover with three young trick-or-treaters dressed like three of the main characters of the series. It otherwise has a bunch of pointless action sequences, except for one scene where Ralph Dibny (the former Elongated Man) is given a short tour of a place in hell where abusers of magic have been consigned. It’s pretty convincingly chilling.

I started buying Hawkgirl when it changed from Hawkman since I thought there were some interesting things they could do with the character. But writer Walter Simonson hasn’t done any of them, and artist Howard Chaykin mostly just draws the character in cheesecake poses. It looks like Chaykin has left with this issue, and it’s probably time for me to do the same. This whole series has been pretty disappointing, despite some great art in the first two years by Rags Morales.

Jack of Fables is a spinoff from Fables featuring the Jack character from various stories. He’s cocky, egotistical, and trapped in a forced-retirement home for fables. His escape plan gets put into motion here, and it’s a hoot so far.

Justice is Alex Ross’ latest work for DC. Co-written by Jim Krueger with art by Doug Braithwaite and Ross, it’s been tremendously disappointing, feeling at best like a warmed-over version of Grant Morrison’s JLA. It involves a group of villains learning the secret identities of the Justice League and waging all-out war on them. Sounds pretty ho-hum, huh? The secret reason why the villains are doing this is revealed in this issue, but it’s still not very exciting. Only four issues left.

One of my favorite series of the last 10 years is Warren Ellis‘ and John Cassaday‘s Planetary. It started out as a clever sort of homage to various pop culture characters of the last century, but developed into a very clever melange of story elements. Our heroes are “mystery archaeologists”, mapping the secret history of the 20th century. Elijah Snow is a man without a past, who learns who he really is, and who the powers behind the throne since the 1950s are. The whole story comes – rather unexpectedly – to a head, here, and I suspect it concludes next issue. Erratic publishing schedules have dampened my enthusiasm somewhat, but I’m still gonna miss it.

Seven Soldiers of Victory is the long-delayed conclusion to Grant Morrison‘s epic about seven heroes who will save the world without ever meeting. Like most of Morrison’s stories, it’s long on ideas and short on character. The conclusion is also very short on sense; I think Morrison tries to be too subtle for his own good sometimes, and this is one of those times. On the bright side, the art by JH Williams III is absolutely beautiful.

New Avengers continues spotlighting individual Avengers in the midst of the Civil War event, this time covering The Sentry, who is basically Superman-in-the-Marvel-Universe. I think Carla’s assessment is about right – don’t bother. Of course, I feel that way about the Civil War generally.

Castle Waiting continues Linda Medley‘s fun series about life after the fairy tale ends. I’ve forgotten what was happening at the end of last issue, but this is an amusing look at the early life of one of the main characters. Lady Jain (whose source story I can’t place) is gradually having her past revealed, and we know it comes to no good in the end, but the telling is arresting.

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Review of the graphic novel Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, written by Bill Willingham and drawn by various artists. Published by DC Comics.

  • Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

    • by Bill Willingham, Todd Klein, Charles Vess, Michael Wm. Kaluta, John Bolton, Jill Thompson, Mark Buckingham, et. al.
    • HC, © 2006, 144 pp, DC Comics, ISBN 1-4012-0367-1

Released last week, this graphic novel features characters from the ongoing Fables comic book series, but you don’t need to be reading the series to enjoy it!

The premise of Bill Willingham’s Fables is that the homelands of many classic fairy tales have been conquered by a mysterious Adversary, and many fables have escaped and are living in our world in New York (city and upstate). The framing sequence here sees Snow White sent as an ambassador to a Sultan in the middle east, to warn him that the Arabian fables’ lands may be next. Instead, she ends up playing the part of Scheherezade and telling the Sultan stories of her friends’ lives in their homelands to stave off her execution.

The framing sequence is charming, but as an illustrated text piece it drastically underutilizes the skills of Vess and Kaluta (I had similar misgivings about Vess’ illustrations in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust). But it’s the tales that Snow is telling that make up the meat of the book.

The book leads off with John Bolton’s piece, which is about a couple of very-well-known characters (no, it’s not a big mystery, but I won’t spoil it for you), and is the longest and best piece of the book. Bolton has been one of my favorite painting comic book artists and has been for years (for instance, I love his work in Gaiman’s The Books of Magic), and while his stlye has evolved, his sheer skill is not diminished; his work here is gorgeous, and unlike some painters, he’s also skilled at laying out a graphic story. (Some artists – to my eyes – seem to draw some stiff pictures that just don’t flow as a story; Bolton does not have that problem.)

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1001 Nights is sort of a primer to Willingham’s overall approach to Fables: Start with some well-known (or not-so-well-known) fairy tales, and either explore the ramifications of the story by considering what happens after it ended (or before it began!), or put it in a world with other such tales and meld them together into a larger whole. So here we see the early life of the Big Bad Wolf (appropriately drawn in a rough, wild style by Mark Wheatley), and a nasty witch of some reknown (in an eerie style by Esao Andrews – one of several artists here I’m not familiar with). While these contortions tickle the geek in me due to their cleverness, they’re also just good entertainment.

The witch story, actually, is the one story in the volume where I wasn’t fond of the artwork. It’s the one story illustrated by two artists: Andrews and Tara McPherson. In the case of each artist, it’s the stiff poses and relative lack of detail that turn me off. It’s not that their art isn’t expressive, bit it didn’t feel as fully-realized as that of the other artists.

The thread running through most of the stories is that this is backstory for the characters in Fables, and we get many different pictures of characters fleeing their homelands when they’re conquered. Such tales are typically grim, but “Fair Division” – featuring Old King Cole – is charming and heartwarming despite this, which is fitting considering its main character. It’s also wonderfully drawn by Jill Thompson, an artist whose style changes almost every time I see her work. Sometimes it like it and sometimes I don’t, but she brought her “A” game to this yarn, and it’s a fine bookend to Bolton’s story at the front.

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Whether or not you read Fables, you can enjoy this volume. It’s pretty to look at, fun to read, and worth coming back to. (But I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to wait for the paperback.)

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This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 18 October 2006.

  • 52 #24 (DC)
  • Ms. Marvel #8 (Marvel)
  • Thieves & Kings Presents: The Walking Mage (I Box)
  • Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall (DC)

This week’s 52 involves the short lifespan of a new Justice League incarnation, and a few short asides, and overall other than an interesting appearance by Booster Gold’s robot Skeets is pretty ho-hum. Nice art by Phil Jimenez, though. This issue did make me think that superheroes for whom public relations is important (such as Booster Gold and – in this issue – Firehawk) really need to be 100% successful on their missions or they’re just going to get hammered.

Ms. Marvel coulda been a really good comic book. The heroine is a recovering alcoholic who recently had the opportunity to see what her career could have been like and decided to try to bring it up to that level. Instead it turned out to be a pretty good superhero adventure book with pretty good art. And then the big Marvel crossover event Civil War happened. Civil War saw the US government pass a superhero registration act, and those who signed it became duty-bound to arrest those who didn’t. Ms. Marvel is one of the collaborators (as are Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic), and this has completely sucked the life out of the series. I find the actions of the collaborators to be completely indefensible, and this series has become not-fun in an awfully big hurry. The creators could have salvaged it by (for instance) having Ms. Marvel become a collaborator because she had been an “outsider” before due to her alcoholism and she was afraid of not having anyone trust her again. It would have been tragic, but much more believable and powerful than her just happening to agree that if it’s the law then it’s right. Instead, I’m afraid this series has been wrecked by Marvel’s ill-thought-out publicity stunt.

Thieves & Kings has been one of my favorite independent comics, although it’s stumbled in recent years and feels a bit directionless. The Walking Mage is the first of what I guess with be a series of spin-off stories from the central story. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks like it could be very entertaining.

1001 Nights of Snowfall is a hardcover graphic novel featuring characters from the series Fables. It’s probably the second-best graphic novel published this year, and I’ll discuss it – and the best graphic novel – in later posts.

This Week’s Haul

I thought I’d write some entries about comics I buy each week, since I thought a few of my readers might be curious what I’m buying. This was a light week:

Fables is one of my favorite comics currently being published. It’s about a community of fairy tale characters whose homelands have been conquered, and who have been exiled to our world and are living in New York city and state. It features Snow White, Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, Beauty and the Beast, and many others. It’s being collected in trade paperback, starting with this volume, and is a series that both my girlfriend and my Dad are reading. This issue introduces a well-known fable into the story and is part of the ongoing relationship between Fabletown and the Adversary.

52 is a weekly series about the year following the event comic Infinite Crisis, during which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have disappeared. Some of its mysteries are just interesting enough to keep me reading, and the art varies from very good to weak, depending on this week’s artist. It’s fluff, not essential reading. This issue is about Black Adam and Intergang and all that stuff, and is about par for the course.

Scarlet Traces wraps up its 4-issue mini-series this week. I reviewed the first graphic novel over at Four Color Comics a while back, and the mini-series is a fun follow-up. The series is somewhat grim, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Especially recommended for fans of the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.

Umbra also wraps up its 3-issue run this week. It was a black and white mini-series about the discovery of the skeleton of a neanderthal woman in Scandanavia, who had been killed by a gun. It was kind of interesting, but I was disappointed in the explanation for the peculiar happenings. Maybe my tolerance for X-Files type covert ops just isn’t very high anymore.

Finally, the latest hardcover collection of 1960s Amazing Spider-Man is out. The early Spider-Man stories hold up very well, even 40 years later, and I’ve been enjoying them thoroughly. I probably won’t get to this one for a bit since I still have the most recent Iron Man Masterworks to read, too.

Well, this was a little longer than intended. Assuming I keep writing these, I’ll probably get to the point where I’ll assume y’all know the premise of each title (or don’t care) and I can just do a quick review of the specific issue.

Or, I’ll run out of gas on these entirely. 🙂

Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s

Tonight Neil Gaiman came to Kepler’s. The moderator emeritus of our speculative fiction book group was able to score members of the group some great seats at the front of the room – a really nice gesture, as Gaiman is one of the bigger draws among touring authors, I think.

I’ve seen Gaiman twice before, once in 1998 at a small convention in Madison, and once in 2004 at Worldcon in Boston. He’s a terrific speaker, intelligent, funny and charming, and I certainly urge you to go see him if you have a chance.

Gaiman was up late last night at Cody’s Books in San Francisco, and he said tonight it’s because he read an astoundingly long story, and consequently he was apparently pretty worn down. He’s certainly a gamer, though, as you could hardly tell. He read a short story and a poem from his new collection, Fragile Things, took questions, and then (as he accidentally said) “hand[ed] until his sign [fell] off”.

I got him to sign my new copy of Fragile Things and my hardcover copy of the Sandman volume Dream Country. I now have four volumes of the series signed, so at this rate I should be done by about 2020!

A good time was had by all, including the various friends I saw there, not all of them from the book discussion group. I told you Gaiman was a big draw…