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.

2 thoughts on “The Cost of Comic Books”

  1. I’m skirting just this side of a rant, but I think I’ll be able to avoid one.

    You’re right that paper prices play a large role. As one who has worked with paper daily for the past fifteen years, I can testify that the prices have increasied dramatically, far outpacing inflation. I personally prefer the old newsprint processes, but I recognize that I’m part of a very small minority.

    Why don’t comics sell? (And here’s where I’m trying to curb a rant.) They don’t sell because, for the most part, they’re written for people who read comics. Also, they don’t sell because distribution models have changed. That’s all well and good if you don’t need a big market share, but it’s dumb if you want wide circulation.

    It used to be that the average person (not average comic book fan) could pick pick up an issue of, well, almost anything, and be entertained. They could follow the story. They’d understand the basics of the universe. Not anymore. Even I, a comics fan, have a hell of a time with Grant Morrison’s X-Men, for example. My wife would simply die. Argue all you want that Morrison’s X-Men is great (it’s not) — it’s just not readable to anyone but the most ardent comics fan. Meanwhile, the comics aren’t even available to the general public. They used to be located next to the magazines in the grocery store. Or, better yet, next to the checkout stands. Now you have to go to specialized comic book stores, comic book stores that make even me, a comic fan, uncomfortable. The people are condescending. There’s far, far too much choice. I rarely buy comics in a comic book store.

    Basically, comics don’t sell because everything in the industry has been geared to prevent them from selling. Dumbfucks, is what I’m thinking, but don’t really want to say. But it’s true.

    I haven’t even touched on the pretentious “every story must emulate Alan Moore or Frank Miller” syndrome.

  2. Michael didn’t quote the part of the article that was the reason I posted in the first place, where Dorkin says that if people wanted comics- if they felt they were getting something worth the price in a format they like- then they would buy comics and the price would not be an issue. He’s quite right- people drop far more than $3 a pop on far more frivolous things all the time.

    Speaking for myself, I think that the content of comics is better than a lot of people give credit for. If you don’t want to read Grant Morrison’s X-men (which, by the way, was done over a year ago), no one is putting a gun to your head. There are something like 20 other X-related titles coming out every month, so chances are you would find something to like (I recommend RUNAWAYS). The content is there, for fanboys or casual readers, for superhero fans or slice of life fans, for parents or kids. There is a ton of comics, new and old, coming out every month- BUT- the distribution system is Fucked.

    Thanks to the 90s meltdown, we have exactly one major distributor of comics in North America and their catalog is an atrocious pile of shit to sift through every month. Manga and manga-style books are enjoying success in bookstores, but if someone happens to pick up a trade paperback of the aforementioned RUNAWAYS, will they have any clue as to where to look next if they want to see the latest issue? It’s probably not on any newsstands in their town. Is there a comic shop? If there is, do they carry the title? If they do, are there back issues available? And is the shop a place where you would want to set foot in the first place? Is stuff easy to find? Are staff able to relate to people and help them find stuff they will like?

    That’s a lot of variables. I’m lucky, I have a mail order account with one of the best shops in the country- a mere 4-hour drive away- and I have had a friendly relationship with the owner for 15 years. I can’t imagine trying to get into comics now as a new reader. The price would be the least of my worries.

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