Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I take quarter water sold it in bottles for 2 bucks...

Hillary Brown: This entire discussion was prompted by a comment from Karate Media elsewhere, which went like so:
What I'd like to see, more than just straight reviews of comics, is intelligent discussions about the peripheral concerns. For example, the economics of comic books. For me, I have almost completely stopped buying comics because of the cost. Paying $3-$4 for a single issue is way outside my budget -- sure, it's less than a movie, but you don't get the same entertainment value (or time spent enjoying). And it's more than an hour-long TV show download from iTunes or Unbox -- and I'd still argue that you're probably getting more for your money from the TV show. Add to that the fact that it seems that the big two insist on constantly having ongoing mega-series that cross over into every book. Or having each title's stories be ultra-long arcs. Maybe I've got rose-colored glasses, but I don't remember the late-80s/early-90s being so much like this. The Breyfogle/Grant run on Detective Comics, IIRC, for example, was more 1- or 2-issue based stories. Of course, this may be why I moved on to more of the Vertigo sort of comics, and independent titles -- they tend to avoid the bombastic sales push of "main" DC and Marvel. But I kind of think I'm right in their target audience - I still have boxes of bagged and boarded comics, and I would gladly follow a number of current titles - if I could afford to. Yes, there are the trades, but there's an - ahem - trade off there. If everyone buys trades, then there's no way of gauging a title's success, which means it's harder for the company to support putting out a trade. Plus, if the individual issues aren't being bought, a title might not even last long enough to warrant a trade. In the past 20 years, the cover price of a comic book has gone up what? Over 300%? Is this to comparable to anything else in the marketplace? Movies? CDs? Milk? The argument, I guess, is that we're getting better paper stock and better coloring and whatever else they claim we're getting for our money. And I guess the writers and artists are getting paid better (are they?). But I don't really care about better paper. And better colors? Well, Lynn Varley is great, but I wish someone had blown up her copy of Photoshop before "The Dark Knight Strikes Again." Could comics be cheaper? If they were, would it invite more people like me to start buying them again? Is it even a concern, or am I just a lone nut who doesn't have enough money?
And, at the time, I responded like so:
My guess (and I think we may want to do a post about this on the comics blog) is that it's similar to cable TV, which is the other example I can think of that has increased dramatically in price without that much of a payoff for the consumer and is also addictive. If you want to follow a story as it's going on, you need cable (or possibly Dish or whatnot). You could buy the show on DVD, but then a) you may be subjected to spoilers and b) it may not come out on DVD if it's not successful to some extend in the first place.
I then passed the buck...

Garrett Martin: It is totally addictive, of course. But also the very act of going to the shop every Wednesday, picking up your books, talking to the employees, etc., is just as much of a nostalgia stroke as the comics themselves. And that nostalgia can't be underestimated, since it's the only thing keeping this segment of the industry afloat.

Three bucks is a lot, definitely too much for a reading experience that lasts fifteen minutes, at best. But most stores do offer discounts of some sort to customers with a pull list, and that removes some of the sting. Personally, though, I don't care about glossy paper or computer coloring; I'd actually kind of love it if comics were still on newsprint and looked completely hand-made. And also: it seems like the entire magazine industry has increased prices to a greater degree than other segments of the economy. Time and People have doubled in price since the early '90's, just as comics have done.

It is true that storylines in most comics now run for five or six issues, which just happens to be how many issues they collect into the standard trade paperback. Critics call it "writing for the trade", noting that stories with enough plot to fill two or three issues worth of old comics are now stretched out to twice that number. Decompression is a more unbiased term, and proponents support the style because it supposedly leads to a more cinematic and/or manga-fied pace and scope. I hate it in theory (when applied to superhero comics), and mostly in practice, but there have been enough good "decompressed" comics for me to realize it does have some value. But these comics almost always read better in trade than month to month, and thus usually don't get me to part with my three bucks.

If you're looking for one or two-part stories, that's all Paul Dini has been doing on Detective Comics. All-Star Superman is also mostly self-contained, although each issue contributes to a larger story. That's like the old days, though.

Hillary Brown: Jared and I were talking about the development culture-wide of arc-based media, and I guess comics are part of the same trend, which is most visible in the way television has evolved. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the first example I can think of, TV-wise, that contained plenty of isolated episodes but also episodes that made up a continuous narrative and a season-long arc that would develop in both kinds of episodes. This kind of structure is clearly different from the discrete episodes of something like Seinfeld (which had elements in common and running jokes, but could exist separately without losing much) and from the more long-form narrative of soap opera (including a show like Dallas, which can't be watched out of order nearly as well but also doesn't have an end in sight, leading to a sense that the writers are spinning their wheels). My guess is that the trades function like very short seasons for comics writers, providing a beginning and an end, which can both connect to predecessors and followers and create that nice balance between too much and too little form, allowing writers to explore a theme and develop a plot at a reasonable pace without seeming to add tons of filler. In reality, it's very difficult to do this well, and the schedule comics come out on isn't as friendly to the form as the schedule on which TV shows are produced. I remember when 24 used to take a month off, before broadcast TV realized it might lose its ass to cable and started doing less mid-season hiatus stuff, and it drove me nuts to be waiting on the resolution of a cliff-hanger for that long. Maybe I'm just not patient enough. All I know is that if I'd read Runaways month by month, I would have been tearing my hair out in anticipation, and sometimes that tension is too stressful to bear.

As far as price is concerned, I guess individual comics are the equivalent of convenience foods, in that a bag of whole carrots is a much better deal than already sticked little packages ready to put in your lunch, but with the higher price comes immediate gratification. How much money are Marvel et al making off of $3 comics? Are they really necessary to keep the companies in business, or is it about returns to stockholders?

Garrett Martin: I'm sure they make a decent amount of money off the top sellers, but most of the profits for Marvel and DC come from movies, licensing, ancillary stuff like that. Sometimes, though, the periodicals exist just for amortization purposes, and the eventual trade is the primary money-maker. I'm pretty sure that holds true for more creator-centric books, like Ex-Machina and much of the Vertigo and Icon lines.

From the Silver Age on, superhero comics had a pretty distinct standard narrative style. Subplots would overlap and flow into each other, coming to the forefront and receding as necessary, and often not reaching a conclusion for months or even years. At the same time, every issue had to offer a relatively self-contained experience, even if it ended with a cliffhanger, as they almost always did. Soap operas are probably the closest analogue I can think of. So individual issues were satisfying but still left you anticipating the next. Even when creators changed, the editors usually made sure the serial nature and overarching storyline were continued; it was rare for a new writer to take over something like Captain America in the '70's and start completely from scratch. So, if anything, I'd say that serialized tv shows like Buffy and Lost were strongly influenced by the comics their creators read as kids back in the '60's, '70's, and '80's. It's odd, then, that, as its traditional narrative style became embraced so thoroughly by television creators, comics themselves would break away from that, become more self-contained, and take story-telling notes from the movies. Compound that with a market for trade paperbacks that grew increasingly more viable throughout the '90's and 2000's, and you'll see a fairly substantial break with the traditional superhero narrative.

The recent season-style breakdown of story arcs and even entire series isn't inherently a problem. Good writing is good writing, no matter how it fits into continuity. And it's not like the old style is extinct. But the trend of big-name creators being allowed to come in and ignore most of what's happened over the last however many years is pretty annoying. Mark Millar's current run on Fantastic Four is a great example. His first issue was a complete break, in terms of both story and tone, from what Dwayne McDuffie had been doing over the previous year. It's the sort of jarring change that only happened in the past when a writer was fired in the middle of a storyline. On one hand it's great that writers are given so much freedom these days (how else could Grant Morrison's career exist?); it's a shame, though, that so few are interested in working within the framework they've inherited.

Hillary Brown: Yeah, but isn't continuity off-putting to newcomers? I'm not saying it should be tossed out the window, but every time I start reading about this Earth or that Earth or trying to put together why a complicated chain of events happened the way they did, I get aggravated. I'd actually make the analogy to Lost there, in that I'm less interested in putting together the pieces if a) you make it too difficult for me and b) you don't make it clear/sustain my faith that there's a payoff in store.

I don't know if I buy your analogy that Joss Whedon was specifically influenced in that way by the comics he no doubt read growing up. From my experience (admittedly limited) reading, say, the early issues of Spider-Man, of which I've made it through three trades, they certainly don't seem to be arc-based as much as soap-opera-based. Small things evolve (Peter Parker goes to college; Mary Jane enters the picture), but I rarely feel that there's much building toward a point or a major climax. I do think you're right about the current time-frame operating more like movies. Maybe something in between would work better? Or maybe it would slow down the narrative even more. I don't necessarily mind a bunch of talking, but I like my heart to race (Vaughn is particularly good at pacing).

Garrett Martin: Well, Spider-Man was always more openly a soap opera than most Marvel comics. And we can we just use the term Marvel in this discussion, since they pioneered this sort of serialization. Also those specific Spider-Man issues are pretty early; the Marvel style that held for most of the Silver and Bronze Ages didn't necessarily become line-wide 'til the later '60's. But look at something like the introduction of Galactus, in Fantastic Four #48 - 50. It's a finite story, with a beginning, middle and end, that both mingled with and launched various subplots that ran for months prior and after. Or Steve Gerber's celebrated Defenders run in the '70's, particularly the ten-issue arc where two initially separate stories involving the Headmen and Nebulon eventually cross paths, along with battles with various random villains like Plantman and the Porcupine, only to climax in a double-sized annual guest-starring President Ford. There's a definite ending to the primary conflict, but it bleeds seamlessly out of and into different storylines. And finally, and probably most importantly, look at Chris Claremont's work on Uncanny X-Men in the '70's and '80's. That was like 15 straight years of soap-addled superheroics with major climaxes punctuating nigh-endless stories that almost choked on the dangling subplots. I think they clearly influenced what Whedon did with Buffy, and the only reason that influence isn't more obvious is because Whedon had the clear-cut structure of a 22-episode season w/ three-month break to contend with.

Continuity can be off-putting to newcomers, but it doesn't have to be. One old-school technique I'd rather not have return is how they'd recap everything in-story, through a page or two of expository dialogue, or even flashback panels that reused art from previous issues. A good writer should be able to address and exploit continuity naturally within his story, without completely alienating new readers. The recap pages Marvel occasionally runs at the front of an issue also help out a good bit. And the problem with multiple Earths that you mention is a direct result of DC regularly fucking up on the continuity front for like four decades now. Every so often they try to fix and streamline their continuity issues, but all that ever does is make it even more confusing.

Hillary Brown: The _Uncanny X-Men_ omnibus is pretty high on my must-read list. It's just a question of taking that monster off the shelf. But this should motivate me to get around to it. What were we talking about again? Economics?

I do think that what I've already gotten through of The 10-Cent Plague (upcoming!) has illuminated some of those financial issues. I like nice paper, but I wouldn't say this glossy stuff counts (although it is more archival), and, more to the point, most people don't care. If the big companies went back to printing on newsprint, I'd think they could drop their prices significantly (paper is often the biggest single expense on a book, or at least one of), which would make people like me more likely to pick up an issue whenever they come out. But, from what I understand, that's not too predictable either. If the New Yorker can fill that many pages 47 weeks a year, why can't comic book companies put out issues on time? The idea of waiting a month or more certainly makes me a lot less likely to spend even a paltry $3 on a book.

Garrett Martin: Comics get delayed because the editors let it happen. They'll continue to assign writers and artists with a history of lateness to their books as long as those creators continue to sell. And, other than in extreme situations, like Alan Heinberg's Wonder Woman run, I don't think there's any evidence that lateness drastically affects sales. All-Star Batman and Robin, by Frank Miller and Jim Lee, has shipped nine issues in 30 months, and it's still DC's highest selling title. Also, sales data supposedly shows that trade paperbacks sell better if the art is consistent throughout, and since that's become such a major part of the business Marvel and DC would rather delay a periodical than have a fill-in artist potentially damage long-term sales of the trade. That's another big change over the last few decades; in the past, if a script or art was in danger of missing the deadline, the editor or bullpen would step in and make sure something was ready to go to press, no matter what. Sometimes that meant running inventory stories in the middle of an otherwise unrelated arc, but at least the book shipped on time. And if you regularly missed deadline you wouldn't last long as a professional. Now though it's basically tolerated on an institutional level at both major companies.

As a regular reader of "floppies" or "pamphlets", I'll say that delays can be frustrating, but generally aren't a huge deal. I mention Casanova a lot, but that's because it's one of the best comics around right now. Casanova seems to miss its ship-date fairly regularly, but that hasn't hurt my enjoyment or ability to follow the story. If you're patient enough to follow a series issue to issue, then you'll probably be patient enough to wait out a short delay. The real problems come when a book is delayed for months, or several times in a row, and then the reader loses confidence that the comic will ever actually appear. That happened with Heinberg's Wonder Woman, and is happening right now with the much bally-hooed Richard Donner / Geoff Johns arc of Action Comics, the final chapter of which has been rescheduled three or four times now.

Paper's definitely a big reason that prices have escalated so rapidly, but I wonder how closely the retail price increase reflects the greater manufacturing costs incurred by the glossy paper. I seem to remember higher-ups at Marvel or DC claiming that the cost difference between glossy paper and newsprint isn't big enough to really impact retail price, but that seems somewhat hard to believe. In addition to paper, creators get paid better than they used to.

The biggest reason, though, is the loss of newsstand distribution. As recently as twenty years ago you could still find comics in gas stations, book stores, and supermarkets; now, though, they're basically confined to the direct market. Barnes and Noble and Borders carry some Marvel and DC periodicals, but that's about the extent of their newsstand distribution. The reader base has drastically shrunk as a result, and so they've had to raise prices to make up for the lower circulation. If a comic sells 100,000 copies an issue, it's a block-buster success today; twenty-five, thirty years ago, it'd be on the verge of cancellation. Despite the high cover price, they still make less money per issue than they did back in the day, but ostensibly trade sales will make up that difference. Three bucks an issue is prohibitive to most right-thinking individuals, but remains acceptable to the most addicted and/or enthusiastic of readers.

Hillary Brown: It's not just paper, though. It's that the switch in paper, I believe, means you probably can't run these books on a web-fed press anymore. Web is dramatically cheaper than sheet-fed because it's much faster and you don't have to sheet the paper (you just pop the whole roll on) or flip it to print the other side.

You're right about having to go to a specialty store for most individual issues of comics, though. Do you think this web distribution/digital comics thing is going to affect prices, too, or change the business model?

Garrett Martin: The only way the big two's prices will ever go down is if they embrace digital distribution whole-heartedly, but I don't think digital comics will replace the physical item any time soon. It's not like the music industry, where the way you physically interface with the product has completely changed. Downloading an MP3 provides the exact same end-result as buying a CD for most music listeners now, but is cheaper, more convenient, and takes up less space. Reading a comic on a computer screen is a different physical process from reading an actual comic, though, and I think it'll be a while before most readers adapt to that. I'm sure it'll happen eventually, but times will have to get exceedingly tight for either company to completely make that switch.

One thing they can do to expand their reader base is to place more focus on all-ages comics, collect them in digest form, and then market the hell out of them to kids. Kids still read comics, they're just reading Naruto instead of Batman. DC and Marvel both have kid-friendly titles, but they're all out-of-continuity and have little appeal to long-time comics nerds. There's no reason they can't produce comics that are appropriate for kids but also appeal to older readers; Pixar has perfected the art of true all-ages entertainment, and if the big two were smart they'd crib as much as possible from them. DC's made some good first steps with their recent Flash relaunch, but they kind of half-assed it a bit and the book is now seriously struggling. Blue Beetle is another DC title that should appeal strongly to both kids and adults, and that they're thankfully still supporting despite disappointing sales in the direct market. Reaching out to kids isn't just a good way to expand the current reader base, but also to insure that there are enough people interested in these characters and concepts to keep them going after the current generation of 30 and 40 something readers eventually dies out.


Tucker Stone said...

I'm curious, albeit that kind of curious that means "answer my question" and not "let me do the research myself" but has any item in the cultural landscape ever really dropped in price? It reminds me of the old arguments about CD manufacturing, and how people spent what seemed like years talking about how it would drop eventually. The only time it ever seems to actually happen is when the item gets replaced by a newer version, or completely discontinued. Comics strike me more like cheap trade paperback books--constantly experiencing a price increase due to the vagaries of inflation and so on.

On that note, I can't really see the argument that digital distribution would lower the price--the same doesn't seem to be happening in the music industry. Of course, following the music industry is even more of a surefire bad idea than the current three dollar pricetag on Aquaman: Swords of Banaltis

hillary said...

The only thing I can think of that has dropped in price (and not much) is DVDs, which started out priced at $25 quite a bit and seemed to settle down to an average of $20 or sometimes less. That's not to say that's the list price, though.

garrett said...

And when it comes to digital distribution being cheaper, well, CDs still cost $12 to $18 in stores, but are uniformly ten dollars on iTunes. I'm not saying the physical product will ever get cheaper, but the price for a digital download (or monthly subscription to a publisher's site) will be less than what you'd pay at a store. I'd think, during the eventual transition period from print to digital, the big two would have to offer financial incentives to get people to make that change.

Chris said...

I purchase my comics from an online distributor for a couple of reasons. True, I miss the weekly interactions at the comic shop but the shops in my area are awful. Their discount programs are limited to laughable or they focus more on card games than comics. So the "how's that new Spidey selling" interaction is fun but not integral to enjoying the medium.

Also, Wal-Mart sells comics off the rack. And I've always thought a magazine format with three or four recent issues of different titles centered around a theme would be a hit (maybe two months after direct market shipping). The problem with grocery/book store sales is that profit margins for selling comics over, say, Maxim are much lower. If Marvel packaged an Avengers monthly with an issue of Iron Man, Captain America, New Avengers and Mighty Avengers, the reader would have a complete monthly experience in that corner of the Marvel universe for about $5. Throw in some ancillary stuff like creator interviews or message board discussions to break up the issues and that's a complete piece of media. For casual fans just interested in reading the stories, this would work. I don't know why the Big Two have not explored this yet.

And, yeah, paper is the killer in pricing. Printing on cheaper pound stock is not an option either with the level of artistic detail today. If you tried to print Hitch on newsprint, the pages would be a muddled mess. This is similar to DCs choice to print the New Gods Omnibuses on a lesser stock of paper because Kirby's art would appear awkward on today's higher stock.

Regarding trade v. singles, I do either depending on the series. For Fables, I'll buy the trades because the series is something non-comics readers can enjoy and the trades are easier to lend out. Something like Blue Beetle, I prefer the singles because, really, I'm the only person that will ever read that copy.

hillary said...

Storage is also way easier with trades. And organization. You can see the spines.

garrett said...

Yeah, Blue Beetle isn't really a trade type of comic. I wouldn't call it disposable, but it's so light and frothy and close to the superhero comic ideal, and the monthly format only adds to the experience. Hopefully people are buying the trades, though, because damn next to nobody is picking up the single issues.

Bobby said...

Computers are a good example of a product which has dropped in price over time. Ten years ago it would have been impossible to find a computer for under $1000, but now almost every manufacturer has an option for less than $700. Not to mention that the quality of the computer has only ever increased, which means you're not only paying less but you're also buying a lot more. Imagine if you could still spend just a quarter on a comic book that was of the highest print quality and also contained 1,000 times the content. It'd be like that.

However, I think this model only holds true for a small number of (primarily electronic) consumer products. As long as they keep finding ways to make the components smaller, cheaper and faster then there will always be room for the price to drop.

Karate Media said...

First - thanks for addressing my suggestion! Feelin' a little warm inside...

Second -- Newsarama just recently posted the costs of reading the first half of Secret Invasion - http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=152565

No context or background, but it's interesting to see it tallied up like that.

I agree with Garrett that it's an addiction -- which is why I've been staying away from it. It's like going out for "one beer with the guys" which invariably turns into many, many more... Deep down, I'm a sucker for the crossovers and events -- if I start buying one comic, I'll easily get pulled into many more. And after my binge, I'll look at the scattered issues, like so many discarded beer cans, and shamefully wonder if it was really worth it.

Garrett, it sounds like you're saying that the industry has fully accepted the trades, seeing trade sales as the final step moreso than issue sales. If so, what sort of metric do the publishers use in deciding whether to maintain a series, or creative team, or storyline? Do they wait to see how the first trade collection sells before dropping the ax?

Dini's Detective Comics and All Star Superman were both high on my list when those runs started -- but the closest comic shop changed owners, and the new folks started focusing on card games - I don't even think they were stocking new issues after awhile. On the plus side, they were liquidating a lot of trades, so I was able to pick up things like We3, an Astro City collection and Robocop vs. Terminator (had to do it, but man, talk about hangover-like shame) on the cheap.

It's good to know that I'm not the only one preferring trades, and who thinks that newsprint is fine. And great bit of info from Hillary on the cost difference in different methods of printing.

I agree that successful digital distribution seems far off - I've got to have the book in my hand - but isn't the industry complaining about pirated digital copies being distributed via bit torrent, etc? How big of a problem is it really? Is it just a convenient scapegoat? And what about those "50 Years of Spider-Man" DVD-ROMs that collect an entire series? How are those doing?

Great discussion, good reading, way more than I can comment on. I love the big picture discussions - you guys obviously have the smarts to do it, which is not always the case with some reviewers.

Chris said...

Here's what Paul Levitz has to say about trade sales affecting the status of an ongoing series:

* Johnny Blaze asked how do sales (both single issues and TPB) contribute to determining which books stay and which go (i.e. Exterminators).

We try to look at the combine profitability. Transmetropolitan was the first periodical that we were losing money on where the profits from a successful trade paperback series made the difference in keeping the periodical going some years ago, and now that’s not an unusual pattern, at least for Vertigo. Over on the DCU side, for the most part our successful collected editions are almost always collections of reasonably successful periodicals.

You can read the rest of the article here:

Smoggo said...

about the paper and printing....
the big two companies still use substandard colors and paper...i don't think the mark up is completely justified...compare DC and MARVEL titles to something like a jordan crane issue of NON...and the quality will be plain to see. (to be fair... an "alternative" press comic can be up to $6-7 bucks)

hillary said...

Yeah. Let me state that I still don't think the printing quality is particularly good. I mean, the registration is on nowadays, or at least not noticeably off, but if you compare most comic books to something like the Bizarro World anthology (one of the most gorgeously printed books around), you can see a massive difference. They're printed at about magazine quality, on slightly better paper than most magazines.