Comic Fodder

Flagging Economy = Doom for Comics?

Forgive the explosive title to the story, but how else am I going to get you to click through to read during the week of a presidential election?

Yes, I was gone for two weeks. Sorry about that. I started a new job, and I may actually talk about it as I've been running a mental sub-routine that's applying what I'm now doing for a living to funnybooks. Anyhow, the job plus life have kept me away from my usual duties, and as I really haven't had any deep thoughts regarding comics of late (aside from really liking the Rage of the Red Lanterns), I figured I'd just keep silent rather than force a post.

Or at least that's what I thought until Travis's goons appeared and knee-capped me. DARN YOU and your strong arm editorial tactics, Tpull!

So I was reading this article by Tom Spurgeon, in which he discusses factors comic creators, publishers and aficionados should keep in touch with regarding how the economy could well affect the comics market.

Like I have to imagine a lot of his casual readers do, I run hot and cold on Spurgeon. In this post, he seems completely on the ball, and it's a good read. But we mostly talk about superhero titles here, and Spurgeon's article is discussing comic strips, indies, etc... more than our core topic.

So the question is: when we look in the crystal ball, what can we predict for the future of superhero comics as the economy goes into a slump? What are the challenges?

1) Cost

Let's be honest, comics cost too much per unit. Marvel and DC have done nothing to slow the disproportionate rise in cost of comics to the inflation factor. And the differences are even more greatly pronounced by the cost per issue of your average indie comic.

But as we stick to the Big 2 at Comic Fodder (I will not go down the indie comic rabbit hole), it's also worth noting last week's Lying in the Gutters which ran a chart that compared actual cost per comic versus where it would be if the cost of a comic were only affected by inflation.

I believe comics were around $0.60 when I picked up my first comic or so in airports as a kid. By the time I was "collecting" comics, the price had hiked up to $0.65 and then $0.75. Even in mid-80's dollars, $0.75 was very affordable, and meant I could pick up two or three comics off the stand without blinking. And believe me, Ma and Pa's offering of an allowance wasn't exactly hugely generous.

The chart begins in 1977 at $0.30, and projects inflation from there. The cost of a standard comic should now be: $1.09.

$1.09. I just want for that to sink in. John Lennon can imagine a world where everyone sits on rainbow colored unicorns. I shall imagine a world in which my comics come to 1/3rd their current cost.

Sure, comics at $0.30 were cheaply produced, printed on lousy paper, had often poor color prints and tended to be filled with ads with OJ Simpson convincing us to buy questionable shoes. But they were also deeply inexpensive.

One can ponder all day long how video games cost $50, and so comics shouldn't feel bad about a $3.00 price tag. Until you consider how long one can play Mario Galaxies or GTA4 versus how long one spends reading Ultimate Spider-Man.

In an effort to shake off the "cheap, disposable entertainment" albatross, comics may have increased in cost but perhaps not necessarily in value. What was seen as an expense along the lines of a pack of gum or some other trinket has now moved into a different bracket which most likely has a direct effect upon how many units a consumer purchases each week. Which... you know, I don't want to tell Paul Levitz or what's-his-name at Marvel how to run their business... but if you can only make a profit at $3.00 a pop today versus $0.30 a pop 30 years ago, and are running at roughly 3x the rate of inflation for the cost of a floppy...

Paul, my man... it may be time to look at some assumptions regarding the cost of each unit versus how many you can move at that cost. Rules of supply and demand are telling you that as you drive up costs, your audience is abandoning you.

Which brings us to...

2) Size of the Comics Audience

I do not think comic geeks will give up comics no matter how bad things get in the economy. What they will do is start cutting down on how many titles they buy at $3.00 + per floppy, how willing they are to pony up $4.50 for a few extra pages and a card-stock cover, etc.... And surely those Absolute Editions, etc... will take a hit.

Assuming we'll all be poor doesn't follow that we will suddenly no longer love comics, but the audience has contracted to such a degree that any serious dip in the amount of money available to that audience for buying comics is going to be less than kind to an industry whose product is a luxury item (not food, shelter, or even an internet connection). It's easily going to be the one-shots, hard-back $20 Joker special editions, etc... that become very unaffordable to the audience.

But with DC and Marvel's marketing departments getting a pretty solid "D" when it comes to reaching younger audiences and/ or even trying to get numbers back to 1980's levels, the opportunity to spend money to make money (ie: grow the audience) may have passed for a while as cash intake recedes.

3) Comic Shops Take the Hit

Part and parcel of all of this, of course, is that comic shops will take a hit.

I'm not sure my LCS (Austin Books) will reach starvation levels, but smaller stores out there who are already surviving on a subsistence gross may see things get uglier before they get better. While I'm sure selling $3.00 floppies is bread and butter (I don't know, I don't run a comic shop), if that smallish audience isn't going to buy Absolute Editions MegaOmnibuses, $17 action figures, and kinky Japanese manga/ anime fetish statues by the handful and other non-floppy merchandise, one can foresee some problems. Those items may take up shelf space, but they also produce greater profit per unit sold.

Floppies may be the low-cost item in comic shops, and they may keep selling, but I'm sure a store would rather have 1 copy of Watchmen Absolute Edition it could sell than trying to move 20 copies of "Ultimate Squirrel Girl" in the same space.

For every comic shop that goes down, that's going to be loss of sales in the bigger picture. By tying themselves to the fragile direct market, comics rely upon retailers who generally aren't terribly well diversified and ready to change gameplans if comic and comic merchandise sales begin to slip. There is surely some tipping point at which a reduction in retail outlets would have a noticeable affect on comic sales.

It's always been a precarious position for retailers to hope that the big 2 will deliver material their customers will want. But it's also a symbiotic relationship. Without those direct market retailers, currently, DC and Marvel have absolutely no Plan B.

4) Online Comics!

So... there are two ways this can go down.

Levitz and Buckley can keep watching their sales units dwindle as their readership finds some bit torrent site from which to illegally download She-Hulk and Ambush Bug, or they can finally be forced into a corner where they figure out a way to get some portion of those online reads and make some dough.

As I said, I don't think comic fans will stop wanting to read comics, but they may start finding ways to... how do you say?... not pay for them.

Now, I always found illegally downloading comics to be a bit odd when you're reading stories about people who suit up and throw themselves in the way of danger to stop people from stealing stuff... but what do I know? (You know you're partially to blame for $3.00 comics, right?)

Anyhow, DC and Marvel have an opportunity here IF the price is right...

Marvel's poorly named DCU is a step in the right direction, but where are this week's releases? Back stock is almost a specialty item in any comic shop. Without the latest and greatest available as well, it may not be what the audience is looking for.

The release window for various formats could still include trades, etc... of work that had been digital (online comics such as Achewood have managed this) and enjoyed a print release in floppy format, too. Ads for X-Ray specs and Sea Monkeys can sit on my screen alongside the page where I'm reading the latest Spider-Man adventure. I do this all day long reading news sites. Add in a subscription fee, and it seems Marvel and DC are missing a huge opportunity, and one that may make more sense as the economy contracts.

At this point, I believe its going to take a third party company which cooks up a distribution model and sells it to DC and/ or Marvel rather than expecting for them to come up with something themselves. Which, of course, means middle-men cutting into the take and mismanaging their own company, which gives a false sense of failure for the potential of the model.

If Levitz and Buckley are that concerned about sales of paper comics going away... I think they're mistaken.

6) Lower the price

Look, the days of holo-foil covers and whatnot is over. IF (and this is a big if) push comes to shove, we may have to give up on card-stock covers, shiny glossy paper, and all those skittles colors we've grown used to in our comics in order that we HAVE comics to buy at all.

Simply put, all those production bits cost money. Money that people may not have to spend on comics.

If it were true that comics could be costing be $1.09 instead of $2.99, I don't think I'd mind some, you know, lesser materials. Heck, cut out the middle-men (which would surely decimate them) and sell me some of those comics for $0.40 online.


As a quick reminder, Superman hit the stands in Action Comics #1 in the depths of the Great Depression. For a dime. It was disposable kids' stuff, but it also sold in the millions.

At the time, there were a lot of middle-men, from the printer to the truck drivers to the news stand operator who all got a cut of that one thin dime.

In no real way should comics HAVE to suffer, but they may have to look backward in order to survive. Kids may not have newsstands, but they do have computers, they go to grocery stores, they get book orders... I don't really know, because I think kids smell like old syrup and tend to stay away from them.

That's not to say narratively kids should be the market, because adults are the ones reading comics now. Adults go to magazine racks, go to CVS to buy nasal spray... there are a lot of places where cheap entertainment is going to be welcome as things come to a crunch. And its up to the Big 2 to find ways now to carry the industry on its shoulders by trying new formats, new markets, new distribution points, new media, etc...

But it may also be willing to try new forms of narrative to meet that audience half-way and meet their needs as well as those of the fanboys and girls.

So in conclusion

Insisting the ways of 2007 will work as fanboys and girls tighten their belts seems like a pathway to a lot of trouble for comics in general. Comics can continue to entertain, tell engaging stories, etc... but they may have to start looking at doing it in an economy model rather than with the extravagances with which we've become accustomed.

As I usually rattle on about, comics will also need to seek new ways of making comics affordable not just to the audience they've got, but to the audience they may need to court in order to survive. And that may mean old/ new means of distribution such as newstands, but mostly digital comics.

Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at

I say lets start a petition from all the comic book stores in America. Let the big 2 know that this is unaccpetable over 2.99 comic prices! This is FRICKEN ridiculous already. I got back in the game recently again collecting after being dormant for awhile and I can't believe how much these damn books cost now.

Maybe even set up a website online to let them know that there needs to be sweeping change with this.

Anyway that's my 2 cents. Much respect EK

-- Posted by: Eric Knight at November 5, 2008 12:28 PM


Let all of your friends know.

-- Posted by: Ryan at November 5, 2008 2:31 PM

What if they changed their model to trade paperbacks? Would you pay $20 for a year (12 issues)? Then you would get a continuous story and lower prices. There are many storylines that are so bland I don't even know what's going on even with the wasted Marvel recap page. I readily read trades from the library of books I would have never picked up at the comic shop.

-- Posted by: Mike D at November 13, 2008 11:26 AM