Brainiac On Banjo #050: Comics and the Cost of Doing Business

The price of a comic book jumped 267% during the 1970s, from 15 cents to 40. The pace slowed down by half between 2009 and 2018, from $2.99 to $3.99. It’s that last number I am going to discuss, and I’ll start with Stan Lee.

(For the record, price points differ between publishers and, sometimes, titles so the above reflects the “typical” Marvel/DC title. Your statistical analysis may vary.)

Back in the 1970s, Stan was making a signing appearance at my buddy Larry Charet’s iconic comic book store on Devon Avenue in Chicago. It was cool, as seeing Stan at a store back then was rare – so rare that it was long before people started charging for autographs and selfies. One fan asked the question “Why are comic books so expensive all of a sudden?”

Stan’s response was honest, pronounced, and not what the fan wanted to hear. I paraphrase: “It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of producing a comic book. It should be higher.” He was right. In those hallowed times, comics were supported by massive (but returnable) newsstand sales and by advertising sales. It wasn’t unusual for a Marvel or DC title to be selling over 100,000 copies, and in the aggregate that’s a lot of shekels. Nobody was paying royalties, so if Curt Swan got $40 a page for penciling Superman, he got that if the book sold a million copies or only one.

Nonetheless, comic books at that time could be profitable for the publishers – talent were and probably always will be underpaid, by and large – but only if they published a shitload of titles. In the late 1980s I told Denys Cowan that he was being paid more to pencil an issue of The Question than DC made off the title. He could not comprehend this and gave me that stare that could meet Superman’s heat vision head-on. I explained “But you only do one book a month. DC publishes maybe 50.” Still, given the cost of doing business, the business of comic book publishing was not perceived as a major profit center.

In other words, Stan’s statement continued to be correct.

But I think that’s the wrong place to look.

You could set a price for something any way you want. Your customers are not compelled to pay it. Your retailers are not compelled to stock it – certainly, not on a non-returnable product. So the question for the publisher is, how do you set your price point to make it worthwhile for both the publisher and the reader?

A careful analysis of comic book publishing history tells the story with great clarity: you throw darts at the wall and hope for the best.

My question is: if it takes 10 minutes to read an average comic book (it used to take longer), is it worth 39 cents a minute? A superhero movie costs us about a dime a minute. A streaming television show might cost about six cents a minute, depending on the monthly fee, your internet costs, and how many shows you watch from any one service.

Let’s say you’re on DC’s or Disney’s streaming service (and if your already on Disney+, you beat the MouseHouse to the punch). Is it worth six to seven times as much to read a comic book than it is to watch a comics-based television series on a streaming service?

It used to be a reader could get some comfort from the possibility of later selling that comic book and recoup your investment… and maybe make a profit. Those sing-along days have been lost to us for, well, about 25 years. You can still get lucky, but you’ll only feel that way after you’ve been burned on a reverse-mortgage.

With the number of comic book stores dwindling, this might be a model that is unsustainable. Digital comics are priced – usually – at parity with the published versions, give or take. That might change, but as long as Amazon owns ComiXology, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

I think it’s been a while since comic book titles competed with each other for readership. But for quite a while now, comic book comics have been competing with comic book movies and comic book television shows for the consumer’s time and for the consumer’s wallet.

Time and money both are definite, and I’m getting more bang for my buck in front of a television monitor and in a movie theater, as long as I don’t buy any popcorn. There are plenty of comics I enjoy, but I’ve got to make a call.

And that’s not just me. I’ll bet it’s you, as well.

One thought on “Brainiac On Banjo #050: Comics and the Cost of Doing Business

  1. Whether it is worth it depends on whether it is any good or not.Spending money for me on Stan Sakai’s work is worth it- most of DC and Marvel’s output is not. The real competition often is essentially free or almost so. I mean the cost of reading this a very good article is my internet connection which I would have whether I read this or not. And stuck all over the net are tons of comics to download- for free – yes they are not new but a portion of the material is quite good and better yet that old stuff is unslabbed so you can actually read it. So I would argue that when we write we are competing against almost anything that has ever been created and a large portion of it is free.