Quick 'n' loose, notes from the mainstream's price wars.
If you buy superhero comics on just about any level you will have noticed the price discrepancies. The DC books are by and large $2.99, $3.99 if they have backup stories or extra content. The Marvel books are $3.99 across the board. Both companies push into the five- or six-dollar range if they put out any kind of oversized or anniversary issue. That's the times we're living in -- I liked when I was a kid and I could buy a comic every week with my allowance, but if comics people as a group know two things it's that the economy's bad and not a lot of kids are reading anymore. We all swallow those prices when we take it to the counter. I personally wasn't in the game until the minimum cost began with a 2 anyway, so I don't really mind. And I am by no means a Marvel buyer, so... I don't know, 75 cents' uptick over a decade for the majority of the DC books seems pretty good considering I used to be able to get three Snickers for a dollar.
But man, some people -- the ones who spend their lives in the trenches, the ones whose pull lists consist only of the injunction "one of everything", the kind of die-hard loyalist customers that do the real work in keeping the big companies afloat -- some people care like motherfuckers. Part of it's age. To be one of those forty-books-a-week cats you've got to have the economic security that mostly only comes with being old enough to remember a time when the price of a comic was two numbers. When I worked retail I could kind of see how those quarter, fifty cent price bumps got to people. We had a couple guys who shopped at my store, two who got all the DC, one who got all the Marvel, one who got everything... oh yeah, and one who got 20 copies of any book that featured Wonder Girl. I'm not even lying. You could see how it hit them in the moneybelts. One month it was a high three figure loss total, then on price bump month it went into four figures. They still bought, but they bitched about it, and Christ. I would have too. But those are the lost causes from day one.
It would be one thing if the lost were the only ones bellyaching about prices. That existence is tied to price in the way a normal fan's isn't -- it's almost a kind of peonage to the companies whose universes they live in. When the landlord of your fictional reality raises rents by a third, yeah, you kick and scream about it. But Price Wars isn't just about the die-hards. Once Marvel went to the hard four dollar price of entry, which was just before I quit comics clerking, it was everyone who ponied up to put their money down. You never heard such a commotion. And that's not even to mention the message boards. Look at a comment thread on Newsarama and you'd think Wolverine'd been killed for all the vitriol and piss and threats of boycott that dollar extra got, still gets, from fans. And I don't know, maybe I'm the only casual observer on the Newsarama comment threads and everybody else there really was having trouble paying the electricity because their comics of a sudden cost more; but I doubt it. And then if you click over you can see Marvel riding high like always on their slightly-less-than-half the market's dollar share.
Here's where it gets interesting, though. Like I said, that one-third price uptick made pretty much no difference to Marvel's financial share of the greater comics market. Which sounds like everybody still bought the shit they bought and sucked it up, right? No difference in the charts, no difference in the sales. But -- and I'm not that good at math so correct me if I'm wrong -- I said but, if their prices were up by over 30 percent and yet their dollar shares weren't moving except for maybe two or three percentage points, that means sales lost, and I'd guess not a few. The bottom lines are so deceptive. Marvel beats DC by ten percent on units pushed and dollars made each and every month -- however. Maybe it's something only retailers really notice, but Marvel puts out way way above ten percent more books than DC, even including Vertigo and Wildstorm. On a typical week it's between one and two fifths more. Then there's the fact that not too long after the Marvel gouge, DC books started showing up more and higher in the top ten bestseller range. And that lately predictions have leaked from at least one retailer of a "Marvel collapse" in the wings if DC can hold down that dollar-cheaper line.
There's more to make of this numbers stuff than I'm making, lots more, and I hope somebody will make it. But like I said I'm not that good at math, and I'd rather look at what it all means for the comics than the companies. What we appear to have is a genre -- the biggest genre in the industry, the one a majority of people seem to think is the industry -- cracking under its own weight. Is a dollar, a fucking dollar, really the threshold keeping a significant number of readers from the content they so happily slurped up at three-and-tax-and-a-board-and-bag a year ago? It actually seems that way, because heaven knows the material isn't changing. Marvel still tops the charts with gimmicky horseshit like Spiderman Obama Team-Up and DC still swipes at worthy competition with hermetically sealed fanboy orgies like... um... that Geoff Johns one. This particular price change is worth noticing, is more significant than the 25-cent increments the barcodes slid up during the 2000s, because it's the straw that broke the camel's back. That is, it appears to be the price that people won't pay for more samey, mediocre comics.
So if you didn't know it already -- and it doesn't take a wise man to know it, I've known it ever since I first saw an issue of "Wizard" -- the superhero factory is in trouble. If the aging base, the lack of young talent, the branding confusion, the fear of risk, the shrinking market weren't enough, it's looking like a down economy is all it takes to price a giant of the industry right into the poor house. Maybe not this particular down economy, but heaven knows things aren't improving, and if we hit another mini-Depression... well, just extrapolate that. Despite all the hot air the publishers and even some of the retailers blow about hard times being easy on escapist entertainment, people are demonstrating every month that they won't pay more money for the same product. It speaks to so much: the weakness of the material, the weakness of the business, the weakness of the customer loyalty that's probably the biggest single factor keeping Marvel and DC on top. A single picture of George Washington to sway giants. This is not a healthy time for hero comics.
Marvel seems not to care. They launch $3.99 series left and right, they lead bookstore market pushes with shitty 30-dollar hardcovers, they requisition the Crossgen library of characters? Maybe they're sleepwalking down the road to oblivion, maybe I've got it wrong and the junk does as well as it ever did, maybe -- most likely -- Disney's got their backs regardless and this surviving-in-the-direct-market smallball just doesn't matter like it used to. But DC, good old DC, the company that always brings a smile to my face, is showing signs of the kind of blind, panicky, thrashing expansion that comic book recessions are all about. Perennial runner-up that they are, they weren't able to hold it all down at $2.99. But they keep the big books there, the ones that take up Marvel's vacated top ten spots, and they seed the ancillary titles for the real fans with backup stories to help ease out the extra dollar from the pocket.
This doesn't sound significant, or at least not very, but I think it kind of is. Marvel bulls ahead in its ever-insufferably, ever-justifiably arrogant way, confident that hacks' content and Jack's characters will keep it on top like always, same shit in a different, more expensive bag. But DC has started changing the content to get fans onto a price point they've demonstrated they won't all accept without some pushing. By and large, the backup features haven't been stellar (though the Black & White strips in the back of the new Spirit book have at least been uniformly interesting), but that's not the point: they could have been. Just like any formatting leap, they offer creative people the opportunity to try something out. And whether they fall on their asses or excel or make more mediocre crap doesn't matter on a certain level. Something new's being done, or at least an old idea's being reintroduced to a new market.
And need I remind anyone, the same month last year the backup features came out, so did the glorious (though haters certainly hated) Wednesday Comics. It was another way of cramming the $3.99 down the readership's throats, but what we got was a legitimately brave, innovative stab at a different form of both making and presenting comics. Marvel's shot back was the Strange Tales anthology, which like its opposite number had some good stories and some bad, but lacked the experimental energy of artists set loose on a new formal challenge as well as a new storytelling style. It didn't feel like a probing step into unexplored territory, it felt like the Bizarro Comics books DC put out five years previous.
This is what happens when the markets are bad and the money is tight: new forms, new ideas, and sometimes ones that make for better comics. Let's look back into the '70s, when everybody's wallet was reeling with the recession fever and the cost of paper hit the comics in the price points. Marvels went up five cents to two dimes apiece and DCs went up ten to a quarter, which basically fixed the market into the solid first-place second-place configuration it's remained in to this day. But after a while of eating dust, DCs began mutating into strange and appealing forms, the best of which are impressive even now.
It was the day of the 100-Page Super Specials and 80-Page Giants, which packed shit-tons of Curt Swan art into the Supermans, Infantino art into the Flashes, et cetera, for a dime or quarter extra. The DC Giants, genre treasure troves with piles of romance or western or horror stories illustrated by journeymen whose swiped panels would cut today's superstars to ribbons. And eventually, the 52/25 format across the board, which jammed the comics with 20 extra pages of reprints -- good stuff, Gil Kane sci-fi shorts, Simon/Kirby stories, Kubert war yarns -- to justify taking that quarter from those kids' pockets. It all crashed down eventually, DC went back to Marvel's 20 cents and cut all the glorious fat; but man, if you can find some '71/'72 DC comics in your store's beater bins, snap them up, because that flood of reprints and extras and ephemeral gems hit most every book they put out and turned a sagging line into a clearing house for the richest archives any comics publisher's got. Marvels from the same period? Not too much of anything, a whole lot of Kirby-ripoff content that ruled the roost with mediocrity.
I'm looking at DC's October solicitations now, and they're wonderfully diversified. There's straight pamphlets for $2.99 and pamphlets-plus-backups for $3.99. There's two biweekly series. There's six 56-page, $4.99 comics: I didn't even know that was a thing until it apparently became one this month. (I like that ratio. Longer stories along with extra content for a penny under the lowest real unit of money the American consumer trafficks in. Or it seems so anyway.) There's the adoption of Marvel's "Omnibus" format at a cheaper price point. There's, ha, there's a JLA 80-Page Giant for $5.99. There's something I really like, which is the rollout for the brand-new "DC Presents" format, something kind of in between a trade and a pamphlet -- 96 pages of hard-to-find back issue stuff for $7.99. Things like complete Warren Ellis minis, pieces of Ed Brubaker's Batman run, a book full of Hawkman and Deadman scrapings that includes Infantino, Teddy Kristiansen, and Sean Phillips art. There are some totally normal-format pamphlets for $3.99 too, but not a lot, and this is the second-place company after all.
Is all the stuff I mention going to be good? Not a chance. Is any of it? Maybe some, we'll have to see. (It's always kind of cool to get reprints of unheralded corporate books, and if this "DC Presents" stuff keeps up I imagine they'll get to something worth the collecting one day. If I was a bit more of a hyperbolizer I'd compare the format to Fantagraphics' Ignatz series. It's cool, but won't go that far.) What's happening here, though, is change. Creators given the chance to tell longer stories, shorter stories, stories that are necessarily different from the baseline. The better half of last decade's quarter-bin books shined up and tossed into the audience again to see if they'll stick this time. The admission that the market isn't buying the same shit in quite the same numbers these days, that something new might not be amiss. It might not sound like much, but change is all that ever drives things forward, the only way we get what comes next, and this is how it happens in the mainstream. This is what we get, and I'll celebrate it even if no one else wants to. Even if no one else even notices.