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How to Save the Comic Book Industry

Illustration for article titled How to Save the Comic Book Industry

So DC Comics has a plan to try and save the comics industry from collapsing. Which is: make more “evergreen” stories and sell them as large one-shots, rather than single issues. While I do think this is an interesting strategy — probably hearkening back to the days of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, both prestige comics that sold better as trades — I think it’s not enough. Not nearly enough to save the comic book industry. Here, then, are all the problems that the comic book industry has and potential solutions.


Problem 1: Distribution

You can blame Marvel for this: in 1996, Marvel bought HeroesWorld, a comic distribution company, in an attempt to control the distribution of all Marvel comics. You should watch this part of SFDebris’ Rise and Fall of the Comic Empire in order to understand everything that happened, but basically,. HeroesWorld were not equipped to deal with nationwide distribution, things went wrong, and by the end of it all, Diamond Distribution was left as the only comic book distribution company there was, requiring DC and Marvel to sign exclusive contracts with them.


You might be asking yourself that if Diamond is the only distribution company, then how are they not a monopoly? Well, the answer is: they are. But when the Justice Department began investigating them for anti-trust violations, DC and Marvel basically asked the government to please stop, because if anything messed with Diamond, the entire industry could collapse. (The Justice Department eventually said that even though Diamond was the sole distributor of comic books, since they weren’t the sole distributor of books, they weren’t actually a monopoly. Which is a weird way of saying that they were a monopoly, but nothing could be done.)

So if a comic book shop gets a wrong shipment or books are left out or books are damaged, they could contact Diamond, but if Diamond doesn’t want to do anything, there’s nothing that comic shop can do. Which is, frankly, insane.


Possible solution: comic books are technically classified as a “periodical,” so they could try to get magazine distributors to distribute. They could also try contacting smaller or more local comic distributors. But DC and Marvel also have exclusive contracts with Diamond and we don’t know how long those contracts last, so it may be impossible for them to un-entangle them from Diamond.

But Marvel and DC also sell their graphic novels and trade paperbacks through Scholastic, which is a completely different distributor. So there may be a way to sell graphic novels and trade paperbacks through a regular book distributor, rather than Diamond, which could help relieve both comic book stores and the industry as a whole.


Problem 2: Visibility and Accessibility

Comics are a niche market. Even though superheroes and comic-book-based media are big business these days, comics book themselves are a niche market. Most fans of the Avengers these days became fans due the movies, not the comics. And there isn’t really a way to change this — comics are niche because they are sold in comic book stores, which are specialty shops. And this is generally the only place single issue comic books are sold.


This didn’t use to be the case. Single issue comic books used to be sold at newsstands and at the magazine rack at supermarkets. This system isn’t really viable anymore due to a number of factors (such as Diamond being the sole distributor and just the sheer number of comics put out by DC and Marvel wouldn’t fit on any magazine rack). So the availability of comics, then, is dependent on if there is a comic book store nearby, if people know about that store, and if that store is pleasant and friendly to all costumers (not always the case). So even though someone may love the Avengers, they may never actually read any Avengers comics simply because they are available to them.

Possible solution: single issues generally aren’t sold in bookstores, either, but graphic novels and trade paperbacks are. A lot of bookstores, in fact, have entire sections dedicated to comic book trade paperbacks. And trade paperbacks can be distributed by other distribution companies and sold in many places that wouldn’t normally sell single issues.


So here’s an idea: make trade paperbacks specifically for the magazine rack. Sell trade paperbacks to supermarkets to put next to Time Magazine and Newsweek and sell them for ten dollars. Ten dollars is expensive for a single issue, but relatively cheap for a trade paperback. In fact, Valiant Comics tends to price the first trade paperback in a series as $9.99 to entice new readers.

Selling a trade paperback at ten or even eight dollars might seem like a loss for Marvel and DC, but then they can do what magazines do: put advertising. Generally, while single issues have lots of ads, trade paperbacks don’t — but if Marvel or DC (or Image or Dark Horse) produced cheaper trades for magazine racks, they could then advertise their own comics in the back of those paperbacks, even directing readers to the Comic Shop Locator, thus raising the visibility and availability of comic books.


Problem 3: The Price

In March of 1963, Amazing Spider-Man #1 sold for twelve cents. If you incorporate inflation, then today, that’s a whopping 96 cents. So why aren’t comics being sold for 96 cents?


Well, that’s complicated. It’s not just inflation, but rather the price of the paper, the ink, the color, and the cost of the writer, artist, inker, colorist, letterer, editor, group editor, and everyone else that worked on the book. After all, it’s not just inflation that has gone up — the cost of living has gone up. If you sold all comics for 96 cents, comic book creators would go broke.

The solution for Marvel seems to be to continually raise their prices. Currently, most of their books are $3.99, with some bigger books being $4.99. DC, right before and during the New 52, tried doing something they called “Drawing the Line at $2.99" in which all of their books were $2.99 and stayed that way, but that didn’t last long. In fact, they tried it again during DC Rebirth and, again, they had to adjust it — most of their biweekly books are $2.99, but their monthly books are $3.99 and their larger, more prestige books (like All-Star Batman) are $4.99.


It’s clear that part of the reason for the dwindling audience are these prices. Comics aren’t just a hobby anymore — they are an expensive hobby. And the more expensive they are, the less people buy them. The less people buy them, the money the companies make, thus necessitating the raising of the prices, thus making the books more expensive. It’s like a Catch-22.

Possible solution: DC is kind of trying this by keeping some of their books at $2.99 and some at $3.99, but I think a better way is to make several tiers of prices. A price cake, if you will:

  • $1.99 — the “Fell” tier. Yes, I am naming this after Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s comic Fell, because they specifically made that comic to sell at $1.99 and it sold like hotcakes. Part of it was because each issue was self-contained and had eighteen pages of art (most comics these days have twenty to twenty-two pages). This wasn’t even that long ago in 2005, so there is no reason why DC and Marvel can’t produce an eighteen page comic and sell it for $1.99.
  • $2.99 — the “regular” tier. This would be for comics twenty to twenty-two pages in length. Basically, what DC is trying to do right now.
  • $3.99 — the “extra regular” tier. This would be for comics twenty-four to twenty-six pages in length. Basically, what DC is trying to do right now.
  • $4.99 — the “premiere” tier. Forty pages, no ads. Basically, a mini-trade paperback.

These tiers probably won’t incorporate everything and may not be the right solution, but it’s something to try.

Problem 4: Complications

Comic books are complicated. After so many crossovers and so many events, you probably will need Wikipedia in order to understand what’s going on if you haven’t read those crossovers and events. On the one hand, this does reward long-time fans and those who enjoy continuity and reading those crossovers. On the other hand, there are plenty of people similarly turned off by the fact that they need to know a thousand things in order to understand what’s going on.


Marvel, helpfully, has a recap page in each one of their single issues. DC, unfortunately, does not, even though that would be incredibly helpful. Even with Jim Lee and Dan Didio declaring that they would make more “evergreen” stories, i.e. stories that stand on their own without needing to know a lot of continuity, there is still the fact that you need to know that continuity in order to understand single issues. Which are the lifeblood of the comic book industry.

Possible solution: You see that $1.99 “Fell” tier above? I didn’t just call it the “Fell” tier for the price, but also because each issue of that comic stood alone. You didn’t need to read the previous issue or any issue besides the one you had. If you liked it, you could read more. Ellis has, in fact, been experimenting to doing “done in one” issues for a long time — each issue of Global Frequency is a different story with a different cast (with only Miranda Zero and Aleph as recurring characters), Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. had “done in two” issue storylines, and so on.


The $1.99 “Fell” tier would be a specialized tier where the comics would be cheap and accessible to everyone. You don’t know what’s going on with Batman? That’s okay, here’s a story where you don’t need to know. The current Captain America storyline confusing? Okay, here’s a book that’s outside of that storyline. This tier of comics would be the ones to entice new readers, not just to read graphic novels and trade paperbacks, but single issues as well.

Do you guys have any ideas or possible solutions?

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