The Tipping Point– for NERDS!

December 11th, 2008

$3.99 for a comic book.

I realize most (all?) of my readers probably don’t read comics, so this might need a little context. Comics are supposed to be cheap and disposable, right? My aunt used to buy Fantastic Four comics for a dime a pop. Yeah, that was during the 1960s and there’s certainly been inflation since then. But when I started reading, about 15 years ago, comics cost a dollar and a quarter.

I watched prices go up in 50-cent increments to the current price, about $3 a book. That’s pretty standard, although some “event” comics cost more. But a $3.99 price tag seems to be the breaking point for many fans, including myself. And, it’s coming — it appears 2009 will be the year more and more comics cost $4.

I’ll be dropping many comics I read over the next few months, to wean myself off the habit. If the books are less than stellar, I’m no longer reading them. Many comic book fans share my sentiment. A non-scientific reader poll at www.comicbookresources.com found that nearly 50 percent of those who responded are planning on cutting back on what they buy, due to the possible $3.99 price point.

Even more insult to injury: comicbookresources.com columnist Rich Johnson actually did the math, factoring in inflation. He started with 1977, when Amazing Spider-Man cost 30 cents. He applied the US rate of inflation of the previous year to the price of the comic, compared to the actual price of the comic.

“Now of course, there’s a higher page count, the print quality is better, the colouring technology is out of this world, but still,” Johnson writes. “In real terms, at least as defined by US inflation, your comic should be just over a buck. And yet it may well be about to hit $4. And double the 2000 price. Ouch.”

I’m no economist, nor do I have privilege to the information and charts companies use to set their prices. All I know is as a consumer a $3.99 comic better be good. I probably spend about $12-$15 a week on comics, an average of four or five titles. If I want to spend the same amount I’ll be down to three titles, maybe four every other week. (Still, $3.99 is better than most greeting cards).

In addition to cutting back (goodbye, “Daredevil,” goodbye, “Astonishing X-Men”), I’ll also be joining another cost-effective trend among comic readers: switching to trades.

Most comics are written with trades in mind. X-Men, for example, is no longer an epic, monthly adventure in the sense that every week readers get a new chapter in a never-ending saga. Now, the comics are written in “story-arcs.” It’s still a never ending saga, but every four issues or so is a new chapter of the series. This way it makes perfect sense to package those four comics together into one trade, collecting a single X-Men adventure with a beginning middle and end. Every few months a new trade comes out. It’s cheaper and trades look better on bookshelves.

I read a few series in trades, but for the most part, I’m still a monthly, singles kind of guy. Some writers read better in singles, crafting their stories around perfect cliffhangers (which don’t pack the same punch in trades). Then, there’s the collectibility aspect. I’ve got entire runs of titles like Ultimate Spider-Man and X-Men. It’s hard to kick a habit like that and change the way I’ve been following those stories for years.

Besides, many of these titles require more than just monthly purchases. Big name books like “The Avengers” (Iron Man, not Emma Peel) have multiple tie-ins and related mini-series (think this years mega event “Secret Invasion”). Comic readers need to educate themselves on the products in order to know which books are for them, whether it be an appearance by their favorite character or, for me, something by a favorite writer. Some comic stores are great about educating their customers, but I find the best place to do so is the Internet. The only problem with this is the immediacy aspect and the problem with spoilers, especially if you’re reading in trade.

I read one series exclusively in trade, “Fables.” It’s a fantastic series (see this week’s Comics! vlog for my review of the latest trade, “War and Pieces”). But because I try to educate myself about all the different comics coming out and since waiting for the trade puts me about 8 months behind the events of the title, there are some inevitable spoilers. For instance, one of the big reveals of the series was the identity of the main bad guy. Without even looking for the answer I knew his identity well before I read the story. Essentially, I can save a few bucks and wait for the trade or enjoy the immediacy of the hobby in real time. 

Not to mention the speculative nature of the hobby. I could probably get $100 or so for my Ultimate Spider-Man #1. I have no plans on selling the book (I didn’t buy it to make money), but price increase is always in the back of readers’ heads. A first issue could be worth something, a trade, probably not. Although the speculative nature of the hobby seems to be on the way out, for many fans, it’s another habit that’s hard to break.

My solution: buy the first issue of a series that looks good. If it is spectacular (and remains so), such as a book like “Ex Machina,” come back for the second and all subsequent issues. For books that are simply good, I’ve got the first issue (for speculative and collection purposes), no harm in waiting for the trade. For everything else, no need to buy any more. The real trick will be reevaluating the books I’ve read for years, some of which I still love, some of which I only buy out of habit. That’s the best way, to cut costs, still enjoy the hobby and send a message as a consumer that $3.99 is too much.


Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072

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