Dan Didio, co-publisher of DC Comics, Los Angeles Times, August 22nd, 2011.
“The truth is people are leaving anyway, they’re just doing it quietly, and we have been papering it over with increased prices...We didn’t want to wake up one day and find we had a bunch of $20 books that 10,000 people are buying.”
By Von Allan
A number of comments have been written about DC's upcoming relaunch of their superhero universe. There have been articles on gender inequality (notably DC Women Kicking Ass and Laura Hudson's editorial on Comics Alliance) , Brian Hibbs has touched on the sales challenge Direct Market retailers face, and Corinna Lawson has spoken passionately about the marketing (or the lack thereof) over on Wired's Geekdad blog. I wanted to take a broader look and examine the role of pricing in the current comic book climate and why I think that pricing, more than anything else, will restrict DC's ability to grow their audience during the relaunch. In examining this, I'll be looking at the entire Direct Market and not simply DC's current plan and hopefully come to some conclusions that may surprise you. They certainly surprised the hell out of me.
Prices of comics in context
My thesis here is pretty simple. Many people have written and spoken about the high price of comics over the years. This can range from the "I remember when..." type comments to more contemporary concerns about the health of the entire Direct Market. The problem with a lot of these statments is that there's no context to the arguments. Are comics more expensive than they used to be? Sure, but then so is bread, rent, cars, movies and many other things. The issue isn't whether things have become more expensive (everything has), but to try and see the price increases in the context of something else. Whatever that is, it has to be consistent for it to be relevant. When we look at the history of comic book pricing, it turns out there is something we can compare it to. And that's the history of the Federal Minimum Wage in the United States.
Actually, it's an ideal metric. The Federal Minimum Wage was signed into law in early 1938 as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. At almost the same time, Action Comics #1 hit newsstands featuring, of course, the first appearance of Superman. In other words, comic books and the US Federal Minimum Wage have existed at the same time since the birth of the Golden Age. Due to this, it's a perfect way to examine comic book pricing. Context is everything and this gives an excellent context to what has happened with both prices and minimum wage over the past 70 years.
Minimum Wage and the Pricing of Comics
Let's get right into it. In 2010, the US Federal Minimum Wage was $7.25 per hour. Figuring a 36 hour work week (factoring in unpaid lunches), it meant that someone working a minimum wage job was earning $261.00 per week before paying any taxes. In 2010, the average cover price for a typical 32 page superhero comic was $2.99 (1). In other words, to purchase ONE comic would cost 1.15% of someone's weekly income. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it represents one of the highest price points in the history of comics. I'll show this more concretely as we go forward, but for now I wanted to compare that to another key benchmark in the history of comics: the publishing of Fantastic Four #1 in 1961. This is especially timely since the Fantastic Four just celebrated their 50th anniversary. FF #1 was cover priced at 10 cents US. The US Federal Minimum Wage in 1961 was $1.15 per hour and, figuring the same 36 hour work week, a person would have earned $41.40 per week. To purchase the first issue of Fanastic Four, a person working minimum wage would have spent only 0.24% of their pay cheque. That is a stunning difference in price. To put this even more plainly: it represents a 379.2% increase in the price in relation to minimum wage from 1961 to 2010.
Note carefully that I'm not talking about inflation. Rather, I'm talking about the nominal price not adjusted for inflation. This is critically important to understand. Real wages and real prices (i.e.: wages and prices adjusted for inflation) is a separate argument to the one I'm making here. If I do a sequel to this piece, I will explore it because it's very clear that things are worse when you factor these in.
One more example before we get to the meat of things. Action Comics #1 was published in 1938 and also had a cover price of 10 cents. The US Federal Minimum Wage for 1938 was 25 cents per hour (PDF) or $9.00 for a 36 hour work week. That means purchasing Action Comics #1 would have cost someone 1.11% of their weekly income. That's quite a lot and you'd be right to say so. BUT...Action Comics #1 (and most comics published during this period) had a much higher page count then current comics. Action Comics #1 was 64 pages long, double the current standard of 32 pages. In other words, to compare it to today means we would need to make an adjustment to reflect the higher page count. When we do that, we see that Action Comics #1 would have cost approximately 5 cents if had been 32 pages long. That would have put it at 0.59% of someone's weekly pay cheque, still quite a bit higher than when Fantastic Four #1 debuted some 25 years later but not nearly as high as where things are now. Did the sales reflect that? They sure did. As John Jackson Miller pointed out on his Comichron blog, the print run for Action Comics #1 was only about 200,000 copies. Another key point: 0.59% of weekly US Federal Minimum Wage was the highest comics would cost until 1986. 48 years. Amazing.
1938 to 2010
The two charts below illustrate this visually. The first chart shows the unadjusted page counts. It wasn't until approximately 1955 (2) that comic books had shrunk to the page counts we now know so well. Both charts are identical from 1955 through 2010, but from 1938 to 1954 I adjusted the second one to reflect a typical 32 page count comic.
1938 through to 1969 saw a remarkable change occur in pricing in relation to the weekly US Federal Minimum Wage and you can see this in the chart below. Throughout this period there was a continued downward pressure on prices. Comics became cheaper in relation to the minimum weekly wage. A teenager getting his or her first job at, say, a fast food restaurant in the 1960s could easily afford a few comics per week. In fact, in 1968 and 1969 comics were only 0.21% of the weekly US Federal Minimum Wage. Is it any wonder that a comic book was considered disposable?
From the 1970s to today
The Direct Market rose to prominence in the late 1970s and the entire decade was marked by price fluctuations and stagflation that differentiated it from previous recessions. Comics were not immune to this and they would never return to the low price ratio that we saw in 1968 and 1969. Comics were cover priced at approximately 12 cents in 1968 but by 1974 were up to 25 cents. While that is a significant increase in cover price (108.3%), minimum wage was also increasing and that helped keep the ratio of cover prices to weekly minimum wage relatively low. By 1979 a single comic book still cost only 0.38% of the average weekly US Federal Minimum Wage. In context of where prices are today, it's pretty remarkable. That said, it's important to remember what was happening during this period. Tom Spurgeon and John Jackson Miller had a good discussion about it a few years ago and Miller correctly points out that the 1970s were a period of constant change. He noted, "Retail was changing in the 1970s -- comics, which had been a loss leader for convenience stores, drugstores and the like, needed to become more profitable as the mom-and-pop store gave way to the big chains (7-Eleven, Walgreens, later Wal-Mart, etc.). The print-three to sell-one model pinched comics all the more in a period of high inflation and paper and transport price increases -- and so the structure of comics sales at the time made us more exposed to external forces."
Comics continued to increase in price throughout the 1980s, crossing their most expensive point regardless of page count in 1986. The Direct Market was firmly established and some amazing comics were made during this period. Spiegelman's Maus. Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez. Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen. Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. Simonson's Thor. Sim's Cerebus was in its prime. This was also a time where the speculator bubble really started in earnest. Prices rose to reflect the craze, reaching cover prices of 75 cents in 1986, $1.00 by 1990 and $1.50 by 1994. Much has been written about how the bursting of the speculator bubble destroyed much of the comic book industry and I won't recap that here. The numbers are staggering, however, and The Amazing Spider-Man is a typical example. John Jackson Miller's website has detailed postal records on it going back to 1966. This is considered to be "Average Total Paid Circulation." 1991 saw total paid circulation of 544,900 and 1992 rose to 592,442. As the bubble burst, sales decline dramatically. 353,025 in 1994, 234,290 in 1995, 216,779 in 1996 and 159,950 in 1997. The numbers have never recovered. The most recent data is from 2008 and total paid circulation was 105,948.
What's interesting to me, though, isn't so much the collapse of the speculator market but what happened to prices during the aftermath. I started this essay with a quote from Dan Didio that I think is highly relevant here. Didio said, "The truth is people are leaving anyway, they’re just doing it quietly, and we have been papering it over with increased prices." At no point from the sales collapse in 1994 to the present have prices ever been reduced. Ever. The cover price has continued to increase in an attempt, as Didio mentioned, to deal with the decline in sales. The math is pretty simple. If a comic priced at $1.00 was selling 350,000 copies, then that's $350,000 in gross revenue. If, 10 years later, you're seeing sales of only 125,000 copies, then you're in trouble. The supposed solution is to raise the price to try to regain the lost revenue. But that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: the higher prices drive people away, especially since the US Federal Minimum Wage has not risen by the same percentages. The chart below shows this clearly.
Movies and Comics
I can hear you, though. Everything has become expensive, right? Movie tickets are a typical example. I wanted to drill into that a bit and compare film ticket prices and comic book prices in relation to minimum wage. Movie ticket prices are a little harder to come by, mainly because there are regional differences that can really affect pricing. Fortunately, Box Office Mojo keeps a history of average movie ticket prices that goes back to 1980. The National Association of Theatre Owners has data going back a bit further. We can examine and make direct comparisons from the time period covering 1974 to the present. The results are eye-opening. Film prices have always been between 2.63% and 3.53% of the US Federal Minimum Wage throughout this period. While the price ratio has gone up, the trend line is not as sharp. The chart below shows it visually:
Let's me put this in even more context. It's May 1977 and Star Wars has just arrived in theatres. You work full-time at a minimum wage job. You'd have been earning $2.30 per hour or $82.80 for a 36 hour work week. You're willing to spend about 6% of your pay on comics and movies. A ticket to see Star Wars was, on average, $2.23 or 2.69% of your pay. That's quite a bit but you still had 3.31% left over. Comics were, on average, 30 cents. You could have bought nine of them and it would have only cost you $2.70. Or 3.26% of your pay cheque. You can see Star Wars and still buy all those comics and you're just under budget.
Fast forward to May 2010. Same situation. This time you want to go see Iron Man 2. That would cost you $7.89, but you're now earning $7.25 per hour or $261.00 per week. Iron Man 2 will set you back 3.02% of your weekly pay. Not bad, not bad, especially in comparison to 1977. You also want to buy some comics. A comic now costs $2.99 or 1.15% of your pay. Two comics will cost you 2.29% of your pay. You might be able to squeeze a third one in, but you're going to go over budget to do it. Ouch.
This may go a long way in explaining something else. Namely, why haven't fans of superhero movies crossed over into becoming new comic book readers? Price may be an issue. In 1978, the first Superman movie arrived in theatres. Average film price was $2.34 and the weekly US Federal Minimum Wage was $95.40. A ticket cost you 2.45% of your weekly pay. A comic was 35 cents or 0.37% of your pay cheque. When the Tim Burton Batman film came out in 1989, movie tickets were priced pretty high ($3.99 or 3.31% of a weekly US Federal Minimum Wage of $120.60). A comic was still around 0.76% of your weekly pay. By the time Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film arrived in theatres, things had changed. Ticket prices were $5.80 and the weekly US Federal Minimum Wage was at $185.40. Or 3.13%. Comics? They were now $2.25 or 1.21%. It was becoming harder and harder for people earning minimum wage to make the transition from movies to comics. Even if they wanted to, they can't afford to.
People wonder why comics aren't selling the way they used to? Come on. I'm not arguing that convulted storylines, "waiting for the trade" mentalities, crossovers, and the like haven't hurt comics. I'm also not saying that movies, video games, and the like haven't hurt comics, either. I think all of these things and probably more have taken their toll. But...the simplest explanation regarding what has happened to the popularity of comics is what's happened to their prices in relationship with minimum wage. They were cheap and now they're not. That's done an incredible amount of damage. It's not just that the same readership base is simply purchasing less comics, though that may be part of it. As the population in the United States has grown over the past 25 years, the readership has declined. New readers aren't being created, at least not for periodical comics.(3) Why? The answer is price in relationship to an ordinary person's pay. Price in relation to the weekly US Federal Minimum Wage.
DC's 52 Relaunch
So, here we are, at the crux of the issue. As Didio noted, DC recognizes that sales have fallen. The reboot/relaunch is an attempt to correct that. I'm pretty confident that they'll see a sales spike for at least a few months. In fact, there are already reports that the new Justice League #1 has had pre-orders of over 200,000 copies. The big question, though, is where will things be, say, 24 months after the relaunch? How about 48? I think we can now make an educated guess. 48 of the 52 titles are priced at $2.99. The other four are all $3.99. If you're working a minimum wage job and want to buy 'em all in a given month, this is what you're facing:
The 48 cheaper titles will cost you $143.52 while the other four will add $15.96 for a grand total of $159.48 before any taxes. If you're earning $261.00 per week that means you're earning $1,044.00 per month. To buy all 52 titles will cost you 15.28% of your pay. Back in 1977, to buy 52 comics during the course of a month would have cost you $15.60 (at 30 cents each). You would have been earning $82.80 per week or $331.20 per month, but all 52 comics would have cost you only 4.71% of your income. That's it. Game over. Lower wage earners will find it impossible to purchase all of these comics. They'll find it impossible to purchase half of them. It's not financially doable.
What would have worked? Here's a thought: a price drop combined with the relaunch, backed by an aggressive attempt to put comics into more venues and an advertising campaign that would have spread the good news. What would the news have been? Fresh and affordable comics that anyone can read. What did we get? A DC gamble that the new "issue number ones" combined with a simplified universe will be the draw. Perhaps they're right, but based on what I've outlined here I think the odds are really stacked against them. What should the price have been? I don't know. I think there's room for experimentation, though, and I'm disappointed that DC didn't seize the opportunity to try. Take Wednesday Comics as an example. Instead of launching a 14" x 20" broadsheet at $3.99 US that was in an entirely different format that a typical comic, why didn't they try launching a couple of monthly titles on the same newsprint but priced much lower? Say $1.50? A "done in one" type story so that everything stands alone? Something like All-Star Superman might have exploded in popularity at a price point like this. It was not to be and I, for one, find the lack of any experimentation with the 52 relaunch deeply disappointing.
Pricing is also why I don't think digital is a threat to brick and mortar retailers. At least if the prices remain comparable to print comics. The Wall Street Journal published an article back in the spring that detailed who exactly is purchasing Apple's iPad. At the time, 7.8 million people owned iPads but only 6.4% of them earned purchased an iPad while earning less than $25,000 per year. Only 11.9% purchased an iPad while earning between $25,000 and $49,999 per year. Meanwhile, 49.4% of iPad owners earned more than $100,000 per year. Simply put, those earning minimum wage (and please remember that if you're earning $261.00 per week your annual salary is $13,572.00) will not be purchasing digital comics for the iPad. They can't afford to. As Chris at the ComicShop.net recently wrote, "If you really think comic shops are slowly dying off because of the demand for digital, your privilege is showing. Comic shops are dealing with a tough economy because comic books are a luxury—the first thing that gets cut when people are trying to save money. Food or comics? There’s no app for that." He is exactly right.
This is a tough one. Prices have never fallen. In fact, both companies are now flirting with $3.99 price points and, based on the history I outlined here, there's no doubt in my mind that will become the new benchmark in the nearish future. That would be 1.53% of a $261.00 weekly pay cheque. For one comic. Man. It's certainly no way to grow a readership. Is there a way forward? Well, it's tough. If the answer is to keep battling declining revenue by raising prices, then the answer is no. Well, unless they can figure out a way to raise the Federal Minimum Wage at the same time! Seriously, though, comics are a tricky beast. Perhaps Marvel and DC feel that the answer is to turn it to a hobby that only affluent people can afford and keep upscaling things in accordance with that. Maybe. In the meantime, people will still continue to see superhero films and publishers, retailers, and media will wonder why the millions of tickets being purchased somehow doesn't translate into more comics being sold. Well, we know why and that's something. Not much, but something. And then DC and Marvel will reboot/relaunch once again, as they've done so often in their histories.
I have a new graphic novel coming out in October 2011 called Stargazer Volume Two. There's a preview up on my main Stargazer website. Go check it out, ok? Stargazer Volume Two has Diamond Item Code of AUG111259 and an ISBN of 978-09-781237-4-1. You can find reviews, ordering information, and the like at http://stargazer.vonallan.com
1. Average Cover Prices of Comics: Figuring out average cover prices is a bit of a chore. What I did was use "typical" comics in a given month and average the price from there. I mostly focused on Marvel mainly because DC went through a phase, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, where they experimented quite a bit with page counts. I'll try to get this up on Google Docs so that you can better see what I was doing.
2. Page Counts: I used Action Comics to show the historical changes in page counts. A good overview can be found on Comics.org. Note that they include the front cover, the back cover, the inside front cover and the inside back cover to the total page count. This is why they note that Action Comics #1 was, for instance, 68 pages long rather than 64 pages.
3. Readership: I stress periodical comics here, because the one key thing that has grown the industry is the graphic novel. Getting firm numbers is tricky, but the growth of "book form" comics has developed new markets in both bookstores and libraries. That has helped a lot.