Comic Book Economics: 3 Hours of Entertainment for $120. Is This Sustainable?

July 18, 2011

I’m a long time comic book fan, going back to the early 1960s. I agree with the late Harvey Pekar’s view that comics are words and pictures and, despite the medium’s fixation in America with long underwear super heros, there’s no inherent limitation in how good either the pictures or words can be.

Recently I went to a local comics shop and bought a first issue of Deadman and the Flying Graysons, part of the Flashpoint story arc.

In order to read the entire Flashpoint storyline DC Comics requires the purchase of 37 comic books (with 18 pages of content each) at $2.99. With sales tax where I live this comes to a whopping $117.66!

New York based artist Alex Katz once referenced a survey that claimed people at fine arts museum spent an average of 7 seconds looking at a painting. “I try to give them their 7 seconds worth,” he said. His works, like most painters, took weeks of effort to complete, and more often far longer than that.

The 18 pages of Flashpoint #1 took less than 5 minutes to read; a bit more perhaps if you linger over the art.

That works out to 3 hours and 5 minutes of reading time for close to $120.

By comparison, in 1965 an issue of Green Lantern had 21 full pages and 3 three-quarter pages of story and art. An issue sold for 12 cents. (Phun Phact: According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that 12 cents would be 86 cents today).

What else is competing for your entertainment dollars in today’s recession?

The popular video game Call of Duty: Black Ops retails for $60, provides a much more immersive experience and gamers can play this for dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of hours. The current box office blockbuster Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 runs 2 hours and 10 minutes, the ticket price locally is $11.50 and it’s in 3D to boot!

Back to the saddle-stitched four color process product. Obviously, you can develop a far more complicated storyline given 666 pages rather than the 23 and 1/4 of the 1960s. And the production values of today’s comics are without question much improved in two areas: the quality of paper used and the complexity and subtlety of the coloring.

The basic art of penciling and inking may be better, in general, according to your taste. Although during their run on Green Lantern 46 years ago the combination of Gil Kane’s pencils and Sid Greene’s inks is the equal to anyone working today, in my opinion.

Certainly in most cases anatomy drawing has suffered as several generations of comic book artists have learned their figure drawing skills not from life but from aping the exaggerations of earlier comic book artists. For example, Gil Kane’s women are realistically sexy without the need for breasts larger than their heads.

My conclusion is that the current business model for selling ‘floppies’ or individual issues of comic books is unsustainable. As a fan I hope there is a way for the form to reinvent itself before it sucumbs to market pressures and the competition from other media.

Perhaps the move will be to digital distribution on tablet devices like the iPad, the current trend for the magazine industry in general. Will this mean the end of the ‘brick and mortar’ comic book specialty shop as it has for the bookseller Borders? Tune in next time: same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel. . .


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