It was well known by fans that the comic book industry faced declining sales in the past few years. Then this pandemic struck. Now, comic book shops all over are closed down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Major comic book companies like Marvel and DC will not release comic books digitally, and this has resulted in the entire industry coming to a standstill. We have not had any released comic books for several weeks and this has cascaded to lost jobs, revenue and products. On top of that, the San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions have been cancelled.
This crisis will pass at some point. But will its damage be too much for the comic book industry? Even without this pandemic the industry had many challenges and was running on inertia and good will from other media, notably the films and TV shows based on their comic book characters. It was in a fragile place and it may only take an outside factor like the coronavirus to be the kill the industry.
So, what happened to the comic book industry and where does its future go? If it even has one.
When the American comic book first came into existence back in the 1930s they were aimed at children and at first reprinted newspaper strips. This changed with Action Comics #1 in 1938 as it introduced Superman, the first genuine superhero. After a lull in the 1950s superheroes dominated the medium to this day. However, comic books continued to change as new styles and ideas were introduced, and readers’ tastes changed, as well.
Currently, we are in the Modern Age and just as in the 1990s it is defined by an overreliance on speculators and comic books geared to please them. There are differences between the two time periods. The speculators during the Copper Age in the 1990s were mostly outside investors who hoped to retire by buying comic books with gimmick incentives like hologram covers, inserted trading cards, and numerous guest appearances by popular characters like Wolverine or Venom. This period was infamous for the Great Comics Crash of 1996 as investors were unable to sell their comics and left. Sales dropped so hard that comic books’ continued existence was in doubt.
While those investors are long gone, today many hardcore collectors are encouraged to seek out very expensive variant comics. These are issues of certain key titles with different covers that are given out to retailers as incentives by distributors like Diamond Comics and publishers to encourage retailers to buy large volumes of comics. The retailers in turn sell these exclusive variants at premium prices, but are stuck with too many comics that will not sell. That is one of the reasons why comic book stores have so many sales with comics selling for $1 or so.
A new type of variants are blank cover comics that can be used for signatures or sketches by artists. This means that these comic books become unique pieces of art and thus more valuable. On average an individual title will have roughly eight to ten variant covers released. It can be hard to discern which is the regular cover for a title for a collector not interested in the variants.
These days collectors submit their coveted titles for grading to the Certified Guaranty Company (CGC). This company uses experts who thoroughly examine comics and assigned a number grade before the comics are sealed in hard plastic cases. This has led to collectors with large wallets to chase after these high-value items. Lately, CGC is selling comic books that are exclusives with black and white sketch variant covers of regular issues.
While some can profit handsomely with these graded comics, one has to wonder about the future of this niche market. After all, the average collector cannot afford to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars for these CGC exclusives, let alone the fee to have their precious comics graded.
Higher & Higher Prices
The current prices of comic books is an important reason why sales are declining. Let’s put aside the CGC comics. Those are a niche market for collectors with deep pockets and the average collector is not missing anything if he or she is just trying to keep up with a collection.
Anyone buying and collecting comic books will confirm that they cost too much money. This complaint has existed ever since the Silver Age when prices increased from 10 cents up to 20 cents. As publishing, printing and distribution costs went up so did the prices. Now, the average comic book costs about $3.99.
Lately, publishers released special anniversary issues that cost anywhere from 8 to 12 dollars. These particular comics are meant to celebrate the anniversaries of long-running successful characters. These special issues which feature assorted stories by many writers and artists sold extremely well, and is why more are coming out. The latest celebrant is The Joker who will have his own special 80th anniversary comic book that will ship directly later this month. Unlike the CGC comics, the average collector will seek these out even though they are expensive.
Where does this end? Think about it, where once a comic book cost only 10 cents now on average is nearly five dollars. Then multiply that with all the individual comics a collector will buy on any given month and what is left is an expensive hobby. Surely, most comic books today are not oriented to young children and publishers have correctly figured that the average buyers are adults who can afford their product. With that said, where does it end? It is easy to see comic books in the future costing ten dollars, even twenty dollars for an average issue. Will the average collector be willing to pay that much on a monthly basis?
Gluts, Relaunches & Reboots
Adding to the high costs are the overabundant comic books released today. With Marvel or DC putting out hundreds of titles each month it is impossible to keep up with all of the releases.
Then there is the fact that their most popular characters have multiple titles coming out each month. Let’s use Spider-Man as an example. Some of his current titles include The Amazing Spider-Man, The Superior Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Spider-Man, and The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows. There are probably more but good luck getting an accurate account of current titles! This does not count the many limited series, specials, spinoffs, and annuals that have come out until recently. Seriously, how many titles does Spider-Man need?
Simply put, this is too many comic books for the average collector to keep up with. This problem has plagued other characters like Batman, the Avengers and the X-Men. It is too difficult to keep up with all that is going on in the titles. What makes matters worse is the tendency to use the characters from different continuities.
Again using Spider-Man as an example, the current titles include different versions of Spider-Man from different continuities (Renew Your Vows). This is too confusing for the average reader and daunting for anyone trying to get into comic books.
Spreading a character out into so many titles, not to mention guest appearances, will dilute the character. Not to mention use up all the possible stories that can be told with that character in a short period of time. A good example is the Punisher. He was very popular in the 1990s and Marvel reacted by pumping out more comic books starring the Punisher and the character is a bit limited to justify three titles. The result was that he lost popularity and the titles were eventually cancelled.
But never fear collectors! More likely than not when a title is canceled a new volume will be published just so anyone can have an issue number one! The first issues of titles are highly sought after by collectors and publishers love to feed into this by cancelling titles and relaunching or rebooting them. This has gone too far that any reader is justified in walking away from the hobby. The publishers’ rationale is that new titles draw attention. But that only works for a while. It is frustrating trying to have a complete collection of a title if it is constantly cancelled. One joy about collecting a title is of doing it for a long-running title. Part of the thrill of collecting is being part of a title’s legacy that will be there long after one either gives it up or is unable to continue.
The bottom line is that comic book publishers are catering too much to collectors not fans. The two can be mutual but many times not. Doing this benefits publishers in the short term, but for long term success the fans need to be rewarded for their devotion with quality comics. Forget the chase covers and reboots, concentrate on telling terrific stories and fans will come back again and again.
Next time, we will look at what the future of comics will be like and how to salvage the medium.
To Be Continued…
José Soto and Walter L. Stevenson