A Post You Won't Read Because It's Not About DC

By | Tuesday, September 21, 2010 9 comments
This is a follow-up to my post the other day about price changes and content concerns. Tom Spurgeon responded over on his blog and indicated that he didn't really understand my original piece. It took me a couple of readings of his response, but I think I would agree as I don't think he was really responding to what I was shooting for. That's a failing on my part. I tend not to edit myself very careful here on this blog, so I'm often surprised my posts come out as coherent as they do. But for anyone who didn't get what I was shooting for originally, let me see if I can clarify things.

I haven't tracked down all of the articles I read that helped spur my original post, but this one from Comics Alliance and this one from Robot 6 are typical of what I was responding to. They say, in essence, that comic book prices are too high, customers are cutting back the purchases accordingly, and that hurts everybody.

My first point is that the number of issues sold is down, but the amount of money publishers are making isn't. I did cite that sales numbers are down 7% from five years ago, but what I didn't cite is that they're still up 20% from ten years ago! Again, here's John Jackson Miller's analysis for the August sales. What that means is that publishers are making MORE money off FEWER books.

Let's say you sell widgets. If you sell 10 widgets at $5 each, you would take in $50 if you sold them all, right? Now, what if you increased the price to $7? You'd probably sell fewer of them. But if you sold eight of them, you'd take in $56! As a widget retailer, it would make more sense to sell fewer of them at a higher price because you'd make more money. That's EXACTLY what comic publishers are doing right now and that's EXACTLY why they're not going to drop their prices.

So, if you define the health of the comic industry by how many comics are sold (which is a definition that makes sense for most of us) then, yes, it is absolutely crappier than it's been in a while and something to be concerned about. But if you define the health of the comic industry by how much money is made (which is a definition that makes sense to a company officer or shareholder) then there's nothing wrong at all. It's a view that absolutely is looking at the short-term prospects over the long-term ones, and has less an emphasis on the love and appreciation of the medium and more of an emphasis on the business of selling superhero fantasies. Which is to say that the bigger publishers are doing precisely what they are designed to do: make money.

Yes, it absolutely means fans won't be able to read as many comics as they used to. But why should the publisher care if they're getting more money from their audience? It's all well and good to talk about craft and artistry, but comics are still a business and no one should be surprised to see publishers treat it like one.

And, hey, if that runs smaller publishers out of business, why should Marvel or DC care? That's not going to impact how many copies of Amazing Spider-Man they sell. If anything, that's one less competitor they have to worry about!

(As a slight tangent, this is why Vince Colletta is maligned as Jack Kirby's inker so much. Fans of Kirby's work look at the artistic butchering Colletta did to those pencils and cringe. But what they often seem to forget is that Colletta was doing a job. He wasn't out to create capital-A Art; he was getting pencil drawings prepped to be sent to the printer on a deadline. If there was a way he could accomplish that goal faster or more efficiently, he did it. He recognized comics as a business and did his job accordingly. That is to say, deadlines trump artistic integrity.)

My second point was to reinforce that it's not just a matter of price. It's a matter of value. It may seem like some semantics, but the difference is significant. The price of a comic is simply the amount of cash you have to part with to obtain it. The value of the comic is relative to how much entertainment (in the case of Marvel and DC comics) you get out of it. One person may like an issue more than someone else, and thus would be willing to pay a higher price for it. They value it more. If all of Marvel's books were superb and no one could every find anything in the story to complain about, you wouldn't hear much outcry over the price tag on them.

The discussions I've been seeing focus almost exclusively on price. Again, my point there was that it's really a discussion of value.

Combing those two points gets me to the conclusion that you can bitch about higher prices all you want, it's not going to do a damn bit of good. Prices are higher, and publishers are going to act like businesses and happily make more profits off fewer books. It's not a matter of what you like, it's a matter of what makes the publishers the most money.
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Matt K said...

I read this post. :-)

I'm not sure I really understand what your point is, now, though.

"You can bitch about higher prices all you want, it's not going to do a damn bit of good" --?

I suspect that's pretty obvious. And that, if pressed, many of the people expressing their objections to higher prices wouldn't really disagree.

But their opinions of higher prices are what they are, and they are active participants in forums for expressing opinions. So...? I mean look at the opinion section of the NY Times, or just about any opinion forum; what percentage of the things being discussed are really likely to change, at all, let alone in response to criticisms of them by independent pundits?

Alternately, if your goal is actually to debunk the suggestion that "comic book prices are too high, customers are cutting back the purchases accordingly, and that hurts everybody," I don't think you're quite there, either.

Sure, profits can go up on fewer sales, but that's an awfully narrow and short-sighted perspective, even for the company making those higher profits. I don't think it really requires woolly-headed hippie thinking to suggest that over the long term, no one business's fate is completely independent from the health of the larger industry it is part of. Or to suggest that the "sell fewer widgets at higher profits" logic eventually reaches a point where the customer base is so shriveled that resulting vulnerabilities outweigh the immediate cash advantages.

One can certainly argue that Marvel, e.g., is not there yet, perhaps not even near. But I think that concerns based on long-term health of the company, or the larger industry (i.e. "that hurts everybody"), are still valid even if you feel they are premature.

Anonymous said...

Although it sounds like you were trying to be fair in your assessment of Vince Colletta's work with Jack Kirby, your comment was still waaaayyyy off base.

I have read previous comments by you regarding Colletta (none of them complimentary)so this one isn't surprising. Maybe your problem with Colletta lies with your age. When Kirby and Colletta's THOR hit the stands, everyone-and I do mean everyone- gushed over the beauty of the collaboration. Kirby himself must have been shocked when he saw the first Asgard that Vince inked. Never would Jack's pencils be given this type of grandeur again. Sure, some people tried to deflect this praise by pointing out short cuts Vince took - which actually are miniscule when you consider how much art they created together - but the work spoke for itself and still does. Their earlier romance stories were inked in a different style by Vince, Days of the Mob in a another different style and the Fourth World/Jimmy Olsen books in yet another style altogether. Aside from his work with Kirby, Colletta's inking over Grell - I prefer them to Mike's own inks - Bob Brown on DD, all those Wonder Womans, Keith Giffen on Justice, etc. was just great.

Comic fans don't have the same tastes and sensibilities as art lovers in general. Usually younger, they prefer slick graphic ad type stuff to craftsmanship like texturing and depth. Vince's Fourth World inks had those graphic qualities and are now being praised by former critics. Hey, someone actually wrote a book about the guy which is pretty impressive too!

Your description of how Colletta "butchered" Kirby's pencils is so typical of fanboys but seems distressing coming from an artist who should know better.

@Matt -- I was trying to address the distinction between what fans consider good for the industry and what businesses consider good for themselves. I see everybody arguing that prices are too high and that's having a negative impact here and now. What I see many people missing is that there are two sides of this equation (three, actually, if you separate retailers out) and that they're not coming to the table with the same goals and/or ideals.

@liquidwater -- I choose the word "butchered" precisely because I see it used so much in critiques of his inking of Kirby's work. I haven't read the new book about Colletta (though I would like to) but everything I have read about him, from his proponents AND detractors, said that he viewed getting the job done as a primary importance. I don't cast judgement on that by any means. Kirby did that too. I don't personally care for Colletta's style, admittedly, but I hardly think that's uncomplimentary towards him. In fact, I've publicly said (and this is Google-able) that Colletta contributed to Marvel's success back in the day.

I don't have a problem with Colletta's work or his work methods. A lot of comic creators had the exact same opinion of their jobs; Colletta just executed on it slightly differently. If you love Colletta's work, I won't argue that and I won't begrudge you for it. As a matter of style, I prefer other artists, but that's only a matter of taste not judgement.

Matt K said...

Fair enough. Claiming an immediate negative impact is definitely stretching things wrt the industry, and as you point out it's entirely unfounded wrt specific publishers.

George S. said...

The concept (or the cold, hard truth) of 'comics industry is a business' is always in the back of my mind every second I'm in this hobby. I and others have no choice but to accept it and decide if you're heart is in the right place staying here knowing that. But when you put it the way you did, it's just so...sobering. Which is totally fine...still, sobering. :) Thanks for this great post (which I read, by the way!)!

Anonymous said...

If you don't feel that your using the word "butchered" is uncomplimentary then we'll just have to agree to disagree.


@George -- Thanks.

@liquidwater -- Like I said, I only used the term because it's what others have applied to him in their critiques. It is uncomplimentary but it's NOT reflective of my own opinion as I've a point to state repeatedly.

Anonymous said...

So, when is that Sean Kleefeld book coming out?

Matt K said...

Sean, I don't know if you visit The Economist's web site, but in light of this recent conversation I think you'll enjoy this blog post. :-)


(There is a rather amusing comics connection.)