The Fall of the American Comic Book Industry

An Essay By Mark Moore

Written from Monday, December 5, 2005, from 8:30 PM to Saturday, December 10, 2005, 2:42 AM

How many of you readers are comic book fans? I mean American comic books, not manga or anything else. How many of you readers were comic book fans? How many of you readers were never comic book fans?

As a pure guess, I'd say that the last two groups are each larger than the first group. I fall into the second group. In this essay, I will relate my personal experiences as a comic book fan, presenting them against the backdrop of the American comic book industry.

Some Basic Background Information

This isn't intended to be an exhaustive history of the American comic book industry. There are books that you can read about that. I'm just going to get you familiar with the basics, so you can understand what I'll be talking about later in the essay.

There are two major competitors in the American comic book industry:

DC: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.

Marvel: X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Captain America, etc.

There are also numerous smaller companies with varying degrees of success. The more notable companies are:

Image: Spawn, Witchblade, Tomb Raider, etc.

Dark Horse: Star Wars, Conan, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, etc.

Archie: Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, etc.

Gemstone: Disney stuff

Characters like Superman and Batman date back to the late 1930s. The Archie characters date back to the early 1940s. Most of the Marvel characters were created in the 1960s. Image came into being in the 1990s. For the most part, though, a lot of comic book characters have been around for a while.

The American comic book industry used to be huge with some series selling millions of copies per issue. In the old days (I was born in 1978, so I didn't personally experience this), comic books were available in corner stores - the local mom 'n' pop shops. They also used to cost 10 cents. There were some rough spots, such as the comic book scare of the 1950s, leading to many of the smaller companies going out of business, but the industry managed to survive.

Eventually, 22 pages of story per issue became pretty much standard for most of the companies. However, due to diminishing sales, rather than cut pages of story, the companies bumped up the standard issue price. It was 75 cents by the mid-1980s. The price kept climbing. As mom 'n' pop shops got bought out by chains, they stopped selling comic books. Not even bookstores are required to carry individual comic book issues. For example, when I lived in Citrus County, Florida, the Waldenbooks in the local mall carried only manga and trade paperback collections (TPBs) but not single issues. Newsstands rarely carry comic books anymore either.

At some point, the direct market system was created. Comic books arrive at comic book specialty shops every Wednesday. This is coordinated by Diamond Comic Distributors, which publishes a monthly catalogue, "Previews", for store owners to order comic books and comic book-related merchandise for their customers.

Sounds like a good idea; right? Set up a system with stores that specialize in comic books. How could this possibly lead to the fall of the industry?

You're about to find out.

How I Got Into Comic Books

I remember exactly what my first comic book was. It was the second issue of a special Supergirl safety belt campaign, which was created by a partnership of DC and Honda in the 1980s. The second issue was published in 1986. Everyone in my class in elementary school got a copy. Supergirl was my first comic book character. I eventually either lost or (stupidly) sold the issue, though.

In the early 1990s, my mom bought me two Archie comic digest magazines (collections of older stories on smaller-sized pages) at the local supermarkets. I became an Archie fan, but I wouldn't get more Archie comics until I started buying more digests (usually "Betty and Veronica", since I like them better than Archie himself) in the late 1990s.

Later, I found a Books-A-Million around a half-hour from my house, so I started buying the current "Supergirl" series and some other titles.

I was also checking the back issue boxes at the used bookstore, Warren's Books, at the flea market by my house for old comic books.

When I was going to university, I had to drive to a larger city, Ocala (in Marion County). The Waldenbooks at the mall and the Books-A-Million carried comic books. I kept buying them.

Warren's Books moved out of the flea market and into a plaza store in July of 2002. Warren had two brief periods where he ordered comic books. I ordered some, of course. When he stopped, though, I was without a source for weekly comic books.

In late 2002 or early 2003, my coworker, Tommy, introduced me to a comic book shop called 7th Inning Stretch just past the county line in Dunnellon (in Marion County), around a 45-minute drive from my house (I lived in Homosassa at the other end of Citrus County, a few miles from Hernando County). I kept buying more comic books and even found the first Supergirl safety belt campaign issue from 1984, which I hadn't read before.

The comic books that I bought mostly had female lead characters or were based on 1980s cartoon properties that I like.

My collection eventually went over 1,000 comic books.

I was stupid, and here's why.

Rising Prices

Back when comic books cost 10 cents each, a page of story cost around 0.45 cents each. That was a pretty good deal.

However, with inflation came rising production costs.

Let's look at the low end of the spectrum first. An issue of "Betty" from Archie Comics costs $2.25. At 22 pages in length, you're paying a little over 10 cents per page of story.

Now, let's look at the middle of the spectrum. An issue of "Superman" from DC Comics costs $2.50. At 22 pages in length, you're paying a little over 11 cents per page of story.

Now, let's look at the high end of the spectrum. An issue of "Supergirl" from DC Comics costs $2.99. At 22 pages in length, you're paying a little over 13 cents per page of story.

Yes, "Supergirl" is more expensive than "Superman". The reason? It could be that the current "Supergirl" title is very new at the time of this writing. Maybe it's the fact that "Supergirl" is currently in the top 10 on the monthly sales charts while "Superman" is farther down. Yes, Supergirl is more popular than Superman. You go, girl!

Most of DC and Marvel's titles are in the $2.50 - $2.99 price range.

This has led to less value for your money. At over 13 cents per page, there's gotta be some great story between those covers. Right?

Usually, no.

Convoluted Storytelling

Whenever you try to follow an old character ("old" meaning at least 20 years), you end up encountering numerous oddities in your search to learn more about him/her:

Different writers have different takes on the character, which leads to a schizophrenic appearance when looking at the character as a whole.

Writers add to, ignore, or give "startling revelations" about a character's history, often alienating a particular group of fans in the process.

Occasionally, companies like to retcon (a term meaning "retroactive continuity") a character's history or a certain event, meaning that some things "never happened". The biggest example of this is DC's "Crisis On Infinite Earths" event in 1985 and 1986, which was meant to wipe out decades of convoluted continuity and streamline their universe. It should have, but DC screwed it up by declaring pre-Crisis events to be inherently canon unless/until contradicted by later, post-Crisis stories. Also, they proceeded to clutter up their clean universe with confusing junk again, such as Hypertime (no, I don't know what it is beyond a stupid excuse for writers to contradict previously established facts).

Superman is notoriously bad when it comes to character history. There's Earth-2 Superman, Earth-1 Superman, post-Man of Steel Superman, and now post-Birthright Superman. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I can assure you that I know little more than you do.

Crossovers

Since DC and Marvel each have a "shared universe", they often have their characters interact with each other and make guest appearances in each other's books. Sometimes, it's genuinely necessary to buy all of the books to understand a particular storyline, which can be somewhat confusing to readers. Other times, the connections are tenuous at best and nonexistant at worst, done only to increase sales of the titles involved. Such was the case when an issue of a Spider-Man title had the word "Disassembled" on the front cover to give the potential reader the mistaken impression that it tied into "Avengers Disassembled".

DC and Marvel like to do big events every so often (it seems like every year). These are preceded by miniseries that lead up to the event, and then, when the event occurs (usually in the form of a miniseries), the other titles have tie-in issues. Big Events are done to increase sales, and they work.

Simple guest appearances, while not really crossovers, are often done as well. This involves a more famous character making an appearance in a less famous character's book (even if in only one panel or only on the front cover) to bring a brief sales spike to a book that's not doing that well.

Decompressed Storytelling

The trend today is for writers to do 6-issue or 12-issue story arcs, which can then be conveniently collected in trade paperback collections or hardcover collections. Not only do writers drag stories that could be told in 1 or 2 issues out to ridiculous lengths, making more money for the companies, but the collections make more money from readers that want the stories without the advertisements.

Sometimes, the collection comes out the very next week after the final issue of the story arc does, which is a ridicously extreme example of companies milking their readers for more money.

One result of decompressed storytelling is that writers and artists use large panels, full-page illustrations, and even 2-page spreads - often with little or no dialogue. They almost look like animation cells from theatrical films. They're pretty to look at, but they waste space.

Just What Year Is It, Anyway?

One noticable problem with characters that have been around a long time is that they don't age. Batman is still in his prime after 60 years of fighting crime. So is Superman. So is Wonder Woman. Some characters have actually been de-aged - some with an explanation, others with no explanation.

Technology keeps advancing. The writers often mention the current year and sometimes include cameo appearances by the current President. The world around the heroes changes, but they don't.

Let's use Superman as an example. Back when he was killed off in 1992 (you must know about this, even if you never read it; it was on the news), President Clinton was shown giving a speech in the funeral issue. Later on, after Superman was brought back to life, Lex Luthor ran for President in 2000, defeating both "the Vice President" and "the Texas Governor". When "Superman: Birthright" started, it was originally assumed to be set in its own little universe, retelling Superman's origin. Clark Kent's past was a little different. His adoptive parents were a few decades younger. It was set in early 2004, and references were made to the Department of Homeland Security and orange alerts. Anti-terrorism exercises were being conducted in Metropolis. This was when Superman made his public debut. He was said to be 25 years old at the time, and Lex Luthor was only a few years older than him. When the initial sales figures came in, and they weren't very high, the writer suddenly came out and said that "Birthright" was officially Superman's new origin. This caught the comic book fandom by surprise. It was such a thoughtless move, and it created all sorts of continuity problems. For example, following the declaration of "Birthright" as canon, some artists used the old, pre-Birthright Kents in their stories, and other writers used the younger, post-Birthright Kents in their own stories. It was a big mess.

DC also has a rule that says that Superman always made his public debut 12 years ago, no matter how long ago the Crisis happened.

So, 12 years ago, the Department of Homeland Security was in existence?

In essence, time doesn't pass in the DC Universe or Marvel Universe unless explicited stated. Apparently, dates aren't explicit.

Why else would DC make a big deal about its "One Year Later" storyline, where, after "Infinite Crisis" (their current Big Event), time in the DC Universe is advanced one year?

I'm not going to bother going on with further examples. You get the idea.

Secret Identities

You've all seen it. It's done in American cartoons and in anime. It's in "Sailor Moon", "Mew Mew Power", and "Pokémon", among other series. A character changes clothes, and nobody recognizes them. It's been suggested that this is a writing technique designed to make the audience (which is assumed to be children) feel smarter than the characters involved. Well, children aren't as dumb as writers give them credit for (at least not in regards to seeing through thin disguises). Such writing makes the series and the characters seem stupid to the children. When the audience is adults, the blatantly apparent stupidity is increased.

This type of writing apparently got its start in comic books. Clark Kent takes off his glasses, changes clothes, and combs his hair a different way, and suddenly he's Superman. Bruce Wayne puts on a bat costume and puts a growl in his voice, and suddenly he's Batman. No one at the Daily Planet figures out that one of their own reporters is Superman. No one in Gotham City figures out that a local billionaire that's on TV whenever he makes a donation is Batman.

A slightly similar problem can be found in another character, which can be summed up by the fact that no one in New York City asks "Hmmm, why does Peter Parker get all of the pictures of Spider-Man?"

Some fans defend this stupidity by calling it a "genre convention". It's a stupid convention.

I'll show you:

"Hi, I'm Mark Moore."

runs out of room, takes off glasses, takes off clothes to reveal spandex costume underneath, and runs back into room

"I'm Crackerman, defender of justice, which usually means protecting cute Japanese schoolgirls from dirty old men that want to steal their panties. My good friend, Mark Moore, also known as Crackerman's Pal, told me that help is needed. Unhand Kioko-chan, you dastardly scoundrel!"

knocks dirty old man unconscious, autographs Kioko's Hello Kitty tennis racket, runs out of room, puts on clothes and glasses, and runs back into room

"Kioko, you're safe! What happened?!"

See?

One comic book fan told me, regarding why people don't recognize that "Kara Kent" is Supergirl on TV, "Dude, she's got the whole secret identity thing going on." I'll let that speak for itself.

Some of the Superman writers have poked fun at the whole "disguise" thing over the years, but it's sad that it was there to poke fun at in the first place.

Overexposure

Both DC and Marvel overexpose their characters, meaning they give them too many monthly titles.

At DC, Superman has 3 monthly titles. Batman has 4 monthly titles. They also share another monthly title and are both members of the Justice League of America, which has its own monthly title. They frequently make guest appearances in other books in their "families". The Superman family includes "Supergirl". The Batman family includes "Robin", "Nightwing", "Catwoman", "Birds of Prey", and "Gotham Central". Furthermore, both Superman and Batman are occasionally given their own miniseries or higher-priced "prestige format" one-shots.

At Marvel, Spider-Man and the X-Men have 3 monthly titles each. They also have other, non-monthly titles. Furthermore, the X-Men characters sometimes get their own solo titles, and most of the Marvel Universe is based on the mutant concept, which originated in the X-Men titles. The X-Men family of titles is quite large.

Spider-Man and the X-Men also have 1 Ultimate monthly title each. The "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "Ultimate X-Men" titles are part of the Ultimate Marvel Universe, which is separate from the Marvel Universe. It features younger, more modern versions of the characters - without the baggage of four decades of past continuity. Monthly sales on the Ultimate line have been slipping recently.

Multiple Covers

In shameless attempts to get readers to buy more than one copy of a comic book, DC, Marvel, and some of the smaller companies create multiple covers for some comic books. They're hoping that the completists will buy Cover A, Cover B, Cover C, the special holofoil cover, the gold cover, the signed-by-the-artist cover, the special guest artist cover, the limited-to-1,000-copies super-incentive cover, etc. It's ridiculous.

I admit that I have fallen for this as well. I had to have as many of them as I could find.

This technique drives up sales for a particular issue. That's why the companies keep doing this. They know it works.

Comic Shop Ghetto

That's a term that I see used online sometimes. Essentially, it refers to the idea that comic shop owners are unwelcoming of new customers. The shops supposedly feel weird to newcomers. The store owners supposedly care more about pushing their products than actually being helpful to the customers.

I can't really tell if this is true or not. I've been in only around 3 comic shops - one of which was mall-based.

It doesn't help, though, that only a few monthly titles, released sporatically, are available in mainstream stores. Potential new readers have to search out the closest comic shop for more obscure titles.

Aging Fanbase

I don't know about you, but I don't think I've ever seen a kid interested in comic books.

When I go into a comic shop, the only kids that I see there are playing trading card games. They're not reading or buying comic books. The customers in their 20s and 30s are.

The companies know this, because they're creating titles that appeal to mature readers. They release all-ages comic books solely for the purpose of collecting them in digests later on and selling them in mainstream bookstores such as Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble.

A Typical Comic Book

So what is a typical American comic book like?

It's about men and women, living in an ambiguous "now" (please ignore any mentions of years or Presidential appearances; nothing to see here), that put on spandex clothes as so-called "disguises", fight criminals or aliens until the yearly Big Event happens, participate in said Big Event, then repeat the process year after year while not aging at all.

The tales of their adventures are told in 6 monthly segments (not counting different covers, which You Know You Want) of 22 pages each, priced at $2.99 each, which are subsequently collected shortly thereafter. All of this amounts to around 2 or 3 issues' worth of actual story, but look at the pretty pictures.

Sometimes, you have to get all of the titles involved to get the whole story. Remember how many monthly titles that Superman and Batman have.

Just remember that some of the things that you learn won't apply later on. There might be another collection that explains why (which You Need To Buy). Then again, there might not be.

Current Monthly Sales

Remember how I said that monthly issues of some comic book series used to sell over a million copies each? Well, I just took a look at the October, 2005, sales figures. I'll give you the main points:

The #1 book sold over 200,000 copies.

At #2, sales dropped below 200,000 copies.

At #5, sales dropped below 100,000 copies - and indeed below 90,000 copies.

At #9, sales dropped below 80,000 copies.

At #18, sales dropped below 70,000 copies.

At #26, sales dropped below 60,000 copies.

At #33, sales dropped below 50,000 copies.

At #46, sales dropped below 40,000 copies.

At #61, sales dropped below 30,000 copies.

At #96, sales dropped below 20,000 copies.

At #168, sales dropped below 10,000 copies.

Proposed Solutions and Why They Won't Work

Many fans have proposed various solutions to revitalize the American comic book industry. Other fans tell them why they won't work. Here are some of them:

Get comic books back into corner stores. Get them into Wal-Mart. That won't work. Comic books offer only 22 pages of content and are priced at roughly the same price as numerous other magazines that offer more content, which they have to compete with for rack space. The stores won't think it's worth it to carry them.

Bump up the page count. That won't work. More pages require more money to pay the creative teams and printers, which requires more pages of advertising, which further distract from the story, which has even more filler. Who would want to read a 100-page Superman story that's filled with numerous 2-page spreads and pointless conversations that can be read in a half-hour?

So bump up the page count but have stories by different writers and artists. That won't work. More writers and more artists require more money. It also leads to an unevenness of artwork and storytelling, which potential readers might feel are distracting and/or doesn't justify the price.

So have anthology magazines with different characters. That won't work. Why would someone that's interested in only Batman want to read about the Spectre?

Forget the glossy magazine paper and go back to the traditional comic book paper. That won't work. The artwork wouldn't look as good, and there's no indication that comic books printed on traditional paper stock cost any less than those printed on glossy magazine paper. Furthermore, prices vary between glossy paper comic books themselves, such as the aforementioned "Superman" and "Supergirl".

So print the monthly comic books on traditional paper stock and save the glossy paper treatment for the collections. That won't work. Modern coloring techniques don't look good when printed on the old-fashioned paper stock. The companies would have to pay the colorists more money to color the material twice, which might decrease the price of the monthly comic books but would increase the price of the collections. Comic shops would lose money on the monthly comic books. Mainstream stores would have even less incentive to carry comic books. Mainstream bookstores would lose sales of the collections.

Switch to original graphic novels (OGNs) only. That won't work. The reason that collections are a better value than the monthly titles, even with no ads, is because the monthly titles absorb a lot of the production costs. The additional production costs for collections would consist of bindings, new cover artwork, and perhaps paying the writer to write an introduction. A collection that has 6 issues' worth of pages would therefore cost less than a collection of 6 monthly issues. Without the monthly titles to absorb the initial production costs, collection-sized OGNs would cost a lot more, turning off potential new readers.

Get comic books into the hands of kids. That won't work. Let's use an example. Dad buys little Billy a Spider-Man comic book. Little Billy reads the comic book then tosses it aside and plays his latest PS2 game. Dad keeps buying little Billy the comic book, month after month, hoping to get him hooked. Eventually, dad gives little Billy $20.00 and tells him that the bookstore in the mall has the latest Spider-Man TPB. Little Billy goes to the mall and comes to a Gamestop on his way to the bookstore. He goes inside and looks around. They have "Final Fantasy X-2" for $20. Little Billy calculates. He could leave the Gamestop, go to the bookstore, and buy the Spidey collection, which he would spend around 2 hours reading and then toss aside, or he could buy FFX-2 for the same amount of money and spend weeks playing it and exploring the game world. Which is little Billy likely to buy?

But the movies must help. Include ads before the movies for the comic books. Hand out free comic books with the movie tickets. That won't work. Why would anyone be interested in reading a static picture adventure of a character that they just saw in live-action motion on the big screen? Even if a moviegoer enjoys the "X-Men" or "Hulk" films (I enjoyed "Hulk", so go with it), keep in mind that the movies often change the stories and characters to work better on the big screen. If a moviegoer does pick up a comic book, chances are it won't match what was on the big screen, confusing the reader and causing him/her to give up. No, contrary to opinion, s/he won't be interested in why the story/character is different and start buying more comic books to learn why.

So change the comic books to match the movies. That won't work. The X-Men started wearing their movie uniforms in the comic books. While it was a good idea (and Joss Whedon is an idiot for putting them back in colored spandex), it had no effect on sales. The Superman comic books got no new readers after the writers made his childhood more closely match "Smallville". They weren't even buying the "Smallville" comic book, which later got cancelled.

The cartoon series must help. It will get kids to buy the comic books. That won't work. Again, there's the whole static picture thing. The only things that the cartoons do are help stores to sell super-hero-shaped plastic and give DC and Marvel a lot of licensing revenues. Those are the same things that the movies do.

Go back to basics. Launch series that don't rely on complex backstory. That won't work. DC is trying it with their new "All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder" and "All-Star Superman" titles. As of this writing, the first issue of the Batman title sold over 160,000 copies in the direct market. That's great by today's standards, but there's no indication of how well it sells in mainstream bookstores, and the direct market sales of subsequent issues keep getting lower. Besides, if comic book characters have to have zero character growth, such as the Archie characters, in order to sell more comic books, then what does that say about the industry, and how many people would be more than casual readers that pick up an issue maybe every few months?

Part of the problem of trying to find ways to save the comic book industry is that people can't agree on what saving the comic book industry means. Does it mean keeping any sequential art stories in publication? Does it mean keeping American comic books in publication? Does manga count? Should we try to make monthly titles more widely available, or should we switch to OGNs? Should comics go online with special effects and sound effects added? If so, are they truly comic books?

Before we can find a solution, we have to agree on what we want, and I don't believe that will happen.

How I Got Out of Comic Books

I was running out of space in my bedroom to store my comic books. I was buying monthly comic books (both new and back issues), trade paperbacks, and manga. I was interested in almost everything starring female characters.

In October of 2004, my mom told me to sell a bunch of my comic books and stop buying new ones, or she'd burn all of them. While that's illegal, and I was angry at her for it, it did give me an incentive to sell a bunch of my comic books. I wasn't reading the vast majority of them, anyway. I was just collecting them, because, in my mind, "I'll get around to reading them someday." One fan asked me why I did that. I wonder why now, too.

The owner of 7th Inning Stretch, a guy named Jimmy, wouldn't buy them, so I sold them to the owner of Callahan's Books, the bookstore that used to be Warren's Books (Warren had moved to Tennessee and sold the store to his manager). John didn't want the comic books but bought them anyway. I kept selling comic books to him for around a year, all the while still buying new comic books at Jimmy's (only to later sell most of those, too). In total, I got around $70 for those hundreds of monthly comic books and a few TPBs.

Today, I have only a few hundred comic books left, mostly consisting of Supergirl-related comic books (she's special to me, because Supergirl was my first comic book character, even though she's not the same Supergirl; no, I won't go into details; you'd get a headache) and manga. The only new titles that I buy are manga, Supergirl-related issues, and the stand-alone Mary Jane titles. I've also started buying "Betty" again, so I'll have new information to add to the Betty Cooper FAQ that I maintain, but I won't keep them. The only Archie titles that I'm interested in buying and keeping are the 1970s and 1980s Betty-related titles.

I feel better, because I save money by not buying nearly as many American comic books, which can be used to buy manga titles or anime DVDs instead.

The Signs of Death

Based on what I have observed online and in the comic books themselves, I'd say that the American comic book industry has maybe 10 years of life left.

I know some of you will disagree. I've encountered fans online that believe that there's no problem at all. The above-mentioned fan that defended Supergirl's secret identity is one of them. He told me that he hangs out at a comic shop with people that believe the industry will be around for many decades to come.

The signs of death are apparent, though. Those sales figures that I posted above are awful. They're fine by today's standards, but they would have gotten most of those titles cancelled a few decades ago.

The sales figures count only the number of comic books that are sold in the direct market, not everywhere. For example, they don't count the comic book sales in mainstream bookstores. However, I can't imagine that anything other than OGNs, collections, and manga sell well in mainstream bookstores.

It's worth pointing out, also, that those sales figures are the number of books that are sold to comic shops, not to readers. Unless reorder numbers are shown on the sales charts in later months, we must assume that comic shops are not able to sell all of the comic books that they buy. Therefore, the actual readership of comic books is less than what the sales charts indicate.

When comic shops can't sell new comic books, they usually mark the prices down - and lose money. They also slash their orders when filling out the next order form. The monthly "Previews" is set up so that comic shops order titles 3 months in advance. Therefore, it takes a while for the sales charts to reflect the true direct market interest in a title.

Comic book sales have decreased by 75 while their prices have increased by 2,890. That's over the past 60 years. Comic book prices have increased by 299 over just the past 20 years alone, and there's no way that that's due to just inflation. The higher prices pay Diamond for distribution. The money also goes to line the wallets of greedy creative teams. Some writers and artists get paid ridiculously large sums of money. For what?

The higher prices also compensate for the massive loss of readers. Some of the core readers quit reading when they became adults, believing that comic books are only for kids. Others died. Others gave up titles because of the price increases. Others abandoned the books due to disliking changes.

Also, comic books are a product of a time when television didn't exist. We are long past that time. Today, people have TV, video games, CDs, DVDs, and the Internet competing for their time and income. All of these things - including novels, which are still around - are a better value for your money than comic books. Comic books are some of the least valuable items sold today.

The speculation craze of the early 1990s contributed to this problem. What happened was people started investing in comic books, hoping for a big pay-off years later. The comic book companies went crazy, creating multiple covers, rare collector's editions, and so forth. The speculation craze ended a few years later, permanently hurting the industry. Now, the comic book companies are trying the same things again. The monthly sales are increasing - but for how long?

Used comic books are pretty much worthless today. John reluctantly bought them from me. He didn't even bother trying to sell them in his bookstore. He said he'd put them up on eBay. Jimmy won't even buy used comic books most of the time. He puts comic books that are supposedly valued at $20 (according to a published guide) in the $1 bin. He doesn't care. Comic shop owners will pay you pennies per book, so they can make a profit by selling it for $1.00. Almost no one - readers or comic shop owners - will pay more than cover price for a used comic book. Those people that do are idiots.

All of this has caused many comic shops to go out of business. I read a story online about a comic shop owner that was forced to live in his shop, because he could no longer afford the rent on his apartment. Shortly before I left Florida, Jimmy told me that he thinks there are only around 1,500 comic shops left in the nation.

Fewer comic shops, in turn, has led to the loss of even more readers.

Most comic shops today aren't even pure comic book shops. They're comic book / trading card game / RPG / anime / video game shops. That's how they stay in business. Even though most of the floor space in 7th Inning Stretch is taken up by comic books, Jimmy makes most of his money from the other stuff. He wouldn't be able to keep his shop open otherwise.

Both readers and comic shop owners are fed up with the comic book companies. Why wouldn't they be? The companies are intent on appealing to the aging fanboys by bogging the stories down with decades-long continuity while at the same time breaking those ties whenever they feel like it.

Marvel revealed in its "Sins Past" story arc that Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man's much-loved and decades-dead girlfriend, had sex with his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin, and fathered his children. DC, in its "Identity Crisis" Big Event, turned a super-hero's wife into a serial killer, her first victim being another super-hero's wife. Later, dead girlfriends were stuffed into refrigerators. How does stuff like this please anyone?

During all of this nonsense and beyond, the writers refuse to finally kill the Joker.

Marvel throws new titles against the wall and sees what sticks then cancels the rest. In fact, Marvel has a much lower tolerance for keeping low-selling titles around than DC does.

Both DC and Marvel have embraced the "made-for-the-trade" mentality when it comes to writing, meaning stretching the stories to ridiculous lengths. Apparently, they don't care very much for "done-in-one" stories.

This has led to a "waiting-for-the-trade" mentality among many comic book fans. After all, if the story's going to be collected anyway, there's no reason to buy the monthly comics.

Writers blame this mentality for hurting monthly comic book sales, but they cause this mentality in the first place.

Comic book distributors are to be blamed, too. Warren first tried Diamond, then he tried Mile High Comics. Both companies kept screwing up the orders, failing to send titles that he had ordered and sending titles that he hadn't ordered. He stopped dealing with both companies.

It was just as well, since he lost a lot of money by ordering comic books, anyway. There wasn't enough demand.

The complaints are growing. When fans change the names of Big Events to insults, such as "Idiocy Crisis" and "Avengers Dissed", you know there's a problem.

There are often "comics are dying" and "saving comics" threads on Usenet. This kind of talk has been going on for at least a decade, and it's going to come true eventually.

I started one such message thread a while ago, and it evolved into a massive conversation that involved over 70 people and got over 800 responses. If you want to read it, go to Google Groups and search for the exact phrase: The comic book industry is spiraling downward towards death.

Some Comparisons

If all of this hasn't convinced you yet that comic books' days are numbered, here are a few analogies:

Buying a monthly comic book is like paying $2.99 for 1 episode of a TV series - commercials included.

DVDs of just 1 episode of a TV series to try out are sold for less than that at Wal-Mart, and they don't include any commercials, thus making it an uninterrupted viewing experience. Furthermore, single-episode DVD releases contain 1-part stories.

Buying a TPB is like paying $14 for a DVD with 6 episodes of a TV series on it - or $60.67 for an entire 26-episode season.

While anime series are released on DVDs that contain around 6 episodes each and regularly reach prices of $30 each, no-frills thinpack collections of 26-episode series usually cost less than $40 each.

Buying a TPB is like paying $14 for a 132-page softcover novel - only with less actual content.

The "W.I.T.C.H." novels, which are 144 pages each, cost $4.99 each.

Buying a monthly comic book is like paying $2.99 for a 22-page exerpt from a 132-page novel - or $17.94 to get the entire novel - or $27.18 to get a 200-page novel - only with less actual content.

"Memoirs of a Geisha", which is over 200 pages long, costs $14.95.

No medium that costs so much and offers so little in return can survive for very long.

Final Thoughts and Suggestions

In order to compete with even young adult novels, monthly comic books would have to be priced at 76 cents each - a little more than what they cost 20 years ago.

TPBs would have to be priced at $4.57 each.

So would OGNs.

If the price of monthly comic books is raised by $2 more, then a 22-page book with ads will cost as much as a 144-page book without ads.

The price of monthly comic books has already been raised by $2.24 in the past 20 years.

This time, you do the math.

Comic books are too cost ineffective to be lowered to the prices that are needed to be competitive.

They won't be around for much longer.

On October 1, 2005, I moved from Citrus County, Florida, to Morton Grove, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. I'm buying less American comic books per month - only "Betty", "Supergirl", and Supergirl-related issues. I'm also looking forward to "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane", a series that's not related to the Marvel Universe.

I feel good - even if I am buying each issue of "Supergirl" twice to get both covers.

I suggest, if you haven't already gotten into American comic books, that you don't start. You run the risk of wasting a lot of money.

As an alternative, I suggest, if you haven't already done so, that you try out some manga. Japanese comic book series usually have short (or at least shorter) runs than American comic book series; there is less space, time, and money involved in following the characters; and the writing is generally a lot better. There are some exceptions to each of these advantages, but, for the most part, manga is the way to go. Don't even call them comic books.

Whether you have already started collecting manga or not, I strongly recommend that you check out "Confidential Confessions" by Reiko Momochi. It's a 6-volume anthology series. Each of the stories in each of the volumes is self-contained. The stories feature different characters, and each story deals with some aspect of teenage life. Even though they were written by a Japanese woman about the problems that Japanese teens face, they are helpful to everyone. Ms. Momochi wrote them to teach and help people. She doesn't sugar-coat the issues. These stories are beautifully written and beautifully illustrated. Buy them, read them, laugh, cry, appreciate them, cherish them, and learn from them. They are well worth your time.

A new series, called "Confidential Confessions -Deai-", will begin in 2006. Good for you, Ms. Momochi!

Now, if only they'd come out with a Supergirl manga series.

Well, this essay ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be. I guess I had a lot to say. I hope you read all of it. Feedback is appreciated.