The Future of Funny Books

Last Saturday was Comic Book Day, an annual celebration of the classic illustrated story and a clever way to get people into comic shops to part with their hard-earned money, and I didn’t go.

Not because I don’t love comics. On the contrary, I grew up lost and wandering through a world populated by the superhuman superheroes that make up the Marvel Universe -- Spider-man, The X-Men, The Defenders, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and Howard the Duck, characters most of you likely only know through the movies, though you thought the inspiration for those films came from somewhere else, from a world designed only for a juvenile mind, and you’d be wrong.

Comic books today, as they were back when I was a scrawny baby brother growing up in rural Ft. Calhoun, are well-written, serious pieces of graphic literature. Oh, not all of them. There was and is shlock in the stack. The trick is finding the good stuff.

But the real difference between then and now is purely economic, and here’s where I come off like the bitter old man crying about the cost of a loaf of bread and a quart of milk. “Well in my day, a loaf of bread was just a quarter...” said Mr. Get-Off-My-Lawn.

In my day, comic books were just a quarter. And yes that was 40 years ago, but even back then, a quarter was a quarter -- the price of a game of pinball or a candy bar or can of pop. Today, a candy bar will put you back three quarters, pinball is 50 cents, but if you’re savvy, you can find soda on sale (by the case) for the equivalent of 25 cents a can.

Not so comic books. Your typical 28-page color comic book now sells for as much as $3.99. There are reasons for this that all of us know -- inflation, the cost of paper, the cost of distribution, everything has gone up in price. It’s the natural order of things. But $3.99 for something that takes about 15 minutes to read (and if it’s a splash-page-filled action epic, cut that time in half)?

Ten comic books -- an afternoon of reading -- costs more than $30. How does a 13-year-old kid afford to buy comic books at those prices when a guy with a decent job can’t afford them?

All this happened while I was away. I quit buying comic books shortly before graduating from high school. Suddenly there were other things taking up my time and money. I moved out of the house when I was 19 and found myself having to figure out how to pay for school at UNO and pay rent as a part-time hourly clerk at K mart. Add to that the cost of maintaining a relationship with a girlfriend who insisted on dining out a couple times a week and that meant living on a diet of baked potatoes and Totinos pizzas. There certainly wasn’t any cash left over for something as frivolous as comic books.

When I left the Marvel Universe, the cost of your typical monthly comic book was 55 cents. A few years ago, after I got all my finances in order, I got to wonder what happened to my old hero friends and made a trip to one of the local comic shops, where I found them safe and sound after 20-odd years. The colors had changed. Gone were the old hand-inked, hand-drawn four-color illustrations printed on cheap rag stock paper. Modern comics were computer illustrated and printed on better paper, but the stories were (basically) the same. The biggest difference, of course, was the price.

I asked the clerk how kids can afford them. He said the market for comics had changed drastically since I last bought one. A lot of his buyers were people with jobs -- people like me -- who had returned to the fold and didn’t mind the prices. It was a smaller audience, but one willing to pay a premium to stay in the loop. Just as popular as single issues were entire series collected and reprinted into graphic novels that sold for $15 to $30. Sure enough, there was a guy about my age heading through the check out with an armful of new titles that cost him more than $60.

That’s when I began to check out digital comics. When I first discovered marvel.com, the experience was less than optimum. Early digitized comics involved large, hard-to-maneuver PDF files. Users were forced to manually zoom in and out to read the narrative.

But over the years, Marvel -- and conceivably other publishers -- have figured out how to optimize the online comic book-reading experience. Panels zoom in and zoom out automatically as you click through the book. The cost for recently digitized titles is still $3.99, but you can also buy a Marvel Unlimited subscription for around $60 a year that gives you access to nearly 13,000 issues (but never the latest releases). It was through Marvel Unlimited that I was able to catch up with my old friends, navigating through the various superhero civil wars and other-world catastrophes, a journey that would have cost me hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars had I bought all those printed individually or in graphic novel form.

This is all sacrilege to the true comic book purist, who will tell you there’s no comparing a digital comic book to the real thing -- it’s kind of like comparing listening to a vinyl record album to listening to an mp3 file. And while there’s something to be said about the tactile essence of printed comics, I still prefer reading comics online on my Macbook Air, where in one evening I can consume a dozen issues that cross three or four different book titles.

Which, at a time when its characters have never been more popular thanks to Hollywood, brings up the question of the future of printed comic books and comic book stores. How can the printed medium survive if prices continue to go up, the audience continues to dwindle and the digital reading experience only gets better? Ask the guy who used to run your corner book store or record store or video store.


Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 07:46 am
on Tuesday, May 07th, 2013

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