How To Be A Comics Fan When You Can Barely Afford Them

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Nickel Comics 2 How To Be A Comics Fan When You Can Barely Afford ThemBy Joshua Rivera

Comics are expensive.

It’s something everyone knows about our favorite hobby, but not many people bother to engage. Reviewers may bring it up when a story is particularly bad, or if a publisher decides to raise the price of a book without adding much perceived value.  But that’s about it.

“The economics of comics is bad,” John Rogers, co-founder of Thrillbent Comics, told me in a recent interview. “No other entertainment form has increased in price adjusting for inflation harder than comics. It’s $3.99 right now for a comic. Which is 10-15 minutes worth of entertainment–which is hard.”

Most basic discussions of economics mention the concept of opportunity cost fairly early on–the notion that making one choice precludes any number of other possible choices.

Even in a big, expensive city like New York–where I am based–if you’re careful, four dollars can land you a decent breakfast, or a subway ride, or admission to a museum, or several slices of pizza. When merely existing in a place is so costly, you become painfully aware of things like this–every dollar you don’t spend today buys you a little more time to live in reasonable comfort later.

Sometimes you need those four dollars. Sometimes it’s really hard to justify buying a comic book.

Because comic books are serial, in buying one you’re introducing a new monthly expense to your budget for however long you decide to read a book. Maybe you stick around for a story arc–six issues ($24). Maybe you’re buying because you like a particular creative team—let’s use two years as a benchmark for a good run($96). Or, God help you, you want to follow a certain character—that’ll be $48 annually times however many comics that character is in.

This of course, assumes you only choose to follow one book.

For a very long time, I had written off comics—something I have known and loved for as long as I could remember—as a rich person’s hobby. When every comic on the stands is hitting you over the head with unending more-ness of the medium, and the cost adds up so quickly, it’s easier to just shut down.

Yes, there are alternatives to buying comics monthly—some of them make shelling out for floppies seem downright foolish. Marvel Unlimited, while a bit janky on the reading experience, is an incredible value. Trade paperbacks are almost always more affordable than buying monthly, and even more so when ordered online. And digital comic sales and promotions across all manner of digital storefronts are frequent and plentiful.

And then there’s my personal gateway drug: the local library, and the inter-library loan system, without which I could not have read many comics at all.

But there’s an opportunity cost. Most of it involves waiting. You have to wait for trades, wait for sales, wait for libraries. But there are others. You can’t support a local shop with digital sales. You can’t loan or give a friend one of your digital comics, hoping to show them why you love the medium so much.

But perhaps the biggest thing you give up on is the culture. From the letter columns to the fanzines to the websites like The Beat, comics have always been about conversation. In sharing how much they mean to us, talking about how much we love or loathe what happened this month—it makes the 30-day waits and delays bearable, because you’re not alone in them.

However, staying current is costly. It’s easy to get burned. It’s hard to take chances.

I want to help.

Because I believe there is value in telling stories in this strange fashion. In twenty-two pages, delivered thirty days at a time. In anticipation as a tool for great storytelling–and not just a crutch for lazy storytellers. In writers and pencillers and inkers and colorists that work together in ways that are layered and profound and moving. In comics.

And so I’m going to write a different kind of review. One that treats your time and money as precious. I will only review one comic per week here–what I decide to spend my money on out of the wealth of comics that come out every seven days. Very rarely, I’ll cover two. Once you get around three or more, you approach trade paperback prices and your money is probably better spent there.

I believe that when you come to comics with this approach, you look for different things in a book. If you didn’t value art or layouts before, you do now–if you’re only getting one book a week, you want the art to be something worth staring at and turning over in your mind, preferably hiding away further layers of story in its lines and colors.

You want each book to tell a complete story, and not just a fragment of a long one. You’re friendly towards first issues, hard on second ones, and have no patience for tie-ins and crossovers. You’re constantly weighing and measuring, trying to determine if a book is worth the monthly cost or better off purchased as a trade or on sale or borrowed from a library or friend.

You start to love comics even more.

Because comics are expensive. Ridiculously so. But that doesn’t have to mean they can’t be  worth it.

[Joshua Rivera is  a freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Kotaku, Fast Company, and The Daily Beast.]

 

Comments

  1. Sam Thielman says:

    Really well-said. I have a pull list, but it’s only a few books and they come out erratically—I’d rather read a new issue of The Sandman (gorgeous layouts) or Moon Knight (great one-and-done stories) or Hellboy (both, frequently) than waste my time on chapter 9 of 14 and then discover that chapter 10 runs through six different books.

  2. Suzene says:

    Yeah, it’s easy to be picky about what’s coming out these days when you look at cover price. I have my dedicated pull list, but it’s mostly for stuff I love out of the gate or characters I just can’t quit. The hardest part has been breaking the Wednesday habit and reminding myself that I don’t actually need to know what’s happening RIGHT NOW.

    More and more, I’ll pick up the first issue as a sample and if I like it, pre-order the trade from wherever is offering the best discount. Or wait a few months to a year and pick up the trade used. Or wait until the trade comes out and see who’s dumping their floppies on eBay. Marvel Mondays and various sales on Comixology are also something to keep an eye on; they’re doing their summer freebie giveaway right now and it’s had some interesting stuff. In a lot of ways, it all has a bit of the thrill that used to come with back-issue hunts, so while I get the occasional Wednesday weakness, I’m not feeling especially deprived.

  3. This is has never been more true than now that i’m unemployed. I’ve had to suspend my pull list and looking for promotions on digital sites. 99 cent specials have become my go-to. I only bought a minimal amount of $4 dollar books partly because very few are worth the expense.

  4. I got into this business as a publisher precisely because classic out-of-print comics and pulp were too expensive. There is no good reason why there can’t be affordable editions of comics out there for the fan who wants that “affordable collectible” with bonus features. Digital is part of the strategy, but keeping comics available for new readers to discover is also part of the overall strategy. We’ve had great success restoring comics like MONSTER ISLAND, THE BIG BANG COMICS COLLECTION, THE MIRACLE SQUAD, and many others who were lost to the general market.

  5. Chris Wuchte says:

    It seems crazy to me that as a 12, I could follow a huge chunk of Marvel’s monthly output on just my allowance, but at 42 I find even following a subsection of their output cost-prohibitive.

    When I walk out of a comic shop having spent $20 on less than half a dozen comics, and when I get home read them in 30 minutes or less, there’s no way you can convince me I’m getting a good value for my money. No matter how good they are.

  6. I miss Wednesdays hard, but I can’t imagine I’ll go back for a long long time. There’s just no way.
    And as big of an advocate as I’ve been for digital, I find I buy digital comics and forget I have them, or look at that file name and can’t remember if I’ve read them or not. It’s just not quite working yet.

  7. There’s a curious conflation here of comics as a medium and the material presented in comics published in a specific serial format utilizing particular IPs. If you want to keep up with a particular character, like Batman or Wolverine, yes, that can absolutely be costly. But the notion that comics as a whole are more-or-less interchangeable, and you could just buy a “best value” one regardless of the characters inside seems curious. If you were that interested in reading comics on a budget, and weren’t concerned with which characters you read about, why not just read webcomics that are freely available and have a thriving community? It seems particularly curious that they’re not mentioned even though Thrillbent is specifically cited.

  8. Sean Kleefeld, you said exactly what I was going to say! If you love comics that much, there are a TON of very well written and well illustrated webcomics out there for free (some of my favourite comics from the past couple of years have been webcomics). Sure you may not be getting a new issue every month, but if you’re just starting out now, chances are there’s a good backlog of story for you to dig through. And once you find one you like, you’ll probably find more.

  9. The sheer amount of comics out there makes it expensive. There’s so much good stuff. and if one even attempts to follow the overall linewide stories of the DC or Marvel universes, they’ll be spending a boatload. I’m able to afford it by being a reader, not a collector. I preorder trades on DCBS, I read at the library, I got a pull list for the month-to-month comics I want and get that discount they offered me. Then I try and resell most of what I get so I can afford the next month’s comics. It tends to work out OK.

  10. JoeC_Mommy says:

    Right on, Mr. Rivera. I recently looked at all the titles I regularly pull. And I cut half of them. It’s not that I hadn’t liked them; it’s that I hadn’t felt much urgency to read them. That told me I can wait, on our libraries, on Marvel Unlimited. Sigh. I know, know: It’s bad for the comic-book business. But it’s more cost-effective for our household. That’s what counts, at least to me.

  11. Let me add my endorsement for Bill Cunningham’s books from Pulp 2.0. Good comics at incredibly affordable cover prices–just what the doctor ordered.

  12. Johnny Memeonic says:

    Comics are expensive because there’s very few people who buy them. Jacking up the price for the diehards who remain is the only way to pay creators, pay staff, and cover production costs.

    Look at monthly sales figures and you see the top books barely move over 100k. That’s what happens when your distribution system sucks so badly that you sell mostly at niche stores rather than mass market locations like grocery stores or Wal-mart.

    And speaking of that, since Archie is the only serialized comic I still see in check out lines I have little doubt that it is likely the best selling serialized comic book in the United States by a large margin.

  13. likefunbutnot says:

    Here’s a way to support comics on a budget of nothing: Start pestering your community libary to beef up its graphic novel collection. You won’t just be helping yourself. On that level, you’ll actually be helping your community and you’ll specifically be encouraging the sort of bookish young person who hangs around a library to discover comics as well.
    I can’t say I read comic books from libraries as a kid, but I did discover the huge, bound collections of newspaper comic strips that my library had and I know I loved them to death.

  14. Best bet for superhero comics is Marvel Unlimited. Nothing else comes close. Best bet for serialized comic book chapters going forward in time is Weekly Shonen Jump.

    Best bet for “I just like sequential art” is, as the comments above have said: is webcomics.

  15. Dave Miller-Lad says:

    “Only a 10 or 15 minute entertainment?” Maybe now, but it’s not always has been. I bought some 1980’s Marv Wolfman Teen Titans and it was almost exhausting reading it beginning to end. Why? Because not only was there lots of dialogue, there’s thought balloons, there’s captions that give added meaning and layers to the visuals. In short, you really got your 75 cents back then. But since comics have to work as movie springboards now, they can’t work as books. Because of that density of content I found myself reading and rereading the same comic over and over again to make sure I got the full experience. And now . . . comics have been coarsened to whatever the character can bring to the narrative. Not what the writer brings to the narrative. When you have that much content as what Wolfman brought to the table, it’s worth $4.

  16. I’m blessed with living in a town (Medina, Ohio) that has a terrific library and one that is part of ClevNet, an organization of around a hundred libraries and library systems in the Cleveland area. If any of those libraries have a book, movie, graphic novel, manga volume I want to read, I can go online and request it be sent to the Medina library. My online account lets me know when it’s available and I get a robocall from my library letting me know the item is available for pick-up.

    Because I have way too much stuff and because I don’t need/want to spend money on things I may not want to keep or ever read a second time, borrowing from the libraries is a great thing for me. It’s helping me achieve my goal of reducing my Vast Accumulation of Stuff down to an actual manageable collection/library before I turn 70.

    In a somewhat related note, I find myself backing away from the trade and hardcover collections of current DC/Marvel so-called epics and regular titles. Far too often a collection ends without a satisfying ending and the story being continued in another collection or three.

  17. This is a great article, and a point well worth looking at. It’s a complex and heavily interconnected matter; we all want publishers to do well, creators and staff to be well paid and make a good living and comic shops to thrive. And yet, when three quid can buy you a lot of different things, some comics truly deliver above value for money quality and some really do not… for those of us without stacks of disposable income it’s worth having a hard look at the topic, and when the cumulative cost to quality just doesn’t stack up.

    As an aside but on a related note – I’m often a bit bothered by the notion of comic “shelf porn / shelfies”. You know, show-off photos of all the comics you’ve accumulated and what a great fan of comics this shows you to be. Sometimes this is in the context of talking to a creator and the works that have influenced them, which I think is pretty cool. But more broadly, as a “look at all my cool stuff” exercise I find it a bit gross. It seems to generally favour the rich, or if not those with a lot of spare cash to spend on comics rather than other commitments, and equate this a massive love and appreciation for comics. I see these and while it’s great for them and perfectly demonstrative of someone who loves comics and has collected a great deal of them, I don’t immediately equate that with the love, knowledge or expertise others might. I wonder what about the guy who’s not well off at all, but between libraries and borrowing from friends and all the rest, has 10 books on his shelf but an enormous appreciation and knowledge of comics and the medium? Does “lots of stuff” = appreciation of said stuff? Is a person without all that weight groaning on their shelves not as into comics? Where does digital get considered?

    Hmmmm… I guess I’m probably in a minority here and a bit off track. Anyone think so? I expect this has probably been discussed extensively already, so maybe I’m banging on for nothing, but I guess I don’t like the implicit materialism in the way this stuff is presented.

  18. Paul Houston says:

    I’m 99% a digital comics reader now. And I largely spend no more than $.99 per book. That’s economical and about how much most comics are really worth. I understand the manpower put into making a comic, but for a literal maximum 15 minute read, $.99 is about right.

    When I buy print it’s mostly discounted books on sale through publisher or through another online seller like amazon.

  19. Kate Willaert says:

    @Johnny M:

    “Comics are expensive because there’s very few people who buy them. Jacking up the price for the diehards who remain is the only way to pay creators, pay staff, and cover production costs.”

    But how much of that is distribution, and how much of it is lack of new-reader accessibility in terms of story, or lack of accessibility in terms of price?

    Distribution is no longer an excuse in the digital age, but when even diehards admit they’re dropping books due to the expense, superhero comics have a problem.

    The size of the pie in terms of dollars appears to remain the same due to practices like double-shipping, crossovers, and variant covers as cover prices have continued to rise, but it seems like the number of readers has continued to shrink due to feeling like they’re being squeezed of every penny by the major superhero publishers. One of these days there’s going to be a breaking point for single issue superhero comics.

  20. Webcomics are free and come out pretty regularly. I purposely don’t advertise on mine because I hate buying new comics for 3 to 5 dollars and having it filled with ads. I really don’t understand monthly issues as a model any more.

    The NYPL has an incredible comics selection. I’ve read almost all of Eisner’s Spirit, a omething I would never be able to do with those $50 books.

  21. Kevin says:

    I am now 100% into digital comics. No more paper for me.

    While I initially hated reading comics on the iPad, I have become a dedicated reader and have grown to love it over the past three years. Why? Simply put: economics. I save on the cost of gas from the 22 mile round trip to the nearest comical shoppe and back each week. I save on the cost of long boxes, boards, bags and space. While I missed the “tangibleness” of the paper form (its weight, texture and the smell of the older newsprints), I learned to love the compactness, crispness and cost-savings from reading these books on an iDevice. If I used my iPad solely for this reason, this wouldn’t be cost effective; but, I use my iPad for so much more than reading the funny pages, so for me, this shift has been more than worth the investment.

    The digital arena offer sales more frequently and oftentimes reduce the prices by 50-70% off after a month or two. I was able to buy the entire run of The Walking Dead during a half-price sale some time ago. When was the last time you could stroll into a shop and buy the entire run of TWD for half off?

    I’ve been a comic fan for several decades, but the economics of supporting the pamphlet form is no longer feasible for a working man with a family in these times.

  22. Kevin says:

    I forgot to mention: I “rarely” bought $3.99 monthly books as I found it difficult to justify the 10-15 minutes of pleasure I got reading them on a regular basis. I’ve been an avid fan of Waid’s DD, but after it got bumped up an extra buck to $3.99 with the same page count and content, I’ve curbed my monthly appetite for this book and will instead watch this title from afar and wait for a sale to backfill the current storylines.

  23. 10-15 minutes? A Kirby-Lee comic takes that much time, as does a Steranko book. Or a comic from the Englehart/Rogers run of Detective Comics. How about Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. Nowadays the only comics that I know of that take anywhere near that long to read is Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai and Criminal by Brubaker and Phillips. Most comics take probably take 5 minutes at the most and I’m being generous. I don’t know how many times I’ve bought a comic at $3.99 and found I finished the story before I knew it. Or worse, finished a story that ideally would only fill eight pages of a Kirby-Lee story (Resident Alien I’m looking at you, nice work as always by Steve Parkhouse though) or even worse (and this is where I feel totally ripped off) a “story” with decompressed “storytelling” that’s part of a longer story that when finally collected wouldn’t fill 30 pages of a Kirby-Lee comic.

    Seriously, it’s pretty much a rip off. It seems that only in comic books is this done. Can you imagine regular magazines featuring only one story? The public would tell them to forget it. Yet we comic book fans stand for it, over and over and over, ad naseum. I could write that the comic book publishers should just focus on graphic “novels” or publish periodicals loaded with stories, the way they do in Japan, but as long as they know there will always be a market for it why should they change?

  24. Nicholas Winter says:

    Re Archie sales numbers. For 2013, monthly sales ran anywhere from eight thousand per month to thirteen thousand per month. So no, they’re not the best selling comics in the USA.

  25. Johnny Memeonic says:

    Re Archie sales numbers. For 2013, monthly sales ran anywhere from eight thousand per month to thirteen thousand per month. So no, they’re not the best selling comics in the USA.

    Pretty sure the data you’re looking at is just Diamond sales to comic book stores. I believe Archie uses Random House for most everywhere else.

  26. Sean Kleefeld;

    Because most comics fans don’t like comics. They like comics with Batman in them. And the way I see it is if DC/ Marvel/ Image wants to abuse those people determined to follow the hero’s run on their narrative hamster wheel, then that’s their long-term problem.

  27. Sarah Horrocks says:

    I only really buy trades and manga. Not only is the monthly comic absurdly expensive, there are very few that are worth reading that way.

  28. @Craig: I don’t know if we’re a minority, but I agree with you. I find it odd that comic fandom is always oriented towards buying things and collecting them. I always said I was a reader, not a collector, and that really got tested when I was unemployed about three years ago. I realized I already had a house full of books, and I’m a librarian! Why should I own all this stuff myself? Now I only buy creator owned digital series (loving Kinski and The Private Eye).

  29. @Kevin “When was the last time you could stroll into a shop and buy the entire run of TWD for half off?”

    Every day of the week? The TWD Omnibuses reprint 48 issues at a throw for $59.95, as opposed to the $143.52 they originally cost as serialized comics. That’s better than half off, actually — about 59% off.

    @Johnny Memeonic: “Pretty sure the data you’re looking at is just Diamond sales to comic book stores.”

    If you want to use actual facts, Johanna posts the circ figures every year, of the first class mailing statements that Archie is required to post to the government. Here is 2013:

    http://comicsworthreading.com/2014/05/02/archie-sales-figures-for-2013/

    The flagship title, ARCHIE, sells about 11k. That isn’t DM sales — DM-wise ARCHIE isn’t even a top 300 best-selling title (so, therefore, under 5k or so a month… probably WAY under)

    The Archie DIGESTS sell much better — approaching 50k sold — but they have to print 150k (therefore pulping 2/3 of the copies) in order to do so. The newsstand is a shitty business model.

    -B

  30. george says:

    The Marvel Essentials used to be a cheap way to get caught up on the company’s history (from 1960 on), but I hear that Marvel has axed the Essentials line.

    “I find it odd that comic fandom is always oriented towards buying things and collecting them. ”

    I know fans who have longboxes full of comics they’ve never read, or read once decades ago and didn’t like. But they’re holding onto them. I think the word for this is HOARDING, and it’s considered a mental disorder.

  31. @Brian: Maybe at your shop but not at mine. Also, I still save on gas, boxes, boards, bags and space.

  32. @kevin: “Maybe at your shop but not at mine.”

    My point is that you should have a fairly trivial time finding (Because it is a top selling book in BOTH print channels) the first 98 issues of THE WALKING DEAD at AT LEAST 59% off every single day of the week.

    Frack, you can buy them on Amazon, for about another 40% off THAT price — less than 75 cents an issue.

    9781607060765 is the ISBN for volume 1. 9781607065968 is vol 2.

    Of course, the REASON you can (in ANY format) buy TWD at bargain basement prices is because the print periodical serialization sells so well.

    -B

  33. Kevin says:

    @Brian. Understood, but your “point” just noted wasn’t clear in your first reply to me. Digital is still the way to go as I’ve previously outlined. Good luck with your brick and mortar business.

  34. Comic book fans have always weirded me out as a whole (I speak as someone who used to visit my comic shop every week for years on end, particularly in college). Why devote consistent effort and money for entertainment that could easily be found elsewhere and be more substantial, ie, FREE NETWORK TELEVISION or WEBCOMICS? Comic books offer a unique storytelling medium with stories that could happen only in comics. Image’s “Chew” was one of several ongoings that convinced me that comic books made sense as a hobby.

    I was collecting”Chew” issue in, issue out until #30 came out. It was an anniversary issue with a gatefold cover. I was so hyped up, but something came up that Wednesday and I couldn’t get back to the shop until the weekend, at which point they were plumb sold out of issue 30. I tried other shops in my area, no such luck. The hobby, she is a fickle mistress.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Comics Are Expensive – Comics Beat on the high price of being a modern comics fan. […]

  2. […] the comments to my introductory column, a lot of readers seem to gauge the value of a comic by dividing the time spent consuming by the […]

  3. […] all came to mind because of an article on The Beat last week, How To Be A Comics Fan When You Can Barely Afford Them. The author made some good points and got me thinking. I didn’t want this column to be one […]

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