On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Priced Out – Why DC and Marvel are bad for your bank balance
Posted on May 13, 2015
May 13, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
Just recently, Marvel released a new OGN (‘original graphic novel’: nerd-speak for ‘a big comic’) by the name of Rage of Ultron. It’s 100 pages of new content by my favourite writer, Rick Remender, in collaboration with one of the best artists working in comics today, Jerome Opeña.
Add to that the fact that it deals with one of my favourite topics, A.I., and centres around my favourite Avenger, Hank Pym, and you’d think I’d be stoked. And I was, until I saw the price tag.
It costs £18.99, or $24.99 for you fancy ex-colonial types. For readers on the UK minimum wage that’s about three hours of graft, for about an hour’s worth of reading – roughly 19 pence a page. Granted, it comes in a fancy oversized hardcover format, which is kind of cool if that’s your thing. It’s not mine. Shelf space is at a premium in my rented room, and when the cover is about the same thickness as the content, that’s a piss-take.
The Avengers are sad because you can’t afford to read about them
Now, there’s a huge part of me that’s screaming “You can’t put a price on great art!”, but bollocks to that. We’re still crawling out of the deepest and longest recession in decades, and people, if they’re lucky enough to have disposable income at all, have to make stark choices about what they’re going to spend their money on.
Full disclosure, comics are far and away my biggest outgoing after rent and food, but when I spend a lot of money on comics, I want to come away with a lot of comics to read. Nearly twenty quid for a hundred pages of comics, even comics by great creators, is not value for money in a marketplace where that money pays for four or more DVDs, three months on Netflix, two months on Spotify, or a night out with your mates.
Marvel and DC have been making a lot of noise about attracting new readers over the last few years, in large part because they finally realised that focusing on a core readership of aging white dudes to the exclusion of everyone else is a fucking stupid idea. Trouble is, their actions don’t match their rhetoric, and if a dyed-in-the-wool comics junkie like me gets turned off by this kind of pricing, how is someone new to the form likely to react?
I love recommending comics to people, especially when people come to me asking about a specific character. Someone asked me about Spider-man a few weeks back, and I told them a huge Spider-man storyline called Spider-verse was about to be released in a single collection, and they should check that out.
That collection came out two weeks ago. It costs £55. I quickly retracted the recommendation.
£55.99 to read about Punk Spidey?!? Sellout!
Now, Rage Of Ultron and Spider-verse will eventually come out in bog-standard paperback formats, but that’ll be months down the line when the hype from longtime readers on social media has fallen away, long after floating punters have forgotten the name of that thing their comics friend was raving about. If the two biggest publishers want to harness the enthusiasm of fans in order to get new readers into comic shops (and they bloody ought to), they need to make affordable options for those readers, and longtime readers who can’t justify blasting half their wage on a single title.
This isn’t just an issue for event titles, either. For years now, the standard across Marvel and DC’s biggest titles is to release a significantly more expensive hardcover first, followed by softcover releases months later. In a promising turn, DC plans to release the first collection of its new Batgirl title in hardcover and paperback editions simultaneously, offering new readers a much cheaper entry, without the hype-killing time delay.
Marvel, to the contrary, has a pricing policy that frequently sees paperback collections released with a price akin to that of a hardcover, usually for volumes collecting the end of a run. The logic here is that, since the reader has presumably investing in several volumes of the title at that point, they will stump up the extra cash to complete the story they’ve been reading and enjoying thus far. Notable examples of this practise in recent years are the final volumes of Matt Fraction’s Fantastic Four comics (Fantastic Four with Mark Bagley and FF with Michael Allred), and the criminally under-rated Avengers Academy. All three landed on shelves with the same £18.99 price point, about 100 pages of story each, and lacked even the over-sized hardcover treatment of Rage of Ultron. That’s a kick in the teeth.
Odder still is that most of the core Avengers Academy members were quickly featured in the brand new book Avengers Arena, as part of the Marvel Now initiative. Having the stories that introduced those characters accessible at a reasonable price point would seem a sensible approach, in terms of optimising revenue following a sizeable press campaign, but Marvel did exactly the opposite. I can’t for the life of me work out the rationale behind that decision, unless their pricing department and their marketing department just don’t talk to each other?
The FF should set their minds to fixing Marvel’s pricing policy.
Thankfully, this phenomenon of absurd over-pricing is relatively contained to DC and Marvel, and the likes of Dark Horse, Image, and Oni Press are putting out competitively priced collections as standard. When a title does receive a higher priced collection, it tends to be a huge omnibus, years down the line, as with Dark Horse’s excellent (and heavy) Fear Agent collections (I keep mine at my bedside in case I need to stun a rhino during the night), and Image’s ‘Omnivore Edition’ collections of Chew.
At the low end, especially, Image is absolutely killing it. For the last couple of years now, the first collection of most titles in their line is released for £7/$10. That’s about the price of two pints of beer (one and a half if you’re in London). Lowering the barrier for entry on fresh and innovative stories has seen Image’s sales shoot up, which is excellent news for readers and creators alike.
Where does that leave me when friends ask me to recommend a recent story about a DC or Marvel character they’re interested in? Usually, I just recommend them a non-Big Two title instead, and they tend to wind up happier for it.
Ask me for Spider-man, and you’ll get Sex Criminals, Hopeless Savages, and Fear Agent, basically. I won’t think twice about it, because I’m doing you a massive favour.
Sex Criminals: orgasm, freeze time, rob banks, repeat.
If the corporate comics establishment want to continue shafting readers, they shouldn’t be surprised when we just stop bothering with their product. The best material, much of it creator-owned, can usually be found at their competitors anyway. Even the most ardent fan’s loyalty can only go so far, especially when their wallet is being repeatedly emptied just trying to keep up.
In short, if it seems over-priced, trust your gut, put it back on the shelf, and read something cheaper. Cost doesn’t mean quality. Chances are, the creators you enjoy on that book are working on cheaper stuff elsewhere anyway. As the old line goes, follow creators, not characters. It’s creators who make this stuff worth reading in the first place anyway.
Have a good week, and read good comics.