Top Cow is proclaiming that they're going to keep their monthly titles at $2.99 throughout 2009, while Marvel has basically stated that the economics have forced them to a $3.99 price point for their monthlies. No word from DC about what they're doing but once one publisher does something, the other usually follows suit (oligopolies are like that). Dark Horse, Image and the smaller presses have all been flirting with $3.50 and $3.99 price points for at least a year now, (sometimes in full color, sometimes in black and white), and I can't say I'm surprised. We kind of expect smaller press to be a bit more expensive than the mainstream. But if that's the case, then isn't a $1 price jump excessively drastic? I seem to recall books flirting with pennies and quarters during unstable boom-and-bust times in the 1990s, from $1.95 to $1.99, to $2.25, to $2.50 and $2.75 until ultimately where we are now. I also remember paying $0.60 for comics and realistically 25 years doesn't seem that long ago. Not for the inflation rate of comics to jump over 650%.
Let me say that again, in 25 years, the price of a 22 - 28 page comic has jumped over 650%. Very little in this world, save maybe housing costs in some cities (and public transit in Toronto), have climbed so steeply.
Rich Johnston created a handy table over at Lying in the Gutters about a month back showing that, had comics moved with the real CPI rate of inflation, they should cost today about $1.10.
Of course, there was the paper and coloring surges throughout the 80's and 90's which accounted for the steeper price jumps up until the mid-1990s when the quality of paper pretty much reached its peak and computer coloring became a mainstay. But, in rough numbers, since 1998, the inflation rate should have pushed comics another 30 to 50 cents or so up in price from the regular $1.75 to even a modest $2.25. So honestly where's the added value in the other $1.75.
We've lost letter column pages to ads, and sometimes the page count increases, but also only for ads. Is the quality of writing or art of a comic book better than it was in 1998? Not by much. Yes, writers and artist are getting paid better, which is a good thing, but does that make up the $1.75 difference? Perhaps, with flagging sales it might... but there's still a lot of mediocrity being pushed out the door and $3.99 makes it very, very difficult to justify buying any of it.
For me, a $3.50 or $3.99 comic tends to be a treat, a mini-series or one-shot put out by a preferred artist or writer from a non-mainstream company. It's not something I want to be plunking down per-book every week. Hell, $2.99 still seems excessive.
I don't know how Marvel (and if DC follows suit) can expect to maintain even today's tragic numbers with such a sharp price increase, nevermind attracting new readers (young reader... in these recessive times, teenagers are going to be vying with the unemployed for even part-time jobs, and thus having far less disposable income... as if there even really comics' target market anymore). Personally, I'm far more likely to wait for trade on most books I'm interested in than pay $3.99 per issue for the same story. I picked up X-Men: Noir #1 this week, not noticing the cover price, and thoroughly enjoyed it. But then, noticing it's price tag, I'm rethinking purchasing the remaining issues (but since I already invested the $4 bucks, I probably will, but will be far more wary of price tags in the future).
What $3.99 signifies to me is possibly the end of the monthly format as we know it. If you thought illegal file-sharing scans were a problem before, this will push even more people to them. As well, new series are going to have a far more difficult time making it, and collections of titles will be reduced because of it (if there's no perceived demand for the floppy, then there will be no perceived demand for the trade). Pretty much only the flagship books are going to be able to continue on unless there's something more there to attract the reader.
But what more could there be? What do I want out of a $3.99 monthly title?
Well, for starters, for $3.99, every month, I'd want more pages, at least a full 32... perhaps ad-free? If not all one story, then a main feature and a quality back-up. That's bare minimum.
Honestly, though, for $3.99 we should be getting 48 pages, aka double-sized issues (although in recent years, "double sized issues" have been more like 38 pages). Put them on a 9-issues a year schedule (every six weeks), and hold firm to schedules.
Also, for 3.99, do us the courtesy of at least adhering to schedule. Artists who can't support a monthly book should not be put on monthly books. Same for writers. Talent who continue to fail adhere to schedule should be restricted to mini-series and specials. And then those books should only be solicited when they're ready.
Another thing, for $3.99, a title should be able to be read without having to purchase books in another series. Forcing the reader to pay another $3.99 that they weren't intending to pay to complete a story is just slimy.
And finally, I think we should just avoid $3.99 in the first place. I'm more than willing to accept a drop in paper quality and coloring for a cheaper book. Look at the Johnny DC kids titles like Magic of Shazam or Tiny Titans. $2.25 on a lighter, less glossy paper and still perfectly readable. Most books that come out aren't worth the $3.99 price tag, and thus not worth the paper they're printed on... let the sales of $2.25 newsprint books dictate which books are worthy of glossy printing... IN TRADE FORMAT. If people think a book deserves a better look, then do it when reprinting it for the bookshelf. Let comics be fun and disposable again.
The initial reason comics went to Baxter and Deluxe printing was to showcase their more popular books (DC's Swamp Thing, New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes), but eventually, as the perceived collectability of comics increased, it was deemed that most titles needed this better printing and refined coloring to preserve their collectibleness. I think if the 1990's proved anything it's that most comics aren't collectible (anyone else trying to rid themselves of hundreds of X-Men and Image comics from the era, or just me? Shoulda bought a house with a fireplace...), and it holds true today. I don't need fantastic coloring reproduction or cardstock covers, I just want to read a story.
Let's move away from highlighting something in its first run, let's celebrate things only after they've proved they're worth celebrating. Let's keep the cost of comics low, and keep them accessible. If paper is what it takes, then let paper be our guide.
So, Second Printers, how do you feel about the price of comics today? If you're going to pay $3.99 for a comic, what do you expect from it? Would you be willing to have a visually less refined comic for a lower price?