POW! ZAP! BLAM! Comics definitely aren't for regular people anymore...

Here is the first of three links that I thought worth sharing, on where "mainstream" superhero comics stand today.

 

It's from the Wall Street Journal, and is ostensibly a review of a book about comics creators called called Leaping Tall Buildings, but really it's a withering attack on today's superhero comics culture.

 

Perhaps it's ruder than I would write myself - JM Straczynski is introduced as 'former He-Man scripter" for instance, and employing him to produce the Watchmen comics is "the rough equivalent of having Z-movie director Uwe Boll film a studio-funded prequel to Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." - but the points the article makes are on the money, as far as this longtime follower of the subgenre is concerned.

 

"If no cultural barrier prevents a public that clearly loves its superheroes from picking up a new "Avengers" comic, why don't more people do so? The main reasons are obvious: It is for sale not in a real bookstore but in a specialty shop, and it is clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology."

 

More here:  Worst Comicbook Ever!

 

Perhaps the spotlight caused by The Avengers' blockbusting performance at the cinema may not be an entirely good thing for Marvel and DC, if its glare focuses on the these dumb and getting dumber aspects of superhero comics?

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I think the arguments of price/quality/availability are interrelated. 

I agree that comics probably took the wrong approach as prices went up to keep cutting page counts to keep prices so low. As prices were going up, kids were getting more allowance and could've spent more for comics. The low cost made them attractive to readers, but retailers didn't want to deal with racking and returning magazines that were making them a nickel apiece. Other magazines increased their prices rather than cut back so much.

Even today, if comics had bigger packages, like the new DC Nation, they'd probably get more interest, especially from younger readers. They wouldn't even need to do anthology approaches, which everyone agrees don't sell well. They could do one long Batman story, or several short as they used to do, or stories of various characters.

But even then, I think the biggest problem IS the storytelling; specifically, the decompressed approach, in which each issue of a fairly expensive product that takes 10 minutes to read tells some small part of a story that isn't dramatic or compelling enough to bring a reader back.

I disagree with Figs that it's foolish to criticize publishers for not meeting my criteria in that regard. I think those criteria are hurting them, and they should change, or at least change some of their comics and try it.

If I pay $4 for JLA #1 and it has Batman and GL running and  yelling and finally meeting up to maybe start fighting, I don't want to come back for #2, because I didn't get the JLA and I didn't get enough feel for these guys to care about what happens next.

Had all the parts of JLA #1-6, or even the first three or so, been in one magazine with some other intro material (bios, other titles these guys are in, etc.) or one-page shorts or something else,and I could buy it wherever I buy magazines, I'd not only want to see what came next now that they were all together, but I'd feel like I'd gotten a real story and I'd buy the next one whenever I passed a drugstore.

So the problem as I see it is: $4 for one-sixth of a slow-building story I have to make a special trip to buy doesn't add up.

Expanding distribution or radically changing formats probably aren't going to happen soon. So the only one of those under their control is making each issue so fulfilling, so dramatic and so compelling I have to know what happens next. They don't do that.

The real problem is I don't think they care how these things read in periodical form. That's the cash-flow change they pick up while they're preparing the TPBs that they'll sell in readily accessible B&Ns and online bookstores on a perennial basis for bigger money. How it reads as periodicals doesn't matter to them.

I agree with Figs to the point that it's foolish to keep buying them and complaining that they aren't what I want, since they're going to do it this way for some reason I don't get. So I don't buy any in-continuity super-hero comics any more (well, except for the first four issues of JLA). But if a thread brings up What's Wrong With Comics Today, then it's worth casting my vote.

-- MSA

Mr. Silver Age said:

I think the arguments of price/quality/availability are interrelated.

I agree that comics probably took the wrong approach as prices went up to keep cutting page counts to keep prices so low. As prices were going up, kids were getting more allowance and could've spent more for comics. The low cost made them attractive to readers, but retailers didn't want to deal with racking and returning magazines that were making them a nickel apiece. Other magazines increased their prices rather than cut back so much.

Right. Consider that back in the 1930s, not just comics but every magazine on the shelf -- Time, The Saturday Evening Post, Harper's Bazaar, Life, etc. -- was 10 cents. Today, Time is $3.99, but over the years, it upgraded its product in various ways, with better paper, color printing, breaking stories, wonderful photography, prominent writers, and so on. Comics, instead, artificially kept the price low by cutting page count, kept printing on cheap paper and screwing over the creators ... and ultimately priced themselves out of the places where most of their customers were.

Today's comics are now providing a better package than before -- better paper, arguably better artists, better printing and coloring, but those changes were stunted for too long.

George Poague said:

Actually, comics began upgrading their paper and printing, and paying incentives to creators, starting in the early '80s. But at the same time, they began catering more and more to the tastes of fans, which meant superheroes, superheroes and more superheroes. I think the content has turned off new readers more than the physical package. But this is beating a dead horse, so I'll drop it for now.

Right, comics made those upgrades in the early '80s, and DC made a stab at it with the DC Explosion and the Dollar Comic (remember those?). But my point is, all those efforts were catch-up moves; the comic didn't evolve with the times the way other magazines did.

Well stated.  That's a good analysis!

Travis Herrick said:

Clark said:

Case in point: The Avengers movie. The store clerk sees dozens of people wandering in every day who just saw the movie -- so, he asks, why doesn't Marvel do a simple movie tie-in book, a single issue or a brief miniseries that gives a shorthand introduction to the characters? Instead, what's out there is "A vs. X." I'm a die-hard comics fan, and I don't want it; how would it entice the moviegoer who wants a new Avengers story and can't wait two years until the next movie?

Marvel has done movie tie-ins in the past, and they fail miserably in sales. I can understand them not banging their heads on that wall again. If I was a clerk at a shop I would steer people towards a trade. They are cheaper than regular comics, and you will get a complete story. Eve if Marvel did a mini-series (not a one-shot) you run the risk of the mini not being done when the movie comes out, so now you are asking this consumer to remember to come in for another 2-3 months. Or the mini has finished, but you ran out of issue number one, and Marvel won't be doing a reprint for another 2 weeks. By that time the consumer has moved on.

tl;dr version

Marvel has, and they failed.

I started buying Marvel Comics just AFTER the great experiment in the 1965-66 period where almost every Marvel mag was a continued story.  According to legend, this policy was started when Stan Lee realized he was getting leters from college campus fans and that they were clamoring for more adult stories and bigger plots, stories, etc.

However, there was also a back-lash from servicemen and kids that were only finding occassional issues, and not able to complete a story, al la Super-Man's usual done-in-one stories.  So, after about a year of the continued story running month after month, the policy changed again, and some series were done in 3 part arcs, and some in 5, some were single stories, more more often than not, there were 2-to 3 issue adventures that built one upon another.  But then there were also obvious breaks in the storyline, where a new adventure started, or another arc started cold.

I was impressed that when they printed the first Daredevil Marvel Masterworks volume, they didn't cut it off precisely at ten issues, like every other Masterworks had done... but they stopped at issue #11, the final Wally Wood, and conclusion of the two part Ani-Men storyline.  Now, I wish they had done the same with the third Thor volume, ending at issue #111 instead of #110, for exactly the problem you cite. It's the cliffhanger of a two-parter.  A better break point would have been the next issue 111 or 112, which also was a done-in-one Hulk vs Thor slugfest.  But by issue 113 and 114, they have started a long running continued story that never really ends until 130, though there are some breaks in there before Hercules gets his six part arc rolling.

I understand your complaint about Batman's thoughts in a caption box, instead of a thought balloon. I wonder just when that started. Was it with Batman Year One? Or was it Batman: The Dark Knight Returns?

Kirk G said:

Well stated.  That's a good analysis!

Thanks, I feel like the proverbial blind squirrel.

Fifty years ago comics cost 12 cents and took around twenty minutes to read. Now they cost four bucks and take maybe five minutes to read. And even if the old comic was the middle chapter of a saga you still got a good chunk of story for your dime and two pennies. For four dollars you might not even be able to tell who the villain is because he (or she, or it for all you know) didn't happen to appear or even be mentioned in that particular issue because it's all about Betty Ross whining or Iron Man trying to get his armor working or something else that used to take up only a page or two but now might fill several issues. Like the Iron Man comic that never got around to Tony Stark being born let alone becoming Iron Man. No I'm not impressed when somebody spends over 120 pages to retell a story that Don Heck told in 13.
I'm guessing the thoughts in a caption box dates back to Hal Foster? When did that comic strip idea get into the books? Frank Miller?

For the following I used the Superman title and GCD's information. The page counts include covers and don't tell us how many ad pages there were.

between 1939 and 1943 68 pages cost 10 cents

between 1943 and 1944 60 pages cost 10 cents

between 1944 and 1952 52 pages cost 10 cents

between 1952 and 1955 44* pages cost 10 cents

between 1955 and 1961 36 pages cost 10 cents

*Coincidentally or not, the last issue to have 44 pages (#96) was also the first to carry the CCA seal.

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The witchhunts of the early 50s and the popularity of television probably both affected comics sales.

I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the page count had remained 68 and prices had gradually increased like the other magazines. The newsstands and drug stores would have been able to make a decent profit and the attempts to reinvent the comics industry could have been tried in less desperate ways. We also probably would have had wide availability of comics and the wide variety of genres that the comic store don't seem to be able to support but that the newsstands used to support. Anybody got a time machine?

ifferent comics dropped at different times. Marvel Mystery was down to 36 pages in the 40s.

We also probably would have had wide availability of comics and the wide variety of genres that the comic store don't seem to be able to support but that the newsstands used to support

I agree that comics' approach went against other publishers, but it's not that easy to say it was a mistake. Upping pages would've meant either doing many more Superman or Human Torch stories in an issue, which might get boring, or it would require creating anthologies, which haven't sold well in a very long time. Dell went with slightly thicker comics at slightly higher prices, and no one else seemed to think that was a good way to go, nor did they expand. And any attempts at bigger, thicker comics never worked, although the format and pricing may have been set by the time they tried..

There was appeal in the early days of Marvel that kids could buy the entire super-hero line for less than a buck. If that hadn't been the case, it's possible that more picking and choosing might have kept some of them from getting a big following and dropped the line to only a few.

No one will ever invent a time machine. If they had, we'd know about it, because they'd have come back in time and we'd have found out, unless they did it super-secretively. OTOH, maybe they snuck in and saved a president from being assassinated, and now we're living in the timeline they created.

-- MSA

Mr. Silver Age said:

I agree that comics' approach went against other publishers, but it's not that easy to say it was a mistake. Upping pages would've meant either doing many more Superman or Human Torch stories in an issue, which might get boring, or it would require creating anthologies, which haven't sold well in a very long time. Dell went with slightly thicker comics at slightly higher prices, and no one else seemed to think that was a good way to go, nor did they expand. And any attempts at bigger, thicker comics never worked, although the format and pricing may have been set by the time they tried..

Possibly no one wanted to be the first to go over the 10-cent price. By the time publishers like Dell, Harvey and Tower tried to go to higher prices with thicker books they were odd men out. I wasn't suggesting increasing the size and price. I was saying that it was foolish to decrease the size in the first place. It was also foolish to increase ad pages and decrease story pages to artificially keep prices down. When they went below 20 pages of story per comic it turned off a lot of readers.

If all comics publishers had started their increases to 12, 15 and 20 cents back in the 40s like they did after 1961 it wouldn't have been a shock to the comic readers. If the 68-pagers were bi-monthly they would have been on the shelves longer and probably sold a higher percentage of their print run. The material that would be in two monthly comics would have filled a larger bi-monthly comic nicely. If the percentage price increases on the regular magazines and candy bars were to have been followed by the comics we would have had a new playing field. None of this can be proven, of course.

I think the reason anthologies don't do well is because the reading public has been trained to expect a comic to have a single protagonist and (since the early 60s) a single story or part thereof. When a comic has so few pages it's pretty hard to do an anthology.

I just received two Marvel Masterworks in the mail: Daring Mystery Volume 1 and Journey into Mystery Volume 4. Despite DM containing only four issues and JiM having ten, the golden age reprint is a slightly thicker book.

 

 

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