Issue #76

Some weeks I just have nothing to say. This week, in defiance of last week's column, I've been doing a lot of work like the second-to-last issue of X-MAN (no, I'm not going to say how the series ends so stop asking), more of the WHISPER graphic novel, and a slew of pitches ('cause regardless of my anticipations I still have to pay off a house). Some more work on a screenplay that's been lingering. Rebuilding the @VENTURE site, which is getting a complete overhaul. E-mailing back and forth with artists about various forthcoming projects, and just reading the drastic overflow of responses to my New Year's rant. (Year Of Blood t-shirts and baseball caps coming up.) (Not really.) There's plenty to burn up time with.

Frankly, I'm too tired and ranted out to bother with a column this week.

No, no reruns. Fortunately, I have friends. (I know it doesn't seem likely but it's true.) And a column message board that has become particularly lively in the past few weeks. The two came together just in time.

What seems a thousand years ago now, I moved to Los Angeles, and there I met someone named Brad Munson. I mentioned him a few times in the column, a couple by name and more often elliptically. Brad's what you call a "publishing consultant." He'll see how to make your operation more effective, he'll go find you the best price for paper, that sort of thing. Brad had read comics since he was a kid, but until we connected he never really looked into comics publishing, and it was like Alice falling through the rabbit hole. Whenever I consider going into publishing, I call Brad and he talks me out of it. Brad was who I brought into TSR-West as publisher; he and I concocted the business plan they sold the scheme to their lenders on. (The business plan that was totally ignored the instant money changed hands.) He has worked for newsletter publishing firms, for Radio and Records, for dot coms. He knows his stuff. Normally Brad's far busier than I am - we'll go for months without communicating, then suddenly he'll pop up again to say hi - but a couple months ago he jumped ship on a gig and has been kicking out while looking for the next place that needs him, and he abruptly showed up on the message board last week in the midst of a discussion on why comics aren't cheaper. Fans have a lot of interesting views on comics price points, like how they could charge less if they printed on cheaper paper. I cited Brad as my expert on such things when I stated the cheapest paper isn't so much cheaper than better paper that it would affect the price point much. (Not to mention that lower paper quality would likely lower already mediocre print quality and could cost more readers than a lower price point would bring in.) Lo and behold, there was Brad out of nowhere, backing me up. Figuring most people haven't gone over to the message board to see what he wrote, and because he owes me one for his year in TSR hell (he owes me a Trotsky icepick in the base of the skull, I think), and because he describes yet another catch-22 of the industry more concisely than I would have, I've decided to let him write the column this week. Whether he wants to or not. (I normally wouldn't crib the message board, but he actually knows what he's talking about.) Here's what he wrote:

I've followed the "epiphany" string with particular interest, since I spent wayyyy too long trying to understand (and conquer) the business model we call "the comics business."

Lemme tell ya, guys: it's a sucky model. It ain't workin'.

I will refrain from giving my entire lecture here, but I'll say this much: paper isn't the issue, and even the raw manufacture of the comic isn't all that expensive (certainly nothing like $2.99 a unit). The problem is that too many people/companies need to make a living from this little pamphlet. Your debates about whether it's possible to produce a $1.25 comic are beside the point. Of course it's possible (barely), particularly if you're printing a huge quantity. But the amount of money the retailer would make on a $1.25 comic, even on relatively high sales, isn't enough to interest them; the amount of money the distributor would make isn't enough to interest them. The relatively small cut the artist and the writer and the letterer and the colorist and the editor (or coordinator or whatever you call 'em) would make (as a percentage of sales) on a $1.25 comic is too small to cover even their meager expectations. High prices in a small market are all that works.

It doesn't even require anyone to be particularly greedy (though I've never understood the huge cut the distributor keeps for the relatively small amount of work they do). It's simple arithmetic: "x" number of copies selling at "x" price have to generate "x" number of dollars to interest everyone along the food chain ... and bingo, $2.99 comics in 2001.

Let's assume that the market for superhero comics -- or maybe for comics in general -- isn't really all that much larger than we currently see. Chalk it up to cultural bias. It doesn't mean it's not possible to have a healthy industry; lots of industries are healthy with low-cost, low-unit sales (hell, folks, a moderately successful hardcover novel only sells 5-10,000 copies in this country.) The alternative is simple and tough: YOU NEED OTHER SOURCES OF INCOME TO OFFSET THE COSTS OF DOING BUSINESS.

In the book-publishing business, it's subsidiary rights (sales to foreign countries, movies, serial rights).

In real magazines (not comics, for the most part), it's advertising (and that comparison of comics to ROLLING STONE few messages back? Bogus. RS, like most magazines in America, money on its subscription prices and cover price. It only has a cover price to pay the distributor and retailer for the trouble of carrying the title. They make their real money on the ads.)

In the TV Series business -- where programs are usually produced, particularly in their first few years -- at a loss -- the profit is made in syndication, reruns, and foreign sales/licensure.

The same model could apply to comics, particularly to those with known authors or characters. The business just doesn't do it that way. If the monthly comics were seen not as the end product, but as a preliminary 'introductory' product (like a first-run TV series) - if the four-color pamphlet was seen as part of a continuum of products presenting that story and/or character - if the business model assumed the profit was elsewhere, in ancillary sales or sub rights, in the TPB, in advertising (which is sold in such an amateurish, hopeless fashion in comics now, it's just… well, it's embarrassing) - then you could see prices come down some, and a wider range of product available. But right now, when most publishers and creators have to work on a very tight loop, where the miniscule sales of this one set of pamphlets has to cover all the bills for all the players, you're stuck with high prices, no risks, lots of imitation, and ultimately an industry doomed to death by shrinking/attrition.

And that's the short version of the lecture.

In relation to this, someone else on the message board cited the rise of comics prices relative to other magazines, a big problem for comics readers. So is the apparently skyrocketing price of comics unwarranted? Brad (who can also explain very handily why checkout counter digests are a likely dead end for the industry) had this to say:

To put it bluntly: no. These aren't comparable media, except in the most general way. ROLLING STONE is an ad-based monthly. Its circulation (as I recall, and I could be wrong) is well above 1,000,000. It's running between 60 and 70% four-color advertising for national advertisers at a competitive Cost Per Thousand and with highly attractive 18-49 demographics. It's primarily distributed by subscription (probably 80% or better) with the balance (likely less than 20%) sold through returnable single copy outlets by major distributors.

Even the most successful comic -- say, SPIDER-MAN -- has a circulation of -- what, these days, Steven? 75,000? It's running maybe 20% advertising from a very small circle of advertisers, few of them on long-term contracts, and at a ridiculously non-competitive Cost Per Thousand for non-existent demographics (nobody knows who buys and/or reads a given comic. Not for sure, not in an auditable way.) Subscriptions for comics are almost non-existent; 80%+ are sold on a non-returnable basis to specialty stores through specialty distributors (not the same ones that handle ROLLING STONE or other consumer magazines).

The business models are COMPLETELY different, and the reasons for the acceleration (or lack thereof) in cover prices are equally different.

: My point about comics is that price increases of as

: much as 1000% versus price increase in other print media of 10%

: - 450% are not only odd, they are ultimately self-defeating.

Your math still fuzzles me. 1000%? When I first started buying comics, some 35 years ago, they were 10 cents, then hovered at 12 cents for years. Compare that to $2.99, and, yeah, you're looking at something like a 2500% increase. But compared to 2 years ago, when the going price was what, $1.95? That's a 50% increase. Bad, I admit, but not 1000%.

Third, it's a matter of perceived value. Paperback book prices have risen from $3.95 to $6.95 or more in the same time-frame, but sales haven't suffered appreciably. The market perceives that they're worth it. Comics prices rose steadily from $1.25 to 2.25 - about 80%, pretty hefty - back in the speculator/collector days, but sales didn't suffer a bit. In fact, they rose precipitously, into the 400,000+ range for the hottest books. Because at the time, the market (which was significantly different than the market we have now) perceived that the product was worth the price.

I don't believe publishers - or distributors or retailers - are gouging you now on purpose. They're just trying to stay afloat in a industry that's lost about 75% of its sales in the last 36 months.

Which is the crux of it all, isn't it? A market and industry that has seen drastic changes, and reacted to all of them by insisting that if we could just pretend hard enough it was the market it used to be, everything will be all right. Which is okay if you want to be remembered alongside the 8-trach tape, but that isn't the way the world works. We need a new business model, and we need it now, and we may have to go outside the comics industry to get it.

We close with a joke:

Two girl ostriches are at the watering hole when two boy ostriches show up. The girls try to ignore them but the boys keep winking and making wolf whistles, and the girls begin to worry the boys mean to have their way with them.

"Let's get out of here," one girl says to the other, and they leave. But the other girl looks over her shoulder and there are the boy ostriches, starting to follow them.

"We'd better run," she says. They start to run. She looks over her shoulder to see the boy ostriches running.

"Run faster," says the other girl, and they run faster, but when they look over their shoulders, there are the boy ostriches, still running behind them.

"We'll never get away from them," one girl ostrich says. "What are we going to do?"

The other girl gets a bright idea. "I know! We'll bury our heads in the sand. Then they won't see us and we'll be safe."

So they come to a screeching halt, and bury their heads in the sand, with their butts sticking up in the air. The boys run right up behind them, and one boy ostrich says to the other boy ostrich:

"Hey! Where'd they go?"

Welcome to comics.

As mentioned above, @VENTURE, the online fiction site where published comics writers can publish prose stories, is undergoing a redesign to improve loading speed, readability, and malleability in different browsers. The old version is still up, but the new version, with more novel serialization from Jan Strnad (those who can't wait for the rest of RISEN can get it on Jan's own site, Atom Brain), a new Anna Passenger short story by Adisakdi Tantimedh, a new crime story by me, and who knows what else, will be up as soon as I finish converting everything to the new look.

Warren Ellis' COME IN ALONE column, which concluded a couple weeks back, is being collected into book form by Larry Young, writer/publisher of ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE and future publisher of the WHISPER graphic novel if I can ever manage to get the script done. You can get details at AIT/PlanetLar Books. Larry, coincidentally, is the columnist set to replace Warren at Comic Book Resources shortly. For those who've asked in the wake of Warren's departure, no, MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS isn't planned to go on forever. As a matter of fact, I know exactly when it will end it. I can assure everyone of three things. A) It won't be soon. B) It won't be announced; the final column will be the final column and the next week it just won't be there. C) You'll know it's the final column because I'll finally clear up the mysteries I've deviously salted the column with during its run, including why the Punisher is an existentialist.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What one (1) comics project announced or rumored so far for 2001 are you looking forward to the most? Why?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

Netflix's Evangelion Translation Hurts a Classic Gay Romance

More in CBR Exclusives