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The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger

Comics were great value

A
        BOOK LENGTH EPIC! NEED WE SAY MORE?enough to fill 3
        magazines


Then they committed economic suicide

The first rule of business is: give your customers value for money. Old comics used to be great value for money: a whole book for 76 cents (adjusted for inflation). Adjusted for inflation, a typical comic cost $0.76 in 1965, $0.99 in 1975, $1.22 in 1985, $1.97 in 1995, $3.30 in 2005 and $3.99 in 2010. At the start of the 1960s each 76c comic contained three stories. Adjusted for inflation, each story cost $0.25. By 2010 a typical story takes six issues, and costs $23.94. In real terms this is a

9,576% price hike

per complete story. But if felt worse: ignoring inflation, the price per story rose by

60,000%

And if you want to understand a typical cross-over event, you need to read ten times that.

But modern stories are more detailed, right? To some extent, but it takes a lot longer to read an old comic than a new one. It's called "decompression."

Another way to look at it is in terms of the minimum wage. Von Allan recently crunched the numbers - he gives more detail on his site: In 1961, when fantastic Four hit the stands, a single comics represented 0.3 % of a weekly minimum wage. (It was more than twice as high in 1938, but comics in 1938 had twice as many pages and far fewer ads so the value was about the same). Today, a typical $3.99 comic represents 1.4 % of a weekly minimum wage. This ignores decompression: a typical comic n 1961 contained three stories, and took perhaps 20 minutes to read. Typical comic today contains just one chapter in a bigger story and takes around 5 minutes to read. For comparison, a movie ticket over the same period rose from 2.5% to 3% of a minimum wage. For three comics you get half a story, and it's cheaper to go to the movies! As Von Allan points out, this also helps to explain why superhero movies have not translated into comic sales. Movies were a great opportunity to revive the comic industry, and the industry blew it.

How to do it right: comics before decompression

Even if comics were the same price, the old comics were still much better value. Back in the early 1960s, sales rocketed upwards in a way that has never been equaled. let's have a look at those issues, and see why they were so special. it all began with the Fantastic Four:

FF1

Issue 1 had two stories (the second one in two parts): the origin, the first major battles, a new villain (complete with origin story), we see all the FF in action several times, we discover the underground world... so much packed into so few pages!

FF2

Issue 2: four chapters: a new galactic race is discovered and defeated, the FF are declared enemies of the state, the kinds of events that are today reserved for a multi-title cross-over event. And all for ten cents!

FF3

Issue 3: five chapters: a new villain, a complete multi-part battle, new costumes, a new vehicle, the Torch quits... a packed issue! These early issues also found space for extra feature pages explaining how the super powers worked. No wonder they sold so well.

FF4

Issue 4: five chapters: we learn more about the FF, the Torch returns, they rediscover the Sub Mariner, he attacks, they go after him, the story has a climax and resolution... each of these chapters would be at least a whole issue today.

FF5

Issue 5: five chapters: the first appearance of Doctor Doom, they travel to Latveria, they have adventures back in time, the whole story wraps up... fantastic value for money!

FF6

Issue 6: five chapters: the first and greatest team up between their two greatest (and most interesting) foes. Often copied, never equaled.

FF7

Issue 7: five chapters: the FF are outlawed, they travel to the stars, they save a world, and we have more drama and tragedy than today we see in a whole year!

a book length saga a book length bombshell!

And so it goes on. Each issue is packed full of story, or soap opera developments, of new characters, of action, with a complete "book length" novel for just a few cents. no wonder the readers kept coming back for more! Back then a comic book was a real book.


A page is a lot of space!

If you think the old Fantastic Four comics were good value, you should read Ken Reid's Jonah. It was reprinted in the 1980s in Buddy comic, with large white margins, so the printed area was exactly the same as a page of an American comic.

Ken Reid's
        Jonah from 1959

Imagine if American comics had this level of detail. An entire chapter would fit on a single page. A 22 page comic book wouldn't be a book, it would be War And Peace!

Now compare a modern, uncompressed comic

I picked up a modern comic and scanned the first page I found as it opened. This is from "Fantastic Four: The End" by Alan Davis. Davis is one of the very best modern comic creators, Trust me, this is one of the best. I could have found a lot worse, like double page spreads that show almost nothing, or six pages spent on a minor conversation.

FF

Verbosity?

Old comics are sometimes accused of being verbose. This is because there is sometimes (not always) use more text in a given panel. But this is simply a result of efficient story telling: there are far fewer panels, so naturally more will happen in each panel. This is why old comics are unforgettable, whereas new comics leave almost no impact. To illustrate, look at the same story told in 1963 and again in 2005. This is from the origin of Doctor Doom, the part where we learn about his mother:


The 1963 version:

comparison1

The 2005 version (just one of many pages):

comparison2

Which used more words to tell the story?

The original origin of Doom too 12 pages. The 2005 "books of Doom" series took 144 (the trade paperback). Some would argue that the newer comic was more realistic, yet it multiplied the robots and witchcraft to such a level that what was a simple and believable story in 1963 became something that could not possibly take place in our world by any stretch of the imagination.

But modern comics use realistic language?

It is true that 1960s comics do not use strictly realistic language. But neither do modern comics: real people are far more dull than the TV style dialog in comics. Real dialog is always messy and disjointed and needs cleaning up. Neither old nor new comics can claim to be like real conversations, and that's a good thing.

Steranko shows how to do it right

Maybe you think I'm being unfair, comparing a humor comic to a more serious comic? Here's a page by Jim Steranko from a horror comic (Tower of Shadows). Note how much is packed into one page - wide establishing shots, close ups, descriptions, dialog, yet the language is modern and sparse. Sure, it's not perfectly naturalistic, but then neither is the Alan Davis example above. It also uses cheaper printing which gives clearer lines and brings the price of the comic down. Bottom line: it's a great story, and great value for money. Here are other examples.

Steranko

It's not so hard. Any good storyteller can do it.

There is no reason to waste space in a comic. Any good writer can tell a good story in a small space. Here are more examples. Newspaper strips do it all the time. And they attract a whole lot more people than read comics in book form.

Here's just one example. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against full page pictures. But a full page picture should be an event, something rare and amazing, something to take your breath away. Something you will examine for minutes and remember for years. Not just a way for the artist to finish the book more quickly.

newspaper

Price used to be very important

From FF 41
value

From FF49
value

From FF52
value


Marvel's dollar comics

Marvel today occasionally tries to inject good value through cut price comics, but they seldom sell.

Q: "Is there ever talk in the industry about cutting way back on the production values just to lower the price point."

A: "Every attempt to try this doesn't work." - Tom Brevoort.

Dollar comics (for example) are still decompressed (which reduces their story value per dollar), and are designed only to draw readers to the full price versions, so the reader knows that the total cost of coming on board will still be high. Also, almost nobody has heard of them. If there was a permanent dollar title, with a complete self contained story every issue, it might make a difference. But efficient story telling seems to be a forgotten skill.

Other attempts have been plagued with mistakes. For example, when comics were 1.99, Marvel tried a half price line: 99 cent comics aimed at new readers. But retailers wanted a bigger profit margin, so Marvel put two stories in one $1.95 comic... and forgot to tell people they were getting twice as many pages! Then they gave it a name that made it sound like it was only an add-on for people who already bought the rest ("untold tales of Spider-Man"). Unsurprisingly sales were poor - the title did not look like good value.


Why did comics commit economic suicide?

One word: video.

In the past, comics were mostly aimed at children. We could argue about why this is, but that's where the market led in the early days. It seemed to work, so publishers never tried hard to reach adults. 

Then along came video, and the kids had an even easier way to get simple stories, so comic sales fell. The rational response would be to say "right, what can we do that video cannot?" Answer: highly condensed stories. but instead, terrified of losing the traditional market, the comics decided to copy video instead: with more pictures and less reading.

This is a battle comics cannot win!

Video has 24 frames a second Comics can never equal that. Video has no thing to read. Comics can never equal that - video can compensate with sound, but comics can't. Chasing video is economic suicide.

Other reasons why comics became more cinematic

Comics publishers can justify their love affair with video in four ways:

  1. A small number of cinematic comics sold well. E.g. Dark Knight Returns. But they also cost a lot more money. They only work as an occasional high priced novelty.
  2. Older comics rely on expository dialog (i.e. where the heroes give a running commentary of what's happening). Sure, this is artificial, but so is the modern cinematic style: nobody really talks like they do in the movies, saying just the right clever thing in just the right way.
  3. Self-selection. The only people still buying comics are the ever shrinking minority who like what is being produced. Naturally they vote for more of the same.
  4. Reading comics is a learned skill that young people don't have. As Tom Brevoort wrote:
Q: "I've had several women tell me the biggest obstacle to them reading comics is that it's hard for them to follow the word balloons. It seems so simple to me, left to right, and down. Are they forever stunted due to not having read comics as kids?"

A.: "This isn't something specific to women, but to all people beyond a certain age. it seems that reading comic books is a learned skill, like any other, and if somebody doesn't learn the language at an early enough age, it can be difficult for them to decode it later. This relates to the fact that comics are one of the few mediums that engage both hemispheres of the brain at the same time--one half actively decoding the words while the other passively absorbs the images. For people who never picked up the ability, they tend to have to process the elements individually: they read the words, then they look at the pictures, and then they try to marry the two in their minds. It's an excruciating process, and a very real part of the reason why it's difficult to get adults who never read comics before to try them."

This is true, but it applies to cinematic comics as well, to some degree. And to cinema, too it all has conventions (just compare Hollywood to art house). Cinematic comics create problems because it's hard to work out what's going on because the dialog doesn't tell you. The reader has to learn a skill anyway, so you'd better choose a skill that gives the biggest reward. They will if the reward is great enough, just as western manga lovers learn to read from right to left - now THAT takes some effort I can tell you! But it's worth it.

Objections


Conclusion: the choice facing comics

When faced with an over-priced product, a manufacturer can go one of three ways:

1. Accept ever lower sales.

2. Lower the price.

3. Make the product more desirable

A lower price will help, but long term, comics have to offer something that video cannot. The unique strength of comics is and always has been efficient story telling. It may take some time to find new markets that appreciate efficient stories - but long term it is comics' greatest and only strength.

The Great American Novel