The $4 Question – How Much Is Too Much?

My friends have heard me threaten this every time there’s been a cover price increase in the last 5 years, but I see a day in the near future where I get out of the new comics game. I’ve been mentioning not buying $4 comics ev er since we started the blog but haven’t explained it yet, so I figure it’s past time. The whole issue concerns relative value, perceived value, and ongoing escalating costs.

Rich Johnston has been covering increasing cover prices quite a bit lately, but what really settled it for me was this great table he put up a while back in his old Lying in the Gutters column at Comic Book Resources, illustrating cover prices and the rate of inflation.

Year Cover
Rate of
1977 0.30 0.30
1978 0.35 0.32
1979 0.40 0.34
1980 0.40 0.38
1981 0.50 0.43
1982 0.60 0.48
1983 0.60 0.51
1984 0.60 0.53
1985 0.60 0.55
1986 0.65 0.57
1987 0.75 0.58
1988 0.75 0.6
1989 1 0.62
1990 1 0.65
1991 1 0.69
1992 1 0.72
1993 1.25 0.74
1994 1.5 0.76
1995 1.5 0.78
1996 1.5 0.80
1997 1.5 0.83
1998 1.5 0.85
1999 1.75 0.86
2000 1.99 0.88
2001 2.25 0.91
2002 2.25 0.93
2003 2.25 0.95
2004 2.25 0.97
2005 2.25 1
2006 2.5 1.03
2007 2.99 1.06
2008 2.99 1.09
2009 3.99?

At first glance the result was shocking. After staying at $2.25 for 5 years, cover prices only stayed at $2.50 for a year before going right up to $2.99. It only held there for 2 years before increasing to $3.99, a 33% increase in one jump. However, perhaps looking at it purely in terms of dollars and cents isn’t a fair way to go about it. Going back and taking in the whole chart it becomes apparent that cover prices regularly double every decade, but either way this is the largest dollar increase and the largest percentage increase ever. (I realize that this chart doesn’t cover every year since the advent of comic books, but going from 10 cents in 1938 to 35 cents in 1978 is obviously much slower growth.) I’ve never taken an economics class so I don’t know the best way to extrapolate this information, but this much is clear: the days of cover prices increasing by a quarter or 50 cents every 3-4 years is well behind us.

Matt mentioned in his report from HeroesCon that Ian Sattler is pretty adamant that most DC titles are still $2.99, and that any $3.99 title will have extra pages. That’s worth taking a look at, so I picked up copies of Previews and Marvel Previews* and tallied up the page counts and cover prices for Marvel and DC in order to apply real numbers to the issue. The results are interesting, if a little hard to reconcile.

DC Comics – April 2010 Marvel Comics – June 2010
32 pages $2.99 – 39 books 32 pages $2.99 – 32 books
$3.99 – 0 books $3.99 – 37 books
40 pages $2.99 – 0 books 40 pages $2.99 – 0 books
$3.99 – 16 books $3.95 – 1 book
Johnny DC $3.99 – 8 books
32 pages $2.50 – all titles $4.99 – 1 book
32 pages $2.99 – 8 books
$3.99 – 6 books
40 pages 0 books
32 pages $2.99 – 17 books
$3.99 – 0 books
40 pages $2.99 – 0 books
$3.99 – 1 books

I picked Marvel and DC because they are “The Big Two,” and as they go, so goes the industry, but the first thing that becomes obvious is that there’s no longer such a thing as a standard cover price. Prices and page counts have little consistency across the board. I don’t even necessarily think we can compare DC and Marvel any more, as their pricing structures appear to be completely different.

Sattler is being honest with us: DC has kept all of their 32 page comics at $2.99, and all of their $3.99 titles have 40 pages. Vertigo follows suit and all of their 32 page books are $2.99. Their single $3.99 title is 40 pages. The Johnny DC line has admirably kept all of their books at a price-conscious $2.50 for 32 pages. Wildstorm, however, only has 32 page books, and almost half have $3.99 cover prices.

Marvel is somewhat easier to count up. Of their 69 32 page comics, 37 have a cover price of $3.99. Every other book is listed at 40 pages, and here is where the pricing gets really creative. They have one $3.95 book, 8 $3.99 books, and one listed at $4.99. If anyone is waiting with trepidation for the day of $5 comics, I have bad news: with this year’s X-Men Forever annual, it’s already arrived.

When this is broken down into the price per page of story, we see that the publishers are making considerably more money per page for that extra dollar.  At $2.99, a 32 page comic has 22 pages of story, or 13.6 cents per page.  For $3.99 a 40 page book has 28, which comes out to 14.3 cents.  But for a dollar, those extra 6 pages cost 16.7 cents each while generating another 4 pages worth of ad revenue for the publisher. Meanwhile, Marvel’s $3.99 comics with 22 pages of story comes out to 18.1 cents per page.

With such rapidly increasing prices, other effects have been noticeable. It used to be that comics would generally appreciate, even if just a little. Mile High Comics still marks up the base price of their comics (I think it’s around 30%) after a month as standard operating procedure. But now it’s relatively easy to find almost any comic deeply discounted just a couple months after it comes out. Often I can find most comics I’m seeking for $1. Even Mile High with their automatic markups is then discounting books, so an issue of JLA that’s only a month or three old is just over $2. Which is a long and convoluted way of saying comics don’t hold their sticker price as long as they used to.

With ebay it’s even easier. In the last 6 months I’ve gotten full runs of JLA, Ghost Rider, Cry for Justice, and Wolverine for $1 or less per issue. And this is within weeks of their release! If I’m willing to take more time to fill in a run, it’s not too hard to find comics that are only a few months old for 50 cents each. It’s not that I’m all about how much I can get for my comics, but the value of a comic obviously isn’t what it used to be.

So at what point did I come up with $4 as the cutoff price? Well, seeing books I paid full price for in the dollar bins a month later definitely made me start to think twice. At some point I decided $5 is definitely too much for a standard 32 (or even 40) page comic. If the price increases had been more incremental I probably would have slid further, but with this last jump being a dollar, it seemed like I was staring $5 comics in the face, and I don’t want to turn around and have to figure out how I wound up spending so much per issue.

Starting with the move to the $4 cover price, I decided I’m not picking up any new comic coming out for $4 that doesn’t have extra content (a card stock cover, glossy pages, or 4 page “preview” for another title won’t cut it). What I realize after looking through Previews is that while I was concerned with $4 comics creeping up on me, the $5 comic book is already here (albeit at 40 pages), and it’s only a matter of time before we’re looking fondly back at the $2.99 cover price.

I felt I had to draw that line, so I’m looking at not buying new comics anymore. At least, not the week they come out. And it doesn’t look like I’m going to miss much. If my history is any judge I’ll probably be able to start buying more because it’s so much easier to splurge on a comic for one dollar than it is for four dollars. Or five.

And this is the question I throw out for everyone: Where do you draw the line?

Surely there must be a point at which the cover price is too high for 22 pages of story. Is it $10? $15? With prices going up (apparently) $1 at a time now, it’s not unreasonable to think we may see those prices within 20 years. By 2030, assuming comics still exist in their current form, the cover price for a new comic will be $16, which even accounting for inflation is no longer disposable income. It’s not that far away, and it’s not that far-fetched.

I love comics. Hopefully the last 10 months of the blog have proven that. And I don’t use this as an excuse to start downloading them…But price increases are a real and significant concern. I never thought I could give them up, but it’s not as unthinkable as it once was.

* April and June 2010, respectively, the most recent issues I could pick up for free. It’s not a strict apples to apples comparison but it should illustrate the trend well enough.