Rethinking “Modern Era Comic Books Aren’t Bad… They’re Just Not Worth the Money”

In the Spring 2010 newsletter of the Comic Book Collector’s Association, I wrote an article called “Modern Era Comic Books Aren’t Bad…They’re Just Not Worth the Money.[1]There were two primary critiques that I leveled against comics:  The first was from a financial perspective where buying comics one issue at a time was simply not worth the money when compared to purchasing the same books in a collected trade paperback; the second point of contention dealt with the collectability of modern comics against their vintage counterparts and the volatility inherent in this field of collectibles.  Now, almost two years later, I thought it worthwhile to revisit this past article, particularly my first critique against modern comics.

I still believe that, from a pragmatic standpoint, collected editions are where readers can get the most “bang for their buck” when compared to monthly issues.  My article originally came out at the time when comics recently jumped to $3.99, and many still carry this price today—in spite of claims from both DC and Marvel that the prices would come back down.  And I contend my argument holds still:

“According to The Comic Chronicles, ten out of twelve of the top earning comic titles from January 2009 until February 2010 cost readers $3.99 per (approximate) 40-page issue—that’s nearly $0.10 a page[2].  Now, I will reasonably assume most trade paperbacks will contain at least 150 pages (sometimes less, and often even more than this) and they will price somewhere between $15.00-$20.00 each.  This translates to approximately $0.07–$0.10 per page.  While this might not appear to be a significant savings for fans, the difference is that there are no ad pages in a trade paperback whereas there are a number of full ad pages that help make up the page count in the individual issues of a comic book.  Further, if one were to consider the cost of buying the issues individually at $3.99 each, it becomes evident trade paperbacks are the way to go with books comprised of three issues or more.”

As of February 2010, only three titles were priced at $2.99—with one at $4.99—so it’s fair to assume the price-per-page hasn’t changed much… other than exhibiting a slight increase.  So, when it comes to the bottom line, collected editions are obviously a better financial deal.  Yet, I think there is more to consider than the “ppg” when making decision to purchase a monthly issue.

In one respect, I don’t think creators such as Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, or Darwyn Cooke will be in dire financial straights any time soon.  If they ever find themselves in a position where they are unable to find work at DC or Marvel, there would be plenty of indie publishers lining up to secure their talents.  However, not all creators have such a demand for their creative talents.  In this regard, fans’ willingness to support newer, up-and-coming artists through purchasing their monthly issues is essential.  After all, even the best of the creators out there found a body of readers that were willing to support their initial forays into the comic storytelling business.  If we want new and engaging comics, don’t we have some level of obligation to support the new blood?  Otherwise, we play an implicit role in maintaining the same old status quo.  While that’s not always a bad thing, it does close the door to many new possibilities that help move the medium forward.

Additionally, there are times when it is important to support new movements in the field.  Most recently, the shift in Ultimate Spider-Man comes to my mind with Miles Morales’ taking up the mantle of Spider-Man from the late Peter Parker.  In October of 2011, Julian Darius wrote an article about Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s new leading protagonist in “Eight Thoughts on Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 3, Issues 1-2.[3]”  This article focuses on the first two installments and carefully looks at why this change in the series is such an important milestone.  Had I waited until the trade paperback to come out—which is still yet to be printed—then much of this discussion would have been lost on me.  Perhaps more importantly than missing out on the beginnings of a truly substantive story arc, readers would be left to take the opinions of the “talking heads” on various news channels and outlets at face value as they decried the death of the “real” Spider-Man, Peter Parker, so that substitute might attempt to fill his shoes for short term headlines.  And the truth is that if we really care about our comics, then we should be better informed about what is going in these books.

As I stated in response at the end of Darius’ article:

My one point of frustration with the pundit-debate over this series is the common defense of the change where defendants state that it’s not the “real” Peter Parker (of the ASM continuity) so people shouldn’t be upset. Since it’s happening in the Ultimate line, it’s all make believe anyhow so no “real” comic character is being harmed in the production of this storyline (as if ASM Parker was real too…). The problem with this line of argument is it undercuts the validity of telling a story like Bendis and Pichelli give us. Saying that we can tell the story of a non-Caucasian Spider-Man/Peter Parker in the USM universe because it doesn’t “count” there and the “real” SM/PP is still safe is condescending to put it mildly and reinforces certain… stereotypical norms by preserving the sanctity of past arcs. I’m not trying to exaggerate here, but I know that this response isn’t far off the mark from discussions I’ve had with people who are excited at being represented (finally) by a costume that is nearly as well known as Superman and Batman.

The reality is, if we skip over titles like this, then we run the risk of failing to recognize the racism subtly embedded in the reactionary comments of those decrying Bendis’ story and those even more quietly inlaid within the reassuring remarks to upset fans that the real—and white—Peter Parker is still quite alive and in charge of the Spider-Man persona.  Only in an ultimate fantasy can a minority be allowed to be someone of real consequence in the world of comics.  Through supporting storylines like the ones Bendis and Pichelli are telling in Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 3, we’re putting our money where out mouths are when we demand an increase in readership and a wider diversity in the stories being told.

At the end of day, my decision to purchase a comic comes down to my personal desire to participate in the telling of a good story.  Sometimes, I have to balance that desire with the amount of spending money in my pocket, as do many other readers out there.  However, I also recognize now, perhaps a little better than I did before, that my dollar could mean a little bit more than just my participation in listening to the telling of that story.  Sometimes, being open to supporting the storytellers sooner, rather than later, might make the difference of how long that story that I’m presently enjoying will continue to be told in the future.  If modern comics aren’t all that bad, then perhaps there are times when they’re worth the money.

[1] Helvie, Forrest C. “Modern Era Comic Books Aren’t Bad…They’re Just Not Worth the Money.” Comic Book Quarterly: http://www.comiccollecting.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=61&t=936

[2] The Comic Chronicles: http://www.comichron.com/vitalstatistics/topcomics.html

[3] Darius, Julian.  “Eight Thoughts on Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 3, Issues 1 & 2.” http://sequart.org/magazine/5657/eight-thoughts-on-ultimate-spider-man-vol-3-1-2/

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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