by Gerry Conway
EDITOR’S NOTE: We all know how well comic book heroes, villains, and stories are doing on TV and in films these days – they own those media. However, many of us may not know what’s happening with the motherlode, comic books themselves. Gerry Conway’s here to tell us the ironic truth.
Is comic book publishing a doomed enterprise?
Since the days I first entered the business in the late 1960s, one of the perennial fears of creators and industry executives has been the imminent collapse of the retail comic book market.
It’s not an unreasonable fear: in fact, in readership numbers, the market has already collapsed. When I started writing comics fifty years ago, the published sales figures for the solo Superman comic was about 600,000 copies a month. Five years later, sales figures had dropped to about 300,000 a month. By the late 1980s, less than 100,000 a month. (http://www.comichron.com/titlespotlights/superman.html) Recent sales of Superman have been in the mid-five figure range. (http://www.comicsbeat.com/dc-comics-month-to-month-sales-chart-january-2017-comic-readers-vs-gratuitous-rebirth-one-shots/)
From 600,000 to 60,000– if that isn’t a collapse of readership, I don’t know how else to describe it.
To be fair to Big Blue, and show this isn’t exclusively a DC problem, Spider-Man’s main solo title displays a similar collapse in readership, though its collapse is more recent. (http://www.comichron.com/titlespotlights/amazingspiderman.html)
But wait, you’ll say. You’re comparing apples and oranges. Back in 1968, comics were 12 cents each; today they cost an average of $3.44. (https://www.statisticbrain.com/comic-book-statistics/)
True enough. In 1968 the median household income was $7,700 annually. (https://www2.census.gov/prod2/popscan/p60-065.pdf) In 2016 the median household income was $59,000 (a squishy number with lots of caveats apparently). (https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-average-income-in-usa-family-household-history-3306189) Let’s examine all those figures, recognizing that the economic world of 1968 is vastly different from the our world today. (For example, that $7,700 household income was for a one-earner family; today most families are two-earners.)
Let’s take inflation. It’s an eye-opener. $7,700 in 1968 is worth $54,162.42 today (http://www.in2013dollars.com/1968-dollars-in-2017?amount=7700), so today’s family is actually ahead by $5,000 a year. (On the other hand that additional $5,000 is worth $725 in 1968 dollars.)
So apparently incomes have more or less kept up with inflation, and in most cases, specifically in the cost of high technology, the price of many items has decreased in real terms since 1968. And many if not most of the things we’ve come to depend on today didn’t even exist in 1968. For example, an RCA color television/phonograph console in 1969 cost $975 for a gigantic 23″ picture (http://www.tvhistory.tv/tv-prices.htm)– in 2017 dollars, $6,858.00. Today, you can find an RCA-brand 4K 65″ smart TV for about $590 at Walmart. (https://www.walmart.com/ip/RCA-ROKU-4K-65-SMART-UHD-LED-TV/330129369) In 1968 dollars that’s about $100– and nobody in 1968 could even have understood the descriptive terms 4K, 65″, or “smart TV.”
But what about household staples? Haven’t prices skyrocketed for, say, milk?
In 1968 the price of a gallon of milk was $1.07. (http://www.the60sofficialsite.com/1968_Economy_and_Prices.html) Today the price is about $3.16. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/236854/retail-price-of-milk-in-the-united-states/) That’s less than half the rate of inflation. (Inflation would have put the price of a gallon of milk in 1968 dollars at over $7.)
Cars? Cars in the 1960s ran in price from the low $2000s to the high $5000s, probably averaging around $3500. (http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/60scars.html) (My dad bought a Chevy Nova in 1969 for about $2000, if I remember right.) The average price for a new car today is about $33,000 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2015/05/04/new-car-transaction-price-3-kbb-kelley-blue-book/26690191/)– or about $10,000 more than inflation alone would predict. What do you get for that additional $10,000? Where to start? Computerized controls, air conditioning standard, safety and convenience and energy conserving features drivers in 1968 would have considered science fiction. So maybe the increase in average price is worth it, especially since many people don’t buy cars anymore– they lease them, something that wasn’t an option in 1968.
So, with all these inflation stats considered, how does the comic book business of today compare to the comic book business of 1968?
In purely inflationary terms, everything else being equal, a comic that cost 12 cents in 1968 should cost 84 cents today. But everything else isn’t equal, of course.
The production quality of today’s comics is vastly superior to those of 1968. The four-color newsprint presses of 1968 produced comics that look barely readable compared to the glossy monthlies we see now. So maybe a doubling of price might be justified sheerly for the increase in production quality. Yet isn’t some of that cost of production offset by the change in the system of distribution? In 1968, almost half of a production run was lost to newstand “returns”– to sell 600,000 copies of Superman, National Periodical Publications printed over 1,000,000. Today’s comics are sold on a no-return basis. No excess copies are printed. (This sometimes results in second print runs on popular new titles, something that would have been inconceivable in the 1960s.) Despite the increased price of quality printing, I have to think technological advances in printing and distribution have kept pace with at least some of the companies’ production costs. Creators certainly aren’t making much more money now than they did in 1968. (Top page rates have barely increased over inflation, and average page rates are probably less than you’d expect in inflationary terms.)
So why do comics cost, on average, almost five times what inflation alone might predict? Why haven’t comics benefited from the deflationary pressures that reduced the price of milk and TVs, not to mention all the technological wonders that didn’t exist in 1968 but which have plummeted in price in real terms since their introduction? (Personal computers, video games, VCRs-into-DVDs-into-streaming media, cell phones, e-readers, etc., etc.)
It’s pretty simple to understand, sadly. The reader base for comic books has almost completely disappeared, which requires each reader to pay more for any individual issue in order to support the company that produces the book. My guess is there are about 400,000 regular comic book readers in America. I base this guess on the following statistics:
The total yearly sales in the direct market are about $418,000,000. The average price of a comic is $3.44. (https://www.statisticbrain.com/comic-book-statistics/) Divide those numbers and you get the following: 122,511,628 comics sold a year, or about 10,000,000 comics a month.
According to the best guess of various interested parties (https://www.newsarama.com/33006-is-the-average-age-of-comic-book-readers-increasing-retailers-talk-state-of-the-business-2017.html) the average comic book reader is somewhere between 25-35 years old. According to labor statistics, the average salary for people between the ages of 24-34 is $39,000. (https://smartasset.com/retirement/the-average-salary-by-age)
A little math shows that this block of readers doesn’t have an inexhaustible amount of disposable income. After taxes, a generous guestimate puts the average comic book readers’ weekly income at about $570. Food, shelter, clothing, and transportation all have to come first before they can devote any spending to their comic book interests. Let’s be optimistic and say they’re dedicated readers who devote 5% of their income to buying comics. That’s $28 a week or about 8 comics a week, 24-26 comics a month.
10,000,000 comics sold a month; 25 sold to each reader; 400,000 readers.
How does 400,000 comic book readers (an optimistic number, I admit) compare to the number of people who’ve seen, say, “Black Panther?”
Recent estimates put “Black Panther”’s domestic box office at about $500,000,000 (http://deadline.com/2018/03/black-panther-third-weekend-red-sparrow-death-wish-operation-red-sea-detective-chinatown-2-international-box-office-1202310277/) with an average ticket price of $9 (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/average-price-a-movie-ticket-soars-897-2017-1075458), meaning “Black Panther” has been seen by approximately 55,000,000 people.
Fifty-fifty million comic book movie viewers, versus less than half a million readers.
Even if those numbers are wildly inaccurate at the margins, that’s still a ridiculously significant difference. It points to an inescapable fact: comic book readers are at best a very minor part of “comic book culture.”
This is particularly true when you consider that individual readers each have loyalty to only a handful of characters. If you’re buying 25 titles a month on average, and you’re a Batman fan, probably a fifth of your purchases are Batman-related comics. Which means that Batman’s total readership is less than what might be indicated by the cumulative amount of sales across all titles. If the average Batman title (Batman, All-Star Batman, Detective Comics, Batgirl, Batwoman, Nightwing) sells about 50,000 copies, there’s probably quite a bit of overlap– the same buyer purchasing multiple books. There may, in fact, only be about 50,000 actual Batman readers. Ditto for other characters or character lines (X-Men readers, Avengers readers, Superman readers, etc). It’s entirely possible the figure of 400,000 readers is wildly exaggerated. Dedicated fans may be buying more than 25 comics a month. In which case the actual full-time readership might be vastly smaller– maybe only 100,000 readers.
In any event, what’s clear to me is that the viability of comic book publishing as a way to make money directly is clearly limited by a shrinking, if not fully collapsed, market base.
The question is, where do the publishers go from here? Do they continue to pursue that small base of readers? Is there a way for them to attract the vast number of people obviously attracted to the larger “comic book culture” represented by movies and TV? Or will comics (as I believe likely) become a subsidized form of intellectual property development for the more lucrative and culturally impactful film and television divisions of the corporate entities that own them?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.