Monday, December 10, 2007

The Comic Value of Entertainment

Comics as Collectibles

In this post, I will revisit my value of entertainment article with respect to comics.

Let's start with a comment by RwP:
Unfortunately, you have served to highlight just what a bad 'deal' comics are in the entertainment scale of economy. ;-) Won't stop me from collecting them, though.

In my graph, comics had the second worst cost per hour, at about $18 per hour. (The worst was a cd, if you only listen to it once - but that's a topic for another post). I think one of the keys to the cost is the other phrase RwP used: "collecting". More so than most other entertainment media, comics strive to present themselves as collectible. There are entire websites and magazines dedicated to tracking the prices of back issues - speculators may "invest" in comics, hoping to turn a profit. I think this is intended in part to justify the higher price.

Let's do a quick test and search eBay for Conan, my example in the earlier article (chosen more or less at random). Issue 46 has a cover price of $2.99, and is still readily available at most comic shops. It looks like there are 858 listings for Conan categorized under Comics. A bunch of single issues from 1975 are at a starting bid of $1.00, still with no bids. (And of course, the $2.50 shipping extra cost.) The cover price is $.25 for that issue, which gives us a 4 times increase in value over a 32 year investment. But it's not selling. At the moment, quite a few of the current series (issue 19 for example), are listed with starting bids of $.99 (and no takers), (with $3.41 shipping). That's a 66% loss over something you just got off the shelf.

So, at best, treating comics as investments is a fidgety business, particularly recent releases, which more often than not can be bought 6 months later in bargain bins for $1 per issue. Real value lies in significantly older issues, with the accompanying effort to maintain high grade issues. If you build old issues in quantity, you can often get them for pennies on the pound.

Nevertheless, in order to maintain the market as much as possible, the current big two publishers often release runs as close to the initial demand as possible, so they sell out, and create a short term bubble of demand, driving up prices very temporarily. As a reader, this creates a rather significant nuisance - you can't always rely on being able to follow a series.

Comics as Art

A further argument for the value of comics is that they are works of art, and should be appreciated in same way as a Picasso or a Rembrandt. Maybe. The reality of big publishing is that it's much more of a business. You may be reading a perfectly good story, when some fill-in artist creates an issue to meet some deadline. Then you've got some potentially mediocre drawing, with a churned out by-the-numbers story, with the same cost as your best artwork by your favorite artist. Artwork quality can be dodgy, and writing quality equally so, especially since meeting a fixed schedule over a long period of time can challenge even the best writers.

Comics as Marketing

There are some interesting trends in comic marketing worth noting. Traditionally, comics have been published as individual issues, perhaps 32 pages - if you miss an issue, you have to hunt around conventions, local shops, or perhaps go online to find them. Sitting on top of a large pile of content, though, publishers have realized there's a bigger market for that content. Most books can now be bought in collections (trade paperbacks), often collecting 4 to 8 issues in a single nicely bound volume. Generally these cost about the same as the equivalent single issues, with the benefit of no ads interspersed in the story, although they don't lie flat.

A market for premium versions is also evolving - with hardcover editions, or my personal favorite, oversized hardcover editions. For example, Absolute Sandman contains 20 issues of material, with extra bonus content, in a deluxe oversized edition for $99 (about $5 per issue if you break down the price). These are indeed closer to art books, and generally only popular or quality content gets this treatment.

One of my favorite series, Invincible, provides a wide spectrum of buying choices - once per month, you can get the single issue. Every 6 months, a softcover TPB is released with 6 issues. Every year, an oversized hardcover is released collecting 12 issues. Every other year, a limited super-oversized hardcover with more premium hoo-hah (the technical term) is released. You might end up buying the same content multiple times, depending on what you want, and how often you want it.

And sometimes, the TPB will contain extra material not in the issues, or vice versa. All of which can detract from the core entertainment of reading a story, but feeds into the collectible mindset of comic collectors.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can get 500 issues of Iron Man on CD for the low price of $49.99. And Marvel recently started a subscription service for all you can read comics online.

Free Comics

If you want to read some online comics for free, you can try the new Zuda website by DC, an experiment in online publishing which I hope to participate in. Or, there's my favorite web comic, Order of the Stick. Also, the online version of Dark Horse Presents has a monthly series featuring the same quality of talent as their offline offerings.

1 comment:

Kye said...

Gday Wendell, from down under Australia...

Just wondering - how about a fully revamped "OFFICIAL" 3D version of Scorched Earth!!! Man, I loved that game

JawDroppin