While news about the economy seems to get worse every week, the comics industry is starting to buzz about its own economy and the effect of rising comic book prices.
"Small talk of the economy has officially replaced 'How's the weather?', 'How much is the worth?', and even 'Who is that Red Hulk?' as the most talked-about subject in the comic shop," said Bret Parks, owner of Comics in Winston Salem, NC. "So far, most customers have not been overly sensitive to the price change [in comic books], but with more and more fan interaction online and tons of job loss, it is not taking long for the complaint and weariness to circulate."
In recent years, most average-sized comic books were priced somewhere between $2.00 and $2.99, with special edition and independent comics priced at $3.99 or $4.99, depending on size.
"We see more and more comics now with a cover price of $3.99 as opposed to $2.99," said Mike Wellman, co-owner of in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "At first, they were 'event' books with cardstock covers or extra pages, but I think that was just a way of acclimating readers to the price hike. It seems like at least half of Marvel's line is now at $3.99, and many indy books carry a higher price tag as well."
"It seems the status quo is gradually moving toward $3.99 comics," said Jason Pierce, owner of in Muncie, Ind. "More special edition comics have been coming out, garnering a $3.99 price, and that has led to issues that AREN'T special carrying a higher price tag."
Yet indications are that comic book sales are not suffering greatly from the current economic slowdown, as <a href=http://www.newsarama.com/comics/090128-comics-chronicles.html>analyzed recently</a> by industry tracker John Jackson Miller on Newsarama, who said "2008 was an exceptionally close year to 2007, particularly in light of the general economy."
Many fans and retailers have voiced concerns, however, in internet forums. One retailer posted <a href=http://blog.newsarama.com/2009/02/02/marvel-gets-retailer-pushback-via-open-letter/>an open letter</a> on his page that has been widely circulated among fans, specifically addressing Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada and stating that "no matter how good a book is, if people have to make a choice between necessity and Wolverine, they will, and have been lately, choose the necessity."
Publishers have responded to fans' concerns as well. Joe Quesada, Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics, <a href=http://www.marvel.com/boards/viewtopic.php?t=142465>said recently</a> that, "Unfortunately, the current economic environment that we are in right now is forcing our hand in this matter and we're testing out different options across the board to try to have a variety of product at different pricing. That's why we haven't gone to $3.99 across the board on everything. We'll see what works over the coming months, but trust me, we're very aware of how tough it is out there."
In a <a href=http://www.newsarama.com/comics/110812-Didio2.html>recent interview</a> on Newsarama, DC Comics Executive Editor Dan DiDio said pricing concerns are "front and center with everything that we do. We do budgeting for our year, and I looked at my budget for 2009, and I understood what the challenges are going to be. I have definite opinions on this that we can have discussions on at a later time, but at this particular moment, I can say that we are not looking at this in a haphazard way or just letting events occur around us. We will try to be as proactive as possible to make sure that we operate with the best intentions of our retailers and fans in mind."
Other publishers have acknowledged the concern about pricing by specifically pointing out low price points on certain comics and using it as a marketing tool, with Top Cow even <a href=http://www.newsarama.com/comics/120804-Top-Cow-Price.html>promoting a "Top Cow $2.99 through 2009"</a> pledge to their readers.
Newsarama asked retailers about the effect of comics pricing on their sales, and most said it's a little too early to tell, although none liked seeing prices go up. Joe Field, owner of in Concord, Calif., is president of the comics retailer organization known as . According to Field, the troubled economy has had an effect on high-priced items in his comics shop, but so far, it hasn't had much of an impact on sales of comics, no matter what price they are.
"I’ve noticed slower sales on high-priced collectibles here," he said. "The $100 action figures and $200 statues are a much riskier item now, especially with their lower margins. In graphic novels, buyers are being a bit more discriminating, though sales are still on the rise. As for comic book sales, 2008 ended as just shy or our record numbers in ’07. "
Field shared comparative numbers for his store over the last 15 years that indicated the average price of comics sold have risen $1.18 since 1993. The rise has been fairly steady, but so has the rise in the average number of comics per transaction. The numbers for were:
Avg # comics/transaction: 2.8
Avg $/per comic sold: 2.16
Avg # comics/transaction: 2.2
Avg $/per comic sold: 2.76
Avg # comics/transaction: 3.5
Avg $/per comic sold: 2.90
Avg # comics/transaction: 4.2
Avg $/per comic sold: 3.09
Avg # comics/transaction: 4.1
Avg $/per comic sold: 3.29
Avg # comics/transaction: 4.35
Avg $/per comic sold: 3.34
"Honestly, I’m not sure how much to read into these numbers because they are far from a complete picture of overall. Coupled with my experience of providing service to thousands of comic buyers over the years, I feel safe in saying that readers are enjoying more comics now than at any time in our store’s history, as reflected by the growth in 'average number of comics purchased per transaction,'" Field said.
While most retailers said they haven't seen a huge impact on their sales from the rise in prices, they worry about negative reactions from customers -- and a reflection of it in sales numbers -- if the economy doesn't improve soon.
"I don't think [the price increase has] had much effect as of yet," Wellman of Comic Bug said. "Ultimately, it comes down to buyer decisions. If a fraction of the comics carry a higher price tag, I don't think readers will be sacrificing titles that they normally pick up. However, the consumer only has so much disposable income, so once every book carries a higher price tag, they'll no doubt have to be more choosey in what they pick up. That sort of thing will 'trickle up' to our ordering decisions and ultimately, we'll have much less diversity on the shelves."
"I've had people put Dark Avengers and Mighty Avengers back on the shelf because they are not going to pay $3.99 for a comic book," said Craig Lopacinski, co-owner of in Waukesha, Wisc. "We will watch our cycle sheets closely on these titles and make sure and make corrections. Right now it's a little too early to give percentages, but early indications have pointed to less sales."
"What I have seen recently are customers who are taking a stand and refusing to pay $3.99 for a regular 22-page comic," Pierce of Alter Ego Comics said. "With the struggling economy, when cutbacks need to be made, those comics are going to be among the first to go."
"Customers are refusing the $3.99 one-shots on general principle," said Charlie Harris of in Tucson, Ariz. "The customers who haven't already left Marvel in protest of the unending crossovers are just getting more incentive to do so."
However, Ralph DiBernardo of in Rochester, N.Y. said he doesn't think the price increase is affecting purchasing decisions as much as the overall state of the economy. "I just don't think price is the end all be all," he explained. "My decrease in sales is about people losing jobs or having no income to support their comic book habit. $1.00 plus or minus on 12 books a month is not why they got out. They got out because they needed to spend their money elsewhere."
DiBernardo also pointed out that retailers make a little more money per comic if the price is higher. "No one is going to give us comic retailers a raise," he said "In fact, with the economy as it is my over all sales are down ...way down. The higher cover price books are helping to offset that slump. So, as a retailer it has been okay.
But Field said that while he agrees the price increase hasn't had a significant impact on sales for now, there may be a problem in the future if customers drop comics they would have loyally followed otherwise. "I’m still hopeful the comics’ market can ride through this rough economic patch without further price increases," he said. "In uncertain times, I’d rather not price anyone out of that fourth or fifth book per transaction because of higher cover prices, since once someone walks away from a title, not only are they unlikely to come back to it, but that’s unsold inventory for me."
Others pointed out that lower prices on certain comics could end up meaning higher sales of those titles and a long-term commitment to them. "I believe I would sell more copies of a comic if the price wasn't so high. Put a $1.99 tag on Trinity and your going to have more people justifying buying it every week," Pierce of Alter Ego Comics said. "If you put a higher price on a new mini-series, it only adds to the apprehensiveness people are going to feel when considering purchasing it."
Most retailers think $3.99 isn't an impossible price point for comics to reach, but they said the quality and content have to make the price worth it.
"Yes, people have grumbled about [the price increase], but far less than they did about Spider-Man One More/Brand New Day. People have come to understand and expect price increases in life. Heck, people even have cited the decrease in gas prices as offsetting their comic purchases," DiBernardo of Jetpack Comics said. "RAISE the bar to match the pricing. Quality sells and better quality sells better. A $3.99 Wildstorm or IDW book has a much more prestigious feel than many of the other $3.99 comics coming out. Yes, there may be more material but that is far less noticeable than a cardstock cover."
For Pierce of Alter Ego Comics, it all comes down to quality for the price. "Times are trying right now. Consumers have limited funds in with to work with. They come into a comic store deciding what they can get that is the best bang for their buck," he said. "Give them the best bang for their buck and sales will follow."