Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Reading and Collecting Comics in 2014 (Part I)

Taking a break from writing about RPGs for a bit to talk....comics!

Drinking from the comic book fire hose is never a good thing. You can drown in the sea of Marvel and DC comics (never mind the cornucopia of independents, Dark Horse, Image and others!) and after a while reality begins to warp....the fourth wall starts to loom large, preferably in the reading of the comics and not the real world, but never know!

This rant was sparked by doing precisely that: I've spent the better part of the last 18 months getting back into comics in a manner consistent with the way it used to be for me, from an era when almost all of my entertainment came from RPGs, comics, and an occasional theatrical release.

For one reason, comics are actually easily digested in relatively short bursts, and are surprisingly easy to get into and also put down when distractions arise....and I have a lot of distractions with my son, to use an example. For another, it's going to be fun to be able to hand over a ton of comics to him in years to come when he needs reading inspiration. I was hit hard by the awesomeness of comics when I was about 8 years old, and it was the single greatest motivator toward improving my reading skills at the time (outside of a cherished tome on Bigfoot, Nessie and UFOs I dragged everywhere).

For another reason, I spend a lot of time in a stressful position tied to the unholy commingling of the medical insurance industry and accounting/auditing. It's an industry I've grown to master, but I am very careful to compartmentalize work and life as much as possible; bringing this stuff home only leads to an early grave, I feel. Comics are a great destresser, even better than video games because you can generally get more plot in 22 pages than you get in 12 hours of your average FPS.

Anyway, as the last year and a half has progressed I've reached the point where I think I'm buying more books per month than I can easily consume, and I probably should cut down. It's hard, though....stopping a good title because its superfluous is harder than dropping one because it's poorly written or uninteresting. Sometimes a book has a weird thing going for it and you just want to see where it ends up (I'd call that the Grant Morrison Factor). Other times you just want to get the whole story, and comic publishers are still up to their old tricks where they find ways to tie the whole "Summer extravanganza" into multiple titles that practically command you get them all to make sense of what has happened.

In fact that last marketing strategy was a huge reason for my decline in interest in comics in the 90's....the cross-referential story lines made it too painful to keep up. I was pretty much just an Image fan for the first half of the 90's, enjoying the shared universe and interesting and more modern character designs and themes of Wildcats, Grifter, Cyberforce, Youngblood and Spawn before the entire thing blew apart and left a smoking crater where a decent comic universe used to exist. doesn't matter so much. I'm keeping up with Marvel's Original Sins titles just fine, thanks to making a godawfully larger amount of money now than I did in the nineties (duh) and also DC's Batman Eternal and "Future's End" books, which have the decency to be largely self-contained in exchange for having a weekly release schedule for an entire year. Yowza.

The last time I had it "this good" in comics as a reader and collector would have to be roughly 1995 and then 1988. In 1995 I was graduating from college and spent a bit of time jobless and untethered, traveling with my sister to Colorado and abroad, a stack of Image titles in tow so I could play catch-up on Gen 13, Backlash, Grifter and Wildcats (among others). Prior to that in 1988 I was a high school student about to graduate, and I was getting weekly shipments from Mile High Comics by mail order of about as many comics as I currently collect (albeit at better prices) thanks to some profitable publishing efforts and a family windfall that actually trickled down to me. I still remember the old 80's revival of Action Comics as a serial collection...loved that book; or the "vote for the Jason Todd Robin to die" event. For being a comic collector/reader those were good times.

Now, sitting as I am in my forties with a good career and decent income I appreciate that I can still even do this thing I like to do with collecting comics....but I have to wonder how anyone my age in 1988 (17 years old) or 1995 (24 and freshly graduated jobless ex-student) would have pulled this off. Buying 30 comics in 1988 cost about 75 cents an issue, so I'd spend $22.50 a month. In 1995 buying 30 comics a month at $1.50 a copy meant I had doubled my monthly cost for the same intake to $45/month. Now, in 2014, comics are typically $2.99 or $3.99 with a trend toward the $4 side (DC holds most of its titles at the $3 mark but if you pay a higher price you're usually getting a deluxe issue). For 30 comics that's roughly $105 a month assuming a median average of $3.50....bump it up if you like Marvel only.

$105 a month for comics? In 1988 I could afford to pay for 30 comics a month on the money I made working for my folks or publishing cheap games and fanzines. In 1995 I was largely destitute for a while and still managed to scrape together the money once I found even a low wage position. Today? I can do it on my income, but if I made what I did even just three years ago I wouldn't even be buying comics as an unnecessary expense with a low "fun time:cost" ratio.

Now, that said....comics today have better graphics and usually better art than ever before. Paper quality is superior, coloring is digital and state of the art. Writing is often better, or at least it's taken an uptick from a trend I saw in the late nineties which I call the "Liefield Effect" in which you can take two pages of actual story and make it last for 22 pages. looks like comics today are trending away from that (to be replaced by different bad story habits....but I'll save that gripe for another column!


  1. in judge dredd comic pushers are criminals with comic addicts being thrown in the juve cubes for treatment

    1. Nice! I should pick up Judge Dredd too so I can appreciate the irony.

  2. I budget $100 a month for all comics, although I usually have to buy a TPB now to spend that amount. I'm actually going to be dropping even more floppies as series end and switching over to TPBs. Partly this is because at 45 I'm starting to see the same plots circle around for the third or fourth time (Captain America losing the super soldier serum, I'm onto you). Partly this is because I'd rather spend my money on stuff like Love & Rockets New Stories now.

    1. TPBs are a great way to enjoy the books without the pain of tracking monthlies. If DC hadn't started a robust reprint of their series in TPB collections I wouldn't have even tried to break in to the New 52 series. Likewise for Marvel.

      On repeating stories....this is something which I think the medium suffers from a bit because of the limitations the Big Two have in terms of what they can do with their movie-making IPs. When the IP isn't tied to big bucks, they can do some pretty crazy stuff with it (see what happened to the Wildstorm universe pre-New 52 for an example, or the sort of shenanigans that go on in the independents). OTOH a lot of readers like consistency I guess, so the nature of the medium in general seems to be a struggle of innovation vs. comfortable familiarity.

  3. Gen 13 was one of my fav's too. I'd still like to finish up that Adam Warren run.

    I'm surprised no one is mentioning getting an online subscription. I think it's cheaper, if you're just buying to read and not collect, especially given how short comics are to read. I agree that there's no digital replacement for a comic book, but at least you don't have to mess with physically storing them.

    Definitely agree with Rob. It's not half as much that you "out grow" superhero comics, it's just that after a couple of years, you'll have seen everything. I gave up on floppies and pretty much trades too. I've actually been buying some classic Archie stuff. Their 1000 page books are fun. And then there's this: Archie: The Classic Newspaper Comics (1946-1948), available at Amazon. It's the 40's Bob Montana comic strips and they are hysterical.

    1. You're stealing my thunder! I'll be talking a bit about the state of digital comics's improved quite a bit in the last two years.