Back in the old days of the mid 2000s, comic fans could pick up any standard comic book issue for $2.99. It was the nailed-down price, and for that money they’d get 22 pages. Since those halcyon days wilted, however, more and more we find that we’re paying $3.99 for fewer pages than that. What kind of price should we put on a comic?
Comics are thought of as a quantifiable product far more than any other medium. Fans plonk down a certain amount of money and they expect to receive a certain amount of product for that price. Whereas films can run from a tight 90 minutes to an expansive three/four hours, or novels can have any number of pages, fans are very certain of one thing only – if they pay $2.99, they should get AT LEAST 20 pages.
But what should be on those pages, if so? Near the end of Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers run, the comic went to $3.99 an issue, albeit with an ‘oral history’ back-up at the end of each story. Yet Brian Michael Bendis is hardly afraid of putting dialogue onto a page – his comics are wordy, filled with word balloons, and feature a lot of back-and-forth dialogue. So did Marvel really need to add in that back-up story to convince people that they were still getting a comparable amount of content for the money they were paying. Yet Bendis’ Avengers run also came up to criticism that, despite the abundance of dialogue in his later comics, the story was thin and slow-moving.
The page above, from his run on Daredevil, is a case in point. There’s a lot of dialogue in those panels, even though the content of those word bubbles could easily have been condensed into a much less verbose sequence. Would you say that having 20 pages of wordy comics matches 22 pages of more direct dialogue? Sales remained strong on Avengers throughout Bendis’ run, even as the prices rose, so it seems a solid majority of people would say so.
If readers feel like they aren’t getting the right amount of content in their comics, they’ll start dropping comics. What interests me most about the idea of page content is that the page count surely isn’t the correct way to judge the quantity of content in a comic – after all, 2000AD tell their stories five pages at a time, and they seem to be in finer creative form than ever before. Decompression and compression in comics are becoming a valuable arbiter in just how much bang people get for their 2 and 99 hundredths of a buck.
Splash pages, once considered to be saved only for the biggest events, now get thrown into comics at a moment’s notice. It provides an arguably easier and shorter working time for an artist, and fills up a page in one go – saving writers from having to overextend sequences later. It also makes for great pin-up shots which distract readers from the fact there’s no written content on a page.
A short while back I dropped Batwoman after buying an issue which contained a pair of two-page splash sequences one after another, which were almost entirely wordless – that was a fifth of the comic, something I just paid for, which I could flick past in two seconds. Amy Reeder’s artwork is lovely, but it’s also lovely when telling a sequential story with PANELS. Why not let her show that off?
Which brings up another point – are we paying more for the writing, or for the artwork? After visiting ELCAF earlier this year, I was surprised to see a number of creators selling sketch books and pin-up collections for extraordinary prices. There was no attempt at story. This was simply a collection of images of women, all shapes, all sizes, all expressions, one after another. And people pored over those images.
Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Warriors series used to give several pages up to diagrams and schedules, explaining bits of non-essential backstory for completists to put together. Lists of secret bases and who operated them, or details of how the various terrorist organisations navigate each other. The content here didn’t tell a story, but I could sit over it for a long time (if I so chose) and gather all the information into my head.
The function of design in comics isn’t really considered very often, but it can tell the difference between a comic which is wasting your time and a comic which is offering something distinct.
The Pizza Dog issue of Hawkeye springs to mind here. It tells a story which only briefly has any importance to the overall narrative of the Hawkeye series. Barring the final page, the issue puts everything into the hands of David Aja and Chris Eliopoulos, the designers. Fraction’s script wasn’t any leaner for having no dialogue in it – this was a comic where every page was thought over and planned carefully, offering content and concept on every page. Even though there were barely any speech bubbles, there was a still a narrative voice guiding readers through the issue, and the artwork and design made sure that the pages weren’t blank glamour. They were content.
When I read the double-page splashes in Batwoman, the only function they served was to show to the reader that the heroine was wearing bulletproof armour – a service which could have been explained in a single panel. But instead we had four pages of lovely-looking artwork which served no real purpose to the narrative. Even the slight sequences in Hawkeye #11 still allowed for some memorable detail, so I felt like I was getting value for money with it. Batwoman, however…
The question also remains as to which of the pages we’re even paying for. Marvel has a recap page in each issue; DC have a two-page advertisement at the end of theirs. When I pick up a copy of, say, The Flash, am I paying for the Channel 52 pages as well as the story pages? I don’t get any use out of them, but I do find the recap pages phenomenally helpful. Am I willing to include the recap page as a 21st page for a comic?
If you look away from the big two, you can find some crazy prices. People can ask $3.99 for a four-page flick-book, whilst Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples offer 30-odd pages for a dollar less. When I buy Saga, am I thinking that this offers me ten more pages than DC/Marvel would – or am I thinking that Marvel/DC offer me ten less pages than Image have? Are these bonus pages, or are the big two shortchanging me? And at the same time, does that hypothetically mean I’m more forgiving if Saga chooses to have a greater number of splash pages per issue? I’m already getting a higher number of pages, so it doesn’t matter so much if there are more splashes – the percentage of splashes is lower.
The question of content – physical, artistic or narrative – is important. And it’s utterly subjective. Two DC comics I read recently from their ‘Trinity of Sin’ branding offered similar page counts but different reading lengths. Pandora was filled with references and details I didn’t find interesting, but Phantom Stranger referenced a lot of things I found fascinating, and spent time looking into at a later date. Objectively they’re the same price and same length, but subjectively I found one had a greater amount of content than t’other, and gave me a longer read.
Which makes the opening question of this article extremely frustrating! For all that I might complain that Batwoman offered me four wasted pages, other people will take more value from those four pages of Amy Reeder than I could take from four pages of dialogue and narrative progression. As we move more to the digital realm and projects like Kickstarter, Thrillbent or Monkeybrain change the price point of comics altogether, the question of content is becoming even more nebulous and impossible than it was before.
What do you think? What content are you seeking? And how much are you willing to spend on a 22-page issue?