Isn’t it strange that comic books are a niche product? Considering three of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time are adapted from comic books, you would hardly expect that the top-selling comic book of 2020 moved only about 300,000 individual copies, according to DC Comics. The trouble is, comic book publishers might be starting to realize that their operations may be at their end, as evidenced by articles proclaiming the “death of the comic.” Is this a valid fear? Will comic books go the way of arcade games and cable TV?
In a sense, yes, but much in the way that TV packages have shifted with the demands of their audience, so too must comic books. Higher quality printing, fewer advertisements and free digital copies: these are the three elements that I would suggest to any comic book publisher looking to bring new readers in and draw old readers back.
Print quality is not a universal issue. Let's compare two recently released books, “Future State: Wonder Woman #1” (2021) from DC Comics and “Crossover #1” (2020) from Image Comics, which are both sold for a cover price of $3.99. “Crossover #1” is bound in matte-finish cardstock, while “Future State: Wonder Woman #1” is bound in glossy paper with a cover made of the same material. Notably, a cardstock cover with minimal artwork is offered for the latter, but only for an upcharge of $1. Between the two, the matte-finish of “Crossover #1” is the more desirable (at least to this writer and comic collector), as it keeps the comic safer and makes the cover less vulnerable to scratches and dents that can reduce its resale value and make for a less visually appealing display piece. This may seem a small grievance but I believe it would make all the difference for comic enthusiasts, who worry that lending their comics to a new-reader friend might mar their pristine copy.
Another point in favor of “Crossover #1” is the reduced presence of advertisements. The first issue of “Crossover” contains 22 pages of story content and six pages of advertisements, while “Future State: Wonder Woman #1” contains 12 total advertisements alongside its 22 pages of story. Additionally, “Crossover #1” keeps its advertising in the back of the book while “Future State: Wonder Woman #1” peppers its ads throughout. It makes “Crossover” feel much more fluid, while “Future State: Wonder Woman” feels choppy and far more commercial. If ads are a necessary evil that pays the creators to tell a story, then why interrupt that story when you can advertise afterward?
Speaking of selling more to consumers, digital copies are seldom included with physical copies of comic books, although a free digital copy isn’t unheard of. In fact, Marvel Cinematic Universe titles occasionally include them, but, according to an article published on CBR, the most recent iteration of the initiative does “not include a copy of the physical comic that was purchased.”
Strangely enough, a digital copy of the “Future State: Wonder Woman #1” — which costs little to nothing to print or distribute — retails for $3.99 on the digital comic service, ComiXology. The fact that this digital comic costs as much as the physical copy is frankly absurd, and I would propose a more impulse-friendly price point for a digital copy — say $1.99 — and the pairing of a digital copy with the purchase of a physical one. That way, a comic book store would get some revenue and the consumer can read their comics via the means that works best for them.
The reasoning behind many of these failings, though, can likely be boiled down to one simple core idea: traditional comics are dying, and we ought to make as much money as we can before it's too late. To that, I say this: you’ll attract no new readers with anti-consumer practices, keep no entrenched fans by giving less and charging more and you’ll only accelerate the “decay” of comics if you respond with apathy.