As a kid growing up, it wasn’t unusual for my mom to make a visit to the corner grocery and emerge with a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, and a comic book (for me.) Grocery stores and newsstands, and other general magazine vendors used to carry comic books along with their other magazines. However, by the late 80’s comic books were nearly impossible to find in these outlets. Have you ever wondered why?
To answer that, I need to talk a little bit about economics and share a bit of comic book history. It’s June 1938: Action Comics #1 arrives on newsstands, and the world as we know it is changed forever. Now, the world has: Superman – the world’s first comic book superhero. Action Comics #1 carries a cover price of 10 cents. Life Magazine also carries a cover price of 10 cents.
Jump ahead in time 20 or so years. I give you another landmark comic book as an example. November 1961: Fantastic Four #1. Marvel Comics enters the superhero game, and gives Superman some real competition. Comics are going to get good now! Fantastic Four #1 carries a cover price of 10 cents! Life Magazine carries a cover price of 20 cents! Other magazines have doubled in price, but comics have stayed the same!
One final jump, another 20 years and another landmark. December 1981: Moon Knight #14. Comics have increased their prices steadily over the past 20 years. Moon Knight #14 carries a cover price of 50 cents! That’s 5 times the price of comics from 20 years ago. Life Magazine now carries a price of 2 dollars! That’s 10 times the price that it was 20 years ago! Comic book prices are not keeping up!
But, isn’t cheaper, better? Isn’t this better for the consumer? Yes, and no. It is better for the consumer, in theory, yes. But, it’s not a good thing for the vendor who sells the comic books. If you are the owner of a store and you have only so much display space to offer a product, you have to weigh your options. All other magazines provide four times the profit potential compared to comic books. Simply put, comic books were a waste of space.
You might wonder why I shared Moon Knight #14 as my choice of landmark comic book along side the likes of Action Comics #1 and Fantastic Four #1. Moon Knight is a character that many won’t recognize, and the 14th issue of a comic doesn’t seem important. But, Moon Knight #14 was important because it was the last issue of that comic sold on the newsstand. Beginning with Moon Knight #15 the title would be sold exclusively in comic book specialty stores.
That’s a huge deal. I remember at the time, I was angry. Why would Marvel choose to remove a comic from the shelves of my local grocer? I didn’t have access to a comic book store. Why would Marvel cut me off? This was unfair! Or so I felt, at the time. But, Marvel wasn’t doing this to spite the consumer. They were trying to save their industry. Marvel was reacting to the comic book’s rapidly diminishing distribution as more and more newsstands and similar markets dropped comic books from their store shelves.
Comic book publishers needed to switch to a comic book exclusive venue, a place where comic books could be sold without competing for shelf space with other more expensive magazines. This transition did take effect, but not without it’s problems. The move to a collectors’ exclusive market resulted in comic book publishers employing gimmicks to attempt to sell comics in greater numbers to offset the loss of overall distribution. This didn’t work out so well and the comic book industry crashed in the mid 90’s.
The comic book industry didn’t want to take comic books away from store shelves. They didn’t choose to lose a major source of distribution, but way back in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, as other magazine publishers increased their pricing, comic book publishers made a choice to keep their prices low (reducing page count instead of raising prices.) They did it because the general public view of comic books was that it was a medium for children, and prices needed to stay low to keep comic books accessible to children. It was a nice idea. It didn’t work out.
In recent years (beginning in 2018 and continuing today) DC has attempted to regain a presence in the general market. They are publishing 100 Page Giant comics. 100 pages at $4.99 to make sure the pricing is in step with other magazines on the shelf. I don’t know how well these forays into the general marketplace have been, but I wish them luck. I want kids to be able to get a comic book from their mom the way that I did as a kid. Without this, I fear that in another 30 years kids won’t even know what a comic book is.