A long time ago, back when I had long hair and youth on my side, I studied A Level Economics. I like Economics as a subject, because something as big and complicated as the global economy is simply too vast for people to get their heads around, so they talk about it using “models”. In other words, all the people you see on the news talking about “quantitative easing”, “growth” and “fiscal stimulus” are, in a very real sense just making it up as they go along.
Now, in these troubled economic times, that might sound a little scary, I admit. But the happy truth is that these made up, unrealistic models that economists use do actually work, even though they may at times appear counter intuitive. I love that. I love the idea that the people running the economy can never be sure what they’re doing, but somehow everything works anyway – even when the answer you get from them seems insane.*
The economics of comics are particularly interesting.** If you read more than one or two titles a month, you must surely have noticed that prices are going up pretty rapidly. I know I’m having real trouble making my weekly comics budget stretch across all of the titles I’ve been buying. Frankly, I think that comics*** are hugely over priced. As a one time student of economics I’m familiar with the concept of “inflation” – the idea that prices rise over time.
I can’t help thinking though that the price of comics has been rising significantly faster than the general inflation rate. Let’s take a couple of examples. Back in the late eighties when I started reading comics, a copy of 2000AD cost me 28p****. It now costs me £1.90. At around the same time, I was paying 50p per issue form comics like Batman and Spider-Man. These days you’re paying what? Something between £2.00 and £3.00.
Now, according to me very rough back of an envelope calculations*****, allowing for the general rates of inflation the price of something that cost 28p back in 1988 should now cost me about 55p. Something that cost me 50p in 1988 should now cost about 90p. These figures just don’t add up, do they?
There are of course, all sorts of reasons why the price of any given commodity might rise above the general inflation rate. If something is relatively scarce and there is great demand for it, this will cause the price to rise rapidly. Could that be the case here? Are comics in such demand that supply just can’t keep up?
Let’s face facts. However much we might love comics, there really aren’t huge crowds of people clamouring at the doors of comics shops desperate to get hold of the latest Batman. And in any case, even if there were, there would be nothing to stop D.C. increasing their print run to meet that demand. So while scarcity can explain the high prices commanded in the back issue market by some individual issues of comics, it doesn’t even begin to explain the disproportionate price rises in the cost of new comics.
So what else might?
It could be that the cost of production has risen steeply. Comics might not be scarce, but of the materials they are made from are, then the cost of buying those will make the comics more expensive to make – costs which will obviously be passed on to the consumer******. And it is true that the price of the main material in comics production – paper – has risen steeply in the last quarter century. But has it really risen that much? The price of all the other papery things I buy on a regular basis would suggest not.
Is there any other reason for the price to be so high?
I suppose there could have been a significant rise in the quality of the product, but let’s be honest. There hasn’t. Of course there are some exceptional comics on the stands right now, but there were back in the late eighties too. The grim truth is that the vast majority of the comics published today are, frankly, shite.******* I really would like to be able to say that the reason for the astonishing increase in price of comics was the need to pay for the superior talent that we have now that we didn’t have back in the day. But it just ain’t so. Comics just haven’t gotten any better.
And so we are forced to look for other reasons for the inexorable rise of comics prices, which means we start to get to the bits of economics that can indicate that all is not well in a particular market.
First thing to look at is the method of supply. Now, back in the eighties when I was paying 50p for American comics I wasn’t buying them from the same kind of shop that I buy them from now. These days, like most of you, I get my comics from a dedicated comics store. Back then I didn’t even know that comics shops existed. Back then I was getting my comics from regular news agents.
Which of course suggests that the problem is the comics stores. That must be it! The comics stores are ripping us off and making huge amounts of money.
Except they’re not, which becomes instantly clear whenever you talk to anyone trying to make a living as a comics retailer. So what’s going on? Who is getting the extra cash, and where is it going?
Well, it’s worth pointing out that there are some pretty profound differences between the way comics were supplied back in the “old days” and the way they are supplied now********. Yes, back in the day comics were much cheaper than they are now. But as a reader you had no idea when they were likely to hit the newsagent’s shelves, and sometimes you would end up missing an issue because you just couldn’t find it, even after trawling through every news stand in your town all week.
These days comics readers have a single place to go. As a rule, if we’re lucky enough to have a real world comics store located close enough for us to visit regularly, we do that. Otherwise we shop online. We know that we’re going to get the comics we want, and we know they’ll be ready to pick up every Thursday. The honest truth is that although we’re paying a lot more for our comics these days, we’re also getting a much better, more reliable and more efficient service.
The cause of this?
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, the existence of Diamond distribution has made a huge impact on the UK comics market since they emerged in the early nineties. It’s their stranglehold on the distribution of American Comics that has caused these changes, and it’s these changes I suspect, that are largely responsible for the rise in the cost of American comics in the UK.
And no, I’m not accusing Diamond of profiteering either. The fact is that the reason new release comics are available in UK shops on a Thursday is that Diamond airfreights them in. It then sorts them out according to retailer orders and sends out a lot of blokes in vans to deliver them to the stores. Air freight is expensive. Delivery drivers are expensive. Who so you think is footing that bill?
Of course we are. And of course we should.
As an economist though, I do have a couple of problems with the situation. Effectively, Diamond is a monopoly. Monopolies are rarely a good thing. Perhaps, for example, it would be possible for a company to supply comics more cheaply than Diamond, but not get them to the UK as fast – maybe instead of hitting the shelves on a Thursday, they’d get here the following Monday.
I reckon there’s a fair few people who would pay the premium to get their comics first. But it would be nice to have the choice, don’t you think? Anybody want to take that on?
And none of that goes anywhere near to explaining why 2000AD is so expensive…
*Which is not to say that economists are always right, and certainly not to say that they don’t sometimes come up with completely batshit crazy ideas that totally screw things up.
**See. You were beginning to wonder where this was going, weren’t you?
***For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that when I talk about “comics” here I’m talking about the regular 22 page “floppy”, rather than Trade collections or Original Graphic Novels.
****Obviously I’m working in Stirling here. The general point however, stands no matter what your local currency might be.
*****Seriously, I’m no mathematician, and if anyone wants to look up the annual rates of inflation and check my figures I’d be much obliged. Mine are in the right ballpark though.
******That would be you.
*******Oh come on! It’s not like I’ve never mentioned this before!
********At least in the UK. If you’re not currently residing on this sceptered isle, YMMV.