On Marvel's $5 Barrier to Entry

Marvel Comics $5 - Cover
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

You can get a pizza from Little Caesar’s or a new issue from Marvel Comics for the same price: $5. One could maybe feed you for three or four meals, while the other will take about 15 to 20 minutes to read. The truth is that $5 can be still be stretched in a lot of areas today, but superhero comics is not one of them. Over the past decade, both Marvel Comics and their chief competition, DC Comics, have struggled with pricing. DC Comics has promised to hold the line at $2.99 multiple times only to return to a $4 price point recently for the majority of their monthly titles. However, Marvel Comics has seemingly embraced $5 as an optimal pricing structure for all of their new ongoing series, a tag that seems very high, especially when they at least claim to be pursuing new readers.

Rather than simply complaining about the current price tag associated with reading the newest adventures of Captain America, Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, and all of their other great superheroes, it’s worth examining what kind of problems a $5 point of entry might cause and what alternatives there are to be pursued.

A New Day at Marvel Comics

One key element of this problem is that Marvel Comics continues to dominate shelves in the direct market, as they publish more and more new series each month. Last week alone, they released six issues with a #1 on the cover. Only three of those were ongoing series, and only two showed a price tag of $4.99. The exception in this case was Doctor Strange, which sold for $3.99, while both Deadpool and Immortal Hulk cost readers more. All of these series were examples of Marvel Comics putting their best foot forward though, with notable creative teams and generally well-received first issues. Many other recent entry points into new series and key characters have hit a similarly high (or even higher) price: Avengers #1, Venom #1, and The Hunt For Wolverine #1.

Immortal Hulk #1 particularly stood out with almost universal acclaim from critics and creators alike. It offered an intriguing spin on the character with a first issue that delivered an entire story alongside its hook to keep reading. Yet recommending even this top-notch example of superhero comics is difficult given the stiff price tag, even for 28 pages of artwork. With so many comics coming from Marvel alone, it’s difficult for many readers to try even a single new series each week, much less five or six, at such a high price.

When Is a Beginning Not a Starting Point?

Many of these #1 issues appear to be selling primarily to existing comics fans. No new series have blown up the sales charts in a way to indicate that fans from the many movies and television series produced by Marvel Studios are migrating to comics. Instead, there seems to be an increased interest from those already in the know about the characters and creators involved. The #1 may invite these existing readers to return to the Hulk or Deadpool to see if a new series fits their taste, but it doesn’t appear capable of attracting enough readers from outside of the existing comic book market to make a dent.

Marvel Comics success on the sales charts shouldn’t be ignored either. Based on Diamond reports, which are notably incomplete yet the best statistics available, Marvel Comics is consistently holding a number of top sales spots month-after-month and indicate either consistent sales or gains in market share compared to recent years. Their business is not hurting, and there’s no immediate incentive to change strategies.

That success has to be placed within the context of the overall economy though, specifically that of North America where Marvel Comics sells most of their monthly issues. Growth has been regular for approximately an entire decade and the unemployment rate decreasing or low. Comics are a disposable form of entertainment and it makes sense that they would do well during a long term period of economic recovery and growth. What should be concerning is how the stability provided by this period will inevitably end. Recent changes to tax code and trade may signal the end of this period. Even if they do not, any economist worth their salt will tell you that the economy moves in cycles and there is no such thing as perpetual growth. What should be concerning is how the current model will suffer during the next recession. This goes double given that these introductory issues seem to be primarily targeted at existing readers, avoiding any opportunities for substantial market growth while things are good.

Looking for Alternatives

The truth is that changing the comics market, specifically the direct market that publishers like Marvel Comics rely upon, is a difficult task that will require many alterations that no single silver bullet can address. The $5 price tag on many new issues is not the cause of this lack of growth and changing it won’t solve the associated issues. However, it is part of the problem and it is worth considering some minor adjustments that could be made to help attract more readers.

Lower Prices: One obvious solution would be to simply drop the price. This could be reflected in a consistent pricing of $2.99 or $3.99 from the first issue and throughout the rest of the series, or even a discounted first issue that provides readers a chance to try a new series before investing more on subsequent installments.

Second Printings: If there is a significant concern about devaluing the collector’s market, publishers could offer second printings of #1 issues alongside their #2 issues at a discount designed primarily for interested readers. This could open up a chance for critical buzz to attract new buyers and allow for cheaper printing materials to be used to justify lower prices.

2comments

Digital Differential: Almost all publishers have maintained a consistent pricing between digital and physical copies of new comics on their date of publication. This is a logically inconsistent model that risks a market with significant growth potential. Providing readers with a cheaper digital price, given the lack of physical materials and channels involved, makes too much sense to ignore.

These are only a few suggestions that would be easy to implement. They are not the only possible changes that Marvel could, and none of them are a necessary change. What is necessary is for some change to occur. As the comics market continues to rely on the same population year after year, while increasing prices to maintain profitability, it seems only a matter of time until a recession destroys that model and poses a massive risk to publishers, creators, and stores. While the $5 price tag is just one small element, it’s one we hope is decreased as part of a broader effort to attract new readers and retain those of us who already love comics -- when they fit in the budget.