Friday, June 3, 2011

"Maybe they'll flourish and help bring about the utopia you're looking forward to, where janitors don't get paid."

Because I'm more of a freak than a geek (but not in the Freaks and Geeks TV series sense; in the sense that I've got an abnormal mind), I've been following this awesome online argument between comics writer Kurt Busiek and a bunch of other people about DC's digital pricing. Some people are convinced DC's announced price structure is too expensive and that 99 cents is the magic number for what a digital comic should cost, based apparently on the iTunes model or something. Busiek convincingly argues otherwise, other people jump in and out, there's a lot of talk about robots taking over human labor and-- what for me put this into the "must read" category-- a hilarious zinger from Busiek, which I've used as the title of this blog entry. For some reason related to my freak mind, I keep hearing it quoted by Philip J. Frye from Futurama. Sorry, Kurt!

Here's a snippet of the retailer letter from Bob Wayne (you can read it in its entirety in the The Beat article) that set it off:

 To clarify from my last note, we will be at “price-parity” for same-day digital. No DC digital comic will be cheaper than its physical counterpart at launch. Same-day (a.k.a. “Day/ Date”) parity pricing is for the first four weeks of release; thereafter, the digital titles will follow our standard pricing, with $2.99 comics dropping in price to $1.99, $3.99 comics dropping in price to $2.99, and so forth. Keep in mind that our goal with our 52 new #1s will be to ensure that the physical comic book is more compelling than ever!

The best parts of the discussion are Busiek's exchanges with a rather excitable guy calling himself Darryl, who doesn't "have time" to "mince words" and absolutely will not pay more than 99 cents for a digital comic (although I wonder if his resolve would waver at 1.01). Busiek uses insider knowledge and experience to shoot down every single one of Darryl's points, one after the other, but Darryl keeps coming back with a new argument. The last one I read has something to do with "putting the kabosh" on the idea DC's having financial difficulties and makes the fairly outrageous claim that DC's potential profits on digital comics will be "found money."

Yeah, I don't get it either.

I sympathize with Darryl, though. If DC were forcing me to buy their digital comics at an outrageous price, I'd be pretty angry about it, too. Poor guy. I don't know how DC thinks it can get away with this. And I can’t contradict him because as he energetically points out, “the customer is always right” and he’s the customer. At one point he seems to suggest he’s the only customer. What Busiek, Dan Didio, Jim Lee and Bob Wayne can’t dispute is Darryl knows what he’ll pay for his comics and DC can suck it if they don’t match his price.

I can dig it, Darryl. I'd rather pay less than more for something, too. I'd love to set my own price for everything I want and indulge myself in my every whim. Who wouldn't? Actually, I kind of do already, but the end result is I do without a lot of things. My utopia doesn't involve janitors working pro bono-- it's a land just over there, just around the river bend, where the living is easy and DC and Marvel have joined together just to give comics away for free, or maybe even print certain titles with me as the sole demographic, like one starring Cassandra Cain, Dani Moonstar, Xi'an Coy Manh, Hellboy, Conan and the original Teen Titans all partnering up in running an ice cream stand in a small college town. I'd LOVE that, especially if I get to choose the creative teams for each arc!

Maybe where Darryl and I part ways is I know I’m not the sole reader of DC’s product. I'm not even in their audience demographic for their monthlies anymore, and I’m gradually learning to accept this fact. I’m a niche inside another niche. Lately, I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised that DC is still meeting my comic reading needs—they’re just doing it with Showcase and Swamp Thing reprints and Neal Adams and Jack Kirby hardcovers and the occasional—just occasional—Cassandra Cain story. I'm even allowed to buy comics from Marvel, Dark Horse, IDW, Image, Fantagraphics and... gasp... manga publishers! This is the agreement DC and I have reached, our little accord. Because the iTunes/music analogy has been so popular in this discussion, look at it this way-- I’m not angry at Lady Gaga for not appealing to my listening tastes and not even trying to by giving me her music for my personal quoted price. I’m too busy listening to Melt-Banana.

At the same time, I do wonder why certain comics feel more expensive to me now than any ever did when I was a kid and a comic cost 35 cents. In those days, I only received a dollar a week allowance-- enough for two comics with something left over for maybe a Tangy Taffy or a Mountain Dew. In the past 20 years or so, I can't think of a single Marvel or DC comic I've bought that cost more than 1/3rd of my weekly income, yet I often feel the hit to my finances disproportionately. When I was a kid, I didn't think of the price other than in terms of "How many comics can I buy today with this much money?" Now I think, "Is this book worth it?"

The market will inevitably decide the digital pricing issue and what formats survive in the long run as it does on everything else offered for sale. DC feels this price parity structure is in their best interest, and I’m pretty confident the marketing people and accountants and whatever other executives were involved in this process at Time-Warner have taken into consideration more angles than either Darryl or I realize. We’ll all find out together come fall when we see the numbers. Until then, I can't and won't fault DC for making an effort not to alienate or even ruin retailers while chasing those digital readers. They're not taking the "destroy the village in order to save it" path. Scorched earth and all that. I don't think the industry has come to that pass, an apocalypse with DC devouring retailers in a cannibalistic frenzy while savage motorcyclists war on the highways for fuel.

I think it's important for DC to take this path because I seriously doubt John and Janie Dontcareaboutsuperman would buy any comic books-- paper or digital-- at 99 cents, or even if DC paid them to. Most people don't read comics not because the monthlies are too expensive. They don't read them because they don't have any desire to read them at any price. This is one major reason WHY monthly comics are so expensive. Fewer readers and higher overhead means raising prices to maintain profitability. DC can't just assume at 99 cents they'll pick up whatever number of new customers-- readers they then have to retain-- to offset their costs. I seriously doubt they'd want to set up a situation where their digital comics are in competition with their paper comics at the cost of all those comic book shops they still need for now and into the foreseeable future. And like it or not, publishers and retailers are doing all of this to make money, not to steward superhero icons for pure altruism or some sense of duty to pop culture.

At this point I have to admit while my intuition rarely failed me when it came to choosing which train to take in Tokyo's spaghetti-like tangle of train and subway lines, it frequently falters when it comes to this comics industry stuff. I hope with all my heart DC succeeds fabulously, changes the game and enters a new golden age of stability and profitability. I hope those elusive readers do come to "sample the wares," as Jim Lee put it. Not just sample them, but stay and join with the rest of us comic book fans every Wednesday or whatever day companies release the new comics in the utopian future. We might even get our cheaper comics then. In fact, DC might even stop harassing poor Darryl with 2.99 and 1.99 digital comics and offer him some at 99 cents.

But whatever happens, the one thing I'm absolutely certain of is I'll continue to carefully pick and choose which books and formats and companies deserve my hard-earned money. If I dig on some of these new DC books, I'll buy them, happily so. If not, there are still plenty of other books out there to read, digital or otherwise.

And to be honest, I'm selfishly hoping that in the mass of DC's new #1 titles, there's one called New Teen Mutants and Their Titanic and Barbaric Ice Cream Stand starring Hellboy. With the first six issues written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Mike Allred, with Nick Cardy covers.


Nathaniel said...

Here's an interesting blog post by artist Cameron Stewart who takes the polar opposite stance to Busiek in a blog post:

I do feel like the prices are too high, but I feel like that if DC was shrewd, they'd offer all these new, relaunched titles for $0.99, and then increase the price on subsequent ones. Even charge that much for the physical copies.

As it stands, is anyone really gonna shell out $3-4 for Mr. Terrific or Captain Atom? If they were cheap, it'd at least get more people to give them a chance.

Joel Bryan said...

I think Stewart makes some great points and I'm totally in favor of 99 cent digital (or print for that matter) comics but for two things-- 1) DC's not going to risk killing the direct market and 2) I hate to say this, but I seriously doubt those "Casual Readers" exist-- or, if they do, not in large enough numbers to offset the direct market where DC can just let retailers hang. And I strongly suspect DC doubts this, too. The people giving Mr. Terrific a chance would be you or me, the same limited pool of already committed comic book readers. I haven't seen evidence there's a huge number of non-comic-reading people out there waiting to buy even Superman or Batman at any price.

On the plus side, if I'm wrong and these Casual Readers do start showing up, eventually the prices for both digital and print will come down. But comics are such a niche market-- even the term "mainstream comic" is an oxymoron now-- it's hard to use data from the music industry and the mainstream magazines to make a definitive argument for 99 cent pricing. Especially when they apparently-- and this is what I get out of Bob Wayne's letter-- won't just toss retailers to the wolves.

Otherwise they probably would've said, "Hey! 99 cent comics across the board and let's see what happens!" It's easy for those of us on the sidelines who want cheaper comics to cheer for that solution, but a lot more difficult for a corporation to commit to it.

Joel Bryan said...

I think we're pretty lucky to be getting 1.99 comics out of this, even if they are only digital and a month later.

One thing, though-- won't people be able to back up their digital copies the same way they do their digital music? Busiek seems to think so. That way they're not as ephemeral as people seem to think. I think part of these arguments have to do with that perception-- a digital comic is essentially a "nothing."

Nathaniel said...

Would even we give Mr. Terrific or Captain Atom a chance at $3? I mean, we are the same people who won't buy anything that doesn't have Bat- or Super- in front of it (using 'we' generically, of course). Maybe we would if it wasn't much of an investment.

I'm just arguing in favor of offering their new relaunched selection at a lower price to hook people initially. I mean, they're already launching a gazillion books that would cost something like $300 if you bought all the new #1's.

Joel Bryan said...

Yeah, definitely a good point. Did you read this:

It's a round-up of retailers' reactions.

I just read that Bruce Wayne will be the only Batman when the new titles roll out, Barbara Gordon is replacing Stephanie Brown as Batgirl... but no news of Blackbat. It will be interesting to see how that goes over. Probably will require a blog post today or tomorrow.