I have recently been very disappointed in the state of the modern comic book. In the last few months, especially with DC’s Rebirth series, I have wanted to see what was going in the lives of my favorite characters. The New 52 took so much away from the legend of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and the rest of the DC Universe. I wanted to see what was restored and how and if I was going to be happy with the work.
While reading many different titles under rebirth I was made more and more aware of the current situation of comics in general. I personally think that the situation is bad and it is time for DC and Marvel to rethink some things that have now become common.
Who am I to make this complaint? I am a 56 year old comic book fan. I started reading comics when my nun, in first grade, made the suggestion to my mother that reading comics might help my reading grade as I was struggling at the time. The nun was right. I started with Batman and went on to become an avid reader and collector. It helped my other reading skills as well. Comics like Spider-Man would often quote Shakespeare or Lewis Carroll and I would need to read those quotes myself in their original setting. Comic Books set up my life as a reader of everything I could get my hands on, but I never lost my love of the Comic Book Heroes I started with.
I was fortunate enough to have the Comic Book industry grow up at the same time I did. When I was ten and below the general comic book was aimed at that age group. As I got older my heroes began to delve into more and more adult themes. Comics developed a social conscience where bigotry, drug abuse and political scandal were introduced into storylines especially in books like SpiderMan and Green Lantern/ Green Arrow. As I matured comic books began to offer the heroes as sexual beings and sexuality began to play a part in Superhero stories. These changes occured as I grew up and I could handle them. It seems that comic book and I grew up at about the same pace. I feel a bit sorry for a parent who wants to introduce his or her child to Comic Books today as you have to go out and find what is age appropriate, my parents never had to worry about that.
Action Comics Number One made it’s debut in April of 1938. The cover date was June, but that first issue started a comic book trend that still continues to this day. A comic book is dated 3 months in the future. This means that a comic book coming out in April with June on it’s cover can stay on the newsstand or in the comic book shop until the end of June that gives the book 3 whole months to sell out. It was good marketing for a fledgling business.
Comic books were not new a thing in 1938, but Action Comics was different. Prior to Action Comics the Comic Book was a magazine of reprinted newspaper strips. Action Comics was the first Comic Book that featured all new material. It also debuted the grandfather of all superheroes, Superman.
Superman himself was not conceived as a comic book character but as a newspaper strip character. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tried to sell Superman to a number of newspapers with no success. When the publishers of the new Action Comics decided to try Superman as their lead story it was a risk. Seigel and Shuster reworked the strips into a single story along with a one-page origin story and Superman was born.
Action Comics number one did not just tell a Superman story. It was 64 pages long and featured several other characters. In fact it would be a few months before the publishers of Action Comics would realize that the run away hit of the book was Superman. In those early days there were no letter pages or fan magazines. It was hard for marketing to know what was exciting the public so much. When they realized the gold mine that they had in Superman they would, in time, launch him in his own book.
I wanted to find a copy of Action Comics number one in order to detail to you what was in an early comic magazine. Unfortunately, I could not find a copy. It has been reprinted in it’s entirety several times and there is an electronic version, but it only contains the Superman content. The first book that I could find that was complete was Detective Comics Number 38. This book is remarkable because it is the issue where Robin makes his first appearance. Batman had made his debut in Detective Comics number 27.
Detective Comics Number 38 had 56 pages of story, but those 56 pages of stories covered several characters. In fact, there were 8 separate stories told in that issue of Detective Comics. The lead story, which has been previously stated, was the origin of Robin and took up 12 pages. The rest of the magazines only had three characters that would stand the test of time Slam Bradley, Speed Saunders and The Crimson Avenger. All of those stories were between 5 and 8 pages and were complete in and of themselves. They were not cliffhangers where you would have to wait for the next issue for the ending.
The stories were short, entertaining filled with character and dialogue. They were action packed and suspenseful and you got all of this for a dime. One thin time bought you 8 stories that you and your friends would read and then trade off for the other comics that were available at that time. If you had a dollar to spend on comics you would come away with 560 pages of action and adventure.
Detective Comics # 38 was published in 1940. The Comic book would go thru a hay day in the 40s with all kinds of Superheroes, but as the 40s faded and the 50s began comic books would go under scrutiny and the government would take a hand in toning down the story lines. A self-policing agency would be established, and all comics would need The Comics Code seal of approval before being published. This code would last into the 70s before it would begin to break down.
The comic book itself it would go through changes. 56 pages would eventually go down to a smaller number and in 1973 in Batman #251 you had 22 pages of story and you paid 20 cents. By now there were very few books that split the book up in to more than one character. Detective Comics might have a Batman lead story with a Batgirl or Robin second story. Superboy would often have a Superboy lead story with The Legion Of Superheroes as a second story. A Batman comic had a single hero with a single story. In this issue the story was amazing and truly a landmark issue for Batman.
The 1950s and 60s saw a time of comic book clowning. A lot of the Superhero stories were outlandish science fiction or even funny stories. The villains, for most part, were stylish bank robbers or were trying to take over the world. The stories were rarely gritty or realistic and murder for the sake of murder or revenge didn’t happen much. That changed in the 1970s. A new sense of realism came into the comic book. This was started by Marvel Comics and then followed by DC. Batman especially under the writing of Denny O’Neil and the art of Neal Adams became a hero of the street. And the streets were dirty and frightening.
Batman #251 brought back The Joker, but this Joker was not up for a series of robberies with some kind of outlandish, showy scheme. This Joker was insane and was out for revenge against his old henchman. He was taking them out one by one in his old style with Joker venom. They died laughing. This was the original Joker not funny or clownish, but diabolical and deadly.
This 22-page story had everything you could want. Action adventure and mystery. You saw both the Joker and Batman at their best and the climax was truly memorable. In the 90s this book was adapted to the Batman The Animated series. It was truly a landmark book and story. The book had four to seven panels per page and the story was driven by both dialogue and action. The perfect combination for a perfect story and all for twenty cents.
Fast forward 45 year later. It is now 2018 and the Comic Book has gone thru many changes. At this stage it is doubtful that any Comic Book is accessible to a child under the age of twelve. First the price is prohibitive. Batman is one of the least expensive books, one of the very few monthly titles priced at $2.99. Most other Comic Books are now priced at $3.99 and that is both DC and Marvel. The quality of the paper had gone up. It is no longer newsprint more of the glossy paper that you see in magazines.
Taking a look at Batman number 12 under the Rebirth banner which started in 2016 we find Batman in a fight against Bane to recapture the Psycho Pirate. This book is 20 pages of art, but it is markedly different than the Batman book that we looked at from 1973.
First the dialogue is not present at all. In fact there is no dialogue in the book. All 20 pages are dedicated to a battle between Batman and Bane’s soldiers. The writing comes in the form of a letter from Batman to Selina Kyle AKA Catwoman. The letter is his reasoning as to why they cannot be in a relationship. The words on the page have nothing to do with the story at all.
Though the book is 20 pages in length there are 5 double page spreads. One art panel spread across two pages reducing the story to ten pages. Of those ten pages 3 of them are single panels on a page leaving only 7 pages of multi-panel story. This book for which $2.99 had been spent takes the average reader less than 5 minutes to read. To round it up one has spent 60 cents per minute to read (?) Batman # 12.
To complicate matters further Batman #12 is a middle part of a single story that stretched from Batman #9 to Batman #15. 6 issues each priced at $2.99 making the single story total price $17.94. That is $17.94 for what amounts to less than a half an hours of reading time. These individual issues can be also be bought grouped together a few months after publication of the original story arc in a trade paperback for $16.99 a savings of one dollar. Compare that to the one issue 22 page story of Batman #251 form 1973. The question is are we getting value for our money?
Times have changed, and things are not what they were in 1973. The price of everything has gone up and comic books are no different. That had to happen. The $2.99 to $3.99 cover price of each individual issue is, in all probability, fair. What is not fair is the total content of each individual issue. No longer do you get a single story in a single book. Almost all stories are 6 issues. Some stories don’t even stay in their own titles but cross over into another title. In other words, a single story being told between Batman magazine and Superman magazine. Then there may be a special story line created in a limited run book such as Crisis on Infinite Earths that runs for 12 issues but crosses over into every issue of every book that is published by that particular publisher. All in all you could spend close to or over $100.00 to read one story, and we do it.
It has been said that the imagination is dead in the 21st Century. This is applied to the movie and TV industry more than anywhere else as new ideas, if there are any, seem to get pushed aside for remakes of old favorites. This seems to be true of the comic book industry as well. Origins of heroes are retold and expanded on a regular basis as are the origins of villains. Familiar story lines are rewritten and updated for a a modern audience. Stories that date as far back as the 1930s and 40s are being retold now for a modern audience. Some of this is fun. Some of this is necessary, but not all of it.
It is time to demand a bit more from both DC and Marvel as well as the more independent publishers. We should get what we pay for. The current issue of Time Magazine is $5.99. It is more than 3 times the length of the modern comic book and obviously has a few thousand more words. Writers and artist and photographers all have to paid by Time for a single issue. A comic book has similar financial demands. Artist and writers and the same type of staff must be paid for every issue. As I previously the price is fair but it is time for a shift.
The time has come for the writers and artists to get more creative. No more double page spreads and very few single page spreads should be used. One issue, one story should be the new cry for of the modern comic book consumer. Creative dialogue and dynamic art should be the new setting of every individual book and cross over events should be a rare treat instead of regular occurrence.
It is true that these companies must make money and if you start a six-issue story arc you will probably buy all six issues. These story arcs bring the readers back each month for the next part. These arcs are getting readers to come back for more, and in some ways, guaranteed sales. It may not be wise for the industry to stop this all together, but they could experiment. A new Batman book could be the answer. Batman is a tried and true money maker. Run this new book for one year. Make each issue 22 pages long and sell it for $3.99. As in Batman #251 have four to seven panels per page and let the story be driven as much by art as by dialogue. One story in each issue. The art and the story can be rich and satisfying and would take fore than 5 minutes to read. We as comic book consumers need this. We as comic book consumers deserve this.
The Comic Book industry has had to grow and adapt to meet the challenges in an ever-changing world. Now in a world that is growing more and more digital the industry is changing again as printed material begins to possibly disappear altogether. But these changes should work for the better for both the creative teams behind comic books and those who read them. Let the comic book industry become a beacon of light that is a stepping stone to adventure.