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The Bittersweetness of $4 Graphic Novels

Article / 07 January 2021

When I was a kid, I loved comics. You could buy a whole stack at a flea market or a yard sale. Comic shops had a 25¢ bin. You could buy a bag of random back issues at local department stores for $4.99. Brand new issues sold on the spinner rack of your local convenience store for $1.25.

Those were the days. It's no wonder that I amassed a collection of thousands comics in my childhood. I could have rolled in comics the way a lot of you pervs imagine Bettie Page rolling in cash. Rolling, endlessly rolling, riding crop swinging in the air... Anyway, try to keep focused on the main point here: happiness.

They were folded, stapled, four-color or black and white happiness in small doses of 24-32 pages, that any kid could afford by the mitt full.

They were so affordable, you could buy loose boxes of comics in almost every Christmas catalog that was published. It was my favorite part of Christmas. Still is, in memory at least.

Nevermind that kids today would never believe that massive catalogs of hundreds or thousands of pages, one from each retailer, were just dropped off for free on EVERYONE'S doorstep, or the fact that most of those retailers no longer exist, or the fact that I sold most of that massive collection over the last 20 years to finance my own comics projects with middling to nil success.

Comics were fun. And they were affordable. And then, they weren't. Cover price increases have far exceeded the rate of inflation multiple times over, making comics something kids and parents of kids, can no longer afford to get into as a hobby. That's a problem, because the entire monthly comics industry is built on kids and parents being able to afford making it a habit. You know? An affordable hobby? And one comic at a time doesn't do it. Reading a comic once a month doesn't do it. They've got to be able to buy a few at a time, every week or two, to make it a habit. They have to get into the adventures of Clark Kent AND Peter Parker and many others. At $5 each, that's no longer realistic, which is bad for an industry built on that.

It's no surprise that in an ever tightening, ever competitive, consumer-driven system would see the graphic novel replace the comic book. If A kid can't afford to follow everything, and one comic isn't enough, a graphic novel is the next logical purchase decision. If you can't follow them all, then at least you can focus on one character at a time and get one complete storyline. Demand and budget restrictions dictate that some collectors will continue to follow the single issues, some frustrated that the store is always sold out before they get there will switch to graphic novels or drop the title altogether. And yet some, those on a tight budget, which these days is most of us, will stop buying the floppies and willingly keep themselves 6-12 months behind the monthly storyline in order to save about 30% of the cost of this collectibles hobby. Roughly speaking, $30 worth of monthly comics are reprinted as a $20 graphic novel. 

With a graphic novel being a bigger dose, a kid can get into the hobby and read a $20 graphic novel per month, where they wouldn't perhaps be able to buy multiple monthly comics every week or two.

It's a much narrower opportunity to pick up new fans, and a far cry from the affordability when I got into the hobby.

The closest thing in recent times is the advent of graphic novels being added to the shelves of dollar store chains, something that became prevalent in 2019. 

See, in the book store industry, the have "returns". Unlike comic shops, book stores can return unsold books to the distributor for a full or partial credit. These books are then returned to the publisher, who must reimburse the distributor for any money they have been paid for the books that are returned. This leaves the publisher with X number of books that they can't essentially sell as new. Even if they are in pristine condition, the books are essentially considered "seconds" and no longer sellable as new product. 

The publisher can't just sit on a warehouse full of returned books that could accumulate quickly if the publisher has multiple titles, so the publisher then sells their returned books to a discount distributor. Regardless of how much the book was originally priced for, discount distributors pay roughly $1 per book. This dollar usually goes straight to the publisher without any percentage going to the creators, something often worked into the contract, and these $1 sales do not generate any royalties for anyone involved in producing the book. The books purchased by a discount book distributor are then sold to department stores and other retail outlets to fill discount bargain bins where most books sell for roughly $5.

So, it can be assumed that since the rise of popularity of graphic novels in books stores, there must also be an equal increase in returns and a proportional number of graphic novels now available through discount distributors, such as dollar store chains who now carry graphic novels in the $3-4 range. Books that are selling for $30-$40 on shelves in book stores and hobby shops are also sitting on the shelves of your local dollar store for $3-$4.

It's not the 25 cent bin, but when you consider that a graphic novel gives you much more comic bang for your buck, and that the dollar store offers the same graphic novels as the hobby shop and book store, at a lower price than a single floppy comic, it's plain to see that this is how the kids of this generation are going to get into comics and reading. 

So, as I do every year, I bought a little something for myself for Christmas, as a kind of reward for the year. This year I bought myself a whack of random graphic novels and when I opened them, it was like re-living a small sliver of that Christmas joy as a kid. opening a box of comics and being amazed at the variety of characters, stories, art and imagination. 

I also sent a box to each of my nieces and nephews, in the hopes that they would experience the same thrill and joy that I did on Christmas. I think it was successful.

It's not a box of comics from a Christmas catalog, but the dollar store is what kids who are going to get into comics have today. 

It sure does give me mixed feelings. I don't like to promote or give free advertising to large corporate retail entities, that's why I'm not mentioning any specific chains. You will find that different chains do have different selections, likely because they deal with different distributors and those distributors deal with different publishers, but if you are diligent and willing to put in the work, you can find comics from across all publishers, age groups and genres.

I have to assume that hobby shops and retailers won't like this kind of news getting out one bit, but it's already out there and the retail dynamics are not the fault of the consumer. The simple fact is comic shops got strong-armed into unfavorable no-returns policies because they agreed to buy comics from one distributor who controls flow and access to product. If comic distributors accepted returns, the retail environment would be much healthier for hobby shops.

Currently, the same book that your dollar store pays $1.50-$2 for and sells for $4, sells to your local hobby shop for $20 and retails for $40. It's no way to compete in a consumer driven economy and doesn't help the shrinking number of comics and hobby shops who are struggling to stay open during COVID. 

At the same time, I'm not sure we can rally around comic shop owners to demand change, when it is us, their very customer base who cannot afford to entertain ourselves with the $40 books they have on offer, and if we or our kids want to enjoy an affordable and entertaining hobby, have to go with the cheaper alternative. If I have to choose between the health of one industry, as much as I love it, over the financial well-being and stability of EVERYONE who is currently struggling, I choose what is good for everyone. (It also helps that my local dollar stores have a wider range of publishers and genres than some of my local comic shops.)

So for the time being, I will spread the word about dollar store graphic novels, to help others cope with the quarantine, even though I know that none of the money from those book sales go to those, like myself, who create them professionally. Those that are buying the $3 graphic novel today are the potential future comic collectors that will come into hobby shops in the future. To be honest, dollar store graphic novels are probably the best advertising that these comic publishers and retailers have had in years. No dollar store has the complete set or run of any series, so those hard core fans who want to fill in the gaps will have to go to a retailer eventually. My partially completed set of Eagle Moss Star Trek graphic novels is proof. 

So, it may not be the situation we want, but it's the situation we live in. Maybe if people stop trying to defend and protect their own interests, those involved in this chain can work together to improve it, not just for their own benefit, but more importantly, for the comic buying and loving public. 

As a man nearing his 40s, this topic makes me surprisingly and unexpectedly giddy. I'm constantly suppressing the excited school boy inside of me because I want others to discover the same love for comics that I have. I even thought of approaching some of these chains to see if I could work out a sponsorship deal to do youtube videos of my dollar store finds. I hesitate though, mostly because I don't want to compromise the content that I create with advertiser influence. 

BTW it took me many hours over multiple days to write this. I'm thinking about doing these longer blog posts as videos or even animated explainer videos. What do you think? Sound off in the comments below. 

BTW here is some of my recent art:

Thanks for reading,