Friends, fanboys, and fellow geeks, I come not to bury comics, but to praise them. The good they can do a fragile society is immeasurable; the deeds of those we idolize in four colors inspire, motivate, and bind us. We see, as children, the noble sacrifice of Spider-Man, swinging into danger time and again despite those voices in power who seek to demonize him. We are taught selflessness through the lens of the X-Men, who rise to defend mankind regardless of the cowards and bigots that hate them. We learn not to fear the “other”, for they are not evil in their other-ness, but exceptional, and to be celebrated. When comics are at their best, we are all the better for them.
But, in order for the medium to do that hallowed work, we have to see them in the first place, and that’s not happening with the price tag the average comic book is sporting today. With Great Cost Comes Great Abandonment, you could say.
Case in point: Yesterday, I visited my favorite local comic shop, excited to pick up the latest issue of Shazam. I freaking love Shazam. There was a really cheesy Shazam show on when I was a kid, and Jeff Smith, one of my favorite contemporary comics creators, did an amazing run with Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil close to a decade ago. I was eager to see what DC and Geoff Johns had done with the character; no other hero gives me that fix of perfect nostalgia better than The Big Red Cheese.
But, woah there, Nelly. Five bucks? Five freaking dollars? For one freaking book? Nope. Sorry, pass. The price is too damned high. What if I need a kidney or something?
We’re about to go perilously close to “get off my lawn” territory, but there is a point to it, so bear with me here. In the early 1980’s I found the first comic book that made me freak out and have to have it. It was Rom: Spaceknight number 18, guest starring the Uncanny X-Men. I thumbed through it at the grocery store, and when I showed it to my mom, she didn’t hesitate to buy it for me. Look at that cover! Of course she bought it! IT WAS BAD ASS!
Turns out there was more on that cover than awesome good guys fighting an awesome bad guy; there, in the upper left hand corner, was something that motivated my mom more than anything else… the price. Fifty cents wasn’t going to cause any conflict with the grocery budget. There wasn’t going to be that awkward “why did you buy the kid a comic book when I might need a kidney” conversation with my dad later. It was just a happy memory in the making, me and my mom at the store, little knowing that my life was literally changing course with one fifty cent addition to the shopping cart.
In the mid-1980’s, the Federal minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. A comic book ran about .50 cents, with some going as high as .75 cents. If you were a kid working 20 hours a week at minimum wage, you could buy over 120 comic books with just one week of pay. And we’re talking about some really good comics, too. Walt Simonson was on Thor. Chris Claremont was delivering racial equality on X-Men. Keith Giffen was scheming up ways to bring the Scarlet Skier into Justice League Antarctica.
Currently, the Federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and the average comic book from DC or Marvel is running between $3.99 and $4.99. If you are a kid working 20 hours a week making minimum wage, you can buy between 30 to 40 comics. Your comic buying dollar is worth two-thirds less than it was 30 years ago. If a kid sees a title that grabs them in the grocery store, (do grocery stores even carry comics anymore?) that $5 cover price isn’t going to be something easily accepted by their parents, let alone a college student worried about tuition and books. And they wonder why people hold out for trades?
One last trip down memory lane, and I’ll wrap this up, I promise.
In sixth grade I went to a poor school in a poor mining town. The mine had just laid off about 90% of the workforce, and everyone was broke. Everyone. But somehow, against all odds, my parents could come up with the spare change for me to get my comics every week. I never missed an issue of X-Men, the New Mutants, or Swamp Thing. Those comics helped lift me up out of the poverty we lived in. But seriously, enough about me.
There was a kid in my class who couldn’t read. He was literally illiterate, and somehow he made it to sixth grade. Every single day I watched this kid tread water while the class read, and I was stunned that not a single teacher or parent had taken the time to get him caught up to his peers. So, I taught him to read. With comics.
Every single day I brought my comics to school with me. I noticed that this kid really liked Iceman, who was part of the Defenders at the time. Every single day, we would sit down at lunch and I would help him sound out the words. He started reading. He started liking to read. Here was a poor as hell kid in a poor as hell town, learning to read through the absolute earth shattering power of comic books. That kid’s life was changed forever, and all it cost was fifty cents.
I don’t think that scenario could play out that way today, and we’re all the poorer for it.