Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Price Is Not Right


In November of 1971, Marvel began distributing a brand new format for its books:


 


And before the dust even settled, the next month the plug was pulled.

While it's true that comic books these days are absurdly priced, believe it or not there used to be a time when a comics company would take the time to explain a price increase. That was the case in 1971 for Marvel, when it increased its book prices ten cents--from 15¢ to 25¢ (that takes you back, doesn't it?) to go along with an increased size format of 33+ pages. It was something of a shock to the buyer, given the swiftness of the move. But Marvel made an effort to soften the blow:
"...[W]e thought we'd use this additional space to drop a personal line to each and every one of you faithful ones who have loyally supported Marvel over these past few frantic years, and to explain more fully just why the change was made.

"At first, we intended to go into a long spiel about how everything you buy costs more in this inflation-ridden world of ours--about the rise in the price of movies, magazines, almost all modes and media of entertainment. And we figured we'd probably talk a bit about ever-spiraling printing costs, about increased payments to the writers and artists in this whacky business of ours--in short, about how the 15¢ comic book, after only a couple of years of life, is (to put it plainly) just no longer a feasible item.

"But who are we kidding? If you own a radio or a TV set, or even if you just drop by the corner grocery, you already know most of that--and we give you credit for brain enough to guess the rest.

"Besides, it just occurred to us that we're not simply raising the price of what you're getting--but we're giving you another full 15 pages of art and story, or virtually a second mag inside the same color-splashed covers, for that extra dime--and it doesn't take an Einstein (or even New Math) to figure that, with this price and size change, Marvel Comics are now a bigger bargain than ever! And we intend to keep 'em that way!

"So why did we bother with this letter at all? Just consider it our way of welcoming you aboard--and assuring you that, whatever wonders have gone before, the best is yet to come!"
I've added emphasis to some of that text because this "explanation" doesn't quite cover all the bases. For one thing, at this point in time Marvel had a relatively small stable of writers and artists who now had an increased monthly workload--and though this notice gives the appearance of having worked out all the kinks in this move to a newer format, the execution of this plan apparently didn't go smoothly. Notice how they leave out the word "new" when they say readers will be getting an extra 15 pages of art and story? Two of Marvel's titles, Iron Man and Daredevil, were scheduled to merge into one title the following month--while these and other books would supplement (or, put more directly, "pad") their content with reprint material.

As far as "we intend to keep 'em that way" goes, let's just say "the best laid plans..." To give the appearance that this new format was exploding onto the comics world (i.e., to get readers excited about it rather than disappointed), Marvel celebrated a "birthday" of sorts--"ten years to the month since the first immortal issue of Fantastic Four ushered in the Marvel Age of Madcap Madness." Yet even with all the pomp that Marvel could bring to bear, it quickly found that buyers were no more enthusiastic on shelling out the extra change for these books than they were when Marvel tried the same thing with the Silver Surfer title three years earlier. Nor, apparently, was Marvel's limited staff of artists able to increase their workload and still make their deadlines. So the very next month, the company dialed back its bold move dramatically--bringing their books back to around 20 pages of content each, and reducing the price from 25¢ to 20¢. All without a word of explanation, until the following month:
"At the last minute we discovered that, for economic reasons far too complicated to go into (unless you're the type who gets his jollies browsing thru the Dow Jones averages), our own purposes--and therefore yours, in the long run--would be much better served by a regular-sized mag, priced at 20¢. After a long, drawn-out period of careful deliberation, we then proceeded to make this sudden shift in size and price virtually overnight--so swiftly, in fact, that last month's issues were able to make no mention whatever of the change, while most of our extra-length stories had to be cut in two and completed this time around. ... Well, that's about all the explanation we can offer without getting bogged down in business details which would probably bore you as much as they do us."
So basically readers were told what happened (as if we couldn't see the price and format shift for ourselves)--we just weren't really told why it happened. But I think it can safely be boiled down to this: Marvel wouldn't be able to handle the workload, and readers wouldn't be able to sustain the price increase. That is, assuming that the 20¢ price wasn't Marvel's intention all along. The mad shift in story and book formats which took place in this time span would seem to give no credence to such a conspiracy theory--it would be a huge expenditure in both time and money, when a cheaper way to go would be to just make the 20¢ change and be done with it. But what do I know.

Anyway, that's the story of the 1971 price increase that rocked the comics world, if briefly:


Bet you wouldn't mind seeing even a 25¢ price again, would you?

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