A Brief History of the Decline of American comics

A Brief History of the Decline of American Comics

I made this to help people who are interested in comics to understand the reason why the industry is in the state it’s in today. The problem with the vast majority of the analyses is that most of it is done with very erroneous assumptions about how the industry actually functions, thus leading to very skewed conclusions that do more harm than good.

So why did the American comics industry decline so much? It has nothing to do with TV, superheroes, or even creeping social justice.  It really has two reasons, both of which are intertwined. The first is the mindset about comics, and the second is the business model that results from that mindset.

The mindset of pretty much everyone during the very early days of comic book publishing boiled down to three different points.  The first was that comics were for children; as such, no comics for adults could be made, end of story.  The second part of the early mindset was that these comics were disposable.  The third and final part of the early publishing mentality was that these comics probably wouldn’t be around for a very long time.  This meant that no investment was made into growing an older audience for comics.  After all, why invest in the future if you don’t think it’s going to be there?

The business model followed from the mindset.  The comics were made cheaply with newsprint, which is why many of the very early comics are not around anymore.  They were spread as far as possible so many kids as possible could buy (remember, no adult readers). Very few creators from that period, with the exception of people like Will Eisner, actually owned their work. They had work for hire contracts, which meant that the publishers owned the work.  Additionally, there were no credits on the vast majority of stories, which means we’ll never know who made those comics.  Finally, they were priced cheap, which when comics were first made was 10 cents a comic.

This publishing strategy held true from about 1933, when the first comic book as we modern understand it was published, to 1945, when World War 2 finished.  However, World War 2 brought many changes to society. With these changes, the comics industry began it’s very long decline which only post 2000 that it really began to recover from.

The first crack in the wall was the raising of magazine prices post WW2.  Comics publishing was primarily aimed at kids, who typically don’t have a lot of disposable income.  Therefore the priority was to keep it cheap.  However, if all the prices on all the magazines go up and you keep your prices the same, there’s significantly less of an incentive to carry comics.  Additionally, because of the publisher’s attitude of comics being for children and being of the belief that there was no future for comics, they kept the prices low and explored no other viable alternative business models.

To illustrate what I’m saying, here’s a table that compares an issue of Superman with Life magazine.  The price of Mad Magazine will be included because of the fact that Mad does in fact have newsstand distribution today, while most single issue comics don’t.


So what are the results?

Year Life Superman MAD Magazine
1939 $0.10 $0.10
1945 $0.10 $0.10
1950 $0.20 $0.10
1952 $0.20 $0.10 $0.10
1955 $0.20 $0.10 $0.25
1959 $0.25 $0.10 $0.25
1970 $0.50 $0.15 $0.35
1978 $1.50 $0.40 $0.60
1982 $2.00 $0.60 $1.00


Chuck Rozanski, owner of Mile High Comics and one of the key players in the founding of the Direct Market talks about the results:

While it is ancient history for many people, I need to stress for clarity that the period of the late-1970’s nearly saw the demise of comics publishing

            – Evolution of the Direct Market Part VI

Oops!  That didn’t end well.

The price difference gave retailers less and less reasons to carry comics, thus reducing the general population’s exposure to comics.  In his essay called Comics as a Mass Medium, Kurt Busiek makes this point:

During the period that we were a mass medium, comics were a thick, satisfying package that cost a dime; that cost the same as other magazines. And in an effort to keep comics affordable to children, the comics publishers chose to cut pages, to make the package smaller, rather than increase the price. John Workman, in his very incisive essay, which Gary’s reprinted, makes the same point, along with discussion of the rise of malls and television and such, but I think the price factor is enormously significant all by itself. Because what we did, by holding the price line at the cost of content, was to begin the ghettoization of comics. When comics cost the same as the other magazines, newsdealers had no incentive to favor Time over Captain America Comics; a sale was a sale, and they brought in the same profit. Comics were simply a part of the product mix in the shop, without prejudice. But when Time costs more than the comics, Time brings in more profit, so it gets preference. Comics became second-class citizens, and we did it to ourselves.

The publishers, due to their shortsightedness, took the ghetto they were in and made it even worse. There were attempts to remedy this, but as Kurt points out, by the time the attempts were made, it was too late:

They moved from the magazine racks, which were to be reserved for stuff with a decent profit margin, to those wire spinner racks that took up less space and could be stuck in a corner at the back, to grow neglected and dusty and in many cases eventually to be removed from the store entirely.
And this decline was not merely a decline in sales, but a decline in distribution, a decline in the number of places that actually sold comics and in the prominence with which they were displayed in the places that remained. And that kind of loss is extremely hard to recover from. Even if sales go up in other stores, the retailer who’s given up on comics isn’t likely to notice, and thus isn’t likely to bring them back into his store. This problem reached crisis proportions in the mid-Seventies, around the time that DC tried Dollar Comics, perhaps on the theory that a thick package at a price competitive with other magazines would result in higher sales. But by that time they were distributing the books into a fraction of the shops that used to carry them, and racking them away from the other magazines; the customers they were intended for—the browser—largely didn’t see them.

By the 1970s, it was really bad. Chuck Rozanski worked with a magazine distributor in 1970s when first opening up his comic shop. He points out the contempt distributors had for comics:

That certainly proved to be true, especially since most of the ID wholesalers were indifferent to distributing comics. As my local wholesaler once candidly pointed out to me, it cost him exactly the same labor to distribute comics as it did to distribute PLAYBOY or BETTER HOMES & GARDENS, but due to the dramatically lower cover prices on comics, the earnings were vastly less. As far as he was concerned, if comics disappeared entirely, he would be delighted.

Evolution of the Direct Market Part II

     It also didn’t help that many distributors were actively ripping off the comic publishing companies:

Given this low level of profitability per unit (5 cents per issue on a 25 cent cover price comic), is it any wonder that it often seemed that the only wholesalers eager to handle comics during the early 1970’s (as I’ve mentioned in previous columns) were the ones actively involved in low grade organized crime, ripping off the comics publishers through the mechanism of “affidavit returns?

            – Evolution of the Direct Market Part II

      Due to the low opinion of comics and the complete and utter inability by the people who ran the publishing to come up with a viable alternative business model, the mainstream comic industry almost died

It’s worth talking about why it took so long for perceptions to shift from being seen as children’s stuff to being seen as okay for adults.  One of the big reasons why it took so long for the perceptions of comics to shift is because of the comics scare caused by Frederic Wertham. While the full impact of The Comic’s Code can be debated till the second coming of Christ, the real impact that’s not often discussed was the prevention of a move to make comics that were for adults in the mainstream companies for roughly three decades.

In fact, one of the interesting consequences of the whole panic was that there was a split in comics.   The underground comix, inspired by EC Comics, went off and made comics for adults.  The mainstream companies, which were primarily Marvel and DC, basically stayed where they were.  In fact, the underground commix were a big influence on the mainstream.  The idea for the Direct Market came from when one of the most influential underground commix artists, Robert Crumb began hawking his comics direct to his audience in San Francisco.  In 1986, a trinity of comics forever shifted the general public’s perception of the medium: Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Maus. Of the three, Maus was the one that gave comics that shifted the perception of comics the most legitimacy and gave comics a toehold into bookstores.  Despite the inordinate attention to the mainstream, the great irony is that underground comics creators or people heavily influenced by them like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and Alison Bechdel are the creators that have gotten attention from the wider culture.  For most part the mainstream companies, as represented by Marvel and DC, are for all intents and purposes culturally irrelevant.

Another side effect that should be discussed of the ghettoization of comics is something I like to call Superhero Tunnel Vision Syndrome (STVS).  STVS is basically when someone has a very distinct ability to ignore or care about non superhero comics.  This is mostly due to the fact that most of the people who really cared about the history of comics liked superheroes, so they focused on them. In fact, the names of the different ages of comics like Bronze, Silver, and Golden are in reference to superhero comics. It also shows up in language, like how “comic book movie” means “superhero movie,” even though there are movies based on non-superhero comics. There’s a good historical reason for this focus, as Kurt Busiek points out in Comics as a Mass Medium:

  After all, as Gary himself points out, sales were dwindling even when romance, horror and ducks were strong sellers in the Fifties. The superhero resurgence of the late Fifties and early Sixties didn’t cause the dwindling; what it did, apparently, was practically the reverse—it slowed the decline it down. Nor did superheroes dominate and destroy thriving genres over the course of the sixties and seventies. Instead, as readers abandoned the other genres—abandoned the romance titles, the Westerns, the “mystery” books and so on—they abandoned the superhero and the humor genres more slowly, so that by the mid-Seventies, superheroes were virtually the last man standing. Far from chasing readers away, superheroes proved to be the best genre at holding onto readers, keeping them loyal to the capes and masks when the other genres were losing too many readers to survive.

This cultural shift to a very heavy superhero focused audience for comics was probably necessary for mainstream comics to survive the massive decline they had in circulations due to their shortsightedness in business strategy and their general view of the comics form as a respectable art.  Unfortunately, this had a bad side effect of making it really difficult for other genres to build an audience and thrive. This ends up locking out a very large amount of your audience, as most people are casual readers and aren’t necessarily looking just for superheroes. The dominance of superheroes also unintentionally reinforced the dominant narrative of comics being for children.  After all, while superheroes stories can be enjoyed by adults, superheroes are for children. There’s nothing wrong for that, but if the dominant perception is that your medium is of a type of story that is for children, then it’s going to be perceived as childish, whether that perception is justified or not.

STVS also affects how the comics press reports on events.  Events like the very high printings of Attack on Titan or One Piece are either ignored or are given very little press.  Comic’s creators who make comics for kids that kids are actually reading like Raina Telgemeier are also ignored even though her comics like Smile are read by more people than the average superhero comic.

In short, STVS makes you live in a bubble.  Superheroes have become less important to the comics culture than they were in say, the 1980s. In fact, the company that’s really growing right now is Image Comics, because of the fact that the vast majority of its  published stories are non-superhero stories.  They’re taking all the genre’s that have been historically neglected post 1970 by Marvel and DC and giving them a revival.  This is actually reaching people who otherwise never would have read comics, which is injecting new life into the comics audience.

Hopefully other comic publishing companies will spring up, and the competition will produce lots of good comics that will engage many people.

So,  if you’re an enterprising group of people who wants to start a comics publishing company, what conclusions could be drawn from this history that would help them standout and succeed?

  • No one considers comics disposable anymore, so printing them like they’re disposable is a horrible idea. This means no stapled comics
  • Try publishing other genres like horror, action, romance, western, etc. Try publishing the comic equivalent of The Brideshead Revisited.
  • Either don’t do superheroes or minimize the amount of superheroes you do publish
  • If you do publish superheroes, have it done by a consistent writer and artist team like Astro City or Invincible. If you do decide to publish a universe of titles, make the universe small, no bigger than 10 different series.
  • Creator ownership of stories is a must

There are other conclusions, but it’s my belief that those are the most important.  What do you think?