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As many of you know, for almost all of my life I’ve read superhero comic books. However, a few days ago I realized I’d been reading one particular title — Detective Comics — continuously for the past twenty-five years. When I got back into comics in 1984-85, I started slowly, with only a handful of titles. Picking up ’Tec #557 all those years ago — how could I resist that Gene Colan cover? — put me on the slippery slope of what we now call “DC Universe” books.
Regardless, I don’t think my experience is that uncommon. Probably many of you can claim to have read one particular title for that long, or even longer. Still, twenty-five years is twenty-five years, especially when you’re talking about keeping up with one particular thing. In fact, in 2011 I’ll be able to mark all kinds of quarter-century anniversaries with the superhero comics I started getting in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Accordingly, because nostalgia implies a certain distance from its object, this is why I don’t think of myself as particularly nostalgic for certain aspects of superhero comics. When I first started going to my local comics shop (almost twenty-six years ago), I had all kinds of revelatory experiences hunting for back issues, discovering independent and alternative comics, and generally being introduced to the still-evolving direct-market culture. By definition, I’ll never have those kinds of experiences again; and by and large, those things — including having the time to spend a whole day with a big stack of books — aren’t related to the comics themselves.
Nevertheless, aided by data from the always-helpful DCIndexes.com, I wanted to see how my habits had changed over the past two-and-a-half decades. I looked at seven Septembers — 1985, 1986, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010 — to see what I bought and for how much. (For simplicity’s sake I kept this confined to DC and its imprints. I’ve always bought a handful of Marvel books, but they haven’t dented my wallet like DC has.) The results surprised me, and I wonder if they’ll surprise you too.
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In September 1985 I bought a total of eight DC titles: Crisis On Infinite Earths #9, Tales of the Teen Titans #60, Star Trek #21, Blue Devil #19, New Teen Titans #15, Who’s Who #10, DC Challenge #2, and Detective Comics #557. Most of these books cost 75 cents, with Who’s Who ($1.00), DC Challenge ($1.25), and New Teen Titans ($1.50) the exceptions. (Who’s Who had no ads and the other two were sold only through the direct market.) By this time I was buying at least one book per week, although Star Trek was my only purchase for ship week #2. Total for the month was $7.50.
A year later, I was buying at least two books a week, so almost twice as many titles (14): Firestorm #54, Son of Ambush Bug #6, Watchmen #4, ‘Mazing Man #12, Batman #402, Man Of Steel #5, Star Trek #33, Blue Devil #31, New Teen Titans #26, Who’s Who #22, Detective Comics #569, Legends #2, Man Of Steel #6, and Teen Titans Spotlight #5. Most of these books cost $0.75, except for Who’s Who and New Teen Titans (naturally). Watchmen cost $1.50, whereas DC Challenge had cost $1.25. Total for the month was $12.25.
Of course, the big shift in my comics-buying habits came with in the post-Legends rollout of the new Flash, Wonder Woman, and Justice League books. By September 1990 I was getting 16 titles, about the same as in 1986, but many were titles I’d stay with for a while: Action Comics #658, Captain Atom #46, Justice League Europe #19, Flash #44, Justice League America #44, Wonder Woman #48, Batman #456, Breathtaker #3, Detective Comics Annual #3, Green Lantern #6, New Titans #71, Superman #49, Adventures Of Superman #472, Doom Patrol #38, Starman #28, and Who’s Who #4. DC’s rank-and-file titles cost $1.00 each, although the almost-weekly Superman books were still only 75 cents (and the Detective Annual was $2.00). DC had also started stratifying its direct-only titles, so that the “New Format” Doom Patrol was $1.50 and the “Baxter paper” New Titans had gone up to $1.75.* Breathtaker (a Prestige Format miniseries) and Who’s Who (the updated “looseleaf binder” version) were each $4.95. They helped push the month’s total to $25.40.
Honestly, I was pretty stunned to see how much I was buying in September 1995. I was in-between jobs at the time — downsized in August, hired anew in September — so perhaps I was self-medicating with these 32 titles: Action Comics #715, Aquaman #14, Sandman #72, Superboy Annual #2, Batman #524, Batman: Brotherhood of the Bat #1, Extreme Justice #10, Flash #107, Star Trek #77, Superboy #21, Superman: The Man Of Steel #50, Wonder Woman #103, Batman: Shadow of the Bat #44, Green Lantern #68, Justice League America #105, Legion of Super-Heroes #74, Power of Shazam #9, Sovereign Seven #5, Superman #106, Superman: At Earth’s End #1, Action Comics Annual #7, Adventures of Superman #529, Batman & Robin Adventures #1, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #77, Detective Comics #691, Impulse #8, Justice League Task Force #29, Legionnaires #31, Nightwing #3, Star Trek: The Next Generation #77, STTNG: Ill Wind #1, and Static #29. Total for the month was a whopping $76.25, with a median price of $1.95.
While I don’t want to avoid responsibility for such excess, I will point out that this was just past the crest of multiple-title “franchises.” In addition to the four Superman books, there were four Bat-books, three Justice League titles, two Legion of Super-Heroes books, the two regular Star Trek books (and the Ill Wind miniseries), plus various spinoffs like Superboy, Impulse, and the Nightwing miniseries.
The franchises had faded by September 2000, but I managed to make up for their absence (plus a little more) with 35 titles: Batman: Gotham Adventures #30, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #135, Batman: Outlaws #3, Green Lantern #130, JLA: Secret Society of Super-Heroes #1, Legion Lost #7, Starman #71, Supeman #162, Young Justice #25, Adventures of Superman #584, Batman/Huntress: Cry For Blood #6, Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham #1, Detective Comics #750, Green Lantern vs. Aliens #1, Hourman #20, JLA: Heaven’s Ladder, STTNG: The Killing Shadows #1, Superman 80-Page Giant #3, Batman: Dark Victory #12, Batman: Gotham Knights #9, Birds Of Prey #23, JSA #16, Legends of the DCU #34, Orion #6, Superboy #80, Superman: The Man Of Steel #106, Titans #21, Action Comics #771, Batman #583, Flash #166, JLA #47, Mann and Superman #1, Star Trek New Frontier: Double Time #1, Supergirl #50, and Wonder Woman #162. Median price was $2.50, but with pricey specials like Heaven’s Ladder ($9.95) and assorted $3.95-5.95 specials and Prestige Format issues, total cost for the month was $115.19. Some of the largesse comes from assorted Batman miniseries (Outlaws, The Doom That Came To Gotham, Cry For Blood, Dark Victory) and a handful of other specials and miniseries, but for the most part it looks like a lot of regular series.
It makes the pre-Infinite Crisis September 2005 look downright frugal, with “only” 27 titles: City of Tomorrow #6, Detective Comics #811, Gotham Central #35, Seven Soldiers: Guardian #4, Superman #221, Villains United #5, Action Comics #831, All Star Batman #2, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #195, Firestorm #17, JLA #118, Rann/Thanagar War #5, Adventures of Superman #644, Batman: Gotham Knights #69, Day Of Vengeance #6, Green Lantern Corps: Recharge #1, Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle #1, Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #4, Batman #645, Flash #226, Green Lantern #5, JLA #119, JLA Classified #12, Legion of Super-Heroes #10, OMAC Project #6, Superman/Batman #23, and Wonder Woman #221. Median price was $2.50, but most books were either $2.50 or $2.99. Only the Green Lantern Corps miniseries was $3.50. Total for the month was $72.91.
And that brings us to September 2010. This past month** I bought a total of 32 DC issues: Astro City: Silver Agent #2, Brightest Day #9, Secret Six #25, Adventure Comics #518, American Vampire #6, Batman #703, Batman And Robin #14, Batman: Odyssey #3, Booster Gold #36, Doom Patrol #14, Green Lantern #57, Justice League: Generation Lost #9, Weird War Tales #1, Welcome To Tranquility: One Foot In The Grave #3, Batman Beyond #3, Birds Of Prey #5, Brightest Day #10, DC Universe: Legacies #5, Unwritten #17, X-Files/30 Days Of Night #3, Zatanna #5, Batman: Streets Of Gotham #16, Flash #5, Green Lantern Corps #52, Justice League of America #49, Justice League: Generation Lost #10, Supergirl #56, Action Comics #893, Detective Comics #869, First Wave #4, Time Masters: Vanishing Point #3, and Wonder Woman #603. Median price was, not surprisingly, $2.99; and the books themselves were either $2.99 or $3.99. Total for the month was $110.68, which works out to $22.14 per week for this 5-Wednesday month.
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Therefore, after twenty-five years I’m buying four times as many books, each of which costs at least four times as much. For the most part I buy what interests me, and I tend to like what I buy. Still, it is rather instructive to see all those $2.99 and $3.99 issues on the same spreadsheet as their 75-cent and $1.00 predecessors. What surprised me more, though, was the steady increase of prices. Today I think nothing of a 32-page, $3.99 Welcome To Tranquility, but it’s hard to believe I paid $3.95 for a 48-page Superboy Annual fifteen years ago. Don’t get me wrong — I’d rather pay 1995’s $1.75 than today’s $2.99 — but the fact is, over the years I found my level and adjusted accordingly.
Part of that level, though, must be dictated by the time I have to enjoy the things. Reading comics has necessarily become less and less of a priority, to the point where I am actually getting to some new comics only on (gasp!) Thursday, most likely at the end of the day. Occasionally it’s even been hard to remember where the last issue of (for example) Green Lantern Corps left our heroes; which may have as much to do with my reading comprehension skills as it does with my reading habits. If (somehow) I were to cut back to about two dozen books, it would be better not only financially, but also in terms of entertainment value.
However, that may not happen for a while. The two biweekly miniseries aren’t at their halfway points and I haven’t been reading that many WildStorm books, so attrition won’t get rid of a whole lot right away. Without sounding like a DC apologist — and, I hope, without sounding like someone trapped in the velvet glove of inertia — I’m just not sufficiently disenchanted with these books to start dropping them. For various reasons, I’m also not ready to move wholesale into paperbacks.
Regardless, that’s all good, right? I’m comfortable giving DC $110.00 per month for thirty-odd comics — aren’t I? I mean, back in the day it was only a few miles — well within walking or biking range, in fact — to the LCS. Today it would hardly be worthwhile to brave Memphis traffic every week to spend less than $2.00 total on just a couple of titles. Ah, the joys of rationalization–!
The goal, as always, must be to balance quantity against quality. Again, I like what I buy and I buy what I like; but I have to recognize that mere “liking” may not be enough. I need to enjoy these single issues in a way that makes them feel more like a hobby than a habit — and that’s a concern which neither budgets nor price-points alone may solve.
* [This list also leaves out DC’s two Star Trek books, Legends of the Dark Knight, and Legion of Super-Heroes, none of which were apparently on sale in September 1990.]
** [The 2010 list comes from my own records, so it may be more accurate in some areas and less in others. Also, the new Madame Xanadu has been delayed until October.]