It was around this time last year that our esteemed founder, Jason Montes, first gave us the heads up on the rising cost of comics.

“Starting in January,” Jason emailed the staff of WCBR, “Marvel’s going to raise the price of the majority of their comics to $3.99. We need to follow this, because this is going to be a huge issue for our readers going forward.” I saved Jason’s email because I agreed with and believed in the value of his request, and wish dearly that he was still with us to read this column because I think he would have really enjoyed it. With the emergence and increase in the number of titles with $3.99 price tags from Marvel and DC, it seems to me that the industry has reached an important crossroads that will need to be addressed immediately if it’s going to keep the audience it has, and grow the audience it wants. A conflict is brewing over your buying dollars and how the comic industry wants you to spend them. On one hand, monthly, serialized comics continue to be the staple crop of Comicdom, although their sales figures have been a pale reflection of what they used to be fifteen to twenty years ago. On the other hand, graphic novel releases of serialized comic storylines are gaining in popularity as well as sales in local comic shops and major book retailers like Borders, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble; such serialized comic storylines are now tailored and written for their release as graphic novels.

This has created an interesting dichotomy and strangely symbiotic relationship, where monthly comics are written for their release as graphic novels, and graphic novels rely on monthly comics to generate the stories they need to sell to you and audiences that don’t otherwise walk into comic shops. Where Marvel and DC are hoping to increase their margin on these stories though is on the hope that you will double dip and buy these stories in both formats, a notion made more convincing by the recent deluge of price hikes across a wide range of their best-selling titles by best-selling authors. Now more than ever, I think the time for us has come to take a hard look at the industry and what we’re paying for every week.

I believe it was back in July that John Turitzin, Marvel’ General Counsel and Executive Vice President to the Executive Office told a financial conference that the price increase on a range of Marvel’s comics was part of a process of finding out how much money they can make from publishing monthly comic books. “We’re always testing our pricing on our comic books,” he told the audience, “to see the extent of which we can, you know, it is inelastic, and we can increase our profit in that business.” Basically they wanted to make more money selling monthly comic books, and you can see their logic in this decision in how they initially charged comics produced by popular creative teams. From practically everything written by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Jason Aaron, Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Ed Brubaker, and a host of mini-series and one shots, Marvel is making a sensible business decision by increasing the price of those comics from popular creators that they know you want. And I’m okay with that, oddly enough. After all, it’s not personal. It’s just business.

What’s been bothering me though is the quality of those monthly comics, more and more of which I’ve been paying a premium to read. It’s not that they’re necessarily bad, it’s just that as a once a month slab of entertainment, I feel like they’re failing to actually entertain me. It occurred to me that the reason for this is essentially the difference between reading a book and a comic. Perhaps I come from an older school of comic reading, but I remember a time when the ritual of reading a comic every month was a dynamic experience, a slab of entertainment that an immediate impact on the reader while also contributing to a large ongoing story. With the advent and popularity of graphic novels though, the focus seems to have shifted from making each monthly comic an entertaining experience unto itself to making it a chapter of a, typically, six-month storyline. With the pacing of these plots being drawn out to accommodate their collections into graphic novels, I feel that individual comics are making for a more uneven, less thrilling reading experience. In fact, looking over my reviews over the last year, I see that the one complaint that crept up most often was how underwhelming most issues were because of their failure to provide any immediate entertainment value, which should, I’d argue, be one of the hallmarks and qualities of a monthly comic book.

Marvel and DC are trying to circumvent this though by putting extra content, usually in the form of eight-page back up stories, into some of their $3.99 comics. While this might increase the page content of comics to the point where the companies feel they can justify a price increase, I feel this is little more than smoke and mirrors that distracts readers from the glaring deficiencies of the main stories. I began reading the back up stories, first offered by DC, with mild interest, and have eventually skipped over them all together. It’s not that I need more pages to agree to pay $3.99 for an issue, I just need more entertainment value, and I’ve yet to see either company offer that in a satisfying way.

So at some point I finally asked myself, “if these creators are writing for their graphic novel releases, why don’t I just wait for them?”

And that, ultimately, is what I’d like for you to consider today, because the temptation to double dip and buy these stories as comic and then graphic novels is harmless when months can go by between the release of the former and latter, but if when you’re paying $3.99 an issue for a six issue story, and then another $20 to $24 for the graphic novel of that comic, well, that takes a huge toll on your pocket book, which is good for Marvel and DC, but not so much for you. I’ve asked myself these questions over the last year, and realized that Jason was right: this has been a huge issue for me as a reader, and it’s one that is very much affecting my buying habits. Just recently, Incredible Hercules, one of my favorite titles, jumped on the $3.99 bandwagon, but as much as I enjoyed seeing Agents of Atlas come back in some readable form, it wasn’t enough to keep me reading the title, and I am now waiting for it to come out in graphic novels before I pick it up. I’ve been doing that with a lot of my titles, and I have that going into 2010. I’m going to be reading fewer comics and more graphic novels, because for the life of me I can’t determine which format the industry is trying to sell me on, but I know I can’t go on buying both of them in equal quantities.

With that in mind I leave it to you to look at your own pull lists to see what, if any, revisions need to be made. My only goal here is to offer you a very simple, direct line of reasoning to consider; one that I hope will help realign and improve your buying habits in the new year. No matter what Marvel and DC try to sell you, how much they charge for it, or why they try to justify their business to you, remember that this is your money we’re talking about here and your entertainment that’s at stake, and those are two very, very important reasons to not believe their hype.

Happy holidays everyone!

-Tony Rakittke