The new trend in the production of the traditional comic book pamphlet is the self-cover format and it has people talking. Some are disturbed by the idea that the form of the product is being dictated too heavily by production costs, especially now when comic book prices are generally three to four dollars. Others are waxing nostalgic, calling for a return to newsprint interiors and flat color in an effort to maintain tradition.
The irony is that the format of the comic book as we know it has always been dictated by cost and convenience. The earliest comic books were conceived as a way to keep presses running in print shops. Their size was determined by the maximum number of pages that could fit on a print signature without excessive, wasteful trim.
Much of the technology developed for the printing of comic books can be attributed to World Color Press, a company who for decades was the largest and most innovative printer of comic books. Even their central location in Sparta, Illinois facilitated the least expensive shipping nationwide.
In the 1980’s when independent publishers began producing comics on paper grades that were more expensive than traditional newsprint it was not because they necessarily wanted to. By that point in history World Color Press was the only game in town and publishers had to line up for a coveted place on their print schedule that was dominated by product produced by Marvel and DC who could squeeze competition off the presses simply by increasing their line of comics. This practice of manipulating the instigated a lawsuit by First Comics in 1984 siting anti-competitive practices.
Forced off the presses in Sparta the new wave of indy publishers went to printers that though they could not compete with World Color’s prices on newsprint, they could offer specialized production of comics on improved paper stock that would allow these new publishers to compete with Marvel and DC on a quality level that could justify higher pricing of comics. Popular stocks of paper called Mando and Baxter were much denser and brighter than newsprint and gave publishers an opportunity to explore full-color in ways that they could not before.
The superior production quality allowed the independent publishers an opportunity to gain a foothold in the growing Direct Market. Watching the competition grow forced Marvel and DC to eventually adopt the new production standards constituting their own price increases which evaporated the expendable income of the comic book consumer, crippling the market and ringing the death knell for most of those early independent publishers.
Advances in digital printing production have made printing on newsprint no longer an affordable option for comic books. The current self-cover format is most similar to the production of circulars that we get in the mail or in our newspapers for free every day, keeping with the time honored tradition of producing comics as cheaply and as conveniently as possible thus ensuring the medium’s perception as disposable entertainment, at least to the casual reader.
Comics in print will never go away. There will always be a place for comics preserved as graphic novels or presented in a deluxe format to be held and admired but if the tradition of producing comics in the most cost effective and convenient manner is to be maintained, the days of the pamphlet are surely numbered. The cost of producing comics for digital distribution are so negligible compared to print that as soon as a reliable distribution method is in place and fully accepted by consumers you can be sure that industry leaders will be quick to pull the plug and yell, “Stop the presses!”
Celebrating Thirty Years of Comics History!