The comic collector is a rare breed in the Geek community; a hunter-gather, this specimen is constantly in pursuit. They embark on annual migrations to conventions across the country, weekly trips to the comic store, and spontaneous expeditions across state and city lines to comic shops or yard sales- all in the name of the hunt. Countless hours are logged browsing the web across a variety of sites all for the conquest of a few back issues missing from a collection. With lists and spreadsheets, every issue owned and required is intimately cataloged by title, volume, number, and even date. As fingers tactfully flip through the plastic cover slips or frayed edges of each issue in a discount box, one obvious identifier is often overlooked; the list price. A comic’s price is stamped on the cover of the issue in plain sight – but as collectors know, the list price of a back issue is often meaningless in relation to its current value. Much like a guest appearances in an issue when you’re trying to complete a run.
Superhero comic books have been around for 76 years and counting. They’ve lasted through one World War, a civil rights movement, 12 economic recessions, and the implementation of the biggest technological advancement of the 21st Century: the internet. All of these factors contribute to the value each issue has outside the story within its ink soaked pages. Comic books are an incredible indicator of history as they document the various social and political events and changes month by month, year by year. The list price blatantly stamped on the cover is no different.
Today, many of us complain about the standard $3.99 we pay for 32 pages of content, especially when kids in 1941 could buy a Batman comic for 10 cents. However, there’s one factor we haven’t yet accounted for: inflation. Inflation is the increase in prices over time due to the devaluation of the “purchasing power” for the currency in question. A dime in 1939 was not worth the same as a dime in 2015. The inflation of a currency is directly related to the economy of the country, influenced by a variety of factors all relative to the economic climate of the time. But before you get lost in the business jargon you most likely slept through during your 8 a.m. lectures, we’ll take a break and come back to that later.
The real question is, “how much would I actually be paying for a comic book in 1939 relative to today?” Let’s find out.
Action Comics was the first “real” comic book, and has been around since the start of the era as it ushered in the Golden Age and continued through the mid 1900s until modern day. This makes Action Comics the perfect baseline in analyzing the price of comic books over the years.
The first graph (below) was made by searching through the issues of Action Comics to find the relative list price of each issue per year. Comic books stayed at 10 cents per issue for 21 years until 1961 when they first rose to 12 cents; the value has been increasing ever since. Data values were added to the graph to document each significant price increase.
The Price of Action Comics from 1939-2015: (Click image to enlarge) This graph represents the changes in price per issue by year. Data markers in black were added to indicate pertinent increases in value. The values in red indicate outliers which were influenced by a change in issue content, as opposed to any applicable economic influences.
Two relevant points of interest; the red data labels show a sharp spike in value followed by a quick decrease in value. These periods in time were representative of a change in the content of the issues. Action Comics in 1971 from issue 403-413 were raised from 15 cents to 25 cents due to each issue containing 48-52 pages; issues dropped to 20 cents afterward. Action Comics saw a second unusual swell in price in 1988 following the installment of the 600th issue (priced $2.50 for 80 pages). This was marked by a price increase from 75 cents to $1.50 for 48 pages of content spanning from Action Comics 601-642; the price returned to 75 cents with issue 643. With the exception of these two data points, the graph shows the price of a comic book has been continually rising per year with no fluctuation in the average value.
The jump in comic prices during the early to mid 1990s can most likely be attributed to the Comic Book Crash where comics became overvalued and overprinted to such an extent that the market collapsed and the industry almost met an early demise. Much like Adam Sandler’s career.
Another movie about an ‘average’ guy falling ass-backward into some over-the-top plot featuring Rob Schneider and/or Steve Buscemi? Sign me up.
The graph details multiple plateaus where the price of issues stayed consistent for at least a few years at a time. October 2011 saw the end to the first volume of Action Comics with issue 904 (priced $2.99), returning with volume 2 in November as part of the New 52 series; Action Comics vol. 2 issue 1 started at $3.99, signifying the current normal comic price.
$3.99 seems like a huge jump in price compared to periods of 75 cents, $2.25, or even $2.99 an issue. So how does this match up when the data is adjusted for inflation?
The Price of Action Comics from 1939-2015 when adjusted for inflation: (Click image to enlarge) This graph represents the data of the labeled issue price over time (first graph) against the price when adjusted to the currency value of the U.S. dollar in 2015. Data labels in black on the second graph (faded red) correlate to the data labels from the first graph; data labels in red correlate to the data labels of indicated outliers from the first graph. Two new data labels were added in blue to show the beginning (1941) and end (1945) of World War II.
Many intriguing trends are visible when the data is adjusted for inflation; where as the first graph showed no decrease in comic price with the cost only rising (instead of periods of falling), this second graph shows frequent fluctuation in value. 10 cents in 1939 was worth $1.72 by today’s U.S. dollar value, but just three years later, a 10 cent comic in 1941 was worth $1.62.
The data labels in blue which mark the World War II era show a slow deflation in value which continues through the 50s as America’s economy boomed after the war. Five major plateaus where the price of Action Comics at the time stayed consistent are represented differently by the inflation graph which details a pattern of sharp spikes followed by steady deflation over the last twenty-five years from 1990-2015. The effects of last three major recessions in 1990-1991, 2001, and the Great Recession of 2007-2009 may also be viewed by the data in this graph. To truly test this theory, the data should be compared to the annual inflation rate in order to judge any corroboration through similar trends in dollar value by year. Regardless, this identifies yet another way comic books are reflective of society and can be a relevant companion to understanding history.
The most noticeable trend in this graph is that no comic book before 2011 ever reached a value higher than today’s standard list price of $3.99 an issue. This raises the question for the reason behind the sharp increase in cover price from 2010 to 2011. Perhaps the answer lies in the expenditure; Shipping costs have been increasing over the years with “package size” and “weight” driving the price as influentially as fuel. Comic books must get from the printing presses to the distributors, comic shops, for sale. The sale of comic books has fluctuated in recent years; if the market of consumers drops significantly enough, the cost of the product must increase in order to manufacture the product.
Production cost is another possibility; the quality of comic books today compared to 25, 50, or even 75 years ago is drastically different. Issues today look more appealing than those from the 80s; the card stock is much more solid and glossy compared to the yellowing of classic comic pages. The advancements in technology have also allowed artists to be more creative with their art as well as the composition of every panel on a page. The color pallet these days is much more diverse, colors stay within the inked border of characters or backgrounds, and the coloring itself is solid compared to the classic halftone-dotted pattern of the past. Although, I’m sure hipsters would love to have a halftone filter for their instagram.
Economically relevant or not, the price of comic books is as interesting a trend to follow as the stories detailed by the vibrant pages within. The analysis of comic prices over the decades show many curious trends worthy of inspection, reflective of both the content and composition of the books, as well as how much things have changed since the first spandex-clad Superhero hit local newsstands in 1939. As digital comic books become more prominent through platforms like comixology, perhaps comics will see a different trend in both price per issue and sales. So the next time one of your grandparents tells you what they could buy with a dime when they were a kid, show them this graph to give them some perspective (and you enough time to distract them and change the subject.)