The problems with the traditional single issue comic format

For decades, the single-issue pamphlet-formatted comic (or “floppy” as some fans call them) has been the default format for American comic books. There’s much nostalgia for the format, plus many fans prefer buying paper single issues over trade paperbacks or digital comics.

That said, like the penny, it’s a format that’s showing its age. Specifically, the floppy has problems with today’s storytelling formats, pricing, and appeal to the general public.

I’ll note there’s always been comics with longer page counts/differing formats: annuals, “80 Page Giants,” anniversary books, manga volumes, reprint digests, etc. However, I’m discussing the typical American comic here.

The positive aspects of singles

There’s some positive aspects of the traditional single issue format, including:

  • Immediacy, rather than waiting for the story to be collected in a trade.
  • Fans get to discuss a storyline’s latest installment right away.
  • Publishers put more emphasis on single issue purchases for counting sales.
  • Collectible aspects (variant covers, etc.).
  • Supporting local comic shops.
  • Sampling/reading part of a storyline at a lower cost versus the cost of a trade/graphic novel.

That said, most of the above points only really benefit traditional superhero comic fans.

The problems with singles

Despite the positives, there’s a lot of problems with the paper single-issue comic format.

They’re too expensive

Batman #35
“Batman” #35 (December 2014). Art by Greg Capullo.

The biggest complaint lodged against singles is their price.

The price of most comics had stayed a dime between the late 30s and early 1960s. However, companies achieved this by gradually reducing page counts. In the Golden Age, comics were often anthology-sized, clocking in at upwards of 68 pages (1939’s “Superman” #1). By the mid-50s, the now-standard 32-page length had become the norm for regular-priced books.

With page counts reduced as far as they could go, prices began to rise starting in the early 60s. I’ve written before about comics’ price inflation, but basically comic prices kept pace with inflation until the late 80s/early 90s, when they skyrocketed to today’s typical comic pricing of $4 an issue.

As such, virtually any other form of entertainment’s a better buy than singles. Most streaming video services cost $8-$12/month, or the price of 2-3 comics. Video games cost $40-$60, but offer hours of entertainment. And of course, trade paperbacks and graphic novels are fairly inexpensive, especially trades sold by Amazon.

They weren’t designed for today’s decompressed storytelling (at current pricing)

Action Comics #482
“Action Comics” #482 (April 1978). Art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

The single format was fine when comics were either anthologies/offered several stories per issue, done-in-one-issue stories (see: “Uncle Scrooge” or most older Archie comics), or only took several issues tops to tell a story. Even when the latter became common, it was fine as long as prices stayed reasonable.

As an example: in 1978, “Action Comics” published a four-issue storyline (#480-483) about Superman fighting Amazo, the android with all of the JLA’s powers. At 35 cents an issue, that’d be $1.37 adjusted for inflation/in 2017 dollars. If the story were published today, it’d cost $15.96 (at $3.99/issue) to read the storyline, versus $5.48.

Of course, today’s stories tend to also be crossover-heavy, with lots of event stories, etc. At $4 an issue, trying to buy events like “Secret Empire” in their entirety (outside of just the core issues) is unaffordable for most people.

Similarly, there’s also a lot of spin-off and related “families” of books based around one character or team; just trying to buy all or most books tied (however loosely) to Batman or the X-Men is quite steep.

Finally, modern DC and Marvel stories are very rarely confined to a single issue (unless it’s an anniversary issue or an annual). Most of the Big Two’s storylines take multiple issues to tell, and will inevitably get collected in trades anyway.

Basically, singles were designed as a short read and/or an affordable read; today’s use of the format fails at both of those points.

Modern media consumers are used to getting a story all at once

With the rise of binge-watching, media consumers these days often prefer getting an entire chunk of a story at once, to enjoy at their leisure. Single issue comics don’t offer that, though trade paperbacks/graphic novels do. It might not be a coincidence that trades/graphic novels are the biggest sales growth area for comics.

They require specialized storage

One needs special boxes and bags to keep singles in decent shape. Compare that with trades/graphic novels, which can be stored on regular living room bookshelves or coffee tables like, well, any other book.

They’re only available via specialist hobby shops (aka local comic stores)

Unlike regular books, or even graphic novels, paper floppies are usually only found via local comic shops, which not every area offers. Also, while there’s friendly or well-managed comic stores, some of them can be hostile toward women, LGBT folk, etc.

It’s much more convenient to buy comics digitally, or as paperbacks from a regular bookstore.

Webcomics/digital comics offer similar but more convenient immediacy

Digital comics and webcomics offer immediacy in following a storyline, just like paper singles. Unlike paper singles, webcomics are cheaper (free) and easier for the general public to access and follow (a web browser, versus a local comic store).

Digital singles often aren’t cheaper; they’re usually the same price as paper singles. However, they do offer the same immediacy benefits, and without needing to find or go to a local comic store. There’s also frequent sales on Comixology for digital comics.

Newer readers aren’t nostalgic for (or concerned about) singles

Pile of comic books and TPBs
Photo by dfactory (Flickr / CC BY)

The growth in new readers are coming from graphic novel/trade sales at a variety of non-comic shop sources: bookstores, Scholastic book fairs, Amazon, etc. As such, most of these new readers don’t care one bit about singles, or harbor nostalgia for the format.

Some of these new readers might switch to singles for the immediacy factors, and if they’re devoted enough fans of a character or series. However, sales figures suggest new graphic novel readers are just fine with their chosen format.

Overall, nostalgia’s nice, but it alone can’t overcome existing problems. There’s nostalgia for (and a resurgence in sales of) vinyl records these days, but there’s reasons they aren’t the dominant music format anymore.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the single issue paper comic book as it now stands fails as a format. They’re too expensive and not really designed for modern Big Two storytelling (crossovers, events, etc.). They’re also inconvenient to buy and store, especially to newer comic fans.

In my opinion, the future for the comics medium lies in a mix of formats, but not primarily the traditional floppy. Sales trends already show new readers prefer graphic novel formats over singles; also, digital comics/webcomics are popular.

Meanwhile, I assume the traditional paper floppy will stay popular with the Big Two, long-time readers, speculators, and those sampling part of a story. However, it won’t be the preferred format by newer fans. And again, I wonder how viable floppies are in the long run, if and when the price goes up to $5, or even $6, an issue.

Granted, one problem is the emphasis on mainly just counting pre-orders of paper singles for sales purposes; that’s something that needs to change.

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