Six bucks

February 11, 2007

I’ve been trying to figure out if Jeff Smith’s Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil (DC) is worth six bucks, but I think I’ve been asking the wrong question. It’s not a case of it being worth that price point so much as whether or not it was smart to package it in such a way that the single-issue cost went that high.

It’s a quality object, with a sturdy cover, 48 glossy pages, high production values, and no advertisements. In the mathematics of comics production, all of those qualities push the price point higher, and I don’t think it’s just a matter of perceived value.

I appreciate the choice to eschew advertising, because Jeff Smith’s work has a purity and simplicity that would not sit comfortably next to greasy skater punks hawking yogurt in a tube or whatever other ads run in Big Two comics these days. It demonstrates a respect for the product even as it narrows the margin of profitability.

At the same time, this is a story that could and should be marketed to readers outside of DC’s traditional audience for super-hero comics. It’s by Smith, who has managed to appeal to both art-comics aficionados and a mainstream audience with his deservedly beloved Bone series. The finickiest connoisseur can appreciate the craft of Smith’s work while the reader picking up a graphic novel for the first time can get lost in the story.

And that’s basically what Smith does with Shazam! There are no barriers to entry into the world of the story; you don’t need any familiarity with the character to appreciate the story of a hard-luck kid being rewarded for his decency and thrown into a fantastical world of legendary heroes and bizarre monsters. It’s fun and imaginative and a little scary, and it looks great.

But I do wonder if the price tag will be an obstacle that keeps casual readers – who’d really enjoy it – from picking it up. It’s a general-audience story with Direct Market packaging and pricing, and those qualities seem to be in conflict.

On the one hand, DC seems to be dancing with the ones who brought them with a package that sits right at the top of the quality scale for single-issue publishing. And the price issue will probably be moot when the inevitable collections (hard- and soft-cover) come into play, because this is the kind of story that could reasonably be expected to fly off of bookstore shelves and go into heavy library circulation.

And really, the book is right in line with what a number of pundits have been begging for – a fun take on an iconic character that isn’t yoked to continuity or a self-consciously “mature” corporate tone. I’m sure that DC is perfectly well aware that the series of individual issues won’t reach its broadest potential audience and that they’re trying to maximize profits from all of its published iterations. That’s a sensible thing for a publisher to do, no matter how taken I am with the loss-leader model of anthologies or web-to-print.

So I guess the question I’m really asking is whether or not I’m willing to pay six bucks per issue.