Archive for Economy

Why the Comic Book Guy Cares about the Wisconsin Situation

Some of you may have been watching news about the craziness in Wisconsin — some of you may not have. It hasn’t been all over the news the way I expected it to be, but here’s a short summary.

Wisconsin’s new governor is named Scott Walker. There are two things he really, really doesn’t like: unions and state employees. So his new budget essentially outlawed public employee unions in Wisconsin and stuck it hard to most state employees, forcing them to pay more out of their salaries for insurance.

Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t well received. What was surprising, however, was that protests took off like a rocket. Thousands of people protested at the state capitol for most of last week. The Democrats in the Wisconsin state legislature pulled a vanishing act to give protests time to sway more Republican legislators away from the governor’s POV.

Since then, we’ve learned that Walker actually cooked the books to make the budget shortfall look worse because he hoped to use against the state employees.

So why do I care about this? I don’t live in Wisconsin, no one in my family lives in Wisconsin, and the budget doesn’t affect comics.

Well, for one thing, I work for the state now, and I’ve worked for the state multiple times in the past. My brother and sister both work for the government, my dad worked for the government, and I’ve got cousins who work for the government. My granddad worked for the government. The idea of a governor — any governor — with a mad-on to screw over state employees strikes me as deeply irrational.

I don’t belong to a union, but I’ve got no argument with ’em either. I like the fact that the unions got us the 40-hour work week and the weekend. I like the idea of minimum wages. I like workplace safety. I like the fact that there’s a check on the power of corporate management. I know there are lots of good businesses out there who’ll bend over backwards to make sure their employees are getting a fair shake… but at the same time, I’ve worked for too many low-down snakes who cheated customers, employees, and everyone else they could. I’m under no illusions that our corporate masters are blameless geniuses who serve only the glory of the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace, a’ight?

I don’t understand the current rage at public employees for either existing or for receiving decent wages and benefits. I know some pundits out there think that, if things are tough for private employees, they should be tough for everyone else, too. (But never for the bankers, CEOs, and con artists at the top, have you noticed that? If they get less than their usual multi-million-dollar bonuses, it means the terrists have won. Trillions of dollars to bailout the corporate goons who wrecked the economy, but heaven forefend if teachers or state employees get paid enough to make the payments on their homes.)

So why should comic book fans care?

Because management at DC spent years screwing Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster out of the profits for creating Superman.

Because management at Marvel screwed Jack Kirby out of money, and health and employment benefits for years.

Because management at DC has never acknowledged the contributions of Batman co-creator Bill Finger as much as they did for Bob Kane.

Because DC pushed out Gardner Fox and a lot of their other creators, including Finger, Otto Binder, and Arnold Drake, in the late ’60s because they dared to request health insurance and employment benefits. And I can’t count the number of Golden and Silver Age creators who died, if not penniless, at least a lot less comfortable than they should’ve been.

I’m glad there are groups around like the HERO Initiative, which works to raise money to pay the expenses of creators who are too old or sick to work, but I also can’t help wishing that Siegel, Shuster, Kirby, Finger, Fox, and the rest of them had had a union on their side watching out for their interests.

Sure, it’s not like any budget in Wisconsin is going to allow comic creators to live better lives — this is strictly going to be for the betterment of state employees in the Badger State. Ultimately, it’s all down to compassion and empathy — we root for the underdogs like Siegel and Shuster and Jack Kirby, like Wisconsin’s state employees, for the same reason we always root for the underdogs — because we’re all underdogs. And when the underdogs don’t get crushed by the powerful, it means maybe we all have a chance.

We put our blind faith in business and corporations at our peril. It’s not that business is evil, but the purpose of business is to MAKE MONEY, and too many businesses will choose to prioritize money at the expense of, well, the rest of us. We’ve seen it happen dozens of times in the past, both within the comics industry and outside of it.

I see nothing at all wrong with being able to tell business and the modern breed of pro-business/anti-worker politicians that it’s okay to make wads of cash — as long as they don’t cross certain lines. I think Walker (and governors in other states, like Ohio, Florida… and maybe Texas? We’ll see…) are prioritizing megacorp/pundit ideologies over the welfare of their own constituents.

That’s a dangerous path to travel down, and I’m very happy that people in Wisconsin have been so enthusiastic about supporting their state employees.

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Price Bumps and Backups

By now, everyone knows that prices of most of DC’s and Marvel’s comics are going up from $3 to $4 — a fairly significant increase, especially during a bad economy. DC, at least, is trying to do something to soften the blow for readers — they’re bringing back the backup feature. There will be more pages per issue, with an extra, shorter story after the regular story.

So far, it looks like Blue Beetle will appear in the back of “Booster Gold,” Manhunter in “Batman: Streets of Gotham,” the Question in “Detective Comics,” the Metal Men in “Doom Patrol,” and Ravager in “Teen Titans.” Black Canary and Captain Atom may be picking up backup features in other comics.

On the bright side, DC is going with characters who already had enthusiastic fan bases, which is going to be appealing to fans who were unhappy with the cancellations of “Blue Beetle” and “Manhunter” or who wish popular but little-used characters like Renee Montoya had a bit more exposure.

But on the other paw, the main features will probably end up getting shortened to make space. Creators who are used to telling their stories with 22 pages may have to get everything done in 18 pages or less.

And of course, a big issue is whether backup stories can succeed. While a lot of DC’s heroes got their starts as backup characters, comics that have backup stories in them are not always very popular — they were accepted and common in the Golden and Silver Ages, but since then, they haven’t tended to be popular with readers.

At any rate, DC deserves a gold star for trying to make the price increase a bit more palatable for cash-strapped readers. Marvel has ended up looking like the bad guy here — first, they increased their prices before DC did (though the increase was probably inevitable for both companies — and don’t be surprised when both companies eventually increase prices on all their books, instead of just a few), and second, they didn’t offer anything extra to along with the increase — no extra pages or backups, just an extra buck out of readers’ wallets.

So whatcha think? Are the price boosts a good idea? Will backup stories make you more likely to accept the increased costs?

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Fear of Falling

I try not to post about politics very often. Sure, I enjoy politics, but this is a comics blog, and most of its focus should be on comics. And I do more than enough whining about job-hunting as it is. Nevertheless, I found this graph online yesterday, and I felt like sharing.

Go ahead and click on that graphic so you can see a larger, more legible size.

And here’s a post from Time Magazine’s “Swampland” blog about the graph. The graph was put together by Nancy Pelosi (rolls fainting couch in) and prepared from numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The blue line represents job losses during the 1990 recession; the red line is from the 2001 recession. The green line is the current recession. It’s measured in months since the peak job levels and in thousands of jobs.

Now take a close look at that green line. Focus on it. Think about what that line means to you. It’s the first steep drop on a roller coaster, it’s Jason Voorhees swinging a machete, it’s the look on Wile E. Coyote’s face just before the anvil hits. It’s pulling the cord on the emergency parachute and getting nothing. It’s terminal velocity.

It’s scary as heck for me ’cause I’m job-hunting and there aren’t many jobs out here. But it should be scary for you, too. That’s not a line that’s suddenly going to bounce back up to normal levels. That’s a line that’s going to keep plunging hard for at least another few months before it starts to level off. If it starts to level off.

If you’re lucky, that line won’t impact you or your family at all. But even if you’re lucky, it is absolutely going to impact people you know. It’s looking like this is going to be a nasty time.

And if we’re not careful, it’s going to be dominated by nasty people, too. There are folks out there who apparently think that, if only the recession will go on long enough, their party can get back into power, or they can nab some big Neilsen ratings for their radio shows. There are Congressthings that want to cut food stamps, ’cause hey, the best way to fix the country has gotta be more hungry people, right?

The problem with this is, again, the green line. That green line is falling pretty fast, and it hasn’t shown a lot of respect for what party the unemployed may belong to. A recession that lasts 4-8 years and extremely steep job losses may be, in theory, a boon for some political parties, but in practice, it means millions of people out of work, falling into poverty, exhausting state and charitable resources. It means more people having to choose between paying rent and buying food, between keeping the electricity on and getting those chest pains checked out. It means more homeless families, more sick and dying kids, more shuttered businesses.

Anyone who says they want a long recession, for any reason, is either (1) not really thinking about what a long recession means, (2) lying for some stupid reason, or (3) a sociopath. And those people should either (1) start thinking, (2) stop lying, or (3) go away, never touch national economic policy or chainsaws, and start taking their meds.

So this is going to be an excellent time to crank your empathy and compassion meters up as high as they’ll go. The last thing I wanna hear is that any of y’all are kicking people while they’re down. I’m not saying y’all gotta give a ton of money to charities, ’cause a lot of y’all can’t afford even that. But I am saying it’s time for all of y’all to start thinking as compassionately as possible about your fellow human beings, regardless of their social status.

The jobless, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the oppressed — if you’re lucky, they won’t be you or anyone you know. But luck is an awfully rare item these days. There but for the grace of God, goes all of us…

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Experimentation

Okay, it’s time to start experimenting with a few changes around here.

If you haven’t heard yet — and I wouldn’t expect you to, ’cause I’ve been keeping it under my hat — I got laid off from the A-J back in November. So how am I enjoying looking for a job during the worst economic downturn we’ve seen in about a quarter-century, if not longer? It sucks.

Now I’m probably doing better than a lot of people in similar situations, ’cause I had a decent sum saved in the bank. But things ain’t exactly rosy either. Now the last time I had a big drop in my financial situation (I took a $5,000 pay cut to take my last job), I got rid of cable TV and my landline, and ended up doing alright. Unfortunately, that means I don’t have much else I can cut from my budget — can’t stop paying rent, can’t stop paying for car insurance, can’t stop paying the electric bill.

But I can cut back on comics.

So we’re gonna see how I do with a strict comics budget of $20 a week.

That means:

1. I’ll be getting only 5-6 comics every week, unless Marvel and DC boost their prices to four bucks apiece. And that means fewer reviews here on the blog. There might be days where I won’t post at all, might be days when I just post a bit of silliness, might be days when I just rant about job-hunting. There might be days when I review old comics. ‘Cause old comics I already got stored in the comics cabinet are cheaper than comics I have to spend extra cash for.

2. No more crossovers. No more “Final Crisis,” no “Blackest Night,” no “Dark Reign.” Crossovers are fine for flush economic times, when people have the spare leisure cash to spend on superfluous cosmic fisticuffs that’ll be forgotten and ignored in three months. Right now, DC and Marvel are hoping their customers will choose another six months of pointless crossovers over, say, buying food or heating the house or paying for the kids’ insurance. Ain’t gonna happen, and I ain’t gonna reward Marvel and DC for thinking like idiots. Besides, crossover books are more expensive than regular books.

3. I may still have to quit buying comics. One big doctor’s bill, one big car repair, another few months of trying to live on the unemployment handouts, and I’ll have to move into my brother’s spare apartment anyway. If the choice is paying my cell phone bill and buying comics, or paying for health insurance and buying comics — comics get the heave-ho. If that happens, I don’t know if the blog will continue. I enjoy the blog, and I think I can come up with stuff to blather about even if I don’t have a regular supply of new comics, but we’ll have to see.

4. There don’t seem to be a lot of jobs being offered in Lubbock. I know everyone says the economy in Lubbock is unusually great, but I tend to take stuff I hear from local bankers and economic development folks with about a quarter-ton of salt. I flip through the want ads, and I don’t really see many jobs being offered. It might be the same everywhere, which means I’ll be cooling my heels in my brother’s apartment for a year. If the job situation is better in other cities, then I’ll be hoping I get a job somewhere else. I like Lubbock an awful lot, but the choice between being unemployed and broke in Lubbock and having a job in another city is a real, real easy one to make. If I leave, I’ll hope to keep the blog going anyway — it might be tough to write about Lubbock’s comics community from a few hundred miles away, but it’s a challenge I think would be fun to undertake.

So does that mean we’ll be seeing big changes here at this blog immediately? Hopefully not. Ideally, I’d like y’all to never notice any significant difference between the way I blogged last week and the way I’ll blog now. But if you see some unusual or interesting new changes, or really weird topic choices, just remember it’s all in the name of science…

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Comics and the Economy

In case you ain’t noticed yet, the economy is pretty darned awful right now.

Over a half-million people lost their jobs in November, with expectations that a similar number will lose their jobs every month for a while. A few million more people are going to lose their jobs when the automakers declare bankruptcy, including car dealers, auto parts manufacturers, and, well, pretty much everyone living in Michigan and the northern midwest — and no matter how you feel about the automakers and their employees, that’s going to make things pretty awful for a huge number of people. And the government has finally decided that, despite everyone previously insisting, nope, nope, not in a recession yet, we’ve actually been officially in a recession since last December. Thanks, guys, glad you finally noticed. Hope those of us who are now job-hunting haven’t inconvenienced you too much.

So, if I may be so crude, if not shallow, where does this leave the comics industry?

Probably not anywhere good.

Book publishers are facing some pretty severe cuts, as are media companies in general. Heck, I’m even reading that there’s a chance that some large cities may actually lose their daily newspapers, thanks to hard times in the publishing biz. And if all those other companies are in trouble — many of them making way, way more than the entire comics industry makes every year — you’d be a sucker not to expect some nasty, nasty times on the way for the comics world. We’ve already seen an increase in the number of low-selling books getting cancelled, and speculation is running high that Marvel and DC will soon be raising the prices of their books up to four smackeroos each; if the economy continues to tank, how long will comics publishers be able to rely on readers continuing to spend their increasingly-tight leisure income on any comic books? Are we approaching the days when the only comics being published will be Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man? Or do even those mainstays have a future in this grim economy?

I sure don’t want to be one of those gloom-and-doom forecasters, because I’ve sure got no training in economics or finance. After all, the comic book was born during the Great Depression, and that suggests that the generally low-cost escapism offered by comics could be something that’d survive during a bad economy. Of course, paper is a lot more expensive now than it was back then…

But at any rate, if you are, for some reason, mad enough to think that investing in comics is the perfect way to get you through the economic downturn, could you please cut back on your liquor intake? Unless you already own Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Amazing Fantasy #15, Marvel Comics #1, and two or three other extremely valuable comics, you won’t actually make much money collecting comics. It takes decades for a comic to get really valuable, and the most valuable ones are all from before the end of World War II, when all the paper drives meant that a lot of comics got pulped for the war effort, driving up the value of the ones that were left.

In other words, if you buy a copy of Action #1 today, it’ll cost you over $400,000, and it probably won’t increase in value very much over the next few years. And if you buy a new comic today, no matter who the artist or writer is, no matter what it’s about, no matter what gimmick may be decorating the cover, it may never be worth more than the cover price.

Besides, has it really been so long since the 1990s that people have forgotten the speculator boom-and-bust that almost killed off the comics biz? Let’s please not start that stuff up again, okay?

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