The comic book world is a tough business – Shia LaBeouf
The more things change, the more they stay the same, was an expression first used by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr during the mid-nineteenth century to describe the status quo and the way that it always managed to persist regardless of the impact of any natural or man-made external forces.
The world has always been, is, and always be the way it is, and nothing that anyone can do, can or will change it.
For the most part, the comic book business has clung to the same idea and used it as a guideline to navigate a century of storytelling.
Surprisingly resilient and adaptable, the industry has bowed to the pressure of change but remained resolute about its core mission and what it does.
It tells fantastical, strange stories and tales of everyday existence through a combination of art and prose, and has clung to the same model since the first comic book hit newsstands in nineteen thirty-three.
In fact, if you were to place a comic book that hit the shelves of your local store on the last NCBD (that’s new comic book day or every Wednesday for the benefit of those who came in late) and the aforementioned first comic book, Famous Funnies which was published by Eastern Color Printing, side by side, the only obvious, and the significant difference would be the size of the books.
While the medium has remained largely unchanged, the number of pages that comic books use to tell their episodic stories has dramatically changed, a fact that hasn’t escaped the notice, and has invoked the ire of long-time readers.
The Comic Book Page Count
The page count of comic books and the way comics use those pages to tell a story has evolved almost beyond recognition, When Eastern Color Printing published its first comic book, it adhered to the traditional periodical format, so that it could still take advantage of the magazine postal rates, which later became printed matter postal rates, that remain, to this day the cheapest way to mail a magazine, comic or book.
The name may have changed, but the postal rate, by comparison, hasn’t really changed.
Where were we? That’s right, the page count of a comic book.
As Eastern wanted to use an already established format for their new book, they used the standard sixty eight-page layout for Famous Funnies, but in order to qualify as a periodical, and be able to use the postal rate, the book had to include at least two full pages of prose that weren’t reliant and didn’t depend on illustrations to help explain the plot of the story being told.
The two-page prose tales were, ironically how Stan Lee got his first big break as a comic book “writer”, and his first story appeared in Captain America Comics #3 which was published in nineteen forty-one by Timely Comics.
Wait a minute, Timely Comics? Isn’t Captain America a Marvel character? Why was he being published by Timely Comics?
Captain America was published by Timely because Timely was and is Marvel.
The House of Ideas didn’t adopt the name Marvel until the beginning of the nineteen-sixties, having briefly used the Atlas name in the interim period between Timely and Marvel, by which time, the page count in comic books had changed from sixty-eight to the number that has been the industry standard for the last sixty years, thirty-two.
But that change didn’t happen overnight and before it finally settled on thirty two pages, the comic book industry tried a number of different formats to tell its four-color stories.
From Sixty Eight To Thirty Six
The main reason for the page change was the increasing economic burden of producing comics books.
All of the costs, the creator’s paychecks, the equipment they used, print and shipping bills were all exponentially rising year on year, which meant that the publishers were faced with a difficult decision.
They could either increase the cover price of their books or reduce the number of pages in each comic.
Acutely aware that as the world was at war, disposable income was something that most families were struggling to find, Timely decided to reduce the number of pages in each of their comic books from sixty-eight to sixty in nineteen forty-three, and keep the ten cent cover price.
Before the year ended, the rest of the industry followed suit, and sixty pages became the industry standard for comic books.
By the end of nineteen forty-four, sixty pages had been further reduced to fifty-two across the medium, for the same reason. Production costs kept rising, and the only way to keep the cover price locked at ten cents was to further reduce the number of pages in each comic book.
And things didn’t improve much in the post-war years either, and in nineteen forty-eight, the page count in comics was dealt its biggest blow when publishers cut it from fifty-two to thirty-six. The print and distribution dollar just wasn’t stretching as far as it used to.
Thirty Six To Thirty Two… And Sometimes More
Gradually the thirty-six page format was reduced to the thirty-two pages (which features twenty pages of story, and an additional twelve pages of advertising and letters) that has become the modern industry norm.
There are however exceptions to this rule, and annuals and specials always feature more pages and can range from anywhere between forty-eight to one hundred pages in length.
But the increased page count comes with an increased cover price, because no one in the comic book business gets to ride for free.
Incidentally, and before we leave you to enjoy your latest thirty-two-page periodical, do you know why most comic books still have either a two-page editorial or letters page?
It’s a hangover from the earliest days of the format, when any publication that wanted to qualify as a periodical had to feature at least two pages of prose. It’s like we said at the beginning, the more things change, the more they stay the same.