Why Do We (Continue) Buy(ing) Comics We Dislike?

Credit to Google Image Search and Comic Vine message board

We’ve all been there; begrudgingly forking over money for a comic we get no pleasure in reading. In fact, we actively dislike reading it. Yet we persist. Why? It probably has something to do with the fact that we’re inherently irrational with money and hooked on a feeling.

To explain this we’re going need to turn to economics, psychology, or sociology. They each have their own take on the same thing — prospect theory, sunk cost fallacy, escalation of commitment, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, their particulars may vary, but the general principle is the same. They all cut the same jib. Your recent purchases are anchored by your past investments — investments which can be measured in money, emotion, or time. Yes, that’s right, when you’re throwing another 3–5 units of your local currency on that title you’re not really enjoying it’s because:

a) At one point you actually enjoyed the title
b) You’ve previously invested time, money, and/or emotion
c) You’ve bought a comic every week for so long it’s now a habit

Psychological phenomena don’t manifest themselves in signposted ways — the nicotine addicted brain doesn’t scream “you’re addicted, time for a cigarette!” no, instead, nicotine depleted receptors ache and suddenly you have an urge to smoke, or you remember you haven’t had a cigarette since lunch. The same thing happens when you drop that money on the book you’re not really enjoying. You think, “maybe this will get better”, but what you really mean is ”I enjoyed this in the past, therefore I’ll enjoy it in the future” or, “I’ve started so I’ll finish”, but what you really mean is “I’ve invested so much time and money, it would be foolish to stop now” (that’s your sunk cost).

This phenomenon typically happens with the superhero titles published by Marvel and DC — Batman, Superman, the X-Men, Avengers, Wonder Woman; they all exist in popular media outside of their source material. Cartoons, books, movies, and merchandise — they are characters we are familiar with, they are everywhere, and so our connection to them exists outside of their original medium.

To understand how we get to the point where we no longer enjoy a title yet continue to buy it, we need to look at how reading comics pans out as a hobby/past time/passion. Let us for a moment focus on Marvel and DC and forget about everything else. Look at this lovely reverse sigmoid curve; time of course is plotted along the bottom, and the completely subjective ‘enjoyment’ measure is up the side.

Fig 1. A Graph to Show Completely Fabricated Data

A

This relatively straight line at the top is high and steady; this represents our first exposure to the medium. It’s puppy love, it’s infatuation — everything is bright, shiny and new and you love everything you read, or most of it. There may be one or two things you don’t enjoy, but you probably couldn’t say why.

Stick around long enough and your knowledge of the medium builds, you start to understand how it works, how stories work in this strange world of words and pictures. You start to pick up on art that compliments a story, you can spot a plot hole a mile off, and you can tell when someone is written out of character.

Stick around long enough and gradually we reach B.

B

This is where we start to see diminishing returns on our investment. This is usually after several years of superhero stories, we’ve started to see all they have to offer — deaths, rebirths, marriages, divorces, things blown up, teams shattered, reboots. (Of course, any of these can be experienced in ‘A’, but a reboot means nothing if you don’t know what it’s rebooting, and you can only know what’s being rebooted if you’ve been around long enough). When you’ve seen it all you start to get bored, the enjoyment with each title slowly starts to fall away until we reach ‘C’.

C

The final hurrah, ‘C’ is the plateau — this is the opposite of A, at this point we’re committed, despite the fact that our enjoyment isn’t the same as it was at the start — but of course it’s not, it couldn’t be — not for any sane, well adjusted, reasonably maturing individual. Here are the important things to remember, you mature faster than the stories and these stories will never end. Each arc of a superhero book is essentially a chapter in a meta-story, a story of stories — except the meta-story doesn’t have an ending in sight and so you are constantly reading a story stuck in its second act. The curtain will never drop. However, when you’re past the shininess of superheroes and you’ve outgrown the power fantasy you find a new appreciation for the power of reinvention the stories bring. The way new creative teams subvert the rules and tropes, how they turn something familiar on its head, the focus is less on the story and more on how the story is told.

Of course those who venture outside of the Big Two discover a whole world of fully formed stories with a clear start, middle, and end — these are the realms in which the excitement of ‘A’ can usually be found, because once again we’re in new and unfamiliar territory.

I guess the TL:DR version is this — we drop a lot of money of characters we love, we get hooked, we come back for more. We can rationalise the wasting of resources (“things will get better”) and we get the occasional kick out of a story.

Not to mention we enjoy a good moan about the stuff we hate.