Archive for October, 2007

i c whut you did thar

The irrepressible Corey Lewis is one of the first wave of cartoonists in DC’s Zuda webcomics site. His strip is called Dead in the Now. Not a lot of content yet (and that interface is pretty clunky…), but as a card-carrying comics formalist, I was enthralled by this little moment:

Word balloons in Rey’s Dead in the Now

Check out those word balloons! They go into and back out of the page to avoid the zombie’s head!

How did that make me feel, Roast Beef?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

Over at The Savage Critic, Abhay Khosla reviews a new series from Vertigo, The Vinyl Underground. I haven’t read this comic, but I feel like I have, and I suspect that’s (a) why I enjoyed reading Abhay’s review and (b) why his reaction was so negative.

And yes, it’s another prong of the ongoing Great Vertigo Symposiblog of 2007 that’s spontaneously arisen in the last month. Like I said over a year ago, writing about American Virgin, “our shelves are filled with overpretentious underexecuted shortlived Vertigo series from the 90s.” At the moment, aside from a few stars (Fables, Y, DMZ, 100 Bullets) the bulk of Vertigo’s output feels like… bulk Vertigo output. As Abhay states (more clearly in the comments to his post than in the original post itself), The Vinyl Underground looks like well-trodden territory for the imprint, and I suspect the irritation comes less from a particular lack of quality in this book than from the sameness that it shares with its siblings, combined with that smug assertion of edginess and originality which is Vertigo’s trademark.* It’s telling that one character claims to be “the only on-line porn star who never goes all the way.” Abhay and Paul O’Brien have already poked fun at the naiveté of this line, but based on the reviews, she’s a lot like the book that contains her: asserting the novelty of a concept which has been done before and wasn’t really that interesting to begin with.

*the smug assertion, that is, not the edginess and originality. [Let the record show that back on The Engine I once suggested that maybe we needed a resurgence of "smirking" comics. Not sure where I stand on this at the moment. But I do like Matt Fraction.]


“Pull back for a double-page spread of… THE KITCHEN!!!”

Guy Major’s color palette, subtly mocked by Abhay, is problematic for me too in the PDF preview. The subtle gradients are certainly miles better than the dark ages of mid-90s Photoshopastrophes, but somehow they end up stiflingly warm and unexciting. Dull? Pale? One of those words. Again, it feels vaguely “Vertigo house style.” I much prefer Major’s coloring in Suburban Glamour, where he rightfully cranks up the pop (the blue in Astrid’s eyes and on Dave’s shirt!) to match McKelvie’s impossibly-charming visual style and carefree high-school setting.

(Is it possible for colors to be described as shiny vs. matte? I feel like that’s the difference here. Vertigo books feel very, very matte. Somehow you can tell even when you’re looking at both of them on a computer screen.)

This ties into a larger question of house style. Every publisher has an identity. Especially in the small world of comics, the taste of an editor does a lot to determine the look and feel of his/her books, from the simple decision of which projects to publish all the way down to details of execution (That’s what fascinated me about the last line of this Minx overview by Valerie D’Orazio). And once established, those patterns become self-fulfilling — Top Cow publishes Top Cow books because that’s what the fans want. And this is all well and good — I like that Oni books feel like Oni books. Top Shelf too. Publishers work hard to develop a public image. But at what point does “reliably consistent aesthetic” slide into “off-puttingly repetitious”?

At the point where a book lacks the unique magic that makes it stand out from the pack, I guess. And that’s not the worst thing in the world. Like I said before, Vertigo was putting out filler material even when Sandman and Preacher were at the height of their powers. Nobody bats a thousand. Thus has it ever been. The Vinyl Underground isn’t a Sign of the End for Vertigo (not that anybody said it was, I guess) — it’s just another book. (Kim Thompson once argued that more “just another book”s is what we need.)

Those covers are pretty sweet, though. Kudos to Vertigo for taking a chance with the layout.

PS. Of course, I’m sitting across from my bookshelf staring at Jonathan Hickman’s sublime The Nightly News, which is more what I was hoping the book would look like based on the cover. I’m with Todd here: IT’S LIKE, WHY DO THEY EVEN FRIKKIN’ MAKE OTHER COMICS?!

Growing out of the magazine business model, part 876534

The latest meme is that Vertigo and (especially) Wildstorm are losing single-issue sales, and therefore in danger.

First of all, nobody knows anything about the numbers except the publishers, so this is a ridiculous discussion to be having.

Secondly — confessing that I don’t know anything about the numbers — I’m pretty sure that when it comes to stories that real humans might read,* single issue sales are a fraction of the story. Quick, which has sold more: Sandman #21 or Season of Mists? Bone #10 or The Great Cow Race? Black Hole #6 or Black Hole? All the Year Round for 4/30/1859 or A Tale of Two Cities? Look, guys, a paperback edition is not “a cheap and easy way for latecomers to catch up with what they’ve missed.” (1991 is <— that way.) It’s a book. It’s the only thing libraries will stock, it’s the only thing bookstores will sell, it’s the only thing NYRB will review, it’s the only thing most people in the world are interested in reading.** The book’s the thing.

Related point: a purchase of a book in a given format is not an ideological declaration of allegiance.*** For years I’ve been hearing “buy the book in X format or you’re a traitor.” “Our team is losing! Buy single issues of She-Hulk or there may never be a collection!” “CIVIL WAR: I’m with Waiting-for-the-Trade Man.” You guys read too many comic books! There are no teams. Consume the media you like, in the way that makes sense to you, and the market will recalibrate itself to suit the consumption trends that emerge.

*i.e. stories in which Green Lantern does not appear and the female characters do not habitually stand such that you can see all their erogenous zones simultaneously.
**Excluding digital and disposable formats.
***With apologies to my lit theory prof.

Now then.

As for this question of profitability. Why doesn’t Vertigo cancel its low-selling books? Profitability is a really complicated concept, and I imagine the mechanisms behind a title’s cancellation are considerably more complex than some are implying.

In every area of publishing, some products are (strictly speaking) profitable and others are (strictly speaking) not — it’s a fact of life. In fact, MOST books are unprofitable. Every publisher uses the revenue from the high-performing products to subsidize the loss from the low-performing products. Additionally, it may take a product many months or years to make back the investment that produced it — particularly at a company which pays high page rates and/or advances. If every publisher canceled a title the instant it dipped below the strict “profitability” line, almost none of them would last long enough to make real money, and the publisher would go bankrupt.

There are a dozen reasons why a strictly “unprofitable” title might be continued:

  • expected revenue from future formats
  • contractual obligations to the creators (I believe Rushkoff was promised at least one TPB when he signed Testament, and I suspect this is standard)
  • public relations and other intangible/indirect profits (could DC really just cease production of kids’ comics? could Vertigo really cancel 80% of its line? what would people think?)
  • editorial preference/indulgence
  • contractual obligations from a movie option (GOT NO LEGS BOY must remain in publication because they might make a GOT NO LEGS BOY movie)
  • etc.

With the first bullet point being the most significant, in most cases.

And for that matter, a low-selling book may have considerably lower production costs than a higher-selling book. So it may not be nearly as unprofitable as it looks.

Zeitgeist

We each might quibble with some of his specific choices (not to mention his abuse of the subjunctive!), but can anyone deny the sentiment of this post by Josh Hechinger?

If I was a musician right now, I’d be wishing I was one in the 90s (because I like slacker wit plus guitars and girls in Army surplus jackets, I dunno).

If I was a filmmaker, I’d be wishing I was one in the 70s (because there’s a sort of art + trash vibe I associate with that period.)

If I was a journalist, I’d be wishing I was one in the 60s (for Rolling Stone).

But I can’t think of any other time I’d rather be trying to make comics, except maybe the future.

The meme lately is “the recent aesthetic boom has not translated into an economic boom for artists & publishers,” which I won’t deny. But for those of us young and foolish enough to be able to value aesthetics over economics (for now),* it’s a thrilling time that’s only getting thrillinger.

*And, historically, isn’t it always these types who introduce the new ideas?

Come on, you want to throw pie at these guys too

table’s full
Joe Sacco, Seth, Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown and Adrian Tomine

Heidi MacDonald’s much-maligned piece about Chris Ware’s Best American Comics 2007 book for Houghton-Mifflin is the talk of the blogosphere. She’s put up another post processing the attacks and defending herself a bit.

I think I have an idea what she’s getting at, and I’ve spun my assumptions about her thesis into a chance to lay out my own ideas.

If I may:
1) Chris Ware, as revealed by his selections for this book, enjoys “comica verite.”
1a) Not too surprising, considering he’s Chris Ware.
2) The New York Times, the New Yorker, and the series editors at H-M tend to favor “comica verite” as well, as revealed by their choices regarding which cartoonists to hire/promote (Pekar, Ware, Bechdel, Kelso, Satrapi, Brunetti, the Spiegelman smoking-rooftop cabal).
3) The NYT, the New Yorker, and the big New York publishing houses are among the most prestigious and influential tastemakers in American art & lit.
4) Plenty of “rip-roaring”* cartoonists (Smith, Aragones, Rugg, O’Malley, Vaughan, Moore, Tezuka) have gotten critical praise, but this praise has largely come from critics outside the highbrow arena: bloggers, industry pros, PWCW, librarians, Entertainment Weekly, G4, etc.
5) Heidi is arguing, I think, that H-M’s selection of two “verite” editors in a row for their “Best American Comics” series creates a false impression that “verite” is the only category of comics worth reading.
6) She also appears to be more generally lamenting the highbrow media’s infatuation with “verite” to the exclusion of the “rip-roaring.”
7) She has expressed a slight preference for the rip-roaring over the “verite,” but never suggested that one should exterminate the other.
8) It’s entirely possible that the respect of the highbrow lit world is a pointless thing to long for. Jeff Smith is doing okay for himself. (that is, he is making money hand over fist, thanks to kids and librarians and comic lovers, and no thanks to the Snooty Buttoos)
8a) On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that The NYT’s comic page pays better than Dark Horse Presents.

[* Heidi never used the term "rip-roaring"; I'm using it as a shorthand for "comics where a page-turning story is central to the appeal"]

As Kyle Baker said, the issue of audience is central. But it seems like prestige is an equally valid issue here. As my lit theory prof taught me, the source and nature of a message communicates just as much as the message itself.

This doesn’t address her issues with the Fort Thunder collective (oblique pomo aesthetes seemingly disinterested in story) or the Flight crew (good old-fashioned pretty pictures & fun but pretty contentless so far), who are neither storytellers nor highbrow darlings. No reason to demand rip-roaring plots from everybody, although you can sort of tell that lots of the Flight kids would like to write one.

In any event, it’s clear from my list of “non-highbrow tastemakers” above that there are plenty of people to pander to aside from the New Yorker. The “real mainstream” is huge. So in my mind, the remaining items on the to-do list are:
1) Continue to battle the false perception that comics have two branches, Spider-Man and Optic Nerve (which keeps Spider-Man fans from trying anything “alternative,” and more importantly, keeps millions from trying comics at all). All of us fall into this trap sometime, but it’s a decades-old mentality that’s completely obsolete.
2) Improve distribution channels for the “real mainstream” so that you don’t have to impress Art Spiegelman to get into Barnes & Noble. Lots of progress made on this one; long way to go yet.

EDIT: Interesting follow-ups and related links:


Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

Categories

Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.