Wrestling with more pamphlet/distro questions

I can’t let it rest there. If the “alternative” giants abandoned the comic-book format years ago (and they did), who is producing something like this format today, who might be affected by the policy shift? Setting Chris Butcher’s “death of the direct market” aside for the moment, what sort of content is in danger?

I don’t know how the economics of these things work(ed). Would new comic books from Kevin Huizenga, Sammy Harkham, John Porcellino, or Anders Nilsen (or their un-famous equivalents) make the cutoff? If not, are these guys making enough money from single-issue sales that it would be a significant financial blow? How often do these things really come out any more? Selling a $5 comic book to 1000 loyal fans once a year doesn’t pay the bills, especially after distribution and retail take their cut. I don’t think we’re cutting off a revenue stream that subsidizes the gradual creation of a masterpiece. If you’re not selling enough copies to make it into Previews, you have a day job already.


What about minicomics? The deluxe little self-published booklet, whether standalone or serial is a beloved icon of the alt-comics scene, even today. Recent favorites of mine include Jonathan Case’s Sea Freak, Andy Hartzell’s Monday, Chuck McBuck’s Snake Oil, Justin Madson’s Breathers, Sean Ford’s Only Skin, and Alec Longstreth’s Phase 7. But has Diamond ever really carried this stuff?

There are plenty of people generating blog buzz and underground acclaim via tabling at shows like MoCCA, SPX, Stumptown, and APE, just as they always have. And certain retailers will go outside of Diamond to pick up some of those minis, just as they always have. Right? And artists then parlay that underground buzz into a project at an established publisher. It’s just that that first pro-published project is now a small graphic novel, rather than a comic book. And the internet has essentially provided an endless SPX, so that buzz-building and feedback-receiving can happen year-round — and with readers who can’t make the trek out to small press shows.

johnny-hiro-2.jpgFred Chao’s justly acclaimed Johnny Hiro is moving to a book collection. If you’re like me, you responded to all of its Eisner buzz last year with “Great! Now it can be collected in book form, reviewed in major outlets, placed in libraries, and sold to the general public.” It kind of seemed quaint that it was ever a comic book at all. For better or for worse, that’s the new industry assumption that I see. The cursus honorum of comics. Everything is aimed at producing a Blankets or Fun Home or Bottomless Belly Button or Asterios Polyp. The Great American Graphic Novel.

It’s problematic, of course. Some stories don’t need to be graphic novels, and some cartoonists don’t need to be graphic novelists. And even for those who will someday, is the infrastructure in place to allow them the time to gestate?

Yes and no. Comics will not continue to be created in the same way they once were. We’ll see fewer and fewer projects take the serial-comic-to-big-book format a la Maus, Black Hole, Box Office Poison, Local, Bone, From Hell, or Jimmy Corrigan. But the books will still come out, one way or another. Some of them will surely be underbaked, deprived of the reader feedback that serialization provides (but on the other hand, look at how many webcomics and newspaper strips have decayed into self-parodies, stunted by the shackles of constant reader feedback). Others will die stillborn, unable to find a publisher willing to risk a 400-page book on an unproven creator. Some will be published, only to find customers balking at dropping $15-20 on somebody’s debut. But, y’know, I think we’ll figure it out.

Done with pamphlets for the moment. Open question: what about book-format books that sell in small quantities? Is Picturebox really fucked?

Also, where do comic shops fit in?


4 Responses to “Wrestling with more pamphlet/distro questions”

  1. 1 Mike February 11, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Speaking personally and not necessarily on behalf of my employers: This is the most sensible thing I’ve seen written about this whole foofarah. Please don’t let this be your last word on the topic.

  2. 3 Chris Rice February 13, 2009 at 5:00 am

    I’ve got to say, I absolutely agree with you both on this, and the other post on this subject.
    I’m a little surprised that you’ve never really connected with Bagge, Clowes, Matt or Seth, but that may be an age thing, I guess (give ’em another go!).

    Tom’s already replied to these posts over at CR, suggesting that you’ve missed his point somewhat, and his criticism of Diamond is that they’ve abandoned a format that still has some value. I would counter that by suggesting that they’ve been the last to do so, after creators, publishers, retailers and readers have already done so.

    None of the creators Tom namechecked have produced a regular comic for years, all deciding, independent of any distributor presure, that book format is the way to go. Seth & Tomine put out maybe one comic a year, and I suspect that’s only through habit – Seth’s next book is an OGN.

    If creators don’t produce, publishers can’t publish, retailers can’t stock, and readers can’t buy new comics. I used to run a very indie-friendly store, but we could only sell 4 copies of a new Palookaville – if Seth’s only going to put out one issue of Palookaville a year, naturally most readers are going to wait for the collection. This then has a knock-on – I had real difficulty selling Josh Cotter’s wonderful Skyscrapers of the Midwest as issues, but it flew out as a book collection.

    I understand Tom’s desire to see more indie comics, I share it, but the simple truth is, the creators themselves have decided that the bookstore market is what they want to aim for, and considering the incentives, I can’t really blame them.

  3. 4 DerikB March 1, 2009 at 7:23 am

    Thanks for those recommendations at the top. I’ve not heard of Sea Freak (looks good) and found out I’m an issue behind on Breathers.

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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).


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

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