Archive for the 'distribution' Category

in a supreme irony, it took me forever to compose this

By and large, Rolling Stone may be the poster child for the obsolescence of the print magazine, but one thing they’re still good at is the in-depth, Cameron-Crowe-style artist profile.

Reading through Mark Binelli’s Lil Wayne profile in last month’s issue, we learn a few facts about the “best rapper alive”:

  1. Lil Wayne is always stoned.
  2. Lil Wayne releases tons of music for free over the internet.
  3. Lil Wayne goes to a recording studio every day.

Now, I don’t know what to make of the first one (as I understand it from the article, he literally chain-smokes weed. His assistants roll blunts and put them in packs which he carries on him at all times. Like Lyle and Ray’s Perfect Jays.). But #2 and #3 made me think:

Lil Wayne is to music as webcomics are to comics.

It was #3 that surprised me, but it’s starting to make a lot of sense. Studio time is expensive if you are a garage band, but not if you have the #1 album in the world and you own a dozen studios. It’s also pretty easy to do it yourself these days, even for garage bands. And if you are prolific and talented and like making music, why would you ever not be recording?

It’s a completely opposite model to the standard rock process (write songs privately, spend intense time in the studio perfecting the recording, then release your finished masterpiece into the canon). In music, call it the U2 or Zeppelin model. In comics, think of Craig Thompson or David Mazzucchelli.  It’s also distinct from the corporate deadline/assembly-line model, exemplified by the early pop singles industry, the syndicated comic strip, or the Big Two comic book.

Instead, it’s what people have been saying about the Internet for years: removal of middlemen, instant delivery, zero barriers between creation and distribution. Lil Wayne (or Randall Munroe) has an idea, he gets on his computer, he lays it down, he clicks a button, and 50 million people download it.

Art as blog.

Andrew Sullivan (who does more or less the same thing for political commentary) has written thoughtfully on blogging:

The blogosphere may, in fact, be the least veiled of any forum in which a writer dares to express himself. … The wise panic that can paralyze a writer—the fear that he will be exposed, undone, humiliated—is not available to a blogger. You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts

Apparently Wayne doesn’t even write his lyrics down anymore, he just records whatever comes to him during his (again, daily) recording sessions. Webcomic creators like Chris Onstad and Jeph Jacques improvise on a similar day-to-day basis.

And that’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality. The faux intimacy of the Web experience, the closeness of the e-mail and the instant message, seeps through. You feel as if you know bloggers… When readers of my blog bump into me in person, they invariably address me as Andrew. Print readers don’t do that. It’s Mr. Sullivan to them.

That matches my impression of both webcomickers and Lil Wayne: the immediacy and unmediatedness of their work is intoxicating, and they blur the line between personal diary and product, between friend and fan (with sometimes frightening results).

I hasten to add that I don’t think this is the sole future of artistic or literary production. It’s just one part of the cultural ecosystem. We will always need thoughtful, well-crafted, large-scale pieces in every medium. Some creators are better suited to one type or another (God knows if we were all bombarded with Twitter updates and Myspace diss tracks from Bono or Thom Yorke we’d shoot ourselves in the face). Some can tackle both, just as Sullivan finds time apart from his blog grind to compose the occasional essay or book.

But as for the New York Times’ much-mocked anxiety about the upcoming xkcd book — if this comparison holds, Munroe doesn’t have much to worry about.

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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.

breathers

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?

One thought on the death of the alternative comic book

tomine

Lots of talk lately about Diamond raising its order minimums. Tom Spurgeon has a characteristically meditative but surprisingly assertive piece while Chris Butcher spells out the reasoning behind his even more alarmed response.

I don’t feel that I have enough years under my belt to take a stand on this, but I have to record my reaction to this part of Tom’s post:

If it’s not the end of the alternative comic book, it’s certainly a vicious blow to those comics as we’ve come to know them. This is worrisome because an entire generation of excellent cartoonists came to prominence through alternative comic books — Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Julie Doucet, Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Matt, Adrian Tomine. Alternative comic books were not just a vehicle for those talents but played a huge role in shaping how those cartoonists developed by giving them platform that offered legitimacy without permanency, unfettered control with periodic feedback. Although there are more opportunities now and have been other opportunities all along, one can argue that none of those formats has been as useful to this expression of comics.

I don’t doubt it. But when I read through that list of names, the only ones I feel the slightest connection to are Woodring, Brown, and Tomine — and Tomine is the only one that I encountered in comic book form. (Are the Hernandez brothers left off for some reason? They would add one more, but the point remains.) For better or for worse, the “alternative” generation, and especially the alternative comic book, has been almost completely irrelevant to my comics life. And I’m hardly a comics illiterate.

It’s possible that what we’re doing here is not so much killing a living thing as burying a dead one — acknowledging that it’s not going to come back. The Eightball/Optic Nerve/Palookaville format had its pros and cons, but its moment does seem to have passed. Dissecting it for useful lessons would be a good idea; agitating for its return strikes me as pointless. There aren’t any full-page newspaper strips anymore, either.

more shameless self-promotion!

Oh by the way, my interview with PWCW‘s Laura Hudson is up on her blog Myriad Issues. We talk about a few issues related to digital comics distribution, including my attempt to construct a theoretical division of media experiences into “ephemeral” and “permanent” — something that isn’t entirely fleshed out yet, but I’m getting closer to figuring out what I’m trying to say.

This is the section that seems to be hooking people the most:

If you treat your comics as newspapers from a fictional universe, there’s no reason to read them twice.

on comic subscriptions

Here’s an interesting piece from this week’s PWCW newsletter that’s worth looking at. As Heidi says, “Todd Allen digs into the BPA audited circulation figures for comics and figures out why Marvel publishes the Marvel Adventures line” when sales to direct-market comic shops are very low:

The comic with the most subscribers was Marvel Adventures Spider-Man with a whopping 27,395. You want to know why Marvel Adventures exists with low direct-market sales? There’s your answer—subscriptions. The second-highest subscriber count was Ultimate Spider-Man with 14,890.

Later in the piece:

I also find it interesting that the Marvel Adventures subscription numbers are quite so high. Does this mean parents with young children don’t feel comfortable taking the kids into a comic store, or just that the direct market isn’t convenient for them?

Well, yes. The reason those Archie digests are by the supermarket checkout lane, right next to Cosmo, is so parents can spend five bucks on something to keep the kids quiet on the ride home. It does not usually spark a lifetime obsession with the medium of sequential art — perhaps in the child, but definitely not in the parent.

The funny thing about the comics industry is that everyone in it loves comics. Which is great, but they don’t really know how to relate to people who don’t.

For a parent who has no interest in comics, given a choice between A) driving out to a comic book store, once a month, every month, [walking past the nerds and the Witchblade statues to the kids’ comics ghetto] to spend $3 on a Spider-Man book for your kid… and B) taking five minutes to pay $25 ($2 per book) for a Spider-Man book to arrive magically in your mailbox, once a month, every month, without having to do anything?

Also, for civilian readers, that’s just what you do. Kid wants Ranger Rick, you get ‘im a subscription. You don’t go to REI every week asking if the new issue is out and socializing with other outdoorsy people.

It’s what I did when I was a kid — in 1991, somebody gave me an issue of Disney Adventures bought from a checkout aisle, and I loved it so I talked my grandma into buying me a subscription. Somebody gave my brother and me some X-Men comics, so we started looking for the X whenever we went to the drugstore. Even after we discovered the (crappy) local comic shop, it was so rare that we would get to go — and so likely that the issue we wanted would be out of stock or too expensive (last month’s comic suddenly costs twice as much because it’s a “back issue”) — that it made more sense to just get a subscription. Heck, we paid up front for four years of X-Man.

It’s a different world and a different industry now, but new readers are still essential.

I guess this isn’t really news to most folks

In case it was unclear: the distribution and retail network for comics is broken like whoa.

I can’t argue with anything this guy says (except his particular taste in comics). Really, it’s a wonder the system hasn’t collapsed already.

In my opinion what needs to be fixed first is the entire market and how comics are ordered. I’ll use myself as why I am absolutely frustrated with comic book stores. I have been going to the same store since I was 15. It is now 10 years later and my once weekly pilgrimages have turned into once a month if lucky. What has caused this you asked? Many things. The first being is that the comics I want to read are always delayed or just due to creator’s laziness canceled, (see. Ultimates 2, Soul Saga, Battle Chasers etc..). So what does that make me do? Second guess whether I should pick up that number 1 or wait for the trade.

Next due to the low runs of some books they are canned faster than the newest Fox drama. I now invested all this time, money and emotional attachment to a story which doesn’t even end properly. Now what does any reasonable man do? Well he sits there and waits for the trade. Also need I also mention that on Amazon trades are usually 30% off the cover price and they ship to your door.

Now that pretty much sums up why I don’t even bother going to my comic book store. There are times when I do want the actual issues just to own a piece of comic history. Like when Buffy S8 came out I did my proper duty. I pre ordered from Previews. Told my comic book lady to make sure you get me all the issues. All of them I will come and pick them up. So when I go what happens, “oh sorry I sold out already.” Oh you did… Okay no biggie when #2 comes out make sure you get me my #1 2nd printing. Time passes, “Oh I got your #1, but sold out of #2.” Well needless to say you can see where this is going.

Another thing because of how screwed up Diamond is, if my comic book store doesn’t have the TPB, which in most cases it doesn’t, the ordering time from Diamond to the store is like one month. If the item is in stock at Amazon we are only looking at 3 or 4 days to get to my door.

I don’t know if I have sworn off comic book stores forever. I do walk every now and then but I rarely find myself buying anything. The thing about comic book stores is that they are supposed to sell comic books. If they can’t even do that properly then transforming them all into Internet cafes won’t even save them.

I want to support the comic industry as much as anyone. But you can’t ask people to put up with this aggravation purely out of a sense of duty. It’s frustrating that the market hasn’t already been forced to grow in a more customer-friendly direction.

[edit: I should add that I think adding cafés to comic shops is a good idea. The problems afflicting the system can’t be fixed that easily, but anything that makes a shop more welcoming can’t hurt.]


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).

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