Archive for the 'serialization' Category

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?


One thought on the death of the alternative comic book


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.

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.

tradewaiting, tradewriting, and serialization

what do you think? many people don’t know that The Dark Knight Returns actually fell behind on its shipping schedule – I’d wager that most people who’ve read it now, read it in a collected edition.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “writing for the trade.” In some ways it’s nice: planting clues that reward a payoff later, and having more pages just allows you to tell a more sophisticated story. Or, alternately, it allows you to space things out visually, so that important moments and long pauses get lots of space to cushion them. There’s also a sense that the long-form comic book, whether published that way or initially serialized in floppy issues and then collected, is the future of the medium – that having a spine and a barcode and an ISBN number, and having your book able to exist on the market for longer than a month (or a week!) is a significant step forward.

On the other hand, the downside is that when you “write for the trade” and still publish monthly, sometimes the monthly reading experience is less satisfying. The writer’s not concerned with giving you a complete story in one sitting, since this incarnation is only the first, fetal stage of the story’s life – once it ends up in a TPB, it can live forever, and that’s where it will acquire most of its readers (over potentially decades!). Brian Michael Bendis has been most vulnerable to this charge lately — his issues sometimes feel like some characters exchanging witty banter but ultimately going nowhere. This trend, popularly known as “decompression,” spaces out stories that might seem cramped if forced to operate at a 1960s-style pace, but sometimes it leaves readers feeling cheated.


Finally, people have been complaining for a while now about lateness in comics publishing. Sometimes this is “fixed” by replacing artists (the slowest part of the process) with fill-in substitutes, but that’s generally unpopular and reads horribly in the TPB ten years later. So lately we’ve been getting a lot of really late books. And people are pissed.

What effect does the serialized nature of the medium have on serial comic books? Isn’t it fair to say that in a serial artwork, a decent-sized proportion of the experience actually consists of the waiting between installments? Isn’t that where at least some of the magic happens? If we try to write more ambitious, long-term stories, how can we still ensure people are hungry for each installment? If we slow down to take the time to make each installment the best it can be (with future generations of readers in mind), does that cheat the fans who’ve been promised a certain schedule?

But then, there’s a certain pride in being a fan “through thick and thin,” and sometimes the long delays can make the final arrival all the more satisfying – I’m thinking things like Kabuki, or Strangers in Paradise, or Bone.


More of the same discussion

in reply to this:

if you don’t know what to look for, you won’t be able to find it.

I agree. There’s plenty of work to be done. But slowly, slowly, the leviathans are turning. And the little fish have been doing it right for years – and slowly becoming bigger fish. This (i.e. continuously-in-print comics) is the direction the industry is heading, unstoppably. It’s a healthy direction. And as a result, “keeping these properties alive for a new generation” is becoming less and less valid a reason to make comics. It’s currently somewhat valid, but the clock is ticking, and we (you and I) can encourage it to tick a little bit faster by admitting (and propogating) the truth: that some of the great stories have already been told, and they can be had without too much money or hassle. And then demand from the publishers that they work to make that statement more true.

What do you if a friend is interested in X-Men? Say “well, Peter Milligan’s New X-Men isn’t too horrible…” Hell no. Say “most people think the peak X-Men period started in 1975 and runs for about a hundred issues. You can read them in The Essential X-Men vol. 1-5. If you like team soap-opera superhero stuff, consider the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans run, or Peter David’s Young Justice, or New Warriors, or The Intimates or even Love & Rockets. If you like action and explosions, try Authority or Sin City…” Buy the good stuff, and recommend it tirelessly to friends. Let each month’s “new” garbage rot on the shelves, and the publishers will get the message.

And really, just-came-out single issues aren’t really much easier to find than trade paperbacks. If you’re arguing that “we have to publish things as single issues or no one will ever know they exist,” I’m gonna point to Full Metal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, and InuYasha.

(the reprinting comics in trade is just the comic companies doing the same thing you described radio doing. “playing” the same thing over and over again to get new “listeners”.

No, it’s comic companies doing what record companies do: keeping great works of art in stores, so that new fans can find and enjoy them years after their original release. Imagine if the Beatles’ record label decided that the LP wasn’t a viable market, and the only way to hear a Beatles song was to find somebody who collected the singles when they came out in the 60s! The closest we could get would be hearing the latest Oasis song on the radio! Or, more accurately, the guys from Oasis, plus Ringo, releasing singles as “The New Beatles,” playing shallow imitations of Sgt. Pepper! Luckily, Sgt. Pepper and Revolver and the rest can still be found in CD stores, and we can play them for our children and our children’s children, when Oasis will be merely a footnote in history.

no-one makes any creator work on a book at gun point… they have a story they want to tell with those characters.

A fair point. But isn’t there something wrong with a system where the absolute best thing some creators hope for is to figure out a new way to have Spider-Man save the world? I’m sure there are a million writers who would love to tell stories set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Or Rowling’s HP universe. Many of them actually do write these stories. But they have no expectation of getting paid to do so! They consider those stories practice for the real writing, with their own characters and ideas. To many comic book fans, it works the other way around: Lapham’s Stray Bullets was just a warm-up for his work on Batman.

Even a creative force of nature like Frank Miller is hampered by his upbringing. When the only concept of “comics” you have known is “playing with other people’s toys,” that’s what you aspire to. And when given the opportunity to make your own toys (300, Sin City, etc.)? You f*cking blow people’s minds. He’s returned to DC since then, but still I suspect out of a combination of greed and nostalgia (among other reasons). Are there some stories that work best using established characters? Probably (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). But for such stories to be the dominant force in the market? Ludicrous. And I think Miller, Morrison and Ellis would agree.

Really, I just want comics publishers to stop acting like Underoos-and-movie-licensing-corporations and start acting like book publishers. Is that too much to ask? (Ellis has an old column on this)

the quote i posted before was him responding to a fan asking him if he felt there were things you shouldn’t do with a company character. as in, if he felt he owned the long time fans of that character anything.

Right. I think his “never write out of a sense of obligation to the fans” runs directly contrary to your ideas about writing derivative comics because it might be somebody’s first exposure to the character. Why not let someone’s first exposure to the character be the masterful story that’s already been told with that character? Meanwhile, make comics for yourself. You can make fanfiction too, but… don’t settle for that.

Things were cleared up somewhat in the comments thread to this post.

well, that went somewhere surprising.

Andrew Wheeler on the new Doctor Who series and why fans make crappy critics:

And I admit, it is passably entertaining. In spite of its terrible shortcomings as a work of fiction and as a piece of television drama, it does provide for a light and inoffensive 45 minutes of silly nonsense every Saturday dinnertime. It isn’t intelligent. It isn’t original. It isn’t even terribly faithful to the original. But it’s forgiven all its sins simply because it’s there, and the viewers are grateful. …they seek to excuse the show’s flaws. It’s a phenomenon referred to in my social circle as ‘nerd blinkers’.

Nerd blinkers. The apologist fan’s greatest weapon; the ability to stubbornly refuse to admit that there’s anything wrong with your beloved TV shows, or movies or … comics.

…I worry that comic readers are generally too generous in their appraisals. Some of the titles acclaimed as the best on the market are passable pulps rather than compelling narrative works. The whole medium suffers from being a fan’s medium, and the fan’s instinct to excuse any shortcoming leads to a pervasive attitude of critical laziness; an impulse to exalt the second rate, because hey, at least it’s comics. At least it’s there.

…If we’re content to be spoon-fed our entertainment, we’ll just get slop. There should be discourse that demands the best, not mewling gratitude that accepts what’s given.

  • The flip-side of this problem, of course, is that fans can just as easily reject innovation and shout down anything that conflicts with their treasured memories of “the good years.”
  • Is Wheeler overestimating the effect of criticism on creation?
    • I don’t think Akira Yoshida reads The Comics Journal, not that TCJ even bothers to address mainstream comics anymore…
    • What are we really wishing for? That bad comics stop getting bought? Okay, I’m for that, generally speaking. It’s not going to happen in the mainstream world – there seems to be a silent majority that will buy X-Men (or, more appropriately and in Paul O’Brien’s excellent line, I Can’t Believe It’s Not A Finite Crisis) no matter what – but bad reviews can sink an indie comic as surely as good ones can boost it. But can criticism actually affect the form that comics take, either individually or as a medium? Is there evidence that creators have made bad comics, had this fact pointed out to them, and then made better comics? Probably.
      • What we really want, actually, is more good comics. Let there be crap, but let it be ignorable and let there be plenty of brilliant work to focus on instead. I’m enough of a fanboy – I have enough of an attachment to the properties – to wish that there could be a good Shatterstar series, say, or to feel that X-Men shouldn’t suck. But that seems to be fading, and I’m becoming more content with just letting that go and simply turning my attention elsewhere – like I do with people, nowadays, distancing myself from tedious or annoying people rather than being upset by them. I just wish there were more good comics to turn my attention to.
    • Partly I’m wondering about format. Why are comics serial at all? Not that it doesn’t work for certain stories (interpersonal soap operas like Love & Rockets or Strangers in Paradise, or flagship superheroes like Spider-Man or Justice League), but there is such a strength in a single-volume, massive book. Blankets, Watchmen and Maus are books, dammit, and that automatically lends them a maturity and gravitas that feels worlds away from Spider-Man. Some of them originally appeared serially, but they cannot be read except as units. There’s a different kind of strength in a lengthy serialized story that is still a single story – i.e., one that ENDS. Cerebus. The Vertigo trifecta of Sandman, Preacher, and Transmetropolitan (also include Shade?). God, I love it when a story ends. It shows responsibility on the part of the writer (and publisher). It allows your story to be a story, complete, whole. It allows it to be analyzed, for God’s sake. Tell us everything, and then we’ll see what it is you said. None of this “maybe you’ll find out next time” crap. It’s so ephemeral. None of that will matter in ten years. I want art that stands as a coherent unit, that can be evaluated as such. Bone is more of the first category: it appeared over a long timespan, but it was collected in a single volume for a reason: it always behaves as a single story, moving in a single direction. Transmet, come to think of it, could almost be the same, with minor flaws. Cerebus too. Aw, hell, it’s all a spectrum anyway.
    • And yet there’s something to be said for serialization. Would The Lord of the Rings have been better or worse if it had been serialized for worldwide monthly publication? Can you imagine the fanboys? Analyzing every chapter, putting the pieces together about this complex fantasy world, drawing homemade maps, making predictions, taking sides, personally involving themselves in the story. As it is, people still immerse themselves in the world, but the story itself is right there on the shelf. It’s all happened. At the end of chapter thirteen, chapter fourteen is right there waiting. And fifteen, and sixteen, and so on until it’s all over. But then, that’s exactly what serial fiction becomes once it’s finished. Should creators ignore the ephemeral experience, then, either preventing it (by withholding publication until the work is complete, as Frank Miller did with the latest Sin City novel) or seeing it as only a byproduct of practical considerations?
      • It depends on the work, of course. Some concepts should be serial – concepts that feel timeless, where the overall story doesn’t move very much but maintains the status quo, or where an ending isn’t implied. Invincible, I think, despite its dramatic movement, feels like it could go on forever – the concept is “he’s a young superhero; he fights bad guys,” which is pretty open-ended. Y: The Last Man, in comparison, is definitely moving toward a climax. I look forward to the next issue of both, but I know that Y will eventually be a completed story. Fables is somewhere in between: its motion isn’t as obvious, but the series begins with “trouble brewing,” things suddenly being different than the way they’ve always been, and when the trouble is dealt with, the story will be over.
      • So here’s to Karen Berger for buying stories and not series. To Will Eisner, who just started doing it the right way and waited for everyone else to catch up (we’re still waiting). To Frank Miller, Craig Thompson, and everybody else telling the Direct Market to take a flying leap and writing books, like any decent author.

Well, that went somewhere surprising.

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.