Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
If Image Comics is meant to be the revolution then it’s safe to say the revolution IS being televised since a lot of those comics read like TV shows. What’s up with that?
I suspect that some readers will see this question and interpret it as a slight against Image Comics. We’ve talked before about how comics that aspire to be like movies, television, and other forms of media typically fail at being comics. That’s a very real problem, but it’s not the one I think you’re addressing here. In fact, I don’t think this should even be qualified as a problem so much as it is an astute observation. Image Comics isn’t publishing series that aspire to be like television so much as they are publishing comics whose format and scheduling bare a striking resemblance to the television revolution of the past twenty years.
For the purpose of making this comparison I’m going to focus on a single series for the ease of reference. In this instance that series will be Saga. It may not be the patient zero for these trends, but it’s pretty darn close in many cases. In addition to encapsulating all of the TV-like aspects of the “Image Revolution”, it also marks the beginning of that modern change in comics and its largest success. The Walking Dead may sell more issues each month, but Saga doesn’t have the benefit of a wildly popular TV series to boost its sales. If you want to make the case for what the model at Image Comics has been based upon, it’s the success of Saga.
Just looking through the direct market sales charts, it becomes quickly apparent that most of the best-selling comics at Image have duplicated Saga‘s strategy a great deal. While I may only be calling out Saga as an example, you could easily swap in comics like East of West, Manifest Destiny, Paper Girls, The Wicked + The Divine, Tokyo Ghost, Outcast, and almost any of their other top sellers.
Almost all of the similarities between these comics and television series comes from the increased focus on story arcs, specifically those that can be easily and regularly bundled in approximately six issue stints. Comics have been written, published, and collected based on story arcs for a long time. It has only been a recent innovation that these arcs ought to be designed as familiar sets with the same number of issues (episodes), pages (running time), and collectability (box sets). That reliable rhythm has created a lot of similarities.
Let’s focus on the art before the business though. Take a look at the plotting of Saga. You can try to name a main character and make a case for Marko, Alana, or Hazel, but the book itself does not treat any of them as the centerpiece of its story. While Hazel remains the narrator and the cause of a lot of action, it’s only recently that she has begun to make any actual decisions within the story. Saga is really an ensemble that jumps between characters in each issue, rarely capable of touching upon all of the core cast in any single installment.
This set up resembles that of popular television shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, growing so large as to allow storytellers to shift their focus within each individual component of the story. The structure is admittedly designed as part of a greater whole where satisfaction within the weekly reading experience typically only comes from past knowledge and future expectations. Any individual issue of Saga functions as a significantly weaker individual read than it does as part of the greater whole.
The larger structure of Saga is focused around six issue arcs, each with a planned introduction, rising action, and a big finale and cliffhanger. Each of these functions much like a standard season of television or the half seasons that many shows like The Flash and Arrow go in for. While the focus may rotate between issues, you can clearly plot the arc of each character in any six issue set. Saga has even pulled the same stunt as many prestige TV series in making over-sized issues a special point of attention with the launch giving a bigger introduction to hook new consumers. They’ve also done an excellent job at providing a consistent introduction and format for each installment of the series with distinctive covers and reliably placed credits pages. This is something Jonathan Hickman has also done extraordinarily well with his designs in East of West.
That rhythmic style of storytelling isn’t just comfortable for creators and readers alike, it’s also a great tool for marketing and sales. By dividing Saga into these six issue “seasons”, the Saga team has helped inform readers on how to best consume their series. Anyone who reads Saga now knows the routine: six issues come out, you wait three to four month, then six more come out. It’s the same sort of cycle as a television series. This builds anticipation through relatively short breaks and cliffhangers, and helps to ensure the series never overstays its welcome.
Other readers who may not enjoy the quick monthly installments and waiting between each new issue are given an easy alternative. Trade paperbacks are released on the same schedule with each collection of the previous arc being released before a new one begins. This provides a binge-reading alternative and allows new readers the chance to catch up. Furthermore, the big hardcovers collecting 18 issues of the series each provide a fancier presentation for fans wanting to place something nice on their bookshelves. This style of publication allows for a variety of levels of consumption that all build naturally upon one another.
In addition to making it easier for fans to consume Saga, this model also makes it easier for creators like Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples make it. These breaks allow the creators time to plan what comes next and catch up with their own workload. Look at daily television in soap operas or the nonstop pace of many superhero comics and you can see the strain of that relentless pressure to produce. Taking planned pauses allows creators to refresh and better craft each step forward. It also provides them with opportunities to work on other projects, whether it’s Vaughan writing comics like Paper Girls and The Private Eye or Staples drawing the Archie relaunch.
It’s possible that Vaughan’s time as a writer and showrunner on Under The Dome influenced his current approach to Saga, but wherever it originated from it is an approach that has spread. Most of Image’s ongoing, creator-owned series have mimicked this style. They include massive casts of characters and long lists of plots that can be swapped in and out between issues designed to work over concisely numbered arcs. It’s a season-based approach that has absolutely paid off on a business level.
This shouldn’t be particularly surprising given that comics and television are the two most popular forms of long-form serialized storytelling in the Western hemisphere. There’s an argument to be made that many movies are moving in this direction, but I don’t buy that being a natural, long-lasting, or good thing. Hollywood’s obsession with easily marketed franchises doesn’t reflect the same type of structure required to put out new batches of story each year for as many years as required (or possible) like comics.
Concepts like seasons, finales, arcs, and collections aren’t exactly new to comics, but they are slowly becoming clarified, especially in the way that Image publishes its line of creator-owned books. While they do not set a specific standard or expectation for all of their books, success is imitated and the successful books we’ve talked about have created a system for others to follow.
That system is not enough, in and of itself, to ensure a profitable series at Image Comics, but it does provide a proven structure that a popular work hitting at the right time can utilize. Organizing a series around arcs that can easily be repackaged and resold, and simultaneously give creators a break to catch up on their own work, is a great business model. This goes even more so for a publisher like Image Comics where books are creator-driven, limiting the desire for fill-in artists or a rigid, monthly deadline.
This has caused some problems in the past with massive delays besetting comics like The Manhattan Projects and Jupiter’s Legacy. But it is also a problem the publisher and many of its creators have worked to correct. The second volume of Jupiter’s Legacy will debut this month and artist Frank Quitely has already completed five of the six issues in full. It’s a smart course correction, aligning the principles of the work with a successful publishing strategy.
This is also one of the key areas in which we see the Image Revolution diverging from the titans of the American comics industry, the “Big Two”, Marvel and DC Comics. These publishers have certainly seen strategic publishing shifts of their own in the past five or ten years. Marvel has moved itself closer to a seasonal model with regular relaunches of its titles, including those that don’t necessitate a sales boost.
These are relatively minor shifts though, not major changes. Both Marvel and DC are titanic organizations, and I mean that on multiple levels. They have a long history and reliable customer base, both of which encourages them to stay in their own lane and continue doing what they have always done. They also both boast massive staffs of editors, designers, various management positions, and lots of other spots. That many people working together makes it much more difficult to change culture or pivot strategy. They are also owned by corporations much, much larger who have a vested interest in protecting the intellectual property published by Marvel and DC Comics. A single Marvel Studios movie can make more than half of the revenue the the entire American comics industry pulls in over the course of a year, so investors are not inclined to watch these companies rock any boats.
At the “Big Two” it’s process over product, and that makes sense from a business perspective. When the most valuable thing you possess isn’t what you sell, but an idea others can sell, then your primary goal is probably going to be staying the course. You can drift a little from side-to-side and spice things up with a big relaunch like “Rebirth” (where things are still mostly the same) or by handing out a new #1 every time a new creative team comes on board (to tell the same tried and true stories), but you’re going to stick to what you know overall.
Image Comics has the benefit of not having any of that weight on their shoulders, and it allows them to move much more quickly. Image is still a relatively new company and their history lends itself to concepts of fast-paced change. They have a surprisingly small staff, one that can be counted in dozens. Most important of all is that what they publish is creator-owned. They can choose to play it safe in what creators and concepts they agree to work with, but the work itself cannot be safeguarded by the company. Artists are free to flourish or tank their own ideas, and the potential revenues offered by Hollywood.
The ability for a publisher to pivot and alter their distribution model is still limited by one big factor they share with both Marvel and DC: reliance on the direct market (DM). There’s no disputing that sales of collections in bookstores and other outlets have grown, but the American comics market still relies on the DM in a big, big way. The monthly sales of individual issues is the lifeblood of the industry as we know it. Even titanic best-sellers like Saga and The Walking Dead would have broken if they had not been met with an initial success in monthly sales. The growing or steady sales of these books allowed them to publish trade paperbacks and hardcover, and to grow the audience for these types of publication. Without the support of a monthly audience in comic stores, even the best comics at Image (or Marvel and DC) are doomed to fail.
That’s why the publishing changes stemming from the “Image Revolution” somehow manage to feel revolutionary while still not marking a very significant of a change. This shift has allowed for some very valuable alterations to the publication of comics in the American DM, the ones you alluded to being television-like in nature. They allowed creators and readers to take breaks, they focused storytelling into tighter, purposeful arcs, and, most importantly, they placed creators in control of how to publish what they created.
While that shift makes for comics that certainly look and read better on a more consistent basis than their caped competitors, it also fails to affect any change in the only force in American comics that could actually be defined as a monopoly: Diamond Comic Distributors.
The weekly cycle of comics is not a natural or inherently good thing. It primarily benefits the only company that ships every comic being published in this cycle to thousands of stores each week. That limitation still places an emphasis in short chapters, read and purchased individually before being repackaged for other outlets. That a digital distributor like Comixology has its schedule set by the physical retail of books being released on Wednesdays speaks to the entrenched nature of Diamond in the American comics industry.
The “Image Revolution” certainly altered the cycles of comics publishing and altered our expectations as readers, but it hasn’t come close to breaking the machine of comics distribution in order to replace it with something better. For that to happen, something far more powerful than one influential publisher will have to come along. It’s almost impossible to say what force could accomplish this and drive comics away from Diamond’s ghetto and toward a wider mass market, but whatever it is, it will certainly be revolutionary.