Fuck “saving comics”…let’s just make ’em better.
For the last several years, every online pundit with a pseudonym and a platform has been spouting off about how to “save comics”, how everything is a festering pile of doo-doo and only they have the magic formula to remove all the stains.
Lemme tell you somethin’…kill that fucking noise.
We’re tired of it, sick of hearing about it, can only roll our eyes one last time before they burst. It’s 2002 and people are still yammering on about “saving comics”. If I have to hold your hand and lead you to the realization that though creators aren’t swimming in their personal money bins like Scrooge McDuck, the industry isn’t nearly as bad off as some suggest, then you’re beyond aid. The mere usage of the term “saving comics” implies a heightened degree of pretension and expertise few commentators have business even conveying. I just find it highly disappointing that in the new millennium, with Hollywood producers and mass media crawling up our ass to see what’s contained within…still, after bothering to claw our way from the gutter of the mid 90s…
…people don’t want to read fuckin’ comics anymore…they want to “save” them. Imagine that.
I’ve read comics for about ten years, and I don’t think they’ve ever been better. From the approaches to the slow expansion of genre to the production values, it’s a good time to read comics. It’s a bad time to be my budget, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. Too many books to read and not enough time and money to support the habit. Why would you want it any other way?
However…there are a few nagging inconsistencies and nervous habits I’d like to watch the industry shake loose in this new century. Though I’m not pretentious enough to instruct you on how to “save comics”…I will provide a few suggestions on making them better. A diagram if you will. A set of requests aimed at comic publishers to usher in the creation of books for a bold new millennium.
Let’s take this by the numbers…nice and easy…
The cover of any decent comic should exist as a work of art that inspires above all else…curiosity. If you’re not hitting them in the stomach, then you ain’t doing it right. Covers are a publisher’s initial line of defense against a closed wallet. In a perfect world, curiosity leads to closer inspection, which may result in a purchase. Whether the buy is planned or impulsive really isn’t the concern, only the final sale matters. Covers, if produced effectively, mean money.
So why in the hell are the majority of our modern covers so excessively dull? This makes absolutely no sense when considering the artistic caliber that some of our creators are bringing to the table. And this lack of excitement can be attributed to one thing…tradition. Traditionally, the titles have been placed at the top of the book in luscious oversized lettering. Traditionally, the company logo rests in the top left-hand corner. And traditionally, this makes for boring-ass covers.
Stop me when this starts making sense.
Your premier comic company goes to the trouble of securing an A-list cover artist that manipulates style and composition to construct the most striking image possible. Then this beautiful piece of art is dropped into an ancient template that exists as acceptable because it always has been. It’s the new millennium…it’s time more of our comics looked like it.
Seeing a comic that has chosen to do something unique with the arrangement of title and credits is a truly rare occurrence that demands additional attention. Planetary was a comic with beautiful front images. Wildcats after Wildstorm finally allowed Sean Phillips free rein was always fun. Anything Kaare Andrews touches with his pinky finger. Altering the way a cover acts and feels is the first step to true enlightenment. Major companies are most guilty of this because their universes are brimming with these hugely recognizable characters that don’t require funny fonts to identify. The Big Two could do literally anything they want…and yet…they give us the same old thing.
You don’t have to display the words SPIDER-MAN and BATMAN in large letters to sell their damn books. The title could literally be written in another language with the company logo buried in the background and it would still present the same effect. And it would be much prettier. I’m not even suggesting that this become a monthly ritual for every title on every occasion, but when you have a big storyline, a huge creative debut, or some other special event please do something non-traditional with the cover layout.
Even the Ultimate titles offer a visual scheme that stands out on a Wednesday afternoon at the local retailer. And they could sell those damn things without covers. It’s time to think out of the box, hell…burn the box. There’s so many possibilities that a skilled designer could present in that little space, yet 95% of our covers are paint by numbers in an ancient format that we could stand to ditch on occasion.
This is a personal pet peeve of mine, only surpassed in annoyance by a slow internet connection. Comics are probably averaging a cost of two bucks and fifty cents, and in this modern day and age, there are still some publishers that don’t want you to or don’t care if you understand what is happening in their fuckin’ books. Just don’t care. It doesn’t occur to them that requiring a decoder ring to fathom the notions of the characters is entirely unappealing. Marvel just recently announced a line-wide initiative that will cause every book coming from their catalog to include a synopsis page to introduce some of the main characters and touch on exactly what they were doing last month. Now, there are differing viewpoints in regards to the precise catalyst that brought on this decision, but one would assume that common sense was one of them.
When confronted about the particulars of what’s “wrong” with the industry, a fair percentage of people are going to cite accessibility…or lack thereof. Ten years of interlaced continuity shouldn’t be required reading for the latest issue of Spider-Man. Accessibility is a necessity for the new millennium comic, and anything else is not only negligent, but extraordinarily lazy. After the consumer shells out nearly three bucks for your book, at least provide them with a rudimentary guide map.
I cannot tell you how many books I’ve passed over because of a suspicion that the story wouldn’t resonate properly. And all it takes to bring folks up to speed is a paragraph. One paragraph, that’s it. There’s not a book on the stands that I shouldn’t be able to pick up on the strength of a beautiful cover, read and potentially enjoy without wondering what put the characters in their current situations.
Before I turn on ER, I’m treated with a blurb of “what’s come before” that contains pertinent information relating to the upcoming episode. Now an ER freak like myself isn’t paying it much attention, but there’s a percentage of viewers that are getting something from it, and those are the people we should be targeting. Every book out there should contain an issue summary in some shape or form, even if it’s seen as an exercise.
A striking cover image and a ‘what’s come before’ blurb conveys to the audience that you’re taking them and their three bucks seriously. And consequently…there’s a very obvious way to ruin things before you’ve even begun…
The crossover could very well destroy us. It embodies everything that caused the industry to nearly burst like an over-inflated balloon in the 90s. Extravagance and over-indulgence tapping into what can serve as both one of the most frustrating and yet valuable aspects of the human condition…the desire for completion. People don’t particularly enjoy sprawling company-wide crossovers, there’s just something within our genetic make-up so petrified at missing something that forms a complete narrative that we will mindlessly support them with misplaced dedication. This is why crossovers continue to be financially successful despite their outspoken critics.
They’re Jedi mind tricks of the highest order, and not even good ones. They subvert the natural order of progression, which should blindly drive consumers to buy things offering genuine quality and instead turn things into a hollow “follow the puzzle pieces” gimmick occurring every six months. Crossovers should be the exception and not the rule, prevalent in only horribly insulated titles that demand them like the Superman group. Instead, we’re forced to bend over twice a year for yet another painful exercise that goes on for far too long.
The worst part is that something within us can’t seem to ignore them. We sigh as the vicious cycle prepares to repeat itself, hopeful this will be the last time and that the company would trust their competent creative teams long enough to tell some un-interrupted stories. To deliver some content worthy of this new age…
When attacking content, we must never forget that the modern audience demands to be bombarded with as many distinct voices and approaches as possible whether or not this trend is accurately reflected in sales. Pundits will comment that the truly original work gets squeezed out of circulation by the mainstream and in many cases, this may hold some validity, and is indicative not of some shadow conspiracy to drive all creators to write superhero comics, but the natural order of things.
Every facet of entertainment media enjoys the same endless debate that the nature of the beast exists to deliver the familiar, while threatening to devour the original. Happens in movies. Happens in television. Happens in music. And it happens in comics. Why we think the traditional rules of pop culture entertainment don’t apply to us is beyond me. The majority of people don’t want to think much about their escapist entertainment, not in the slightest. It’s why hollow bullshit like Vin Diesel’s xXx and Nelly’s latest CD are topping the charts. Here’s the secret, applicable to several mediums of expression…
People don’t want to actively fuck anymore…they just want to sit and be fucked because the end result is the same.
Complaining about this unfortunate fact does nothing. Strange, subversive and ultimately fascinating material will never come to dominate any entertainment industry because things just don’t work that way. Say what you want about superhero comics, but there are a large segment of them that are wildly enjoyable to a disproportionate amount of people. There’s nothing wrong with this. Doesn’t stop Grant Morrison from launching something like The Filth. It doesn’t matter that The Filth isn’t selling as many copies as New X-Men, it’s never going to. It matters that The Filth exists, and that there is an audience out there for it.
This leaves us with only one option…bring the best damn material that the industry has ever seen, whether superheroes, creator-owned, or licensed product. Every medium has internal and external boundaries and it’s how often we push the envelope within our individual constraints that matters. We spend so much time longing for someone else to appreciate our efforts, without bothering to consider that we shouldn’t give a fuck what Howard Stern thinks about comics…what do we think about comics? I get a charge out of mainstream press too, but it means nothing when we’re all pacing in different directions, and the only one that means anything is the quality of the books on the stands.
There is nothing I hate more than a company that refuses to take chances with the books it publishes. What genres and themes they’re printing I could care less about, as long as it’s about something, as long as it has something to say, and it tries to say it well, taking as many liberties with its frame as possible. As long as it isn’t hopelessly fuckin’ obvious.
You want to know why everyone has been diggin’ Marvel over DC the last couple years? Because they take CHANCES. Because whether they’re doing the Ultimate line, the origin of Wolverine, or The Call, they are not afraid of trying new things with their characters and their universe. Even if they fail. You will never see them sweat because for every stunt that blows up in their faces, there’s three other projects that didn’t. And across town, we’re getting another crossover rammed up our ass.
You know what crossovers indicate? Desperation. That the creative teams can only exist on their own for six months at a time before you incinerate something or schedule an earthquake. Give your stable more credit than that. Take some more chances before it’s too late. And I’m not referring to sure-fire decisions like putting Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee on Batman. I’ll be first in line for it, but come on…that pairing involves virtually no risk.
Milligan and Allred on X-Force. Bruce Jones on Incredible Hulk. John Ney Reiber on Captain America. A gritty crime writer named Brian Michael Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man. These were creative and financial gambles that paid off tremendously. Why? Because Marvel isn’t running around their offices with sweaty palms fearing the corporate monster will swoop down and peck their eyes out because Kevin Smith mentioned someone getting a blowjob in Green Arrow. Just because it’s a road less traveled doesn’t excuse you from setting foot on it.
Respect the audience enough to surprise them with radical approaches (or approaches that are so heavily disguised they appear radical) and they’ll love you for it. Because it’s evident you’re trying to garner their attention and didn’t insult them by blatantly giving them the same thing in succession. All we want is something different.
Because this is no time to be complacent…and no time to be afraid.
The question then becomes one of format.
Interested parties don’t have to crawl the net for long until running into the latest debate arguing the merits of the monthly “pamphlet” versus the permanence and increased popularity of the trade paperback. That’s also the last time I’ll refer to the monthly format as a “pamphlet.” Joe Quesada and Bendis despise that particular terminology and have made convincing arguments as to why they do, and I’ve recently come to agree with them. Pamphlets are found in health clinics…I read comic books. I’ll simply refer to them as “monthlies” for the duration of this examination.
The monthly format is indispensable to the industry at this juncture. It permits the cogs to turn in a financial direction, and preserves the episodic format and pace offering the quick and immediate bang for your buck. It also contributes to the typical misconceptions regarding the industry with its “not a magazine, yet damn sure not a book” appearance, automatically downgrading the mainstream’s expectations on sight.
Just how seriously can Joe Average take something stored for posterity in a polyurethane bag and a long box?
Additionally, they’re too expensive at nearly three bucks a pop for 22 pages of story and art, therein lying the most dangerous of Catch-22s for cover prices remain so high to maintain the standard of quality audiences are demanding. However, the exorbitant pricing isn’t what’s keeping the mainstream away anyway, because The Ultimates could have a cover price of a dollar and the guy on the street wouldn’t care because one, who wants to read a “comic book,” and two, they can’t find the damn things anyway.
Cue the secret weapon please.
The trade paperback is the future of the medium. It’s our last line of defense against the initial inclinations Joe Average has to ignore our strange “funny books.” For all the commentary about distribution, distribution, distribution, there are more people that will pick up a comic with temporary interest, laugh at how they used to read these things when they were kids, and place it back on the stands, curiosity satisfied and purchase unmade. These things could be in every supermarket in the continental United States, and people STILL wouldn’t buy them.
It’s the illusion of affordability that we’ve sacrificed for computer coloring and glossy paper, tools that have become necessary and expected. And even with these tools at our disposal, there are people that need to be actively force-fed our material. Because comics are “for kids,” and in the current monthly format, they’re too expensive for them to discover otherwise. Joe Average isn’t shelling out three bucks for the latest X-Men, there’s an Entertainment Weekly or a Maxim with more pages in it, even if the majority are full-color ads.
The trade is our weapon against these people. It’s dozens of pages and bound format instantly alters the understood perception of what a comic book is, and re-establishes the illusion of affordability. Selling a 22-pager at three bucks is a much tougher sale than 144 at fifteen, especially when the product is residing at your local bookstore offering a complete story in a format Joe wouldn’t be completely embarrassed for someone to see him in public with.
Placing the product in bookstores increases our chances of introducing graphic literature to an entirely different audience not driven into a frenzy by Wednesday afternoons. It’s all in keeping with appearances, and Joe Average is more impressed with the collected Ultimate X-Men than its six individual components. The only significant downside to the format is that it effectively prices several younger readers out of reasonable range. But does this truly even matter anymore? The children’s audience in modern comics has become a niche at best, and the question becomes…should we even care?
I don’t believe that children emerging from the womb with a URL imprinted on their brain and an X-BOX controller permanently grafted to their forearms are going to find themselves naturally giving a shit about comics. The days of the dollar comic at the local 7-11 are long past. Why can we not abandon the distant possibility that it’s likely we’ll be able to hook them young and nurture them into adulthood? Why do people think that our best bet is supermarkets and convenience stores?
You know where we should have graphic novels stocked?
At the fuckin’ Old Navy. Abercrombie & Fitch. Sam Goody. College bookstores. That’s where the potential audience lives, spending seventy bucks on jeans and giant hoop earrings without batting an eye. You think it’d be difficult to sell these kids ten dollar trades if we got them in their face? Placement in clothing and record stores automatically elevates their street credibility to ‘cool.’ The audience has officially changed. Instead of whining and brainstorming for creative solutions that are terribly focused on recovering readers that don’t exist in large quantities anymore, we should be targeting teens just getting their first jobs and still hangin’ at the mall.
Monthlies are the flavor that provides sustenance for the direct market, but the mass market needs trades, and needs them delivered in more creative ways. And with our products reasonably aimed at the people they’re written for anyway…it makes the “mature readers” imprints even more important. Kids are fascinated by parental advisory stickers, things they’d have to hide under the bed from their parents. Mature branches of our catalogs, and to a large extent creator-owned material, ensures that the medium remains something dangerous…if they’re done right that is.
The Forbidden Fruit:
The mature comic is a very strange animal.
Everyone seems aching to publish them, but few are willing to exploit the potential storytelling possibilities. More often than not, mature is classified as two parts graphic violence, one part gratuitous nudity with a dash of harsh language, stir and serve. These shouldn’t be the required ingredients for “mature comics.” It’s too obvious. It’s too easy, and at the end of the day it leaves things ultimately hollow. “Mature” should mean more. Here’s an example.
What was Marvel’s first MAX comic? I’m warning now beforehand…this is a trick question. Think carefully. What was it? Come on. You think you know don’t you?
Only the people that said Black Panther are correct. Panther is and continues to be the epitome of “mature comics” with complicated politically charged plots that would convince any discerning reader that writer Christopher Priest is indeed a genius. There’s no tits, no entrails, and no cussing, but there’s an additional level of complexity lacing the storylines that sets it completely apart from anything else on the stands. That’s what a ‘mature’ comic is.
If I had my way, the current run would be released in a series of regular trades under the MAX label. Canceling that Wolverine book, moving it to MAX, calling it Logan, and having Rucka and Darick Robertson go to work would provide the label with an instant top 10 darling. And how fun would it be to see Deadline monthly and cycled into the label? Creatively, the only thing separating Vertigo from MAX is a few good monthly hits (and I’m only picking on MAX because I like them) and several years of incubation time. Their strategy right now seems to be hit-and-run, exploring genres that often don’t garner much coverage or attention, which is a proper foundation.
That is the nature of mature comics. They exist to say what others cannot. Our ability to relate truly original and engrossing stories can be accurately measured by what we say when we have no restrictions. When a naturalistic mainstream market isn’t flooding our stores with the most remarkably constructed pop comics that appeal to the masses.
That’s the secret of all this.
When we can do anything in the world…what do we do? Creative progress isn’t accurately measured by the Diamond chart for the simple fact that it follows the same predictable trends as a Soundscan or Bookscan. Pop music will reign supreme. Mystery novels, spy thrillers, and Oprah’s Book Club will dominate the bookstores. Superheroes will conquer all because that’s what we created them to do. What superhero loses a fight nowadays? You could have the flashiest glow-in-the dark cover, company logo running vertically down the center, with the ensuing trade hitting the shelves of Old Navy in five months time and it doesn’t matter. The attractive and accessible dressing is just a weapon to prompt people into hearing us. The content of things classified “mature” and creator-owned are the reliable yard stick by which the industry should be measured because it answers the always relevant question of…
…if you could say anything in the world…what would you say?
What would YOU say?
Think about that for a minute as the various components assemble themselves.
You’ve just seen The Blueprint.