TPB or Not To Be (Part 2)? Carey, Limke & Tokyopop talk graphic novels

Tue, July 30th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

In part one of this two part interview, CBR News spoke with the verbose Brian Bendis about trade paperbacks and their relative merits compared to the serial format that fans have grown so accustomed to over the years. To offer some slightly different perspectives on the increasingly popularity graphic novel format, CBR News caught up with DC Comics exclusive writer Mike Carey (of "Lucifer" and "Hellblazer" fame), independent comic book writer Jeff Limke ("Dungeons & Dragons: Black and White") and TOKYOPOP's Vice-President of Sales and Marketing Steve Kleckner, as that company has switched over it's product entirely to the graphic novel format quite successfully. This group of professionals discussed a variety of topics relating to graphic novels/trade paperbacks and while they were asked the same questions, they rarely had the same answers.

It's no secret that the comic book industry has seen double digit increases in trade paperback sales during the last year, but there does seem to be somewhat of a debate as to why exactly the increase has been so dramatic.

[Mike Carey]
Mike Carey
"Well for one thing Marvel have gotten into the game in a big way now and are pumping out as many TPBs as DC, if not more," explains Carey. "So they've definitely got more noticeable recently. And since a lot more stuff is being collected, and collected quickly, I guess that makes it easier for readers to make the decision to wait for the trades, with a reasonable expectation that the trades will happen. I can see the appeal of that - it certainly beats grubbing through the back issue bins for overpriced early issues of a comic you caught onto late, for example." Limke says he isn't so sure about the reasons for the increase, but points to the maturity of the audience itself as the determining factor. "Pure conjecture and without anything other than anecdotal evidence - the comic crowd has matured to a point where it likes complete stories in one format as opposed to serial adventures. It's at this point the argument breaks into two camps - one camp argues this change is a good thing because that indicates the form has become sophisticated enough to warrant artistic consideration by the population at large. This camp would argue that this sophistication would draw in adults who have heretofore been outside the industry's crosshairs and these new readers will rejuvenate the sales of the industry. The other camp argues the growth of TPBs indicates a shrinking number of younger readers as compared to the number of older readers who have stayed with comics as they have gotten older. To this side of the argument, the market seems to be courting the older readers who are more devoted to comics. Unfortunately, their argument continues, this shrinking base will, in turn, be indicated in the future by a shrinking TPB sales and the eventual demise of the industry. I wish I knew which of these two horses to bet on." On the other hand, Kleckner believes that it is simply a case of more product being available and more stores making the product noticeable. "There are several reasons: (1) more and more product has become available, (2) anime series tie-ins help promote some of the properties [since TOKYOPOP focuses on imported licenses from Japan], and (3) major book stores have begun to give the category shelf space."

Kleckner also contends that the success of the monthly comic comes from that same lack of options for the modern day comic book reader. "If the 22-page format was popular in the past, it was because that's all anyone knew about. There wasn't as large of a TPB selection as there is today. The reason TOKYOPOP publishes graphic novels is because fans want more, not less. I think some publishers may like the 22-page format because it is less expensive." While Limke agrees to a degree, he also believes that the explosion of graphic novel popularity doesn't spell doom for the monthly comic book. "Inertia," says Limke, explaining the serial format's success. "It's what has always been; therefore, it's always most comfortable. It's the old shirt you never throw out even though no one really remembers the band on the front. I also think the lower price point, at one time, made it an impulse buy similar to the National Enquirer and other 'check-out' type reading material. Let's face it, inertia is tough to break and the longer the original form has existed, the harder it is to really get people to accept change away from it. It took LPs awhile to succumb to cassette tapes, and it took a bit of time for CDs to blow away cassettes. The established, comfortable old format is tough to remove… especially in a market that isn't bringing in the younger readers who are more open to the 'CD' form of comics." But Carey is an adamant supporter of the monthly comic book and believes it offers a visceral thrill that no trade paperback can replace. "There *is* something that you can only get from a monthly book, and that's the thrill of serialization," says Carey emphatically. "Being made to wait for the outcome of a great story makes you invest more emotionally in that story. You re-read the latest issue, speculate on what's going to be in the next one, count the days and so on. It's like a slow striptease, say - a lot more exciting than just having a naked woman or guy walk into your bedroom, however attractive they are."

One thing that all three men can agree on is that companies seem to be capitalizing on the increased demand for trade paperbacks/graphic novels, though Limke admits to still seeing this sort of thing from a fan's perspective. "I don't have access to the company numbers, nor do I have the opportunity to sit down and talk with someone like Quesada & Jemas, Levitz, or Alessi, let alone their marketing people. I'm just not qualified to say. I read the press releases about more trades released, such as Vertigo's slate for the future and Marvel's intentions to do more, but I'm not sure what that all means." But for some of the higher profile creators like Carey, there are a few concerns amid the praise being lauded upon the companies for their increased support of the graphic novel format. "Well DC have always had what seemed to me to be a sane and sensible policy - only collecting stuff that was very popular in the first place, so that there was a reasonable expectation that the trades would do well," explains Carey. "If anything, they've been *too* cautious: not collecting Grant Morrison's 'Doom Patrol' run, for example, or Alan Moore's 'Swamp Thing' stories (until very recently). There's a danger now that the rush to get out a trade and take advantage of the bookshop market is over-riding decisions about quality and sale-ability. Some stuff gets collected just because it's there. And as with the Marvel UK explosion-then-implosion in the late eighties, it won't do anyone any good to flood the bookshops with material that doesn't have much intrinsic value, just because in the short term you can get people to buy it. It's boom-and-bust economics, and a fragile niche market like ours can't sustain that." Kleckner says the key is simply keeping product diverse and making sure people can get it anywhere, something companies are doing in recent times. "Companies are all putting out more product and trying to expand their distribution bases. I believe we have done an excellent job of getting exposure for graphic novels in chains that never carried the category before, such as Suncoast and soon Wherehouse, among many others."

Even with all the focus and support for trade paperbacks, Carey contends that the monthly comic will survive despite all odds. "No, I can't see it going away - but then I don't want it to, so that's maybe why. People have been predicting the death of the monthly comic for at least a decade now, and there have been some serious attempts in that time to invent new formats and get them out there. TPBs aside, most of those attempts have failed. Speaking personally, I'd like to see a time come along when there are lots and lots of different formats - the monthly book as we know it taking its place alongside other ways of telling stories in graphic form. I used to love the Marvel/Warren black and whites, like 'Savage Sword of Conan' and 'Unknown Worlds of SF,' which were still monthlies but had a much bigger page count and more of an anthology feel to them. I've also enjoyed oddball things like Martin Rowson's 'The Waste Land,' which were comic books in regular paperback size. The more diversity there is, the better for the medium. But that diversity will probably strengthen the pamphlet rather than replace it, as video strengthened film." On this point, Limke wholeheartedly agrees and adds, "No, it's not on the final lap by a long shot no matter what anyone wishes to say. From the standpoint of an independent creator, it's financially difficult to pull together the scratch needed to put together a TPB or OGN that runs 72 pages. It's much easier to bring together three 24-page books and use the profits - if any - to pull it all together into a TPB. Books like 'Clan Apis' and 'Sandwalk Adventures,' 'Castle Waiting,' 'The Waiting Place,' and other alternative books are naturals for the OGN format, but I doubt their numbers would even be close to what they sell in the serial format in the short term so those serial numbers are needed to finance that TPB of those books. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they read better in single sittings - and of course I'm assuming this on 'Sandwalk' since it isn't finished as I write this - rather than as single moments of reading 30 days or so apart." Kleckner, however, says he believes in a slightly different system and he is glad to share it with readers. "I believe that the healthiest model is every other month to allow physical distribution, and the customer, a chance to find it."

But Limke does see one major problem with the monthly comic, one that that is reinforced by his experience as a writer and with his current project "D&D: Black and White." "I hate the cliffhangers/dangling plot points forced by a 22-page format," admits Limke. "'D&D: B&W' will read much better in one sitting since it's a slow build to a rapid end. The serial format forces some of the endings to happen on page 22 regardless of the pacing. Granted, the pacing can be manipulated on earlier pages through panel placement and number of panels, but sometimes, the pacing screams for the story or chapter to be finished in 20 or 23 pages. Serials force that amount of story. It's frustrating, though some will say it forces discipline in writing, which isn't necessarily terrible either. OGNs [original graphic novels] allow for a more natural/organic pacing, much like novels, which, I think, makes for a more rewarding experience for the reader."

Aside from pacing, another hotly debated aspect of the monthly comic book is the pricing especially when comparing to the (usually) lower price per page in a trade paperback. "Comics have been getting more and more expensive in real terms, and it has to be said that they're disturbingly highly priced if you compare them to the other things that kids might want to spend their money on," says Carey. "You can buy a computer game in the UK for the cost of maybe a dozen or so comics, and it's probably going to give you many more hours of enjoyment. I'm fretting about one of my usual bugbears here - the way the market fails to encourage new readers, especially young readers, to jump on-board. TPBs are usually cheaper than the issues they collect, so in that sense they're a bargain. They'll also sometimes give you stuff you wouldn't get from collecting the individual issues, like commentaries from the creators, character sketches and development work, scripts and so on." Though he hates to admit it, Limke does agree that single-issue comics tend to be far more overpriced than trade paperback collections. "Yes, but I'm slitting my own throat. The cost of the serial pays the bills and the more profit the single issues make you can make, the easier it is for the publisher to pay the bills up front. GNs as a general rule tend to sell better over a longer of period of time because their shelf life is longer. The problem for many smaller publishers is that it's a cyclical thing because their creditors won't wait out the sales of the TPB. Without the individual issue sales, there will be no TPB and without the TPB's long term sales, the publisher can't build up enough capital to start another project, which will have to be serial to help cover the immediate costs. Cyclical. I admire those who put out the OGN version first because they're taking a chance that the return on those will be enough in the short term to cover more OGNs. Other than that surface view, I know very little of the economics that drive those decisions."

Many fans seem to feel that writers deliberately pace their stories so that they fit "neatly" in a trade paperback and read better in that format, but Klecker believes that people are finding more pleasure with graphic novels simply because they are a more enjoyable reading format. "The graphic novel is the way of the future. I think that fans want stories that satisfy -- where they have time to relate to the characters -- and collections meet this desire." On the other side of the pond, Carey says that his first priority is writing a good story in each individual comic and he doesn't worry about the collections. "I've never felt that pressure - not for a moment. [Lucifer #31]Quite the contrary, in fact. When I'm working with Shelly [Bond, editor on 'Lucifer'] and Will [Dennis, editor on 'Hellblazer'], they're exclusively focused on the internal logic of the story, and their instincts are always to avoid "over-inflating" the story, to avoid giving it more pages than it needs. There obviously are writers who blow every story arc up to five or six issues long, but for the most part it's at the expense of the story and it doesn't bloody work. I hope I'll never do that - certainly I've never been asked or encouraged to do it." A very similar approach is taken by Limke, who wants the reader to get enough "bang for their buck" and doesn't want to short change any readers. "In my extremely limited experience, no. I tend to write for the format I get offered, which at this stage of the game is limited series. That said, I do try to keep in mind that the individual issues may be collected as such into a TPB version, but I'm a slave to the initial format because if sales are terrible or critical acclaim is non-existent, the TPB will never occur. It's a situation of where I don't want to count my chickens before the eggs hatch. However, most of the current books in all genres seem to be written in story 'arcs' or 'cycles' that can be easily collected into trades as opposed to the ways of years past where the trade was the ancillary thought."

When looking at the viability of an industry wide shift towards a higher level of graphic novel production, one [Tokyopop]need only look at the success of companies like AiT/PlanetLAR or TOKYOPOP who've been able to switch their product over to graphic novels completely with great success. Kleckner's reason for his company's success? "Always give the people want they want." Carey agrees that the success of those companies and others shows the viability of the graphic novel format in the mainstream market. "I think they've given us one more template, and it's great that they've proved it can be done. If it comes to that individual creators had already proved that - for example when Leo Baxendale started bringing out his 'Willy the Kid' albums in the eighties - but the scale and diversity are greater here. I'm not sure what the lesson is, apart from 'here's another approach that works.'" Limke thinks that this all could signal a fundamental change in how fans are viewing comic books and which formats they'll accept, but that this doesn't mean that graphic novels are going to become the dominant format overnight. "It's a paradigm shift thing, again, and there's no way of predicting how long that shift will take. It may be months or years. I'm not seeing any true readable predictors that tell me that by this time next year, major characters will appear exclusively in graphic novels containing one story arc rather than in four chapters appearing over four months in four single issues."

Mass-market appeal is obviously a major concern of comic book companies and the ability to insert trade paperbacks into mainstream outlets like bookstores makes them very attractive business choices. In addition, companies are continually trying to recapture the younger market that was seemingly lost in the 1990's and some have speculated that a lower-cost graphic novel, namely comic book digests, could be key. "Obviously one of the big attractions of TPBs has always been that they can be placed in bookshops and tap a market that would never dream of going into a comic shop," says Carey. "That market increased exponentially after the success of 'The Sandman,' and I think it's still getting stronger and stronger. The other advantage to that is that unlike comics they don't have to be hauled off the shelf a couple of weeks later to make way for the next lot: they stay in print, and sales can build slowly over time. I'm not so convinced by the younger audience argument. I still believe that the best way to get more kids on board would be through a wider distribution of monthly comics, possibly on cheaper paper and more affordably priced. Having said that, in the UK there is a noble tradition called the Annual - a kind of hardback special, which all UK comics put out around late October to catch the Christmas market. Annuals sell through an even wider range of venues than TPBs, because mail order catalogues and outlet stores carry them. That would be a possible avenue to explore." Kleckner says that attracting the younger market may depend more on the product itself that the format and uses some of the TOKYOPOP licenses as examples. "We go after young audiences all the time, as well as older fans. It really depends on the series. We are constantly working on making manga more commercially accepted/available in North America. This will also happen because people grow up on anime today with Cartoon Network." With experience as a fan as a parent and fan, Limke ha a unique perspective to offer on this issue as well. "Speaking as a parent, the digests were nice pacifiers for long trips. Of course, today's modern families now have VCRs and DVDs in the van. I thought Walkman's were the parent's best friend. Boy, have I been left behind. In my opinion, comics are a victim of tech change and consumer change. I often compare them to radio dramas, which were also victims of tech change. Okay, aside from the changing qualities of an emerging market largely untapped, OGNs need to work at acceptance as a literary peer of prose novels, only in a different format. 'The Road to Perdition' movie could be a major step in this direction. Many people I know were amazed 'From Hell' was originally a TPB collection. This angle must be exploited or people will think that only stories such as 'Spider-Man' are created in graphic form. I'm utterly amazed at the success of 'Spider-Man' - not that it did well on initial release, but at its staying power. People obviously enjoy super-heroics, but we need to show them all sorts of stories can be told in the graphic format… for all ages."

One of the reasons for the popularity of trade paperbacks, as mentioned before, is the sense of the completion that readers get from having a full story in their hands. But if you think that perhaps there will be a switch back to a focus on single issue stories, you're not likely to find much agreement with these gentlemen save Kleckner who says, "There is certainly room for both." Carey says that the sobering reality is that single-issue stories just don't sell that well. "From what I can gather, the prestige format one-shot is not a format that has done very well, even when launched off healthy titles with strong monthly sales. DC still does it, but more and more cautiously: they definitely prefer the mini-series format." Meanwhile, Limke says we need only look to the past and see how things were done to see why the single-issue story isn't so viable these days. "We've already done that. Those of us that have read Silver-Age stories have seen it, and it works to an extent. Originally comics were viewed as a bit of reading that could be done in one short sitting, much like short stories. Short stories are hard to find now - they exist, but the market is limited. I can't see comics much differently. The market that would want that type of story is not in the stores now and I'm not sure if they can be attracted to the market. They have 30-minute episodes of shows on 100s of channels at home. When those Silver-Age stories were big, entertainment choices were quite a bit less, so the odds of someone picking up a comic because nothing was on the TV were quite a bit better. That's not true today. If I don't like what's on TV, I have my VHS library and my DVD library for things I may like, or my PC games I can play. Then I have the magazines I subscribe to because they appeal to my interests and I have books I can read as well my comics. And I love comics. Imagine how hard it is to get someone who doesn't enjoy reading and has the same distractions - especially since for the same amount of money, they can rent a DVD of a movie they haven't seen that includes extras as well. I don't see how going to a single story format would solve much of anything in the long term as far as 22 page monthlies are concerned."

When asked, as professionals, which format they prefer, each of them offer up a decidedly unique answer that also parallels how they feels as fans. "We plan on doubling our output of graphic novels next year, so that should give you an indication of how we view the industry's future," says Klecker succinctly. "I like GNs -- I am hooked. They are convenient." Carey says that he's happy with his set up, which allows for his monthly work to be collected frequently for those readers who prefer trade paperback collections. "I'm happy with the balance as it is, I guess - with successful monthlies maybe spawning a couple of collections a year, and with a time lag to publication of the collection averaging around three to six months from the last monthly issue it collects. I guess it would be nice to see more original graphic novels coming out and doing well, but I'd be kind of sad and kind of dubious to see the number of collections go up a lot - because that could only be achieved through a slackening off of quality control. As a fan, I prefer pamphlets: I'd rather have hopeful monsters than cold-hearted angels." On the other hand, Limke is a decidedly on the side of the graphic novel and would professionally love to be able to create more of those on a consistent basis. "As a writer, I like the TPBs and OGNs because they're more organic. The pacing is natural; the story plays out more smoothly by allowing the plot points to occur where they should rather than having to be placed according a 22-page, and now a 21-page, format restriction. It also allows for more characterization, which is important to story telling. Action is all fine and good, but why someone does what they do seems to intrigue more people than having 'it blowed up real good' over and over does."

But why is the question even being posed as to the health of the monthly comic? Why are there so many naysayers about a form of entertainment that so many people enjoy? All three professionals aren't quite sure what the real answer is and don't want to unfairly point fingers, but do offer up some possible ideas. "I think the younger fans are not as into comics as we were, and they naturally gravitate to the format," hypothesizes Kleckner. While Carey doesn't disagree, he does believe a lot of it may have to do with product availability and shipping. "Umm... possibly as a reaction to a market where a lot of product ships late, is under-ordered, becomes unavailable way too fast? Dunno. Wouldn't like to say. Not loudly, anyhow." But Limke, who is accustomed to having to tell his English class students "how it is," is willing to bare his soul regarding this very tough subject. "Wow, this is going to hurt. As the comic book market shrinks, it leaves behind a core group of individuals who have matured and want a more complete story experience. The 'novelization' of serials was inevitable with the market change. In general, the type of story that appeals to a 16-year old is much more simplistic and easily digestible than the type of story a 25-year old or 40-year old is willing to pay for. Myself alone, I now appreciate movies and books I couldn't understand when I was younger. For example, my students will not sit through 'Casablanca.' It's boring to them. It was boring to me when I was 16. But now… manoman, I love that film. I can appreciate it much more now because I'm older. As horrible as that may sound, it's true. The younger readers, the few I know, like the shorter action-oriented format. The older ones I know like the longer, more complex format that trades allow. They have the attention span to sit and read 'From Hell' in one sitting… okay, two sittings, where that younger reader generally doesn't have that ability."

"So, what does all that mean? It means, at least to me, a younger level of readers isn't coming into the market at a fast enough rate to sustain a pamphlet market and the aging readers are willing to support more and more of a trade oriented market. In my mind, the perfect market has the accessible serials for younger readers and a trade market for when they're ready to make the jump to a more sophisticated form of story - similar to the jump readers make from picture books to young adult books with isolated plates to adult prose with no pictures save for the cover."

As to where the graphic novel/trade paperback industry itself goes from here, none of the three men are quite sure except that it's going to be a bright future. "I would hope ads don't show up in the graphic novels. I wouldn't like that any more than I liked it when they appeared in prose novels," says Limke. "I'd spend my time tearing out the ads if they were bound, or just using the coupon ads as bookmarks but never paying any attention to them. Also, I would hope the page count would be dictated by the story, not by multiples of 4. As far as timeliness, that would require a shift by publishers to a payment model similar to that of prose publishers, which would require advances to allow the creator to afford to create the novel. That doesn't happen at moment, as far as I know. The nature of creating OGNs is different than the creation of serial pamphlets because the economics are so different. The current system is set up on the serial system and a shift to an OGN-based system would be painful. The larger publishers, just as in prose, could survive some poor incidents much better than the smaller ones, who could go under with one bad experience with a creator. Of course, adjusting to a non-monthly schedule is difficult, but with books that look more and more like their hard-cover prose counterparts, it becomes easier to adjust to a publishing schedule that is similar." Working at a company devoted to the graphic novel format, Kleckner says that the sky is the limit and that fans can expect more of everything that they've come to love. "More everything, but most importantly, a much wider selection of types of stories and an even wider and older audience." And Carey? "I'm lousy at predictions," admits the scribe. "But I think graphic novels in the future will make much more use of scratch-and-sniff technology, have birthday-card-style voice chips that call you cute names and give you sexual come-ons, and be written mostly by heuristically capable computers."

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