Master Of The Obvious: Issue #3

Wed, August 18th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Here's the skinny on the future: the comic book as we know it is dead.

Comics have been going for close to 70 years now on more or less the

same format. Where it changed, it shrunk in height, width and page

count. For 30 years, it held the same price point - 10 - and since that

the price has mushroomed while the volume of content has stagnated.

(Marvel brought story length down to 17 pages out of 32 by the end of

the 70s, only to be forced to bring it back up to 22 pages just so every

Marvel comic wouldn't look like THE DIRECT MARKETER

GAZETTE.) Now it's rare to find a comic priced under $2.50/issue, in

most cases for essentially the same material you could buy for 12 in

1968.

A funny thing became apparent as the

price rose: the general audience will

tolerate prices up to $1.99. There's

some psychological reaction to a $2+

price tag that causes the buyer to

believe it's just no longer worth it. It's

not surprising that the readership of the

standard comic book curved off as the

average price rose above that point. It's

a pretty good bet prices will continue to

rise. It's a pretty good bet readership will continue to drop.

Unnaturally bolstered for a time by the speculator market, publishers

chose to ignore this. The problem with speculator markets is they're

dependent on speculators holding onto the investment. As soon as the

cashouts start, secondary market prices deflate like the Hindenberg and

the market collapses, as those who stocked up on Beanie Babies can

now verify. Left with only the core audience to buy comic books, we

entered into what is now fondly referred to as The Crash.

I view it as the future catching up with us.

The future was spelled out a long time ago now, in faltering steps

extending from Gil Kane's HIS NAME IS… SAVAGE and Bill Spicer's

brilliant fanzine GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE through DARK

KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN and on through now scores of

trade paperback collections. Longer forms, higher price points, better

value for money.

In not too long, we'll look back on the 90s as the time when comics

shifted from a magazine-based economy to a book-based economy. As

the comic book has collapsed, the popularity of the trade paperback

has grown, and it has a lot of people spooked. TPBs can stay available

for years at a time - witness the endless printings of DARK KNIGHT

RETURNS, which has sold regularly for 15 years - which requires

backstock, a concept alien to publishers who think in terms of

periodicals that go out and vanish in a month. The direct market fed

publishers money very quickly while it was strong, while books require

more risk and patience. Comics dealers don't like them, as they erode

back issue values - why pay $10/issue for a six issue story arc collected

in a $15.95 tpb? - and many collectors don't like them for the same

reason. Distributors I'm not sure about. Many of the talent aren't going

to like them either.

Readers seem to like them. Not just comic book readers but book

readers who don't read comics and can't stand the form.

And why not? What would you rather

do: read a story issue by issue over six

months, buy a comic for six months

and save them until the set's complete

to read them, or buy a collection and

sit down to read the whole story? For

years, the problem with true graphic

novels - not the 44-66 page imposter

we got used to in the 80s - was the

cost of producing stories 150-300+

pages in length, and the TPB gives us

a way around that.

The future of the comic book as we know it is to be a loss leader for

the trade paperback.

"Loss leader" is a grocer's term, meaning to take a loss on an advertised

item, hoping to bring into the store customers who will then spend

enough on other items to make up for the loss. For the comics industry,

the loss leader would mean something different: you do not produce the

standard comic book to make money off it.

Comics will be published not to earn a profit but to break even, paying

for creative costs and generating word of mouth for the series. In other

words, they'll be ads for themselves. Profits will come from sales of the TPB.

If all this sounds like pie in the sky, look how DC and Dark Horse have

subtly been shifting gears over the past few years. Much of Dark

Horse's output has been reprinted in TPBs. Vertigo became aware of

the commercial possibilities of TPBs when SANDMAN hit, and, given

the number of properties reprinted in the format, it's hard to think the

line's emphasis on limited series over ongoing series isn't connected to

it, just as it's easy to understand the thinking behind story arcs in DCU

books, particularly in the Superman and Batman titles, where arcs are

so regularly collected. TRANSMETROPOLITAN TPB sales have

been so good as to pretty much guarantee continued publication of the

monthly title, while stories in PREACHER, INVISIBLES and other

titles are pretty much earmarked for TPB treatment before comics

publication. Go into Barnes & Noble or Borders or Tower Books and

check the variety of TPBs there. It's the quiet revolution going on in the

comics industry.

As with all revolutions, there are some painful downsides. We're looking at some big changes in the business.

At minimum, the trade paperback market seems to resist attempts to

flood the market. "Graphic novels" were the hot ticket of the 80s, yet

the day came when Marvel declared the graphic novel dead. Believing

the format and not the content is what sold the books (publishers tend

to focus on things they can control, like format, over things they can't

control or replicate, like talent), they tossed out masses of ill-conceived

tripe and then grumbled when people stopped paying attention. TPBs

appear to be a somewhat different beast; if the comics that generate

them don't get buzz, the TPBs flatline, making quality a virtual

prerequisite.

Superheroes tend not to do well in TPB, meaning the odds are

publishers will slowly be forced to either de-emphasize the superhero or

recast him in a more intelligent milieu, as James Robinson did with

STARMAN. Other genres, like horror, science fiction and crime, stand

a much better chance of survival in TBP form than in comics form. And

the series most successfully collected in trade paperback seem to be

those that put a strong emphasis on storytelling, an art all but lost in

superhero comics. If Jack Kirby and Neal Adams were an explosion in

the 60s that shattered the stiff artistic restraints of prior comics, the last

reverberations of that explosion died out in the Image era, where art

dominated story to such an extent the latter was all but irrelevant.

While the "art for art's sake" comics are falling by the wayside now, the

titles most successful in trade paperback seem to be story driven. We

have to reconfigure how we think of these things. As much as Garth

Ennis is responsible for PREACHER, how easily it could fall apart

without Steve Dillon's spacious, clean, straightforward artwork.

Eschewing fancy pyrotechnics, Dillon's art is in total service to the story,

but it's an error to view it as subservient to the story. As much as Ennis'

writing, Dillon's art is the story, and that's how we have to view good

work from now on: as the collaboration it is. It is, as much as anything,

a movie on paper, and a lot of its general appeal comes from its ability

to invoke the common and comfortable experience of a movie, where

most comics don't.

The trade paperback represents a permanence for the business as the periodical represented transience. As

it takes over the market, more product will be designed with the trade paperback as the long term goal

(Warren Ellis is already designing most of his work with that in mind).

Suddenly the ongoing series doesn't make sense anymore (if it ever

made sense, but that's grist for a future column), and along with the rise

of the trade paperback, the mini-series has been making a quiet

comeback. With publishers converting failed ongoing series into

retroactive mini-series at an alarming rate now, the limited series is the

only periodical form that makes sense for them anymore.

So finally quality counts for something in comics, and the TPB format

will live or die on quality. It's not out of the question that this will result

in considerably fewer comics being published, with more stringent

standards returning to the field, and more breadth of material. And a lot

of people out of work, and a lot of marginal work and characters falling

by the wayside. We might even lose a lot of hardcore fans, but we're

losing them anyway. It's not like the trade paperback is an option

anymore. It's the option.

Here comes the future.

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