Master Of The Obvious: Issue #98

Wed, June 13th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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To see all the verbiage at SPLASH these days (and if you're not seeing it you're missing one of the more important comics sites on the web... next to COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, natch) you'd think the era of the graphic novel is now upon us.

Let's make one thing clear: the people who market these things do not distinguish between trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Known in some sectors as TPBs and OGNs, for "original graphic novels." Which suggests "trade paperback," having a specific meaning to the comics industry but a far more general meaning for the book industry (any paperback book larger than the 4"x7" mass market paperback size), is already a useless term; if our goal is to crack the book market, we have to go with what they say, and graphic novel is the term they've come to know, so I guess we can distinguish now between "graphic novel" (anything in comics form published between book covers, often cribbed from those comic book things) and "original graphic novel" (anything in comics form specifically done to be published between book covers). I doubt OGN by itself will mean squat to booksellers ("an original Stephen King graphic novel," now that'll mean something) and it sounds like self-important mock gangbanger slang, but I guess that makes 'em "edgy"... whatever...

The graphic novel, while fairly well established in Japan and Europe, has been the Holy Grail of American comics publishing for a long, long time. Certainly for talent: what we've learned over decades of stories expanding from 6 pages to 8 pages to 12 pages to 17/22/24/26/28 pages – yes, there was a time in the 80s when 28 pages of story per issue wasn't uncommon and in my experience 28 pages is the perfect story/chapter length for "pamphlets," just long enough to get some actual meat into it and have room for nuance – is that however much space you have to work with in pamphlets, it's never long enough. While there are those out there who claim true artists never bend to such considerations, page length directly affects the shape and content of stories. Look close at something as generally seamless and confident as TRANSMETROPOLITAN, which would appear to be an argument for the 22 page story, and you can see it squirming against the walls. Now that "widescreen comics," something I have a great affection for, have come into vogue, the limitations of the 22 page structure are becoming clear: "real" stories need more room to develop, and beating a story into 22 page chunks automatically reshapes. Try ending an issue in the middle of a scene, and see where it gets you. Worse, see where picking right up from that spot in the next issue gets you. It's considered jejune, amateurish. It'll frustrate a reader who wants something resembling a complete experience with each purchase, whether the story's continued next issue or not. I can't think of an editor who'd let it slide. More likely they'd conclude if you can't color within the lines they'll have to find someone who can. So length is a precious commodity many of us lust after: the chance to let a story grow and develop, to really play with theme and character beyond the pure demands of the action, to shape things differently.

For the publisher, it's a Holy Grail of a different kind: more money, and access to new markets. The latter wasn't an issue until recently, when it finally sunk in that the comics market as we knew it has about as much life left in it as Jackie Kennedy. But the "original graphic novel" has a huge drawback for most publishers: compared to comics, the upfront expense is astronomical. Creator-generated ideas, that's one thing; a publisher can make an argument for deferred payments there. But for company-owned characters? Who in their right mind is going to do, say, a MARTIAN MANHUNTER graphic novel strictly for a piece of the back end? (Of course, this being comics, "right mind" isn't a phrase that enters into it all that often.) So the "trade paperback," however meaningless the term is in the outside world, has been the bridge between the magazine market and the book market for many publishers. But, as graphic novels become an increasingly important portion of the comics revenue stream and pamphlets continue their decline, publishers clinging to their current mindsets will find themselves in increasingly precarious positions.

(And, yes, I know sales are up in June, but as long as these things are touted in percentages instead of raw numbers, just like when companies whose stock value has sunk to $1.50 tout 25 jumps as 17% jumps in value like the tide has turned, and comic companies issue press releases about "sell-out" runs in a market where runs are printed to order, I'll take it with a grain of salt. Check back in September after four or five straight months of double-or-preferably-triple-digit growth, and maybe we'll have something to talk about.)

The bookstore market is not going to put up with our crap. I mean that in all kinds of ways. Never mind content, take page length. "Graphic novels" have consisted of anything from 44 pages on up, to listen to the comics market. The scale of economy seems to have frozen "original graphic novels" at 62 pages for many companies. On a bookshelf the psychological message of that is: questionable value. (In specialty niches like the comics market where all that's really important is the image of Storm or Miracleman on the cover, you can get away with things like that. In broader markets, great thought is given to packaging.) On the other hand, something like FROM HELL, at hundreds of pages, comes off as thoroughly substantial. This has not to do with the quality of the content but with the initial perceptions of the potential buyer.

The graphic novel market is in a precarious place itself right now, as SPLASH indicates between the lines, though they seem to miss that point themselves while announcing the rise of the graphic novel with uncharacteristic giddiness. A recent flood of articles there about graphic novels and Book Expo America (I believe this used to be known as the American Booksellers Association conference) shows that Real Publishers are now getting into the graphic novel game. What they consider "graphic novel" is telling: a PEANUTS retrospective, art books centering on Nick Cardy and John Buscema, a collection of SUPERMAN radio scripts, an Art Spiegelman dissertation on Jack Cole and Plastic Man, and (presumably in the vein of Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY) "comics related prose."

For those who have been wondering, the following statement will demonstrate why I am, truly, The Master Of The Obvious:

These are not graphic novels!

While it's gratifying to have so much attention apparently being paid to the medium by "real publishers" (and, presumably, the "real world," though the two are rarely synonymous) it's hard to miss the fact that they don't seem to know what the hell they're talking about when it comes to comics. In fact, the SPLASH list of coming projects indicates "real publishers" are in the jaws of the same crazed two-headed beast of nostalgia and esoterica that's basically killed comics publishing in this country. I saw this before, up close, in my time with TSR-West: Random House took on distribution of TSR-West's "comics modules" (so named so no one could possibly mistake them for "comic books" and threaten TSR's DUNGEONS & DRAGONS comics publishing deal with DC Comics), decided what they thought the comics market should be instead of looking at what it was, and blissfully buried whatever slight chance TSR, which did everything Random House said, had of making the line a financial success.

Fantagraphics was said to have been the belle of the BEA ball, for good reason. With Pantheon's edition of Chris Ware's JIMMY CORRIGAN a success ("over 50,000 copies in print" – try saying that proudly about a Spider-Man comic, but in book publishing terms that's a runaway hit), Fantagraphics, which brought the series to light and which has signed a distribution deal with Norton Books, with GHOST WORLD set to be their next book to pop, has rightfully captured the high end of the market. Which is only fair, as they've relentlessly touted it for twenty years. But the lure of JIMMY CORRIGAN suggests a potential roadblock for the comics business.

Those who've worked with them know that book publishers tend to be a cowardly, superstitious lot. The public myth is that they're freethinking latter day Thomas Paynes waving the flag of the First Amendment and dutifully scouring for all that's fit the print. The reality, which I shouldn't really have to tell anyone but apparently I do, is that, for the most part, they're about on par with TV producers: people who are only interested in anything new to the extent it raises their bottom line. It's a truism in Hollywood that no one wants something until someone else wants it. It's not unlike that in book publishing. Genres are dead until a publisher manages to sell something in it, then nothing exceeds like success.

And if they have decided the graphic novel market is the province of the likes of JIMMY CORRIGAN (and don't get me wrong, I think JIMMY CORRIGAN deserves every drop of success it gets and more), we're staring down the barrel of an implosion that will gut the new graphic novel market before it has a chance.

Imagine a fledgling graphic novel market flooded with JIMMY CORRIGAN knockoffs, most likely without the benefit of Chris Ware's genius. (To put it on a comparative level, imagine a comics market flooded with nothing but X-MEN knockoffs, like that'd ever happen.) I'm getting the sense that "real publishers" are determined to carve out their graphic novel market by completely distinguishing themselves from "comic book publishers" (suggested in the protest of one "real publisher": "This isn't a comic book! This is a Graphic Novel!"). Which in itself isn't a bad thing. But where's the potential audience? If your target audience is THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS and ATLANTIC MONTHLY, or if your goal is good reviews in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY's book section, that's one thing. If your goal is a healthy, broad market, things become dodgier.

I was talking the other day with my pal the Aussie prose writer/screenwriter Scot Snow, who's possibly publishing a graphic novel down under later this year, who replied, "Numbskulls. What books seem to sell the most? Crime, thrillers, romance, horror, fantasy. What doesn't sell so well? Literary fiction, usually. Say I'm a book publisher. I think doing some graphic novels might be good. What should I do that might sell? How hard is this, for crying out loud? I've had this conversation with editors and publishers at book fairs, it's like talking to a brick wall."

And it is. The fact is that we don't need a lot of publishers serving the same end of the market, because we've already got that, albeit at the other end, and if lots of graphic novels are published that don't sell, the "real publishers" won't say, "Hey, we went for the wrong type of material, silly us!" They won't say "let's go for a broader market and try again." They'll say, "No one's interested in this comic book crap. Fuggedaboudid." (In a similar vein, when comics publishers publish, say, a western that doesn't sell, they don't say "Maybe it was a bad book." They don't say "Maybe we didn't promote this properly." They say "nobody wants westerns." Curiously, when they publish a superhero book that doesn't sell, they never say "Nobody wants superheroes!") Leaving us right back where we started. We're in this position because, as an industry, we narrowcasted and paid the price for it. More narrowcasting is idiotic. More focus on nostalgia instead of vibrant new material is idiotic. Nostalgia only makes us look old and dead, like museum pieces, and I mean Madame Tussaud's, not the Met. Narrow markets are suicide. The comics medium needs a broad market to survive, and a broad market means varying material for varying tastes.

So if we can't (apparently) look to book publishers to save our asses, and comics publishers don't show any great inclination to, where do we go? It would be nice if we could say smart small publishers like AIT/PlanetLar Books, but, ultimately, small companies won't get far if they don't get into bookstores. Disturbingly, SPLASH also reports Ingram, the Diamond of book distribution, is pushing small publishers into specific channels. They put a nice face on the move, of course, but the upshot is one more gatekeeper, and every additional gatekeeper makes distribution that much more difficult.

Here comes the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Nothing to speak of this week. I guess both THE ROCK and CHYNA II are out from Chaos Comics, and I'm almost finished with my screenplay. More later, including a couple stunning announcements about MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, hopefully. Meanwhile, don't forget to join the chatter at the Graphic Violence board.

Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what comic concept from any company or creator, past or present, do you think would, all things being equal, be most successful (artistically, financially, whatever) translated into a movie? Explain. (Be sure to explain, as the explanation's the interesting part. Any bloody fool can make a laundry list.)

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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