Master Of The Obvious: Issue #100

Wed, June 27th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I've been thinking about format a lot lately.

[Too Much Coffee Man]A couple months back Shannon Wheeler, creator of TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN, mentioned giving up the comics format in favor of magazines, in order to dodge the depressing realities of direct sales comics distribution. (Not the first time anyone thought of this; Bill Gaines turned MAD from a comic to a magazine so he wouldn't have to deal with the Comics Code.) Shannon's belief: "People who like comics, like them a lot. People who don't like comics, hate them... Solution? Evolve the comic book into a magazine with the same title and hope no one notices... The real reason to switch formats is, in part, a way to reach a larger market. It's also a way to expand the content and interview interesting people. And I have ideas for things other than comics (a card game that involves winning and losing friends, and a psychological chess set with one side male and the other female). These other ideas I can push in a magazine when they wouldn't fit into a comic book. Originally I was thinking of cramming all this magazine like material in my comic (it is my comic book after all). But why? Why not try and get the best of both magazines and comic books? Have my cake, eat it, and market it."

I don't know if magazine distribution is really any saner that comics distribution, especially with major magazine distribution in the clutches of only a couple distributors who have recently tried to enforce fairly high sales quotas on magazines that want to avoid being dropped, but the theory continues that magazines command a greater degree of respect than comics do. Certainly neither MAD nor HEAVY METAL, which have managed to squeak along as newsstand magazines for decades now, are generally thought of as "comic books." That both are, for different reasons, considered more sophisticated than comic books hasn't hurt them (of MAD, Gil Kane once said that the humor was sophomoric, which immediately put it heads and tails above everything else on the stands); that magazines such as CREEPY and SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, with cheap paper and sloppy black and white printing, came off as comic book wannabees didn't help their longevity, though some did manage to last a long time. (Others, like Denis Kitchen's COMIX BOOK, a valiant effort that Marvel had no idea how to market and which featured what the underground comix fans the magazine was aimed at would considered watered down, cleaned up material, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and the relative slickness of the packaging was wasted.)

This has been a big argument in favor of graphic novels, and related material like Andy Helfer's breakthrough lines of BIG BOOKS and pulp mysteries at Paradox Press and Larry Gonick's CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE, or Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's fabulous FROM HELL: they don't come off as "comic books." I know there's been quite a little discussion of "format bashing" in fandom recently, with something of a backlash against the notion that we should "get away" from comic books as if they were bastard stepchildren we'd rather not let into the light – Comic Book! Say it loud, say it proud – but it's not really a question of that.

Fact: form affects function. Don't believe it? Cut your thumb off and try to pick up a juice glass with that hand. Talk to filmmakers who made their movies to fit movie screens then watched their films punked out, the rhythms and the shots changed, to fit a TV ratio. A lot depends on delivery system: there are technological reasons why DVDS and CDs are round.

But why do comic books look the way they do? Is there any earthly reason why comic books should look that way?

A: Inertia and spinner racks.

The comic book as we know it is designed for spinner racks. The proportions fit into a spinner rack. Other sized comics don't.

But almost no one uses spinner racks anymore. Certainly not comics shops catering to collectors. Spinner racks lend themselves toward in-store abuse of comics: bent covers and torn or dog-eared tops as customers riffle from back to front of the pile to see what's in there. Which was fine in the days when multiple titles were racked in the same slot and the top third of the cover was torn off and returned to the distributor for credit for unsold copies. Which are things the direct market and the current distribution system were concocted to stop.

In the absence of spinner racks as a market force, what keeps comics to the current size?

Inertia. Fans and particularly dealers for whom comic books should look like comic books. It's what they grew up with, it's what they want to see. And, of course, because the comic book has been "the comic book" for so long, presses are set up specially to publish in comic book format. Which is why World Color in Sparta was pretty much the king of comics printers until recently, and why almost all comics publishing is done at Ronald's in Canada now: the specialized form of comics has forced publishers to specialized printers.

When comics required special press techniques – anyone remember "Flexographics"? – that was necessary. Now that pretty much all publishing can be done via computer, without hot type, it's not so necessary. Adhering to the current form might be financially detrimental to publishers: if you have only one choice for printing, where's the competition? If you can't shop around for the best prices and service, where's your leverage?

And if you take all that away, why are we still clinging to the standard comics format?

I'm not talking about whether it's a pamphlet or a graphic novel. I'm talking shape.

This isn't a frivolous consideration. We're on the cusp of the graphic novel, which, like it or not, is about the only true future comics have. As mentioned a couple weeks back, in marketing terms the original graphic novel and the trade paperback collection are indistinguishable. So "comics in book form" is quickly turning from the amorphous notion that we've had for a long time into actual product.

That resembles comic books. What else are they going to resemble, when they're cobbled together from comics? You can't reformat the art without a lot of work, and, as there's no standard page design (unlike the screen ratios for TV or movies), many pages won't translate to different formats at all and if they did wouldn't resemble the artist's intent. I've spoken before of how the 22 page length of the comic book affects how stories are built, in terms of what happens when in the course of a story, the pace at which character and plot development occur. The 22 page story has distorted and contained the possibilities of what comics can accomplish by twisting the contents into artificial length constraints and editorially enforced expectations, to the point where anyone failing to meet those expectations yet somehow gaining market notice is declared a genius. (You can hardly speak of "success" these days when "top" sales struggle to surpass 100,000 copies, so notice is treated by most publishers as equivalent to success) But in a medium like comics, where standards are based less on necessity than on a blind and unquestioned acceptance of the traditional as the way things ought to be, can we afford to let inertia sweep us to a shared format where graphic novels and trade paperbacks are indistinguishable in shape?

I admit there's something to be said for that. When I had this chat last week with Larry Young - a true collector despite his other more progressive aspects and someone who curses that his bookshelf isn't as standardized as his CD collection, everything in a nice identical shape with the same height and depth – the panic in his voice was palpable as he slowly admitted that, no, he could think of no good reason why the comics format should adhere to the 6 some odd by 10 some odd inch shape we all grew up with. Except that buyers can quickly apprehend that the material in question, whether comic book, trade paperback or graphic novel, is a "graphic story." (Honestly, I don't remember whether Larry said that or someone else did. Larry was a bit overwhelmed by the specter of comics in all shapes and sizes throwing his collection into total disarray, even as he was already starting to work out the possibilities.)

[Big Numbers]But is uniformity a good thing? There have been attempts to break free of it. Alan Moore, for instance, wanted the ill-fated BIG NUMBERS to resemble a record jacket in shape. And dealers bitched about it no end, as did collectors who wanted to know where they could get Mylar snugs to fit the damn thing. It didn't seem to occur to many people that BIG NUMBERS was intended to be read, not shelved or collected. Uniformity of product has lent a sense of blandness to the business – just go look at a comic shop wall filled with pretty much indistinguishable material. Stare at it awhile and watch as your eyelids droop. As with spinner racks, uniformity makes it easier for comics shops to rack material, but does it help sales? Conformity is boring: it says "spend your money somewhere else." In contrast, walk into a bookstore. (Hell, look at your own bookshelf if you've got one.) Notice something? Books don't come in all shapes and sizes. Form adjusts to content and design, not the other way around. As I stated very early on in MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, this period in comics history is marked by a painful shift from a magazine economy to a book economy. Books are where the money is. Books are where the future is. If we are becoming books, we should behave like books. We should stop behaving like magazines.

One friend of mine argued that format uniformity makes it easier to booksellers to have a "graphic novel" section, not that disparity of format seems to keep them most of them from stocking Viz's RANMA and DRAGONBALL Z manga collections next to TRANSMETROPOLITAN and ESSENTIAL AVENGERS collections. A "graphic novel" section in bookstores is now starting to strike me as ghettoization. Is it really healthy for the industry? Aussie writer Scot Snow informs me that down under FROM HELL, originally banned by Australian customs as obscene, now enjoys a rehabilitated reputation and is stocked in bookstores in the history or true crime sections. Larry Gonick's CARTOON GUIDES... to Physics, Statistics, etc. were stocked in their respective sections, despite the cartooning. And why not? Why should we market our work to bookstores as "graphic novels"? Why shouldn't a DESPERADOS trade paperback be stocked with the Westerns, Warren Ellis and Steve Lieber's MORNING DRAGONS among historical novels, HELLBLAZER in the horror section? Do these really have more in common with X-MEN than with Louis L'Amour, John Jakes and Clive Barker, respectively? By a dependence on marketing to the "graphic novel" section, are we not working counter to the only long term goal for survival of the business: the integration of comics into popular life? When people buy a mystery whether it's prose or comics, or a science fiction book whether it's prose or comics, we're home. Until then, we're still just a small subculture.

So every "product" has to be distinctive, individual, something that says what you get from it you'll find nowhere else. Every production has to be true to itself, not to artificial preset goals or formats. And I can't help but wonder, looking back at thirty years of double-page spreads and pages turned on their sides and foldouts and numerous other signs of struggle against the format, what kind of damage we've done to ourselves, to generations of artists who took the restraints as a given and adapted themselves and their art to them without question and without giving much thought to other possibilities. What have we thrown away, and do we have to keep doing it when there's no reason to?

We can adapt format to content and design if we want to. There's really nothing stopping us.

Let's blow form wide open, and get a little excitement going again.

Still working things out with the San Diego Con, but thanks very much to all the people who offered me their extra badges. We'll get it sorted out, but I appreciate the thought. See you at San Diego!

For those who've been wondering what I've been doing lately, I've been writing the WHISPER graphic novel for AIT/PlanetLar books, and did a small job for Marvel that I can't really talk about yet, so check back in for details. (No, it's not an X-Man story. As far as I know, X-Man still isn't coming back.) My next graphic novel for AIT/PlanetLar may monkey with format as I was discussing above, but that will depend a lot on who we line up as artist. Speaking of WHISPER, we finally got enough together to send out some material, so if you signed up for the Whisper newsletter, look for one in your e-mail box any day now with an advance look at the graphic novel.

By the way, check out my new Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, where we've been discussing things like Microsoft World Domination Scheme #8 (and how it impinges on comics) and who wants a MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS shotglass. Loads of fun. Check it out.

For those of you who prefer more traditional message boards, the Question of the Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, a sort of follow-up to last week's question: which one character, company owned or creator owned, in all of comics do you hate the most? Again, just one. Again, no explanation necessary. But just one.

And while you're at it, go score a copy of TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN. That's an order.

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 at, 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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