The Basement Tapes: Issue #38

Tue, May 3rd, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

Hey, remember when DC Comics had North American publishing rights to the Humanoids and 2000 AD lines?

No, we don't either.

FRACTION: Not with a bang but with a whimper ended DC's publishing involvement with both 2000 AD and Humanoids-- and it was a whimper that was noticed first online by fans when the solicits for those two lines weren't listed by DC in the newest issue of PREVIEWS. Way to put the "ass" back in 'classy,' huh? 2000 AD has been the cradle of so many Brit writers now working over here it's not even funny, and Humanoids publishes some of the most popular graphic novels in the world-- just last year Bilal's DECEMBER 32nd sold a million copies in its first month of release. DC reprinted, repackaged, and solicited the material from the cozy confines of their section of the catalog and neither line could find a foothold in the market.

While I doubt that I'll be able to say anything new about the whole rigamarole, I still think it's valid to wonder, what happened? Do we even need to ask...?

CASEY: Well, maybe we should ask ourselves this question... was anyone working at DC a diehard fan of the material that both 2000AD/Rebellion and Humanoids were providing? When it comes to the American comicbook market, you can never underestimate the fanboy factor, even when it comes to those In Charge. It takes a fanboy's passion to dig in and get behind a publishing initiative that might be a slow starter...

I dunno... when I was younger and much less cynical I always thought -- okay, maybe I just hoped -- that the folks In Charge knew better than the typical number-crunching desk jockey, that they could recognize good work and what it could add to the culture. That they were confident in their own potential to be ahead of the curve and provide material that they know needs to be published and, more importantly, supported.

Jesus, I just sound like a fucking sap, don't I...?

FRACTION: Oh, bust out the hankies and water-wings, m'man, because I could cry you river.

It does take a passion and love of the material, no doubt-- but, shit, man, most of all you need to show up and it never seemed like DC ever even managed to get off the bench. Their entire strategy seemed to be to slap the DC logo on the editions, shrink 'em down, and count on the momentum of the DC bullet to carry the day.

For my money, resizing the books was a tremendous mistake (as much as those oversized volumes may cause retailers headaches). It's part of the package; it's an intrinsic part of the design and intention that those books not be the size of American comic books. Getting rid of that made them just easier to avoid and miss on the shelves. The biggest misstep, though-- and it's not limited to 2000 AD or Humanoids-- was in thinking that simply bringing the books into the fold would, somehow, mean the books would sell themselves. I mean, DC's had imprint after imprint blowup on the launch pad the last few years, and you know that better than everyone. Be it Matrix/Helix or Eye of the Storm or Focus, DC's learning the hard way that the top-of-the-list strategy they've adopted to get books into the top 30 means cannibalizing from sales further on down the list. The worst news being that, well, any of these lines are going to be reduced to a numbers game and make it harder for new stuff to make its way into the market.

CASEY: Well, for what it's worth, the molecule of inside information that I might happen to possess in this matter can confirm that there were some hard workin' folks within DC doing their part to get the material out there, in terms of the nuts and bolts of repackaging. Doesn't mean they were huge fans of the stuff, but they did put their time in.

Having said that, yeah, I think you're right on practically every count when it comes to the missteps that occurred here. You have to put some effort toward creating the brand before you can successfully sell it. It's a simple lesson that seems to be the hardest to learn.

Looking back, it completely escapes me what DC -- as a company -- were trying to achieve by taking on these imprints in the first place. I forget what the initial press releases said. Do you think it was about market share? Surely, they were realistic enough to see that this material wouldn't necessarily turn the tide, in the direct market especially. I mean, if you're gonna' publish Bilal in America, you'd better be in it for the artistic cache of it, because initially that's all you're gonna' have.

FRACTION: As there was next to no market or ad presence-- do you remember seeing any DC-Humanoids press releases, ever?-- I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish. More market share, or maybe different market shares, is the best I can figure... did Humanoids have their books in places before the hook-up that maybe DC was interested in learning about? Or maybe they wanted to be associated with that superficial air of sophistication that comes from European culture? I kind of imagine the whole farce as being DC adopting a pretentious and fake accent and smoking clove cigarettes for a summer in hopes that it impresses people only to be quickly dropped as soon as some other more interesting affectation comes along.

And while I've no doubt someone busted their ass to package the materials, that DC neutered the first, biggest, and most obvious difference those books had with their American counterparts from the word go really indicated the level of thought and concern that was going into the arrangement upstairs.

You mention creating the brand, which is worth looking at here, because if DC can't do it, who can? The market, it seems, is closed.

CASEY: I don't necessarily think so. Just because DC couldn't do it doesn't mean it can't be done. Jesus, if that were the case, we should all just pack up and go home right now.

I would think that, from Humanoids and the Rebellion guys' point of view, getting in bed with a "big American publisher" may have seemed like the promised land. They might've figured that DC would now do all the heavy lifting and they could simply go back to doing the fun stuff of making comicbooks. Their assumption... their mistake...

It is frustrating to think about. The last 2000 AD one I bought was Mike Carey and Andy Clarke's THIRTEEN (or TH1RT3EN, if you want to get technical about it), which I liked when I first saw it originally serialized. I don't know why American fans haven't jumped all over this book. Carey's a great writer and Clarke's art is exquisite in that Travis Charest-way that makes you really stop and look at comicbook art. So why isn't it huge? Maybe because no one really knew about it. Why wasn't Mike Carey asked to do an interview or two promoting its release? I've said it before and I'll say it again, sometimes it really ain't rocket science...

FRACTION: Think I disagree with you some there-- promised land or no, I gotta agree with your pal and mine Tom Spurgeon on this score when he says Humanoids is laughing all the way home. I don't see the downside in outsourcing the heavy logistics so they could free up resources to work on the books...

I've heard about TH1RT3EN only since its publication, honestly-- the reaction from the nine people that actually bought the book has made me want to go out and find it, which I will... meaning that word of mouth has been the only advertising I've heard for the book. But, you know, when you're busy hyping fake sellouts for books that haven't even been published yet, maybe the details like supporting a new line just slip through the cracks.

Which is, for all of DC's fumbling here (which they did with CMX, too, for god's sake...!), the greater point is this: great work slipped through the cracks. Whether it's TH1RT3EN or BOUNCER, DC had their hands on two of the most prestigious comics lines in the world, where some truly great work has been and is being done and they couldn't sell it. They couldn't stick the landing, couldn't earn the shelf space, and now folks that don't obsess over every PR stunt and chart analysis and trend aren't going to see the books, aren't going to read the books, and aren't going to have their horizons broadened by the possibility of a comics medium that has more than crossover stunts and continuity massages.

And if they do see them, then message retailers, and thus readers, might take away from the debacle is just that: these books didn't earn the shelf space, and as such, didn't earn their attention. Sometimes I think perceived value is the only force left in the market.

CASEY: Hey, if the Humanoids guys are laughing... hell, if they're even just smiling at this point, then more power to 'em. Personally, I don't see anything to necessarily smile about. I just see another opportunity squandered.

Commerce over art. Perceived value over bona fide artistic merit. God bless America, right...?

FRACTION: Shit, is artistic merit ever bona fide? Subjectivity aside, it would've been nice for the goddamn books to have a fighting chance and have the shelves grow vertically, just a little, instead of the endlessly horizontal parade it's currently on. And in the end, the message is the same: some of the best comics in the world are tainted by the failure of the line. When Humanoids returns to Previews in who knows how long, chances are that when anyone flips past 'em, it's that failure they're going to associate the line with and not, you know, Bilal or Moebius or Jodo or anyone.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with Jodo and Charest's long-gestating Metabarons book comes out.

So let's wrap it up with this: what can be done differently? What have we learned, Charlie Brown?

CASEY: That Superman and Batman are still more powerful than Judge Dredd or the Metabarons...?

Hell, I think someone at DC -- whoever first came up with this little scheme -- had their heart in the right place. Maybe next time, the concept of the heart and mind combo (a killer combo when properly harnessed, by the way) can see things through in a more long-term fashion. Both of these imprints have produced great material, and I'd hate for there to be any stink of "failure" slapped onto them, because at the end of the day, I don't think it was their failure. The merit of the work itself will certainly outlast this latest bungle.

FRACTION: Oh, it's certainly not the 'fault' of the books themselves-- That the two largest publishers seem chronically unable to establish a foothold in the direct market selling anything other than superhero books is the problem. Shit, DC even gave up the rights to publish Will Eisner's work-- W.W. Norton realized they could sell the books in the mainstream better than DC could in the DM. Because it's a market designed to sell one thing and one thing only-- the catastrophic failures of one of the world's most prestigious publishers to successfully introduce two of the world's most prestigious comics lines to the American market illustrates that perfectly.

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