One Fan's Opinion: Issue #6

Thu, September 15th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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I've gotten a ton of mail from writing these meandering little columns of mine and while it's gratifying and all the rest, it's simply not possible to be everybody's pen pal. I've tried to get back to folks-- really I have-- but I have more things to do than simply answer mail.

Like, answer mail.

Submissions, or example. People send in submissions by the carload to Image Comics! We get a veritable shit-load of submissions. And 99% of them have one thing in common: they're really, really bad.

That 1%? Pure gold.

I'm not sure what the deal is. I don't know if these people have never seen a comic book before or if they're under the impression that we just pick envelopes out of the pile at random and approve those submissions for publication (which isn't the case, I regret to inform some of you), but something has gone seriously wrong. The next few paragraphs are for those of you that sent in stuff and are part of the 99% that aren't pure gold:

Seriously.

What were you thinking?

And don't tell me what your mom said-- don't listen to your mom! Your mom loves you! Of course she thinks what you're doing is terrific- she's trying to be encouraging! The last time your mom saw a comic book was in the dentist's office 28 years ago-- she really isn't the most qualified person to ask.

Your friends aren't much more qualified. You draw better than they do. It's true! Hell, you may be the best artist from your high school, but when you're trying to compete with the best artists on the planet, guess what? You're not that good!

Take your samples, put them out on the table. Now, go and get the best comics out of your collection and compare them. Are the professional comics better than yours are? Yes? Then you're not ready! And it's not a matter of being as good as the worst people-- the worst people don't catch on-- they tend to last ten minutes and vanish forever, plus we really don't want anybody that's as bad as the worst people in the business! We want people as good as the best people in the business. If we wanted people that suck we'd, well, let's just say that we still have his phone number and leave it at that…

People want to break in. People see what we're doing here and say, "Gee, that looks like fun. I'd like to do that. I like fun things. I'm a fun guy. I'm all about fun. Can I do that? Can I? Can I? Can I?" And some of them can, but most of them can't! Most people suck! Most people don't have a single original idea in their heads (and I don't mean you-- I'm not talking about you-- I'm not singling you out, you're fucking brilliant, just ask your mom)!

Now, before you go and get all pissed off at me (gotta time this right) I'd like you to know that, like most professionals, I don't think I'm all that good. I'm relieved that so many of you haven't caught on to the fact that I really don't have a clue what I'm doing. So don't get all bent out of shape because you think that I'm under the impression that I'm the greatest thing ever because I have no such delusions. Seriously.

But I'm not the worst guy! There are worse guys out there and they seem to make a living.

At times, I mean.

Not always, of course.

But still...!

You know what I like doing? Coloring. It really is a lot of fun. I don't know if you saw the "Coyote" trade that just came out (it's written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Marshall Rogers-- yes, that Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers), but I colored a mess of it. Charlie Kirchoff and Robert Snyder did color flats based off of the painted color, which a previous "Coyote" collection had. I went over the whole job, changing colors throughout and making it all look pretty. The color it had before was a bit blotchy and given Marshall's dense, complex artwork, I thought it was a bit overwhelming. Using flat color really brought out the best in the book. It was a lot of fun to work on and it turned out pretty good.

Not quite so fun? The cover to the second "Coyote" collection! Allen Weiss did a nifty drawing, sure, but for a background he supplied a mess of jpegs of various sizes which needed to be adjusted and tweaked and placed just so and made to look like they were something other than jpegs of various sizes which were adjusted and tweaked. It should look pretty good, actually-- it looked good on my screen-- but at this point, I haven't seen it in print.

Coloring and lettering, for me, is the final frontier in comics. I've done most everything else a number of times but these two I haven't licked yet (not that I've really licked the other stuff either, mind you, but I'm at least comfortable doing it. I have a pretty good idea what the results will be even if the results fall far short of what I aspire to do.). I'd like to do more coloring and lettering. I've colored one issue of "Savage Dragon," plus a few other stories and I just lettered one on computer (which sucked, yes-- and I'll be the first to admit it). I admire guys that letter their own stuff and even if it's not awesome, it fits somehow. It feels right and looks right in the context of their artwork.

I'm getting rid of, like, 20 long boxes of comics. I've got plenty more, believe me, but at some point it dawned on me that I never even look at a lot of these things and that it would be better to have a "best of" collection where I can grab any comic and find it awesome, than a complete collection where there are long runs of utter crap.

In Japan you can buy comics in vending machines. How cool is that?

Comics are also 400 pages long, printed on crappy recycled paper and cost $2 a whack.

Oh, and they're almost all incredibly awful.

Which isn't to say that all Manga sucks, but what's happened over the years has been a gradual deterioration of the quality of these books. A good, I dunno, 20 years ago, I got a subscription to a couple of weekly Japanese comics through a Japanese bookstore in Seattle. I'd get these gigantic packages in the mail once a month and I'd just marvel at these incredible comics (and at 400+ pages an issue, they stacked up like crazy). They were nice-looking books even if I didn't understand a word of Japanese.

In Japan nearly all of the comics are creator-owned. Sure, there are occasional oddball licensed books like Spider-Man, but most comics are executed by their creators (ably aided by a legion of background guys, inkers and other assistants) and owned by their creators. Each weekly comic has several features. Each feature runs about 20-pages. Those individual features are later collected, reprinted in smaller volumes, on better paper. At the time when I was getting books sent my way, the quality level was quite high, but it has dropped off considerably.

Why?

In a large part, because of their success! The books sell so well and the money is so good and the creators are so stressed out keeping up with that frantic, weekly pace, while riding herd over a room full of lackeys helping out that they burn out fast and call it quits. They take the money and quit, often drawing features of more limited length to be released after they've stockpiled a mess of them (and those, when they run, are quite nice). In any case last time I looked in on the weekly comics that I once subscribed to I was shocked to see just how bad they were. We really do get the best of the best here.

I've often found myself in the middle of discussions about how to make comics work in the United States. People often cite Japan as a way things could and should work but we really are of pretty different cultures-- plus, they're readers, most American aren't.

But wouldn't it be cool to get our comics out of vending machines?

So-what went wrong? Was it the cover prices that scared readers off? The content? The gimmicks? What?

There's a lot of speculation.

Part of what made readers leave was the whole sense that they were being taken advantage of. How much is it really a "fan appreciation edition" when it costs $15 a pop? Part of it is the unsettling reality that a lot of the books-- which readers were convinced were a "good investment" by price guide-packed publications-- had no actual value-at all-despite what it said listed in that price guide. And there were plenty of other factors as well. When Image Comics hit it big, publishers scrambled to keep up and getting computer coloring was, to many, an absolute necessity. There were a lot of really awful over-colored, pseudo-Image Comics out in the '90s. And who could buy them all even if you wanted to buy them all?

And then there was the "Death of Superman," which readers responded to in record numbers-- followed up with the revival of Superman, which retailers anticipated being a huge hit, but was met with nearly universal apathy (which all made a certain sense-- I mean-- there were millions of comics, which contained a living Superman in them already. That, and many people who felt legitimately moved by the death of Superman were feeling more than a little let down and, frankly, betrayed when he came back again).

So stores bought the "Return of Superman" books by the truckload and stores went out of business-- in droves.

One of the problems with a non-returnable marketplace is that it can really mess people up if they guess wrong. These guys have it rough. Comic book companies want to sell you the books that they're selling and, in some cases, they will tell you anything to get you to buy their stuff and if retailers do buy it-- if they do fall for it-- they're screwed if the fans don't buy it and with the "Return of Superman" many retailers were screwed.

But that's not all of it either.

Y'see, there was a time when comics were sold everywhere. Every corner drug store in every community would have a rack filled with comic books. Now there are communities where comic books simply do not exist. What the drug stores did-- for the comic book stores-- was get kids started reading. And once hooked, what better place to buy your books than a comic book store where they'll put aside the comics you want, have a decent supply of older comics and a mess of people on hand to talk about comics at the drop of a hat? The corner drug store was an essential link in the chain!

But the fact is that many places got rid of comics because they weren't selling all that well-- at least when you took into account the hassle which accompanied them-- they encouraged kids to loiter, they were messy and on a per-square foot basis they weren't pulling their weight. A greeting card takes up a fraction of the space and costs as much or more as a comic book and it's a single folded piece of paper. Plus collectors care about condition. They don't want some dog-eared funnybook that's been manhandled by a dozen other pimply-faced kids!

I dunno-- I'm getting off on another rambling tangent here and I don't pretend to have all the answers. I do know that killing comics was a long, gradual process that can't really be blamed on any one factor. The frenzy prior to the fall caused by speculation didn't help-- and investors losing thousands of dollars buying high-priced, foil enhanced collectables, which didn't hold their value didn't either. Once collect ability over entertainment became the focus and collect ability proved ill advised, the market was well on its way to a major fall.

And yes, people would like comics to cost less, but low prices are not a cure all. It's not as though people walk by the comic racks month after month in hopes that prices will fall so that they can start buying them. People simply aren't looking at all. If prices were rolled back, sales would increase a fraction but they'd lose a lot more money than they'd gain.

If I cut the cover price of "Savage Dragon" in half tomorrow, sales wouldn't double. They might not even go up! Readers don't buy a book because it costs less than others. Marvel did these 99 comics a few years back and they weren't (for the most part) as good as the regular Marvel comics and they sold worse than the more expensive Marvel mags.

So they stopped doing them.

So-- what's the solution?

Nothing that will fix things tomorrow.

I think we're looking at the evolution of comics. We're going to see the form change over the next decade or two and it wouldn't surprise me to see something entirely different emerge out the other side. Ultimately, our comics may more closely resemble comics from Japan or Europe in terms of their form and we're seeing a lot of that already with the emergence of Manga in America.

I don't expect them to ever go back to being 50 a throw on a regular basis, but they may be a better value in the long run.

Should be fun to watch things unfold, I think.

I'll be here.

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