One Fan's Opinion: Issue #12

Thu, October 27th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Oops.

Okay-- I missed getting this in on time by a few hours. I've been working like a fiend on this little book called "Savage Dragon." I just finished putting the final touches on the next issue.

But that's not what I came here to talk about.

I was talking to a friend the other day about the Internet and the opinion was offered that much of what goes on here and there on message boards and whatnot isn't merchandising or selling books, but rather a substitute for said commerce.

Often people will, instead of going out and buying comic books, visit a multitude of message boards and gladly substitute that for actually reading! As if talking about comics to other "fans" and to comics creators on message boards or in chat rooms and restricting any actual reading to those comics posted in news items, offered as sneak peeks or downloaded illegally still qualifies them to be called a comic book fan!

That ain't right.

'Cause a big part of comics, for me, is holding the books, smelling the books, feeling the paper in your hand and studying the mini-masterpieces in all their four-color glory.

But I understand why you might do otherwise.

Comics are expensive. Comics aren't easy to find. Often a person will have to drive miles to a comic book store and even then there's no promise that what the reader seeks will be there (although stores do vary).

How did we get to this state? Where did things go wrong? Comics used to be so cheap, so plentiful, so easy to read in single-issue form and so enjoyable.

I make a weekly pilgrimage down to my local funnybook emporium to pick up the latest offerings from any number of publishers. But I can understand it if you can't. The cost of gas has gone through the roof and the cost to heat your home this winter seems daunting and lord knows tuition is only going up and food prices are bound to follow. Like it or not-- comics are a luxury, not a necessity. If the choice is food, shelter, heat or comics-- comics isn't likely to top the list, especially if hunting them down is such an incredible hassle.

So-- why aren't there comics everywhere? Where did they go? And who's to blame?

Well, there's plenty of blame to go around. As collectors or investors ditched comics for toys, comics started hurting. Creators themselves wanted better printing and better coloring and readers were willing to pay more for higher end books-- prestige books. In the '80s, few "Baxter books" existed and those that were there were special projects-- in the '90s, creators were able to call the shots and they wanted their work to look as good as it could look-- so they upgraded when they could. And readers, given the choice, chose the books that looked better over the ones that looked worse. Over a few years time, it became a situation where publishers were trying everything under the sun to get your attention-- every kind of gimmick was utilized! Every angle was covered. And as books were added in an effort to compete, the quality dropped like a stone. The parts that mattered-- story, art, and all the rest-- suffered. When the Image books started selling great guns, everybody scrambled to get computer coloring up and running and a lot of those early efforts were less than beautiful. Books looked bad. And readers had more choices and they chose books that didn't look so bad.

It's true that late books hurt-- there's no doubt about it-- but as a reader that liked any ongoing book at the time will tell you, it became very difficult (and expensive) to follow any regular series. Every few issues there would be some cover gimmick that would catch a reader's attention. And as some new readers snapped up these gimmick books, other readers missed out. And since the gimmick supporters were only there when the gimmick was, the regular reader missed out or was over-charged and it all spiraled out of control.

I don't think you can point at any one company or individual and say, "You-You're the one that fucked it up."

Nearly everybody contributed. They may have thought their alternate cover or gimmick was harmless or justified, but nearly everybody was involved at some point.

The Image guys were a focal point for a lot of negativity from a very vocal group of naysayers. Our books were certainly singled out as ones that contributed to the implosion, but certainly Marvel and DC pumped out as much stuff as they could and Malibu and Dark Horse both launched superhero lines in an effort to compete with Image. Hell, Marvel and Malibu launched creator-owned lines as well, hedging their bets that it might be the creators fans followed-- not their creations.

If it had been "just" Image, I doubt that it would have been that disastrous. We didn't put out that many books! It was because everybody got greedy and everybody expanded that caused it to all go to hell.

Eventually, it all crumbled under its own weight. In addition to the funnybook stores that folded, a lot of other retail outlets that supplied contemporary pictorial literature to the masses got rid of comics as well because they weren't selling as well as they had been. Comic stands encouraged kids to loiter. Often parents would park their kids in front of the rack as a surrogate babysitter while they went shopping and these hungry readers would dog-ear a stack of books while Mom was off selecting breakfast cereal. Comics were messy and on a per-square foot basis, they weren't pulling their weight.

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 fell it did.

But things are bouncing back. Comics are selling better than they were a couple years ago, but nowhere near as well as in years past. The sales of books of collected works are on the rise. We're far from doomed.

At this point, it's hard to figure out just what to do. Sales on many books are not particularly healthy. The voyeurs-- the "fans" that post instead of purchasing-- are quick to point out how expensive comics are, but if publishers slashed their prices in half it wouldn't fix anything and to those already getting free entertainment, any price is too much to pay. (And does anybody buy porno anymore? That stuff is all over the web and often free at that-- who's paying for this stuff?)

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.

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.

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

Should be fun to see things unfold, I think.

Meanwhile, comic book stores are slowly morphing into bookstores with a graphic novel focus. There are bookstores that focus on gay writing or science fiction and there are black bookstores and ones that deal with fantasy or romance titles, so why not comics?

I don't expect to see the death of the monthly periodical anytime soon, but the focus is changing. Sales of collections, of graphic novels, in terms of dollars spent, are increasing.

People like to cite Japan as the shining example of where it all works, but their sales are shrinking at this point as the quality of their books diminish. In Japan, there are no single comics like ours. They don't have 32-page comic books. 20 or more chapters of a variety of serials appear in each weekly, newsprint volume. The individual chapter of each feature doesn't have enough progression and information to really stand on their own and seem worthwhile in a 20-page installment.

Personally, I love the traditional 32-page comic book format.

It has been suggested that we all ditch that and just start doing books, but it's hard to sell a $20 book to a reader who is unfamiliar with its contents. $20 is a heck of a gamble. With the 32-page samplers out there, at least there's a chance of a reader getting a taste of what could be had in a bigger book. Doing a book cold would be a stretch.

I suppose I could do it. Readers that follow "Savage Dragon" would probably support it if it were only to be found in book form, but if I were to make that leap, I'd imagine things would change quite a bit. The storytelling wouldn't be so episodic. There might be more expansive spreads-- longer, more extended conversations. The pages would become less dense. Right now I cut back and forth a lot in rapid succession, spending a page or two on any scene, if I had more pages I might dwell on things longer. I wouldn't feel it was necessary to have there be action every few pages in order to hold a reader's interest and I wouldn't feel it was necessary to keep action scenes so brief either. I could have a choreographed 30-page fight scene that was powerful and satisfying, whereas I wouldn't dream of doing that in the 22-page format because you'd end up with issues which were a fight from start to finish and nothing else. The pacing would change. Right now it's a real chore to distill everything I want to say to 22-pages. It takes a lot of hacking and cutting to make everything fit in the limited space that I have available. If I had more pages, I could spread out more.

I do think readers would be willing to pick up a book every six months instead of on a not-quite-so monthly basis. If you could count on a book being in a store and staying on that shelf you wouldn't need that frantic weekly dash to the comic book store.

And people wait to buy "Harry Potter" books without losing interest. Readers will come back for more. If you could get one extended, satisfying read every few months, wouldn't that be okay? I can think of a number of comic books that could benefit by coming out in that form instead of in their current monthly format.

Thing is, I can see both sides of this issue. Books vs. comic books, I mean. I could see doing comics that came out once or twice a year, but were hundreds of pages long. The question asked is, if you finish 22 of those 100 pages, why not release them in single-issue form?

The answer is that not everything can be broken down quite so easily. Take any big budget movie and randomly chop it into 22-minute installments. Sometimes that will work out okay-- other times you'd be breaking things up mid-conversation. Writing comics to be told in 22-page chapters require a certain kind of pacing. If I was writing and drawing for a 176-page book (for example) an individual 22-page section might not stand on its own if it was part of a bigger story. The reason a person might not want to release it in that format is that it might not make sense as a coherent story.

If "Harry Potter" books were released as chapters as they were completed-- little, 40-50 page books-- would readers snap them up?

I'd imagine so.

Would they stand up on their own? Would they be a satisfying read?

Probably not.

But the characters and books are popular enough that I imagine readers would show up on a regular basis. And J. K. Rowling could rake in even more money.

So-- should it be done?

I dunno. I mean, it might be the one example where it would work.

Would people snap up monthly 20-minute Spider-Man or Star Wars DVDs that would be collected and released as full-length movies? They just might!

Would that be worthwhile?

Not really. Each section wouldn't stand on its own and scenes would need to be expanded or cut to fit certain formats. Viewers would be pissed off at paying for a conversation between Peter and Aunt May, for example and Spider-Man action would need to be included in all chapters to make them seem worthwhile and yet that wouldn't make for a good movie when the chapters were compiled.

Certainly DVD sales show that people will buy compiled TV shows, but that's a bit different. TV shows are piped into your home for free and they're essentially ads for the collections in a fashion.

I guess that might be a funky analogy. Still, it's a thought…

What if our comics were like Japanese comics? What if each individual story was still roughly 20 pages long, but there were a lot of different features in each issue? Just imagine Spider-Man, Hulk, Avengers, Captain America, Daredevil, Iron Man, FF, Dr. Strange, Thor and the X-Men all sharing one weekly comic. Might that work? Readers could get a fat, cheap comic, packed with goodies and those individual features could be pulled out and collected on their own in graphic novel form. Hell, the comics could be in black and while! They could be like all-new Essential comics (you know, those massive newsprint comics Marvel keeps churning out?) and colored for the collections-- one more incentive to pick up the collected books.

Sigh.

This column is all over the place. I'm pretty much spewing out random thoughts at this point. If you're looking for coherence, look elsewhere.

In any case, artists in Japan, typically, have quite a few assistants helping out on everything from backgrounds to most everything else. Some artists have nearly 20 guys pitching in and helping out. And often stories are incredibly padded. Huge empty panels which progress the narrative slowly. In a baseball story that I was looking at, for example, 12 pages were devoted to a single pitch. You can only imagine how long it would take to play an entire game-- and the art is drawn much smaller than the art in most American comics.

All features are creator-owned. No creator is ever replaced with a successor on a strip. If an artist stops, so does his story.

With dozens of artists working on any one feature, it's no wonder they can come out so often. It would be no different than if, say, all the artists working on Spider-Man books jammed on each page and instead of five monthly books you got one continuing weekly story that was found in a weekly book along with 10 to 15 other stories. Manga artists work fast, sure, but they're not inhuman-- there are just more of them working on any one feature. Stories do end and new ones fill the void. Sometimes artists will work on a feature for quite some time before they start seeing print and chapters will be stockpiled. And they have monthly books, too. Not every book is weekly.

They don't have a new comics day. Weekly Jump may be on sale every Monday-- Weekly Champion every Tuesday and so on.

In Japan, millions of people take public transportation to work or school and comics are cheap reading material, which is often discarded in huge recycling bins at train stations. Few people collect or keep the weekly comics. People buy the smaller, better-printed books, which collect individual features found in the weekly comics if they want to save them. Comics are available everywhere. They can even be found in vending machines.

It's a different world.

Here in the states, problems persist although a lot of people are doing a lot of talking about how to make things better. A thought put forth was that since readers are increasingly turning to the net, why not do comics there and there only? Why not find a way to charge readers to read books on their computers? We could skip the whole printing process altogether!

Call me old-fashioned, but I want to see my stuff in print. The day this all becomes digital is the day I throw in the towel. I don't mean that if things went digital in addition to print that I'd stop drawing comics. I mean that if digital replaced print, I'd stop.

At this point at least, print looks better. Comics at 72-DPI don't appeal to me. I've had work look like crap in print due to poor printing, sure, but frankly, after years in the biz, I finally have some control over how my stuff looks and I'm not eager to take a giant step backward. If some folks want to look at stuff that way, more power to 'em and I'm perfectly fine with stuff being available in digital form in addition to print as well, but I want my stuff committed to paper, damn it.

I don't know if anybody here got the complete New Yorker cartoons book that came out a short time ago. The interior pages looked splendid, the stuff on disk less so. It looked, in fact, like shit. It was fuzzy and chunky and nearly impossible to read. I can't imagine a person actually looking through them all and that's a real shame, I think. For the cartoonists whose work it is, it must be heartbreaking.

Given the choice, I'll choose print and if print isn't an option where is the incentive to do good work? If nobody can see the art-- if nobody can see that detail, those backgrounds, that crosshatching, those faces-why do a good job? It's not as though anybody can really see the difference at 72 DPI.

So what does all this add up to?

I haven't the foggiest.

I do know that a lot of folks are working hard to get you up out of your chair and off to your local comic book store. A lot of people are doing the best work of their careers in an effort to entertain you.

So please, even if you've fallen into a comfortable rut of reading columns like this or message boards or whatever, every now and then drop by a comic book store and see what they have to offer. These periodicals really do look better on the printed page than as 72-DPI jpegs.

But that's just one fan's opinion. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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