Pipeline

Wed, May 28th, 2008 at 3:12pm PDT | Updated: May 28th, 2008 at 9:51pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

IT ALL CRASHES TOGETHER

As a comics columnist, I love weeks like this.

Tom Spurgeon mused on rising gas prices and a poor economy's effects on comics conventions and, more importantly to me, the sales of floppies and graphic novels. This essay caused a bit of a conversation across the comics blogosphere and came at a time that I've been thinking a lot about comics and money.

He's right: comics are too expensive. We can all argue the finer points of art and commerce and inflation and economics and publishing quality and entertainment expenses until we're blue in the face. In fact, I think we might have done that once or twice already in Pipeline. This is not a new discussion. It's as old as comics fandom, itself. But I do think it's beginning to hit a critical point for a few different reasons.

For one, the entrenched base of comic readers is older. We're not spending our allowance, anymore. We're spending our mortgage or rental money. We're spending our "discretionary income," and not our parental handouts in exchange for making our beds.

Secondly, the prices aren't jumping up a nickel at a time or even a quarter at a time. Prices are up to $2.99, standard, with the next step up at $3.99, from the likes of Boom! and IDW. (Some hover at $3.50, such as "Noble Causes," but not that many.) It used to be that you had to go from reading five comics for a dollar to four when the prices got hiked. Not, you're talking about moving from three comics for $10 to two for $10.

At what point does this get to be ridiculous?

Third, we now have digital comics. Whether through BitTorrent or legal means, there are much cheaper alternatives to the dead paper floppy. As the worlds of music and photography have moved to digital and the book world struggles to find ways to move to PDFs or Kindles or Sony eReaders or Audible or whatever they will come up with, the world of comics can't be far behind. This is obviously not a new discussion, but it takes on added water when discussing the realities of the world and the cost of comics.

And you know what else a small part of me thinks about when I read Spurgeon's essay? Format changes. I don't know the ins and outs of all the shipping and distributing issues revolving around comics, but if a soft economy and rising gas prices (even more than their usual summertime hike) mean the death of the floppies and a publisher reliance on graphic novels, then I'm all for it. I'm reminded of those who were hoping the Hollywood writer's strike would never end, just so it would break the entrenched system so prevalent in Hollywood. I'm just guessing here, but if a long term downturn in the economy meant a death to floppies and a concurrent rise in digital comics and graphic novels, then burn, baby, burn.

You can still hit a high price point with a great profit margin with an original graphic novel, if you present it right. "Absolute" and "Omnibus" editions and other oversized hardcovers are wonderful objects, as well as excellent reads. While the price of OGNs won't necessarily be cheaper than their concomitant floppies, there's a perceived value there that can be stronger. The added bonus of a story with an actual ending will no doubt appeal to people, as well. It works in the movie theaters.

Vertigo is taking tentative steps in that direction now. The Minx line depends on it. Image puts out more original graphic novels now than ever. Really, only Marvel stubbornly refuses to go down the road. I understand their reasons for it, but I wonder if those reasons aren't incredibly short-sighted. It's nice, as a publisher, to charge people two or three times for the same thing and to keep the flow of cash steady, but how long can that last before the readership rebels against it?

Personally, there's a certain level of reality I've been dealing with for the last three or four years. My weekly pile of comics has dwindled significantly. Where once I used to spend anywhere from $40 to $100 a week on comics without thinking twice about it, today I probably average closer to $10 - $20. Some of that, no doubt, is due to an increased amount of comp copies of comics that come through Pipeline World Headquarters. (Many of them are PDFs, by the way, and not dead wood.) But a bigger chunk just has to do with sensory overload and a lack of space.

First, I got to the point where I had nowhere to put all the comics anymore. I had filled up all the space with all the boxes and bookcases I could find. Bringing home five pounds of comics is cool and all. It's exciting to know you have all that great reading ahead of you. But when you're adding a new short box to your collection every month or two, it starts to pile up.

Secondly, I can't read that fast. Let me tell you what I'm in the middle of reading right now: "Studio Space," "How To Make Webcomics," "Rough Stuff" magazine, "The Comics Journal" interview with Robert Kirkman, and a run of the last two months' worth of "Amazing Spider-Man" issues. Why do I need to buy more reading material this week? I have more than 400 pages' worth of reading right that I haven't finished yet. Isn't adding to that stack pointless?

It's much the same reason I don't buy DVDs every week anymore. They started to pile up, unviewed. An unwatched DVD is just money down the drain. How many of the comics that I've bought in the last few years are just varying forms of money circling the drain?

I did a comics reorganization over the weekend. I had comics all over the house: in short boxes, hiding in my dresser, in a filing cabinet, on top of the refrigerator, and more. After sorting through them all, I realized an amazing thing: I had a number of runs on series and completed mini-series that I just haven't read yet. I want to read them. I want to catch up on "The Lone Ranger" and "Proof" and "The Boys" and "Invincible." I've fallen behind on them because I never knew where they were. Now that I have those very readable comics at my fingertips in a known singular location, I can start ripping my way through them.

Again, why do I need to buy more comics this week when I haven't read last week's, last month's, or last year's comics?

In an effort to start catching up on comics, I brought my recent purchases with me to work on Friday to read on my lunch break. Specifically, I took "Robin" #174 (great issue that I can't talk about at all without spoilers) and "The Walking Dead" #49. I was done with them both in about seven minutes.

I paid $6, total, for them. (Dear Publishers: Quit it with the $2.99 price point. Just make it $3. Thanks!)

I know the old saw about comics being worth what they mean to you and how trying to calculation a value based on cost divided by page count is a silly thing. I agree with both. BUT SIX BUCKS FOR SEVEN MINUTES? (To be fair, if I had read the "Walking Dead" letters column, I could probably boost that number to ten minutes.)

Finally, I didn't want to spend that much money on comics anymore. Obviously, a large part of this comes from being married, buying a house, and having a kid. This is the kind of thing that happens to everyone at some point. Like that cliched point as a teenager that so many walk away from comics because they discovered girls, I think there's a second turning point in every comic reader's life when they reassess their comics habit. I'm living that part right now.

But I ain't giving up on comics. I still love them too much. I just need to be honest with myself. I only have so much time and so much money and so much energy to devote to them. It's still more than the average bear, don't get me wrong. It does mean, though, that I find myself pulling back a bit.

So when Tom's essay hit last week, I nodded along with it. Maybe it wasn't quite for the reasons Tom intended, though. To Tom's point about conventions: It seems to me that San Diego is the last remaining uber-convention. The rest of the convention world is fragmenting into small regional conventions. As Wizard World spirals into irrelevancy (did you know they have a show coming up in Philadelphia this weekend?), even Chicago is looking more regional. (It only stays in the news because Marvel and DC have a habit of supporting "Wizard" and not because it makes any sense.) The big shows for creators now are the smaller shows like Emerald City Con and Heroes Con. Those are shows that, economics aside, are just more enjoyable for people to attend, pros and fans alike.

I think the large mega-conventions did themselves in before the prices of crude started breaking records.

I just hope comics, as a whole, follow in those foot steps.

STUDIO IN REVIEW

It's all a bit confusing.

Dark Horse had an art book last year called "The Artist Within." It's a photography book by Greg Preston. I haven't seen the book yet, but as I understand it, it's meant to be a collection of serious black and white photographs Preston has taken over the years of artists in their studios, from Jack Kirby to Sergio Aragones.

Yale University Press has a book of interviews with independent cartoonists called "In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists." It's a collection of interviews with the likes of Charles Burns, Seth, Gary Panter, Chris Ware, et. al.

I'm not here to discuss either of those books. I'm here this week to talk about "studio space: the world's greatest comic illustrators at work." (That's the last time I'll refer to the book sans capitalization. A preview of the book can be found here.) It's a new book due out this week through Image Comics. Compiled by Joel "Tripwire" Meadows and Gary Marshall, the book is a series of 20 interviews with comic book artists. It's a mix between the great "Artists on Comics Art" (Titan Publishing) and CBR's own STUDIO TOURS feature. Rather than obsessively annotating every item in an artist's studio, each creator's chapter is broken into three parts. Each starts by discussing the creator's history and background in comics. It's not nearly as boring as the first page of most interviews in "The Comics Journal," where we need to find out what an artist's parents' occupations were, and how the other kids at school treated them for reading comics. The story is told from the artist's perspective in whichever way they feel best tells it. It's very conversational, very anecdotal, and very entertaining.

The second section talks about the studio they work in. For some, it's a spare room in their house. For others, it's an office they've rented or share with someone else. There's talk of why this method of getting stuff done works for them and how they came about it. Most interestingly, you hear artists talking about their personal work habits. Some evolved into their current practices by sheer luck. Others actively experimented. Some just do what they know and never think about doing it any other way. Work habits are as varied as art styles are. "Studio Space" is a fascinating survey on how comics get done, from a variety of perspectives.

Finally, each creator gives a brief survey of their most important works. This is the section that gives the book the chance to shine with large art pieces, but it's also the greatest weakness in spots, as some artists spend one sentence talking about a particular project that you might think deserves 12. The format of the book doesn't allow for that, but there are times where you'd rather have a shrunken down piece of art accompanied by a couple extra paragraphs of the artist talking about it. We own the works already. We know what it looks like. Let's read about the fresh perspective, instead.

Having said that, one of the highlights of the book for me, personally, is the full-page reproduction of an "Uncanny X-Men" page in Jim Lee's chapter. It's a beautiful page I remember well with Wolverine, Jubilee, and Psylocke, complete with pasted up lettering, penciled in lettering guidelines still visible, and artist notes in the margins. I'm not entirely sure why it's tilted on the page, but I'll take it.

These aren't presented as interviews, though I'm sure that's how the info was gleaned. Everything is told in the first person from the cartoonist's point of view, with any questions edited out. There are a few times when it seems as if an artist is skipping around a lot, and I imagine those breaks would be the points at which the interviewer asked a new question and edited the answer's paragraphs together for the final text.

Joel Meadows showed me a copy of his proofs for this book at the New York Comic Con last month. You never can appreciate how much work goes into a book like this until you've seen the jumble of blue and red lines scrawled across the pages to correct everything from misspellings to obscure typographical errors that only 1% of the book's readership would likely catch. That includes things like the em-dashes, curly quotes, and commas.

It's because I saw that work-in-progress that the couple of inevitable errors in the book are so disappointing. The most glaring example is a line of dropped text under some "Star Wars" art in Tommy Lee Edwards' section.

The book's layout deserve some criticism, too. There's so much dependence on white space in the final design that the whole thing comes across a bit thinner than perhaps it really is. There are spots where paragraphs seem to meander around and through art clips. It's almost at random whether a piece of art is show above or below or next to the text that discusses it. This is most frequent in the third section of each interview.

That all said, the book is a beautiful coffee table item, and I learned a lot from it. I have a new appreciation for Tommy Lee Edwards' art that I didn't have before I got the chance to "know" him better through this interview. Tim Bradstreet discusses his style of art creation in a way that helps to show you that it's more than just Photoshoppery. Jim Lee discusses his childhood and growing up between two cultures while belonging to neither that's almost heartbreaking, before discussing his binges in which he goes short bursts without sleep to finish art to meet deadlines.

I've read interviews with most of the people in this book, yet I still learned something new about each of them. There is some overlap, but it's not a deal breaker. And, hey, it's not like you're going to read too many interviews with Sergio Toppi anywhere else. That was a pleasant surprise in the book.

The book is available in both a hardcover edition with dustjacket for $50 and a straight-up paperback with the same dimensions for $30. The paperback edition, it should be noted, includes the overleaf flaps on the front and back cover. I really like those, from a design perspective, and wish more paperbacks would use them.

THE SENTRY MUST GO AWAY

Top Eight Ways Marvel Writers Will Set The Sentry Aside In The Next Crossover

  • "Crap, his Avengers ID card is going straight to voice mail. We'll have to deal with The Collector ourselves."
  • "He forgot his safe word, and Miss Heather won't untie him without it. She thinks it's all part of the game. Looks like we'll have to fend off Galactus ourselves."
  • "The Hulk and Sentry went to a baseball game last night. The Hulk clapped along with the stadium speakers. ("Let's Go Mets!") The Sentry is deaf and can't hear anything we ask of him. Guess we'll have to DeSkrullify the earth ourselves."
  • "Alien invasion?!? Crap, and The Sentry just went on vacation to Alpha Centauri. By the time we get him a message, it'll be over. Unless Black Panther has one of those magical frogs left that can transport us over there. . . "
  • "Whoa, what a diabolical scheme! The evil ne'er-do-well has erected a dome over Manhattan with the nasty side effect of removing The Sentry's powers, and ONLY The Sentry's powers. I guess we'll have to do away with him ourselves, chums!"
  • "The Sentry can't help us with this one. He's gone psycho again this week. Something about Dave Sim's Void, I think. . ."
  • "I'm sorry, sir, but The Sentry can't help you tonight. He has a migraine, and I'm afraid we're all out of Maximum Strength Tylenol at the Avengers Tower."
  • "The Sentry went out with Tony Stark last night, and you know how those things go. Big hangover. He's useless today. If the city survives the contagion, he might be up and around tomorrow. . ."

Next week: Fewer gag lists, more reviews!

The Various and Sundry blog features "Zoo Week," as I share a pic a day from my recent trip to the zoo. Also: "American Idol" ends. Twittering carries on, despite the service's flaky nature. And new DVDs appear on store shelves, as always.

If you're really interested in what daily news bits grab my attention in the worlds of tech and comics and more, the best way to track is it at the Google Reader Shared Items. Several items are added to that page every day. I'm an RSS feed junkie.

The only social network I regularly appear on is Twitter. It's a very fun place with low overhead and the least number of annoyances of any Web 2.0 site, aside from an unstable infrastructure.

Everything else: The Pipeline Podcast, ComicSpace, and a Tumblr Blog.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- nearly eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  comic prices, studio space, sentry

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