One Fan's Opinion

Sat, January 23rd, 2010 at 10:39am PST | Updated: January 23rd, 2010 at 1:34pm

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Comics are too expensive I hear people say.

I say the opposite – comics are too cheap!

“How’s that?” you ask.

They are.

They’re too thin, they’re too fragile, they’re too cheaply made and they’re not worth displaying in bookstores next to magazines and whatnot because they damage easily and they’re so insubstantial that they’re not a good value. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard readers bellyache about comic books they can “read in five minutes.” Some have taken to calling monthly books disparaging names like “pamphlets” or “floppies” further emphasizing how insubstantial they are.

There’s talk – endless talk – about what’s wrong with comics and why readership is down and how to save the industry.

The easy answer is to do nothing, to keep going. It’s broken, yes, but it’s not completely broken so keep on doing things the way we’re doing things. The problem with that is eventually it’s going to go away if we keep doing things the way we are. Stores are closing, outlets are drying up and bookstores don’t want the comics the American industry is publishing because the books are fragile and easily damaged and readers don’t want to pay $3.99 for damaged goods.

I’m gonna play “if I ran the zoo” for a few minutes here. Keep in mind, I’m not in charge of diddlysquat. Not really. Sure, I’m one of the owners of Image Comics but we’re pretty hands off – I don’t tell other people what to do in their books. So, really, I do one monthly book and that’s it. I can’t make sweeping company-wide changes anywhere but I thought I’d throw this out there and see what folks think.

And before I get too far into this, I would like to remind folks that the purpose of writing this column is not to end debate on any subject but rather to provoke one. I’m not looking to get in the final word on anything here but to start a conversation – to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks.

"Shonen Jump" Weekly

There are a couple places that seem to have models that work: Europe and Japan. Europe publishes books – generally 48-96 page albums or original graphic novels, which come out whenever – some are essentially periodicals with recurring characters, others are one offs. Japan has weekly anthologies. We tend to get reprints of their collections but in their original form, Manga is published on crappy recycled paper, the stories are serialized, they’re jammed into 400-page, squarebound comic books and they come out weekly.

My proposal is for American comic books to follow the Japanese model married to Europe’s 2000 AD: weekly 64-page books with all original content and a cover price of $5.95. These comics would have thicker, more durable cardstock covers so they would be a step closer to trades but they would be bound like comics. Easier to rack with magazines and, with a similar price point, more lucrative for the retailer. It would be easier to get these into book stores and magazine racks.

Then cancel everything else.

Think of it – ten weekly books with as much content as 100 monthly books. Like Spider-Man? Now you’d get 20 pages of Spider-Man weekly and instead of one shots and spin offs it’s all in there, plus other related or even unrelated features all bit into 5-page installments.

So – why not do this with “Savage Dragon” if it’s such a brilliant idea?

Because “Savage Dragon” is a small, self-contained title with no spin offs or related titles and I’d have to fill 59 additional pages a week in addition to the 5 pages I could manage myself and that would be a disaster. Sure, I could pull off such a thing monthly – and I would love to do that – but if I’m the only guy doing this, it doesn’t work. For something this radical to actually work it would need to be industry-wide. I can’t do it alone and have any kind of impact.

Marvel and DC, on the other hand, could not only implement it but their titles would positively thrive in that format!

Look at Batman – now – it’s had numerous spin-offs, tie-ins and titles. At one point as many as ten or more per month! All could be folded into one Batman book – or two – “Batman,” which could feature all spin-off titles like Catwoman, Batgirl, Gotham Nights, Birds of Prey, Robin and so on and “Detective Comics” which would feature a shorter Batman lead and detective-related features.

But, but – DC tried a weekly book, “Action Comics Weekly,” and it was a dud and Marvel tried a bi-weekly book, “Marvel Comics Presents,” and it ground to a halt after a while – why would this succeed if those floundered?

Because if publishers replaced their entire lines, readers would have no other options. The reasons “Action Comics Weekly” and “Marvel Comics Presents” eventually floundered were many, first – they featured a lot of second-stringers and (in some cases) weak art, their stories were often inconsequential adventures and the cover prices of these titles were higher than the monthly books. If a reader can get a full issue of Wolverine for less money than a more expensive book with an eight-page Wolverine story plus solo stories of Shamrock, the Arabian Knight and Willie Lumpkin, they’re going to pick Wolverine! These books were doomed from the start and they quickly deteriorated and fell apart as creative teams went elsewhere are weak filler was shoveled at the reader.

If I were DC I’d do one cartoon book, taking the place of all animated titles – Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny and all the rest. Then I’d do “Batman,” “Detective Comics,” “Superman,” “Action Comics,” “Wonder Woman,” “Justice League,” “Flash” and “Green Lantern” –all other books could be broken up and serialized in those titles. The lines in many cases are obvious, in others not so much. Blue Beetle, Booster Gold and Teen Titans could fold into the “JLA” book – anything god or mythology related like Captain Marvel, the Demon or the Spectre could fold into “Wonder Woman” and so forth. There could either be a couple Vertigo books or have them be the exception and keep their current format if there aren’t features strong enough to carry a book.

"2000 AD" from 1986

At Marvel I’d do “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Fantastic Four,” “Incredible Hulk,” “X-Men,” “Avengers,” “Captain America,” “Thor,” “Wolverine,” “Iron Man” and “Daredevil.” X-titles like X-Factor or Deadpool would fold into “X-Men” or “Wolverine.” Plus books that often struggled could be given a few pages – not hopeless losers like Captain Ultra, Aunt May or Squirrel Girl but Namor, the Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, Dr. Strange and Nick Fury!

In both cases I chose historically important, long-running titles with faithful fan followings. In some cases, bi-weekly or even monthly titles might be better solutions. I know DC is contractually obligated to publish Wonder Woman monthly but maybe she can’t realistically headline a weekly book – so maybe she has a monthly book backed with great features. Maybe Marvel would do better alternating Daredevil and Iron Man every other week but the idea, I think, has real merit.

Both companies could produce the same number of pages that they are now but instead of having a monthly She-Hulk book, for example, which keeps getting axed and restarted her adventures could run in five-page, weekly installments running in the back of the Incredible Hulk.

The plus side is that there would no longer be weak titles that limped along while a handful of books were in the top spot. Any miniseries or one-shot idea could be serialized and slotted in to fill the space of a feature, which is running late.

We’ve all lamented the passing of one book or another that we thought was awesome but was met with lukewarm sales. Now, instead of that book getting ignored and axed it could get serious exposure in the back of a popular title. If “Nextwave” was running in the back of “X-Men” or “Wolverine” it might still be going strong and Spider-Girl could chug along forever instead of having occassional miniseries or one-shots.

In the Manga weeklies readers are constantly poled on favorite features and flagging ones are swapped out for new ones. Marvel and DC could do the same – plus ask what features readers might like to see. It would be a great way to keep characters active and visible, it would make collecting easier, it would make it easier and more profitable to get on the newsstand, it would cut printing costs and there would be a big savings for readers who would get more bang for their buck – more pages for their money.

And sure, trades would still exist! Individual chapters would be collected as trades all the time just like before only instead of it collecting five 22-page stories it would collect 22 five-page stories. It all adds up to the same page count and nobody gets hurt in the process.

But – like the formation of Image Comics, where the biggest names in comics left to form their own company – it only works if everybody has faith and makes that jump together. If DC does one book – it fails. If Marvel does one – it flops. If both did it for their entire lines – it would be gold.

This is, historians may note, not a new idea. Comics in the United States started off as 64-pages in length with numerous stories filling up their four-color pages. The format was a real bargain but the supply of artists was thin and the output was often sloppy or crude. With an ample army of talented creators already producing a large body of work now would be an ideal time to run this format up the flagpole again and create a new golden age.

And what do I get out of this if it does happen and publishers are as successful doing it as I anticipate?

Well, nothing. Nothing but the survival of the books I grew up with and the field I’ve treasured since the day I began reading. I love comics. I love them more than most anything. It would sure be nice if they stuck around a while.

And if something like this did happen, Image and all the rest would follow suit and it would ultimately benefit everybody to have fatter, more upscale books on the market that could compete with other books on a shelf.

But that’s one fan’s opinion. Feel free to get one of your own.

TAGS:  erik larsen, weekly comics, anthologies

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