THE WALKING DEAD: ON SUSPENSE AND TENSION AND SHOCKS
Am I a scaredy-cat? Is tension better than surprise?
I admit that I am a horror lightweight. I watched the first episode of "The Walking Dead" with the lights on in the room while occasionally shying my eyes away from the screen whenever I thought there might be a shock moment for a zombie to show up. Rick walking through a hospital stairwell with only a book of matches? I kept looking away and back. The sequence was brilliantly staged and lit, but offered no cheap dramatic zombie attack. I was shying away for naught, just because I knew how things played out in the comic book.
They played it out on TV differently. I think the TV show's "decompression," if you will, allows for more logic. Would Rick really have had his uniform in the dresser of his hospital room? Would he have immediately fought zombies in the stairwell and then run off? Would his wounds have so completely healed when he woke up? In the comic, we forgive those shortcuts in the storytelling, because we like the thrills and we want the story to move. But when it's all put up on the screen with real people dressed up and acting it out, there's a different level of logic applied - yes, even to a show about a zombie post-apocalypse.
By the end of the first episode, I was familiar enough with the zombie look to not shy away from it. More importantly, I had a better handle on the style for the series. "The Walking Dead" was not a series that needed that sudden jolt to keep the audience excited and interested. While I appreciate such a jolt on a left-hand page reveal in a comic, I'm not sure I enjoy that sudden shocking moment filling my TV screen. I'm not entirely sure why that is.
Television shows and movies often clue you in that one is coming in subtle ways. The director zooms in a bunch, leaving plenty of area to the imagination with lots of room for things to jump out of nowhere, i.e. off screen. Music gives cues, though they're smart enough to know that we know that and to avoid it. But they always lead up to it in not-so-subtle ways. I get tense waiting for that shock that I know is coming. Yet it never shields me from that jolt. Many love that surprise - teenage boys whose new girlfriends might clutch onto them tighter in the back row of a theater, for example. Me? Call me a party pooper, but it's never done much for me.
When I watched the movie "In Bruges," I kept anticipating those moments, and they never came. And that's a great movie. It's about the tension, not about the shock. "The Walking Dead," thankfully, peddles in exactly that: Tension. It doesn't need cheap jolts to capture the audience's imagination. If anything, the deliberate pace of certain scenes allows for better audience participation. You can think along with the character - usually Rick Grimes. There's a certain play-along-at-home thing coming that way, even when you know the comic book and know what's coming.
On the other hand:
There are obviously differences between the TV show and the series, but the similarities are great enough that you can tell the TV people have some level of respect for the comic book material. It also means that I, as a comics fan, sometimes feel like I'm watching a show I already know, which kills a bit of the suspense. But, then, as a comic fan in the know, I giggle at the thought of the shocks and storylines yet to come that my non-comics reading fans will be able to enjoy. Yes, I'm a smug son of a gun who likes knowing more than the other guy. Does that make me a bad person?
So, yes, "The Walking Dead" inspires some odd mixed feelings, but overall, I'm enjoying the heck out of it. That first hour and a half is a great episode of television on its own, but it's also a great adaptation of a comic book series for television. In fact, I can't think of a better direct adaptation of comics for the small screen. Maybe "Batman: The Animated Series?" That's the only one that comes close.
News this week that the mini-marathon of the first half of the series on Sunday night brought up record viewing numbers is the best news of all. With the second season already ordered and an increasing viewership, "The Walking Dead" TV series is mirroring the success of the comic it's based on: A loyal and increasing audience, combined with multiple chances to see the story. Eventually, with a Blu-ray and DVD release, you'll be seeing the trade paperback and hardcover equivalent. Things are looking pretty good for Kirkmaniacs.
You have to think this bodes well for an "Invincible" series someday somewhere else. I'm thinking that one has to be animated, though.
WHY THE WALKING DEAD STILL SELLS, AND SELLS WELL
Robert Kirkman is a modern comic book phenom. Seven years ago, he let loose two books into the world in "Invincible" and "The Walking Dead." Today, they're selling better than ever, with sales that keep growing, and an incredible backlist of material to continue to make him money. How did that happen?
First, the obvious: They're both good comics. But, like everyone says, good comics don't always sell. And let's be honest, the monthly sales on "The Walking Dead" are modest, by most measures. It's never been in the Top 50 sales for the Direct Market, I'd bet. Last I looked, it ranked #69 in Diamond sales for September 2010. There are a lot of Marvel and DC titles that only wish they could sell "The Walking Dead" numbers. And it's only $2.99! Because it's black and white and because there's no large overhead to pay as far as staff goes - just the creators and an editor, all working out of their homes - that smaller chunk of money goes a much further way.
Let's look at everything else, and let's talk specifically about "The Walking Dead." What are the factors that keep the book's sales numbers on the rise in an industry where editors scramble to stop the bleeding from month to month, and stage mega-crossovers to prop up sales numbers on lower selling books for a few months before they're back to that pitiful low sales levels?
- Production Consistency: It's out on a regular schedule. Yes, the schedule slips from time to time, but Kirkman. does everything he can to put the book out monthly, and to make up for lost time when possible. The series even went bi-weekly for a little bit this year to catch up. Remember, too, that one of the reasons the original artists for both "The Walking Dead" and "Invincible" are no longer on the books is because they couldn't commit to doing a regular monthly book. Adlard and Ottley can. And do. The follow-up collected editions are out as soon as possible, as often as possible.
- Creative Consistency: This is something sorely lacking at Marvel and DC these days. DC is the worst in the industry, where a creative team rarely lasts three issues without a fill-in artist or a big team of inkers coming in to make the deadline. But "The Walking Dead" has had the same artist for more than 70 issues now, the same writer since day one, and the same guy handling gray washes and lettering for nearly as long. And when Rus Wooton took over the lettering from Kirkman, he maintained the same style. When Cliff Rathburn took over gray washes from Tony Moore, he didn't decide to try some fancy experimental technique. He kept things looking consistent.
- Availability: You can count on the backlist always being available. Don't want to read monthly comics? A new trade paperback will be out every six months. Rather have hardcover books? A new one of those will be out each year. Like oversized hardcover books? Yeah, that'll come eventually, too. Want it digitally? It's now available day-and-date at comiXology. You can't not find "The Walking Dead" at this point.
- Price: The monthly book is still $2.99. Kirkman keeps the price down on the trades by not including any extra pages. There are no sketch page sections in the back and, more importantly, no color sections to display a cover gallery that would automatically increase the cost of the otherwise black and white book.
- Story Structure: The issues are designed to be read well on their own as a serial experience, but also designed to read well as collected editions in ways that you can't often tell where one issue ends and the next begins. The last page is always on the left. The first page is always on the right. In collections, Kirkman treats the material as one big story, not six or twelve little stories smooshed together. The reading experience is clean and consistent that way. There are times when I was playing catch up with the trade paperbacks that I had no idea when one issue ended and the next began. It's that clean.
Now, not every series is going to reach critical mass just for publishing every month and reprinting as often as possible. Again, you still have to have a solid comic. Far too many comics that could have been "the next big thing" died early because they couldn't push issues out the door. Whether it was due to low sales or offers for guaranteed money from Marvel/DC, the teams broke up or changes or issues ran so late that momentum was lost completely.
There was a great interview with Robert Kirkman in "The Comics Journal" a couple years back that covered a lot of this ground. If you can dig it up, it's highly recommended. He also talks in that interview about taking no money from the monthly books to make sure he can pay his creative team enough to keep them around. Kirkman's a smart cookie. He knows how it works from the personal level, as well as the publishing level. Make fun of the banjo background music all you want, but it's working for him. And I'm glad we have him.
"The Walking Dead" chugs right along, and I hope more people in the world of comics learn from this success. I'm not saying that it's easily repeatable, but that it's another business model that too many people ignore or put off to the point where they never do it. That's the real shame.
MORE PROBLEMS WITH THE DIRECT MARKET
I'm not placing the blame on anyone with this piece of news. It's everyone's fault, after all. It's the comic buyer's fault for not purchasing stuff outside the Marvel/DC collective. It's retailers' fault for not pushing such material harder. It's Diamond's fault for not selling it to begin with. It's publishers' fault for publishing crap to cash in on short-sighted trends in lieu of building worthwhile works that will sell to a more diverse group of people over a longer period of time. It's creators' fault for producing such material for the quick payday, though they have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed so who's to blame them for doing "Superman" instead of their own project? And it's comic journalist's fault for reprinting press releases of this month's superhero death or ridiculous celebrity biography instead of work that will have a shelf life longer than seven days.
There, do we have that out of the way? I figure it's just easier to piss everyone off at the start than to make different groups of people think I'm blaming them. I'm not. It's the system. This is how it works. Until the system changes - however that might be - we're stuck with it. (Hey, when's the last time a major Kirby-created X-Men character died? They're about due for one, right? DC could counter with I don't know, the death of - well, seriously, I can't think of a good name because they've all already died in the last decade and then come back, haven't they? Ugh.)
NBM publishes one of my favorite series, Lewis Trondheim's "Little Nothings." This little unassuming series of trades reprints Trondheim's autobiographical webcomic. He shares stories of life with his family, and his trips around the world promoting his very popular French language comics. The stories are interesting and often hilarious, and his artwork is a wonder to behold, capable of telling great short little stories and showing us greater detail on local architecture and the environment. Wonderful series of books. I reviewed the first volume here. I included the second volume in my Best of 2009 list. I don't think I reviewed the third volume just for fear of repeating myself. I should have. If the advertising industry teaches us nothing else, we need to learn that repetition is the key to selling something. You need to get it stuck in people's heads by getting it in front of their eyeballs multiple times. So I shall fall on my comic journalist's sword here.
The point to all of this is that NBM is offering a great package for those unfortunate enough to have never read "Little Nothings" before. They're basically binding the three current books together into one bigger book. It's an Omnibus edition of the material, if you will, just in paperback and without printing it any larger. It's going to be $40 for 384 full color pages direct from NBM. Amazon lists it under the name "Bigger Nothings" for a mere $26 and change.
Diamond will not be carrying it. That's not because NBM isn't offering it through Diamond, but because Diamond refused the item. I probably can't blame Diamond. The individual books likely didn't sell like gangbusters, so why risk reselling the same material at a higher price point? Hardly seems like a big profitable item. Why would a retailer take that risk, non-returnably, either?
But if you've seen the reviews of the book on-line, or seen samples of the pages and been intrigued by them, this is the best way to pick up the book. You can catch up in one fell swoop for a price cheaper than the cover price of the three original volumes.
That's not all. Manu Larcenet's "Ordinary Victories" is getting a similar repackaging. The two book in that wonderful series are being bound together for $30, or at Amazon for $20. I raved over the book in Pipeline nearly four years ago.
So, yes, please go straight to the publisher at NBMPub.com and order one or both of these books directly through them. Don't worry about angering retailers or distributors or creators or anyone else. They're not part of this particular picture. You can go debate the merits of digital vs. print and brick-and-mortar vs. Amazon somewhere else. Those arguments don't apply. (You can feel free to argue Diamond's role in the comic world, if you'd like, though.)
Just go buy yourself some great comics in new packaging at a greatly lower price.