Pipeline: Woe Be To Anthologies

Tue, May 24th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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I read through DC Comics' "Strange Adventures" anthology that will be available at finer comics shops everywhere this week, and while some of it has lovely art, only one of the stories grabbed me. The rest had sorta-twist endings I saw coming a mile away or were just strange for the sake of being strange. In part, it's a format issue. With a short short story, every element counts. The writer can't expect a reader that's paying any sort of attention at all to forget about a "minor" character introduced halfway through without expecting them to be a big part of the story in the end, three pages later. That trips things up on more than one occasion.

The Brian Azarello/Eduardo Risso "Spaceman" story looks pretty, but spends half its time speaking in some weird jargon that makes no sense to a new reader and proceeds to waste half the page space, before getting to a point in the story that -- well, the surprise ending is obvious for reasons listed above.

Ross Campbell, as expected, draws a cute larger girl with her shirt off, but the story is just there for a shocking image and -- bah.

The Selwyn Hinds/Denys Cowan story was a well told short, showing off a new world in a way that let the reader understand what was going on so long as you paid attention, but the ending was obvious. I know I shouldn't judge an entire story by the last panel like that, but when the big twist seems to be the big punchline of the story, it needs to be weighted heavily.

It might be an age thing. I read a lot of science fiction anthologies in my teenage years, most containing stories from a half century earlier, when everything was new. I watched all of "Twilight Zone," made just a few years later and still timeless television in many ways. After that, bizarre twist stories start seeming rote and unimaginative. Often, the writers (and artists, in this comic's case) try too hard to be too far out there and to create new whimsical things that take over and lose the reader.

Maybe that's why the one story that stuck best with me is "Partners," about two friends living off the grid with each other, running from a threat that isn't explained until the end. The "twist" ending is so obvious from so early on that the writer, Peter Milligan, knows not to rely on that to pull off the final page. Instead, it's a bit of a creepy and subdued mind-twister in the last couple of pages that hook the story into your memory. Sylvain Savoia's art and colors are simple and straightforward enough that you're never lost of confused. It's just a strong short story. I liked it.

Another couple stories go into the usual idea behind people leading fantasy lives through technological means hooked right into their brain until things go wrong and there's an exception to the rule and everyone panics and I've seen it all before and not even Juan Bobillo's painted art saves it for me.

If you haven't overdosed in your life on "Twilight Zone" episodes and science fiction short story collections, there might be something in this book for you. If you just love to see modern comic creators do shorter works, there are plenty of "names" in here to attract you. But what I see is a bunch of remakes of old story formulas with glittering new skin and dialogue that takes too long for a reader to catch up with before the story ends. Part of that is just the issue with anthologies. You're never going to satisfy them all with all of the stories. There could be a second issue of this next month with creators I follow more closely that will win me over. This issue, though, falls completely flat for me. That's a shame, because I'd like to see an anthology series like this succeed. For now, we'll have to be happy with "Dark Horse Presents" being the closest we have.

THE TROUBLE WITH THE DIRECT MARKET

So, let me get this straight: the Direct Market was conceived and worked so well under the idea that there would be great value in back issues. Those retailers who guessed right and overordered on particular books would be able to make multiples of their money back on single issue sales in the future. The longboxes were cornerstones of every comic shop.

Today, many shops don't bother displaying back issues, or have them relegated to a scant few, perhaps just a few higher-end ones on display on the wall. It's the trade paperback and hardcover side of the coin that drives the extra traffic to comic shops. Except those items are easier to order and cheaper outside of the Direct Market system. Add in digital comics with a new price and form factor, and you get a market in chaos.

Hence, we have an issue. How can the Direct Market be retooled to adapt to these new delivery mechanisms? It would seem that the first thing that needs to go is non-returnability. The burden of risk needs to be shifted just slightly off the retailers, with potential benefits for everyone involved -- more readily accessible stock leads to happier customers spending more money on more comics. Who loses in that proposition? Nobody. And if a book doesn't sell? The retailer gets a portion of that lost cost back, and at least readers had a chance of possibly reading the book.

But what's next? How can comic book shops be competitive with Amazon? Obviously, there's a certain level of service that needs to exist. The camaraderie of the Direct Market is a major key in its success, though it tends to become an isolating one if not handled properly. Marvel and DC sell comics aimed solely at the Direct Market club veterans to the exclusion of new readers. Why spend the extra money or effort to court readers who've written you off? Retailers can't afford to risk buying big on things outside their norm. Readers have too often been burned by anything outside of the superhero Direct Market and so don't invest in it heavily enough. Others just read comics for the superheroes, and there's nothing you can do with those.

The ultimate problem in a commodity market such as comics is that there's no way to bring prices down. Comics pass through too many hands before getting to a reader -- including a retailer, a distributor, a publisher, and a printer. Oh, yeah, and there are the people who create the material for the comic. Everyone takes their cut along the way. Can any one of those be removed, with the savings passed along to the reader? Not really. And there's not the volume of sales at an individual location to compete with the kinds of discounts that Amazon or other internet retailers might be able to deliver.

Digital comics combine the distributor with the retailer, while eliminating the printer. There's a new layer of technology that needs to be created to traffic in the files and make deals with the digital storefronts, but that's being done at the publisher level. It's an extra step, but not a whole new middleman. And that's why comics should be able to price themselves on-line a whole lot less. And, generally speaker, they do, except when politically motivated to do so otherwise (day and date comics).

So, again, I ask: What's the fix? I wish I knew. We need more readers, more variety in the reading material to bring them in, and more accessibility to the material. Not an easy task. It's daunting. And, in fact, I don't see the final change as being something that's a mere evolution of what we have today. It'll need to be a much bigger and broader fix.

I don't have a solution here, I'm sorry to say. There is no simple quick fix. There is no single thing that will fix it all. Even the returnability option is hotly debated. But isn’t it time we tried something?

BACK IN TIME

Let's hop in the Pipeline time machine and check out what was happening in and around this week in previous years:

In this week of 2009, I wired up a way to view digital comics on my 46" television screen. I used my MacBook with the proper cable to use the Comic Book Lover application on the bigger screen. Thankfully, CBL allows you to reprogram your Apple remote to work with it. In the end, it wasn't terribly successful. As a proof of concept, it worked, but it wasn't easy to read without resorting to double page mode and then sitting very close to the screen.

Nowadays, of course, you can Air Play your favorite PDF reading app from your iPad and read a comic on the television screen that way. Technology makes things simpler as we go along.

I was also busily rereading the "Superboy" series from 1994 around that time, as well.

In May 2007, David Mamet's book on the movie business had a lesson for comic artists to learn.

In May 2006, I considered my buying habits for trade paperbacks, inspired by the glut of trades being solicited that month.

I've talked a lot lately about my accelerating switch from monthlies to collections on specific titles. Every month when the new PREVIEWS listings arrive, I'm overwhelmed more than ever by the number of trades coming out for series I had given up the monthly habit on. This would be a great thing if I weren't trying to cut back a little bit as part of this move to the trades. I have too many books sitting unread in boxes or on shelves as it is. I could likely not buy a new comic for months and not run out of fresh reading material. Throw in prose books and that number would stretch to a year, at least. Not buying books, as it turns out, is a tougher thing to do than waiting for new books to come out in collected formats.

That glut has only multiplied since then. I'm at the point now where I do believe that too many books are being traded. Maybe it's time to cut back on the trade in favor of releasing those stories digitally.

I also enjoyed "X-Men 3" for being an action flick and not a genre-redefining epic of master cinema. Given the lambasting that movie has taken since then, I'd be curious if I'd react to it the same way today.

In May 2005, DC/Humanoids published "Olympus," by Geoff Johns and Butch Guice. And though it was a couple of years before I considered taking up photography as a hobby of any kind, I enjoyed Oni Press' "F-Stop" by Antony Johnston and "new artistic find, Matthew Loux." I want to go back now to reread the book to see how the camera angle is handled. I wish I could remember where it was.

In 2003, I caught up on several CrossGen titles and thought about why it was we fall behind on comic series:

Stories today aren't written for the serialized audience. They're written for the bookstores and for the trade paperback compilations. Companies jump through hoops to preserve the integrity of the trade. They're limiting where double-page splashes can go. They chop out the letters column to include a text page to explain the storyline thus far. They have authors pad out stories to fill more issues to make a thicker trade.

Where's the momentum, anymore? It's lost. I don't have the same drive to read comics from month to month as I used to have. It's not a financial issue. They're just not entertaining enough in that fashion anymore. Nobody writes a serial for the sake of the reader. Instead, the monthly readers are the means to the end of the trade paperback and the bookstore shelves. Comics don't tell complete stories anymore. If you miss an issue somewhere along the line, you're out of luck. You've just missed a crucial part of a storyline. It also happens too often that issues feel like filler because they're telling the middle of the overall story arc, and aren't concerned with being exciting in their own right. The trade is more important, anyway, right?

So, yeah, not much has changed in the last eight years -- and this was all written before I was married or had a kid, which is when many of the changes in my comics reading habit happened.

May 28, 2001: I enjoyed "Wonder Woman" #170, an issue I still have fond recollections of. Joe Kelly wrote it and Phil Jimenez drew it. Naturally, Adam Hughes did the cover.

That was a Pipeline Daily week, including the story in which I was offered $20 for a $5 bill autographed by Image's Marketing Guru, Anthony Bozzi. Sadly, I don't know where that five spot is anymore. I suspect it was accidentally spent at some point in the last ten years.

In the telling of the story, I speak of my lack of entertainment from "M. Rex," a series which nowadays is a hit show on the Cartoon Network under the title "Generator Rex." This is another sterling example of why I don't work in Hollywood.

Wait, more proof from May 1999:

I think "Thor" gets the award for book I keep buying but not reading. Issue #13 just came out and I don't think I've read the darned thing since issue #4 or #5. I like the book but it's one that easily confuses you with all the Norse names. I need to read this one in a big batch.

Yes, that would have been the Dan Jurgens/John Romita Jr. run on the series. I eventually did catch up and enjoy the first two years on that series, as I recall. I never saw the movie coming. That "Daredevil" TV movie was enough to see.

I'll get this right someday.

EVERYTHING ELSE

I also blog everything else that strikes my fancy at VariousandSundry.com

How to get in touch: Twitter @augiedb || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

TAGS:  pipeline, vertigo, strange adventures

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