Shelf Life: The Noble Sacrifice of The Magdalena

Thu, May 31st, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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The Noble Sacrifice of The Magdalena

This week's "Magdalena" #12 is the series' final issue

The issue of "Magdalena" that came out yesterday, issue #12, is the last one. At least for the foreseeable future.

The reason is the same reason that most books are canceled: sales. Or more correctly, lack of sales. As much as a comic might be an artistic statement from the creative team, it has to be a business venture for the publisher. If that business venture becomes a money-losing proposition, it's not long for the world.

That's the short version of what happened with "Magdalena." The expenses to produce the book -- principally paying me, paying the artists, the letterer, production and printing costs -- were ultimately more than sales were bringing in. It's a simple equation. If every copy is actually costing you money, you can't keep doing it.

Top Cow President Matt Hawkins made the decision to give us through issue #12 to finish the storyline properly, even though it would've made more fiscal sense to bring down the curtain with #11. It was a stand-up gesture, one that I and the rest of the creative team appreciated immensely. In this business, financial realities usually trump creative concerns. It's refreshing when the opposite happens.

So "Magdalena" is over, after a dozen issues. And it sucks. It's not a good feeling. We wanted to tell more stories, not to mention trying to replace the lost income from a gig that's gone away.

I've been doing this long enough that I don't take it personally when the market doesn't embrace something I do. I also don't take it personally when the market does embrace something I do. I try to tell stories that I'd be interested in reading, drawn by artists whose work I want to look at. If you're worth a damn as a creator, none of what you do should be "just a job." You invest yourself in it, whether it's work-for-hire tales of company-owned icons, or creator-owned projects created entirely from your own imagination. But even by that standard, I was pretty deeply invested in "Magdalena."

This is one of the few times in my career I've had a book canceled out from under me. There was "The Path" at CrossGen, though that was more a case of the company going away and taking the book with it.

Then there was "Blade of Kumori" for Devil's Due. I honestly figured that effort was doomed from the start, because frankly the market doesn't have much interest in another integrated universe beyond Marvel and DC. But I got my pick of the concepts, the promise of equity, and I liked the art team quite a bit, so I jumped in. I agreed to do six issues of "Kumori," but we only got through five issues, and part of the sixth script, before the plug was pulled.

A page from Marz and Ryan Sook's Magdalena short story

Honestly, "Magdalena" stings a lot more than either of those. It was, as you might have heard me say in any number of interviews, the character and concept I most wanted to tackle at Top Cow. When I initially asked for it a number of years ago, then-editor Jim McLaughlin asked me to take a crack at "Witchblade" instead, and my run lasted 70 issues (with a few Magdalena guest appearances sprinkled in). The concept of the Catholic Church's supernatural enforcer hits quite a few sweet spots for me, including the sordid history of the Vatican and ... well, monsters. Not to mention a terrific character design.

At one point, we started on a four-issue "Magdalena" miniseries that was to be painted by Keu Cha. We got most of one issue completed, but Keu was pulled away from comics and into the more rewarding career of designing movie posters, leaving him no time to complete the rest. The project languished.

I was well into my "Witchblade" run when I started talking with Filip Sablik, Top Cow's editor and publisher by that point, about a "Magdalena" monthly. We took our time finding the right team, the right launch window. Penciler Nelson Blake the 2nd had moved to L.A. to join Top Cow's studio, and was coming off a Pilot Season book ("Murderer") that showed his work had taken another leap forward. Plus, Nelson is a die-hard New York Giants fan, which didn't hurt (we'll ignore his allegiance to the Yankees). So we brought the "Murderer" art team over to "Magdalena" -- Nelson, inker Sal Regla and colorist Dave McCaig. The incomparable Ryan Sook, who had drawn a Magdalena short story with me in the "First Born: Aftermath" issue (which remains one of my favorite stories I've ever been a part of) agreed to take on covers for the first six issues.

We launched the oversize issue #1 at Chicago's C2E2 in April 2010, with strong sales (in other words, profitable) and a collection of positive reviews. Overall, nice buzz for a non-Big Two title. So ... what happened? Short answer: we were late.

Even before the first story arc was complete, we ran into delays as the schedule began to slide. Nelson was undertaking his first monthly series, and the grind of drawing a monthly book was tougher than expected. He slipped behind schedule. I'm certainly not blameless either. I fell into the trap of tending to other scripts when a book's artist is running behind, figuring there's always time to catch up. In that situation, you inevitably end up scrambling to catch up. Losing schedule is like a snowball rolling downhill; it picks up speed and gets bigger as it goes. And nothing drains the momentum from a title like schedule delays.

The schedule slid more seriously when Nelson had to return to his native New York City to help his mother through a pretty serious bout with cancer. It was a tough time, with Nelson understandably keeping many details of that private situation to himself. The decision was made to bring in artist Dave Marquez to pinch hit on some pages in each issue, a marriage of styles that worked out beautifully. Dave has since gone on to "Fantastic Four: Season One" and "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man," which I believe is further testament to Top Cow's eye for artistic talent.

The series is cancelled, but the first trade paperback collection has sold well

Happily, Nelson's mother recovered from her cancer surgery and is doing well. Also happily, Nelson stayed in New York, which means we get to hang out more often. He'll be crashing at my place for next weekend's Albany Comic Con, and showing my kids metal riffs on my guitar.

Books don't always ship late because a creator can't tear himself away from the Xbox. In fact, it's usually not because a creator can't tear himself away from the Xbox. Real life intrudes upon these made-up worlds. Parents have health situations, or in my case, suffer from Alzheimer's and need to be cared for. Children get sick, cars break down, basements flood. But retailers and readers aren't interested in the reasons a book is late, nor should they be.

With some scripting revisions and a few art tweaks, we used the Keu Cha issue that had been started years earlier as issue #7, fitting it into the current storyline. We picked up schedule. But finding time for Keu to finish the concluding chapter for issue #8 proved more difficult. We lost schedule. We lost momentum.

Even normal sales attrition in the direct market means the current issue sells fewer copies than the previous issue. The next issue will sell fewer copies than the current issue. It's a spiral that rarely moves in the other direction. And it never moves in the other direction if the book is shipping erratically. It's death from a thousand cuts, with an inevitable end.

So here we are. Overall, we shipped 12 issues in two years, never quite catching up despite some planned skip months and a six-week schedule. I'm proud of all 12 issues, but I also know it's an opportunity we let slip through our fingers.

It's not all gloom and doom for "Magdalena," though. The Volume 1 trade paperback collection, containing issues #1-6, has sold quite well. I suspect it's evidence that readers are more likely to trade wait on indie titles than Big Two titles. With an indie title, there isn't as much drive to be in on weekly conversation, to be part of whatever event is unfolding. Of course, the catch is that if the title isn't selling enough single issues to survive, there won't be any more trades. The "Magdalena" Volume 2 trade paperback, containing issues #7-#12 is headed off to press now, and should be in stores in July.

Magdalena and her sidekick Kristof will return in the not-too-distant future. "Artifacts" #22 and #23 will feature the characters prominently, as Stjepan Sejic and I bring them into the post-Rebirth Top Cow Universe. They'll be the same characters, certainly, but with an added wrinkle or two. After that ... who knows? Maybe at some point we'll get another chance to make "Magdalena" work. Say a little prayer for us.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, top cow, magdalena, ryan sook, nelson blake ii, david marquez

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