Shelf Life: To Binge, or Not to Binge, That is the Question

Thu, February 7th, 2013 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist
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Netflix made the first season of its first original series, "House of Cards," available all at once, catering to "binge" consumers of TV

For the last week or so, there's been much written about "binge" consuming. No, not snarfing down an entire industrial-size bag of Cheetos and a 55-gallon drum of Mountain Dew. In this instance, the conversation is about watching an entire season of a television series in the span of a few days, or even a day (though I can't personally imagine having the free time to knock out 10 or 12 hours of television in one sitting).

The discussion was prompted by last week's debut of an original series on streaming service Netflix, starring Kevin Spacey and boasting director David Fincher as one of its chief creators. Obviously a formidable pedigree. But a great deal of the attention on "House of Cards" has been focused upon the way it's been released: all 13 first-season episodes were available at the same time (last Friday). It's the polar opposite of appointment television. Instead, it's television entirely at the consumer's choice: all at once, one episode a night for two weeks, whatever you want.

Many observers point to the move by Netflix as more evidence that, thanks to the DVR and online streaming options, the audience is migrating away from the old norms of weekly appointment viewing. The Los Angeles Times offered a good piece here and The Atlantic examined the economics of the move here.

I honestly don't think the point's even arguable anymore. The way we consume television has changed drastically. I can't remember the last time I watched something as it was being broadcast, except for sports or maybe "The Daily Show" once in a while. For almost any kind of scripted drama or comedy, I'll wait at least 15 minutes so I can buzz through the commercials via DVR.

DVR and streaming services like Netflix have drastically altered the way people consume television

To be fair, I should admit I don't watch a great deal of television; at best, I watch maybe an hour a night (though some nights are given over to films). Within the last few months, I got current with both "Breaking Bad" and "Downton Abbey" in relative binge fashion. Obviously I was able to do so because I was catching up on programs that deliver new content in weekly installments. "House of Cards" is a possible game-changer in that it presents new content all at once. It's an offer from the content provider to give you what you want, when you want it; the whole story, all at once, or at least in a large enough chunk (an entire season) to be satisfying.

In comics, we don't really do that. You can binge, of course. You can read Kirby's "Kamandi" or Simonson's "Thor" front to back, if you want. Maybe we should call that "omnibusing" instead of binging. You can trade-wait on current material, and consume the story in larger, likely more satisfying increments. But we're still an industry of "appointment reading," because we're still largely tied to the weekly release patterns of monthly comics with about 20 pages of story content. We need to suckle that monthly teat to keep revenue streams trickling. Profits from books on sale today fund the creative costs of books being written and drawn now. It's a self-perpetuating cycle demanded by the present sales/economics of comics. That's not a complaint, that's merely a reality check.

The comparable to "House of Cards," of course, is an original graphic novel, a self-contained work that stands on its own. Yes, we as an industry are offering more of that, though more from what would be deemed "independent" publishers (which in the current market has come to mean anyone who's not Marvel and DC). Archaia, for instance, switched from publishing single issues, and the ensuing collections, to being purely a publisher of graphic novels, with some of the best design and production in the business.

DC has made their own "full-season" attempt at comics with the "Earth One" OGNs

DC and Marvel have dipped tentative toes into the OGN pool, DC with the Earth One graphic novels, Marvel with the Season One series. But those are essentially supplements to the monthly serials, not alternatives. If you want new Batman or X-Men stories, the overwhelming product choice is still the monthly serial. In other words, we're still far from a meaningful segment of the market embracing the European album model. The concept of getting your Batman or Spider-Man fix in a series of larger volumes even once every month or two is still, pun intended, completely foreign.

I think I have a little more perspective on the situation now, having worked on the first volume of "Ravine," the original graphic novel that Stjepan Sejic and I have coming out from Top Cow/Image in a couple weeks. Volume 1 of "Ravine" is 160 pages, including more than 120 pages of sequential story, the equivalent of six months of single issues.

It's a big story, with numerous characters and plot threads. It's a story that would need to be told differently if we were publishing it as monthly issues. The ebb and flow of a story is, to some extent, dictated by format. Doing "Ravine" as an OGN allowed us a much wider canvas than we would've had in monthly issues. I think it provides a richer, more immersive experience for the reader, though obviously the audience will be the judge of that.

Marvel has done the same with their "Season One" OGNs, but these function as supplements to their main publishing output

But I also have to admit the creative advantages of OGNs are counterbalanced by the financial realities. Most publishers are unable to or uninterested in funding 100+ pages of material before even seeing a return on the investment. That's a big reason why the majority of OGNs are creator-owned material, or at least have some sort of creator stake. Producing that much material on no budget, or a limited budget, demands a passion project.

For all our satisfaction with the finished product, certainly "Ravine" is a financial risk for me and Stjepan (we co-own it). Neither Stjepan nor I were getting paid while working on "Ravine." For me, that means weeks without earning a cent, which is problematic when you have a mortgage and a family. For Stjepan, it's considerably longer than weeks, it's the equivalent of months of "free" work. Certainly, we both juggled paying work with the creator-owned project, in order the keep the lights on and food on the table. But it's still a lot of time we could've been spent pursuing work-for-hire projects that carry a page rate.

It's a choice you make, and a risk you take. You trade guaranteed income for creative freedom, and a chance at some financial gain. If we sell enough copies, at $15 a pop, we'll make some money. If not, we just produced 160 pages of material for free. It's completely in the hands of the market now.

"Ravine" and other OGNs are essentially the "House of Cards" model: the first "season" all at once, for you to consume as you like. I expect the television "binge" model to gain in prominence. It's where the audience is headed.

Ron and collaborator Stjepan Sejic are attempting to launch an original series using this model with "Ravine" from Top Cow

But for all its creative advantages, the OGN model faces an uphill struggle in comics, both financially and in terms of audience acceptance. I do most of my reading via collected editions anyway. I'd happily wait for regular OGNs by terrific creative teams. But readers, publishers and direct-market retailers are heavily invested -- literally and figuratively -- in the weekly cycle. It need not be an either/or equation, but our output is heavily weighted toward single-issue format.

"House of Cards" can be a game-changer because Netflix stepped up to fund two seasons. The comics equivalent might well be crowdsourcing. Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns are providing a safety net for creators to pursue OGNs for their projects. Thanks to the core audience, artists and writers can embrace the creative freedom of the format, and manage to eat while doing it. Hopefully that's not only a glimpse into the future, but also a path to the future.

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 "Ravine" for Top Cow, "Prophecy" for Dynamite and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, house of cards, netflix, season one, earth one, ravine

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