Shelf Life: Is Twice Monthly Twice as Nice?

Thu, March 24th, 2016 at 3:29pm PST

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist
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DC Comics' Rebirth teaser
DC Comics' "Rebirth" teaser image, which promises twice-monthly books on key titles

Everybody knows the joke. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

So how do you publish two monthly issues of an ongoing series every month? Planning, planning, planning.

One of the big questions about DC Comics' "Rebirth" and its twice-monthly comics for a number of core titles is simply "How do you pull that off?" Virtually everybody in comics, from writers to artists to editors, will tell you the monthly deadline struggle is a beast. Almost every month is a race to the finish line, the last pieces of the issue often falling into place on the day the book goes to press.

Much of this is our own fault; digital technology has allowed the industry to run closer and closer to the drop-dead day, so we do it. We do it because we can, not because it's a good idea. Many don't know any other way. Coloring and lettering revisions can be made to an issue right up until the files are uploaded to the printer -- and often are. But before the advent of digital technology, if you didn't have at least two complete issues in the drawer at any given time, ready to be sent to press, you were on the receiving end of a stern talking to.

So if we as an industry struggle to put out monthly books, how is it possible to put out two books a month? Weekly books are viable, obviously. DC has delivered those regularly with a group of writers working almost like a television writers' room, and series rotating artists. The caveat is that it's harder to maintain consistency -- or maybe identity is a better word. The product is less a singular vision, as the best comics have always been, and more of a group product.

The superhero comics we love best are brought into being by creators pursuing their personal muses. The list is long: Lee and Kirby's "Fantastic Four," Frank Miller's "Daredevil," Walter Simonson's "Thor," Wolfman and Perez's "New Teen Titans," Snyder and Capullo's "Batman" and so many more. Doubling the rate at which issues are released makes it harder to maintain identity. But not impossible.

Increasing the shipping frequency makes sense in most ways other than the reality of scheduling. The way we as an audience consume content has changed greatly, and continues to evolve. Our consumption has sped up, there's a constant craving for more, and for it to be delivered faster. We binge television shows, so much so that it's becoming a dominant model in how new content is released. People want the new season of "Daredevil" on Netflix right now, all of it, and then they want something else new right after. We are an instant gratification society. Releasing a comic once a month might be what the schedule deems practical, but in terms of audience demand, it's archaic like a rotary dial phone.

The American market still seems unready to fully embrace the album/original graphic novel format that's prevalent in Europe. It's a financial hardship (or even impossibility) for publishers, and the retailers and hardcore readers demand a weekly fix. So increasing the frequency of titles to more than monthly is a kind of halfway house. The question isn't whether it can be done. The question is how well can it be done?

Silver Surfer by Ron Lim
Silver Surfer by Ron Lim

It's already a rare occurrence to have a consistent art team on all or even most issues of a monthly title. The demands of the schedule, and the level or art expected, make 12 issues a year from the same art team a unicorn in a herd of horses.

It's a different story for writers, obviously. Writers frankly have to juggle multiple assignments to make something resembling a living. When I first took over "Silver Surfer" as the first monthly assignment of my career, the title was double-shipped in the summer months. For a rookie writer, more work was welcome, and the necessity to produce was a great learning experience. There was no time for dithering or drama, the work simply needed to get done. So it did.

I was fortunate to be working with artist Ron Lim on my early "Surfer" issues, before he got pulled away to finish the "Infinity Gauntlet" mini when it fell behind schedule. Ron was (and still is) a deadline machine, so I had to be a deadline machine in order to keep up with him. Even when Ron was pulled away, he was still able to handle some of the "Surfer" issues, meaning we had to find fill-in artists to pick up the slack. The lesson I learned was that most of the time, writers needed to keep multiple artists busy.

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It's incumbent upon writers to keep the artists supplied with pages. It's one of the seven DOs I listed in a recent column. If that means pulling some all-nighters, that's what you do. It also very likely means writing scripts out of order; not my favorite way to work, but a necessary one.

On "Green Lantern," penciler Darryl Banks wasn't quite fast enough to do every issue, every month. It was mostly simple math. In order to be on a monthly 22-page book, every month, an artist had to do a little more than five pages a week. Four weeks in most months, so even five pages a week didn't truly maintain the schedule, much less leave time to draw a cover.

Darryl was a four-page-a-week guy, sometimes five pages, but it wasn't quite enough. That's why early in our run there were numerous issues with a handful of pages by another penciler. When the schedule got tight, a scene would be handed off to someone else -- someone who was available on short notice -- so the book could ship on time. It always drove me nuts to have an issue split up like that, even when the pinch-hitter was a solid artist. For me, it was about the consistency. About the identity.

Green Lantern Vol 3 78 darryl banksGreen Lantern Vol 3 71 Paul PelletierGreen Lantern jeff johnson
Ron's "Green Lantern" run was illustrated by Darryl Banks, who was later joined by both Paul Pelletier and Jeff Johnson to keep the monthly schedule

I eventually had a meeting of minds with the editor, Kevin Dooley, asking him to bring a second artist onto the book, so we could plan ahead. I wanted to be proactive, rather than reactive, getting in front of the deadline train instead of always trying to catch it from behind. Kevin agreed, but made sure I understood that I would be writing issues out of order, to ensure that both artists were busy.

"Green Lantern" was in a good position for that kind of solution, since the book was successful enough that we needed to produce more than 12 issues a year. There was an Annual, some specials or one-shots, usually a mini-series. It was enough to keep two pencilers busy. I asked for Paul Pelletier, who was doing great work on the "Outsiders" title, which was also in Kevin's office. But it was pretty obvious that the sales of "Outsiders" weren't likely to sustain the title long term. Kevin extended the offer, and Paul joined the team.

Paul's style is pure comic book, with elements of classic John Byrne, Alan Davis and Neal Adams. In addition to turning in consistently terrific work, Paul is one of the most consistent deadline hitters in the business. He's on time every time. That's one of the reasons he was brought in to CrossGen Comics, where we had a number of deadline champs. The creators at CrossGen never missed a print deadline; the first time a book shipped late, it was due to a financial failure rather than a creative one.

Writing for both Darryl and Paul meant that I would often finish an issue for Darryl, and then skip ahead a script or two to write Paul's next issue. It was a constant process of leapfrogging, so I always depended upon a solid outline of where the series was headed. Sometimes that meant figuring out necessary details for the intermediate issues, which weren't going to be written for, say, another month or two.

Once Paul left the series for a title he could call his own, Jeff Johnson took over the "off" slot on "Green Lantern." Jeff's art, like Paul's, was near enough stylistically to Darryl's art that the transition from issue to issue wasn't jarring. Despite multiple artists, there was an identity to the run made possible by writing ahead, and writing out of order.

"X-O Manowar" #44 cover by Bart SearsX-O Manowar by Andy Smith
Valiant wanted "X-O Manowar" to ship 24 issues a year when Ron wrote it, meaning issues split between Bart Sears and Andy Smith

It was a similar situation when I wrote "X-O Manowar" for the previous incarnation of Valiant Comics, starting with the unfortunately-named "Birthquake" relaunch. The plan from the beginning was to double-ship every month, releasing 24 issues a year of each title. Bart Sears and Andy Smith handled the "X-O" art duties by alternating issues, a process made easier because they shared studio space. The ease of reference and communication meant I could write their scripts in order.

I enjoyed actually writing "X-O" a great deal, and I regret my time on the series on was brief. The high concept of "Conan in a can" is brilliant, and I had huge fun with it. But when the "DC Versus Marvel" assignment came my way, my schedule was overburdened and something had to give. Since "X-O" was two issues a month, the book was half of my workload. To a certain extent, I felt like I was always writing "X-O." Not a bad thing, yet it made managing my schedule more difficult. I didn't want to step away, but realistically, I needed to. There was also the added of factor of sensing which way the wind was blowing at Valiant, and thinking rough seas were ahead for the company. That turned out to be true, unfortunately.

Certainly my experiences aren't the same ones that will be faced by creative teams embarking upon twice-a-month shipping. It's a different era, a more editorially-driven era. But in any era, two issues a month is a juggling act, and a lot of it falls to the writers. Gentlemen and ladies, start your juggling.


Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" for Dynamite, "Skylanders" for IDW, "The Protectors" for Athlitacomics on Madefire, and Sunday-style strips "The Mucker" and "Korak" for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, rebirth, silver surfer, ron lim, green lantern, darryl banks, paul pelletier, jeff johnson, x-o manowar, bart sears, andy smith

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