Comic fans want to save comics. While yesterday’s commentary stated that comics aren’t dead they are in a huge decline and there are worries that comics as we know them may disappear. For some that’s actually a good thing, and I don’t mean the anti-comics or anti-superhero folks. I mean comic fans themselves are starting to argue in favor of changing the nature of comics. I’ll get to digital comics another time and you can probably find an old commentary that at least mentions them somewhere on this site. I’ve been doing this long enough that topics do come up multiple times. It’s when I do nothing but repeat myself that it may be time to close shop once I’m out of review material.
Call them single issues, call them floppies, call them periodicals, I’ll just be calling them comic books or comics, even though the other categories we’ll be discussing are technically still comics. So we’re all on the same page then, “comic books” or “single issues” will refer to the single issues you buy every week or every month if there are only one or two titles you get regularly. “Graphic novel” refers to comics that are released in a big novel-like form, a rather large comic. “Trades” (and I don’t know where the full term, “trade paperback” originated) refers to collections of comic books or comic strips from the newspaper into one book, usually following one storyline from the comic book. “Digest” is a smaller graphic novel, like you used to see on the stands at K-Mart type stores with Archie, which is also the size used for “manga”, comics from Japan sometimes released in this format and sometimes a trade collection of stories from an anthology comic magazine, with a lot more pages than the digest. We all using the same terms here? Good. Note that the video I’m basing this commentary off of is using “single issue” for comic books and we’re good.
Said video comes from Comic Drake, a YouTube creator that does commentaries and history on comics and comic characters. In a recent video he dropped an anti-single issue commentary talking about how the practice should be ended and they should just make graphic novels. I understand his frustration but as I would later write in his comments I think he’s tackling the problem from the wrong side.
Let’s start with the price issue. I know I’ve gone over this one. Using the updated numbers from the same Ka-Blam self-publishing company as that article, a standard 24 page comic with #70 gloss covers (the cheapest option), #70 high bright paper (the only interior paper they offer in regular comic size), full-color interiors, and I even removed the Ka-Blam ad that lowers the price, we get $3.27 per comic, $3.11 at manga size. Going by Drake’s math and going the opposite direction, a $16.99 graphic novel with five issues puts the individual issues at $3.99, not counting new covers, which end up in the back of the trades with the other bonuses anyway. To be noted here is that $3.27 is the price a self-publisher would pay this company to publish the comic. It does not include profit, and for most publishers it also doesn’t include paying the writer, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer, a third-party company like Zylonol for separations or Comicraft to do the lettering, or the editors.
Going by Alterna’s publishing partner program, which uses a modern, tougher form of newsprint (one of Alterna’s selling points of their own comic books) and #60 high-gloss, for a standard 24 page comic costs 46 cents a piece if I follow the information correctly, so that’s a drop of $2.81 for an admittedly cheaper quality, but not necessarily cheap quality, comic. (I believe that includes color but I could be wrong–much of Alterna’s product is black and white, but Ka-Blam’s price doesn’t drop that low for non-color, which would be $1.61 with the same quality paper and page count as full- color pages) I’m not trying to sell you guys on anything with either company mind you. If you’re looking to self-publish make sure of the details and see what additional costs or requirements are involved. You may not be able to use either service for your particular comic. And again, that doesn’t include paying the creative teams, promotion, or profit, just the printing costs for a lone creator to publish his or her work. DC or Marvel probably get a deal for buying in bulk from the publishing companies they use since this is just for one issue and we’re talking a few hundred thousand copies in the US alone per title. The problem with the price is the printing costs and maybe they should not be so insistent on the flashy paper for their single issues, at least for the interior pages. I do understand it for the graphic novels or magazines but comic books are pricing themselves out of business. Drake noted that Shonen Jump was in black and white rather than color, which does up the costs, but last I saw of the magazine the paper quality wasn’t the high gloss stuff seen in US comics lately.
Add in (no pun intended) the ad thing. Why wouldn’t advertising help reduce the cost? Because those ads are for other DC and Marvel products. Sometimes it’s the other comic books or graphic novels, it could be the movies that Time Warner (now WarnerMedia but they haven’t settled in yet) or Disney/Marvel Studios want to promote, video games featuring their characters…when’s the last time you saw an ad in a comic for something not tied in to DC or Marvel characters or their corporate owners and fellow ownees? Ignoring the junk mail-away ads, the comics I grew up with had ads for movies and shows not produced by the comic company’s parent media juggernaut, toys, skateboards, cars, food, and even an event or two not involving comics. DC is paying for ads for their own product, perhaps another victim of comics acting like they aren’t as “worthy” as TV and movies, which TV and movies will happily tell them they aren’t. Where’s Steven Tyler when you need him? (I haven’t seen Wayne’s World 2, did see the first one, but I have seen the clip.)
Don’t get me started on the variant cover thing, a layover from the gimmick nonsense of the 90’s speculator bubble. Like the trades I’ll get into in a moment the regular people who don’t follow comics read that Superman’s first appearance was worth a lot of money, didn’t understand why they were worth that, and the nonsense began. Variants and other gimmicks are a waste of money for the comic collector and for the publisher. Do we really need the “variant version of the same cover but done in crayon by the artist’s five-year-old daughter? (Granted, it would be better than a lot of comic art from the 90s. Women may actually have room for internal organs while men aren’t built like the Wax Phantom from that one Scooby-Doo story.) Or, and this really happened, that set of Incredibles comics where five covers of the SAME DANG ISSUE formed one picture? By the way Boom Studios and everyone else out there, NEVER @%##^&@% DO THAT AGAIN! ESPECIALLY IN A KIDS TITLE, YOU GREEDY SCUMBAGS! Sorry, still a pet peeve of mine.
Which leads into my biggest complaint, the decompressed four-issue arcs, otherwise known as “writing for the trade”. This started with Marvel in the early 2000s, as you’ve been seeing in the Tuesday comic reviews of my old Iron Man and other 2000s Marvel, some being four-issue crossovers–and we’ve discussed eventitis in the past, and DC eventually followed suit. Now even the independent creators that didn’t go full-graphic novel as Drake suggests have started doing four issue arcs to put in a trade later, even if the “single issues” are only available for digital download. This makes even less sense when they release a new page every few days on their website. If you want to make a graphic novel, just make a graphic novel. The reason fans wanted out of print storylines like “Demon In A Bottle” (Tony’s alcoholism sending him into a rise and fall and rise again that the Company Man on YouTube would cover) or collected events like Crisis On Infinite Earths, or even collections of other stories of huge significance either by nature of the story or one of the involved creators are only sought after because it was easier to collect that way than hunting down the individual issues on the aftermarket and hoping you can find it at a reasonable cost. (Think back to this morning’s article link.) However, someone at Marvel saw how the collections were selling and decided they wanted to collect everything in trade, and insisted writers now write for the trade. That’s how you end up with stories that could be done in two or even three issues now requiring four or more to pad out to graphic novel length for the trade. In other words they’re writing a graphic novel when they could just do a shorter issue.
Think of the shorter issues as a TV series, graphic novels as movies, and trades as maybe a box set or a movie edited from a bunch of TV episodes. That sounds closer to how it should be done. It’s the shorter, single or two issue comics that will do better on the casual market and also allows for longer character moments than the space a movie/graphic novel typically has, further bringing back casual readers who may not otherwise collect a lot of series. Therein lies the problem comics have made for themselves, abandoning the casual market. I bring up kids all the time, how they only have so much in allowance and nobody seems to want to write for them anyway, but the first part also true for adults. Like I said yesterday, you can’t trust that the current crop of superhero movies are going to bring people from the theater to the comic shop. They have to see the comic on store shelves, and outside of Stop & Shop or finding whatever corner Walmart has put the 100 page things DC put out, that doesn’t happen. (Going back to the price thing, how does a book with one new story and about two or three reprints cost the same as one single-issue? You aren’t making a good case for yourself, DC! Then again, you’ve priced digital comics at the same price as the single-issue so you’ve proven you don’t understand math.) Even the convenience, grocery, and drug stores that carry magazines and newspapers don’t have comic books anymore, and that’s where I bought most of my early comics.
And yet, like gamers, there seems to be a disdain for the dirty casuals, or “normals/normies” as I keep seeing them called. At what point did we as the comic fandom decide comics in any format were only for us, get locked away at stores “normal” people don’t usually frequent if there’s even one nearby, and then start complaining that comics aren’t selling as well? Of course they aren’t selling as well because only a handful of us can even find them, never mind buy one. Even at the height of the comics boom there were areas you couldn’t get comics except through subscription either through the company themselves, a practice ended long before e-shops and the internet, or through some third-party distributor you could order from. If they can’t find the thing they can’t buy the thing. Again, my exposure to comics as a kid was through grocery stores, convenience stores, drug stores, and those random three packs you could get at Sears or dollar stores. Comics aren’t as widespread as they were back in the golden or even bronze age of comics. Out of sight, out of mind.
So the problem is really that comic creators have forgotten what advantages the single issue floppy periodical comic book has. And like each storytelling medium they have different strengths and weakness like any other comic format. Graphic novels can tell a larger story while the regular comic book can tell a longer story or have a longer subplot–again, movies and television. One project I would love to do someday is a maybe twelve-issue limited series (what is that, miniseries or maxiseries these days?) in the style of the old movie serials. Come back next issue and see how the cliffhanger is resolved. It’s not the same experience if you binge watch a serial or a serialized story. Writing for the trade doesn’t allow for a proper serialized story because graphic novels don’t work as well in that format. At best, following the movie analogy, you could do a sequel or something along the lines of Star Wars or Back To The Future.
Single issue stories are also better for casual readers who might pick up a comic or two but not be invested in a full series, the one-shot stories that used to be the norm with the occasional two or more part tale. This requires writers to respect continuity for the long-term readers, thus showing respect for the fans who have been there, without telling the story in a way that loses the first-time or casual reader, or someone who fell away and might come back on a lark if they see it while walking past the section. Done right, it should entice them to go to the comic store or digital service to find the back issues referenced without insisting you need it to follow along. Think of it as one of those stories where the hero meets a villain they’ve defeated before but in an unchronicled adventure. If the reader finds the villain interesting enough they may go find that previous appearance or a hero from another book may be interesting enough to check out his, her, or their own book in a shorter crossover or guest appearance. That’s continuity done right. Also price those single issues to encourage a casual purchase with a little bit of mad money because even in today’s economy $2 isn’t too much to spend, but $5 to try something new and come back each week is a bit harder. That could buy a box of cereal.
Single issues also come out monthly while a graphic novel comes out every few months if they want to actually make it good. Movies take longer than TV shows for the same reason, not as much time to work in every detail or get feedback from the fans so they have to get it right the first time. When I was collecting manga like Mega Man Gigamix, a really huge graphic novel, it came out every few months while Viz’s Mega Man: NT Warrior felt like it was coming out seasonally. Compare to Metal Guardian Faust or Bio-Booster Armor Guyver, also translated by Viz, that came out monthly when release in single issue format. I’ve missed manga series in their natural format because I forgot about them and didn’t know when the next book was coming out. That’s why my Zoids series only has a few books in it and why I’m missing Gundam Wing‘s last book. I did go back and get storylines of Bio-Booster Armor Guyver in digital format. Single issues are also good for a short read while the manga requires a bookmark so I don’t lose my place. My untranslated manga (some of which I would sell off if I knew where to) come with cheap paper bookmarks for that reason. I enjoy manga but it’s a different experience from reading US comics and I don’t need everything to be the same experience. It depends on what mood I’m in that day. My local comic shop only carries graphic novels and manga when ordered because they don’t sell well enough, not even trades. And some of those manga are essentially trades from anthology comic magazines like Shonen Jump.
Tossing out single issues isn’t necessarily the solution. I like graphic novels, and trades are graphic novels in the end and so are the usual digest manga. They can tell a story in a way the single issues can’t, but in the same vein and when done right single issues can tell a story in a way that isn’t the same experience in a graphic novel or trade. Game Of Thrones wouldn’t have had the same discussions if it had been binged-watched and it wouldn’t be as strong in peoples’ minds if they didn’t have to keep thinking about it each week. You don’t see the same discussions for Netflix shows that go on for weeks at a time. MatPat doesn’t do Film Theories on Orange Is The New Black (it’s the only Netflix show I know of that isn’t a Marvel series or animated). They don’t hold our attention as long, don’t attract casual fans, and while the trades and made-for-graphic-novel stories might draw in someone new it won’t do it as well as a single issue done correctly.
The one thing we do agree on is that the comic industry isn’t doing it right. Of course to me they haven’t been doing it right for a very long time.
And don’t forget to check out Comic Drake on his YouTube channel.