Sunday, January 18, 2009

Delayed Response

If you want to see something that's both disturbing and amusing all at once, go to a comics news website, find a story about a publishing delay, and read the comments section. There you'll find poor souls absolutely losing their minds about the fact that a comic will be released 2 weeks later than originally intended. They will rail against the editor-in-chief of the company in question. They'll blame the artist. They'll blame the writer. They'll blame the dark, cold unfairness of life itself.

The most recent of these incidents involves DC Comics and their big event Final Crisis. Months before the first issue was scheduled to come out, an interview with artist JG Jones revealed that he was about halfway through said first issue. The comments section of the interview was afire with doom and gloom prophecies about him being too slow and how he would never be able to complete the issues on time. Fast forward nearly a year later, and it turns out they were right. Jones only made it through 3 complete issues before needing Carlos Pacheco to spot him here and there. Issue #6 featured three artists in addition to Jones. The final issue, #7, will not feature Jones' artwork at all. Interestingly, the same thing happened on DC's previous big event, Infinite Crisis.

I understand that comics is a business. If a solicited / ordered book is late, it affects DC's bottom line and relationships with retailers and fans, especially the latter. Let me tell you, comics fans will hold a grudge! Just bring up Civil War or The Ultimates to some Marvel zombies and you are almost guaranteed a mention of the delays on those books. This inability to deal to be patient or deal with minor disappointment is immature at best, and perpetuates the stereotype of comic readers as arrested development cases.

Publishers cater to this childishness because they want to please their fans, and because they don't want to inconvenience the retailers, but is it really for the best, in the long run? Is instant gratification worth it if the work suffers?

I always think about the classics. If Dave Gibbons hadn't been able to keep pace while drawing Watchmen should DC have brought in another artist to bang out the pages? Would Watchmen still be such a revered classic if they had? I think most would answer no to both of those questions. I wish comic readers could take this long view. In 10 years, will it really matter if a single issue was 2 weeks (or even 2 months!) late? Who will even remember beyond the most bitter hearted fans? Personally, I'd rather wait for a cohesive work by the same artist and writer team all the way through.

So what contributes to lateness? Is it lack of professionalism, or is it the opposite? Certainly it's on the publishers to plan their schedules well, and allow artists and writers plenty of lead time. But if an artist falls behind, I'm guessing it's usually because they want to do the best work they possibly can. The single greatest comic creator ever - Jack Kirby - was freakishly fast, but he set a standard that can't be matched by most. So why not slow things down?

This is all part of a larger discussion about the business of comics. I recently wrote about the idea of digital comics, and I don't believe that they're the solution to anything. But continuing to operate off of a newsstand mentality isn't either.

In the last few years especially the trade paperback market (collected editions of story arcs) has blossomed and opened up a whole new way of doing business. Less and less is it sensible to buy an individual comic each month - especially at the next price point of $3.99 a pop - just to get one part of a larger story. I could buy six issues of a comic (a total of $23.94) and have to read the story in pieces, or I could wait for the paperback collection, priced at a maximum of $19.99 (but probably more like $17.99 or $14.99) and read it all at once.

Both Marvel and DC have tried to exploit this with hardcover editions priced at around $25 - $30. I don't have sales information, but I'm guessing they've found that fans are willing to pay a little more for a nice collected edition. Especially with the way and other big market retailers are able to discount these books, they still end up cheaper than buying individual issues!

So am I saying that publishers should abandon periodicals all together? Well, yeah. It makes sense more than just economically.

As I was pondering this, I came across an editorial in the February 1987 issue of Legion of Super-Heroes (#31). Written by Richard Bruning (then a design director for DC, now a senior vice-president), it's titled The End of the Never-Ending Story. His argument, in light of the success of the then-recent The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen mini-series, is that mini-series and graphic novels are the likely salvation of the industry. He looks at it from several angles, but none more convincingly than from the perspective of the creators.

As I mentioned above, the artists take the brunt of the deadline. Bruning agrees. As an artist, he says, "when you get on a monthly book, you're starting to run a race that has no end in sight." We see this play out when artists need to be spelled by other (usually less talented) artists for an issue (or worse, for half an uncompleted issue), or artists jump from book to book. And though many assume writers to be free of this sort of fatigue, Bruning points out that writers are under equal pressure to come up with story after story, with no real break. Providing anecdotal evidence, he asks "How many writers have been around more than 15 years?" Even 22 years after the editorial was written, it's still a pertinent question.

The final solution then, would seem to be to slow down the process, remove some of the pressure, and let creative teams work on self-contained story arcs. Whether these should be released in graphic novel or periodical form is debatable, but I'd prefer the former. This move would bring up larger questions of continuity between stories, but that's a topic for another day.

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