Mad Friday Night Ramblings

By | Friday, October 15, 2010 2 comments
As a sort of spark off something Brian Hibbs recently wrote, I'm wondering about the viability of the monthly pamphlet comic. He's got a valid point about regularity and predictability in scheduling. If Batman slips from shipping the second week of every month to some vague time period 45-60 days (or more) from when the last issue shipped, and the story quality isn't absolutely top-notch, you're going to lose readers. Especially after you tell them it's going to ship on a certain date, but subsequently miss that.

Now, over at The Beat, Torsten Adair in the comments section brings up the notion of inventory stories. The ready-to-go single issue filler a publisher would have ready for every regular title they did, on the chance that something happened and the next regular installment couldn't be completed in time. They'd drop in the filler story instead of what was supposed to be there and, boom, the comic would ship on time. Just with a different story than you were anticipating. You still got 20-some pages of a comic about Spider-Man (or whomever) but the cliffhanger at the end of the previous month would have to wait another 30 days before you could see what happens next.

It's that notion of changing the story that keeps publishers from doing filler issues any more. See, with the current direct market distribution system, the retailers order their comics based on what the publisher says will be in an issue. Who the creators are, what the basic plot is, what characters guest star, etc. If you put a hot artist on a book and talk about a guest appearance by Wolverine, it's going to sell more than if you get some artist nobody's ever heard of drawing characters no one cares about. So retailers rely on that advance information to place their orders. And since those orders are generally non-returnable and unable to be altered, that's understandably a big deal to them.

People might be willing to wait an extra month or three for a Grant Morrison/Frank Quietly Batman story, but they're not going happy with what was sold to them as a Grant Morrison/Frank Quietly Batman story if it's really an Steve Malin/Jesse Chen Commissioner Gordon story even if it IS on time. (Malin and Chen worked on some of the comics published by the Federal Reserve. Not bad pieces, per se, but not exactly heady page-turners!) So while retailers do have some recourse available to them if a publisher sells them something other than what they promised, it's still pretty damaging for all parties involved.

The system worked before because readers primarily followed characters. They wanted a Fantastic Four story every month and if Rick Parker had to fill in for George Perez one month, so be it. Now there are certainly still an audience like that, but there's also a substantial audience for people who just follow creators. They just think Brian Bendis is the best writer in the world and will pick up any book that he had a hand in writing, regardless if it features Iron Man or Deena Pilgrim.

Publishers have generally taken the stance of: "You can have the characters you want, the creators we told you about, or the issue in your hands on time; pick two." To which fans have primarily responded that occasional lateness was okay.

But notice that in all of this discussion so far, it's the publishers who are calling the shots. They're controlling the comics' content, of course, but they're also controlling what options retailers and consumers can choose. They're providing some selections, but they're ones of their choosing that aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

Look at comic strips. In print or online. Regular (often daily) schedule for years, sometimes decades at a time. Recurring creative team that's effectively there for life. And a cast of characters that show up day in and day out. And for those of you who might claim that that's old school and cartoonists don't really hold to that any more, most of the ones listed down the right side of my blog follow those guidelines. (Note to Self: Update that list.) Some of the agreements there (i.e. those comics going through a syndicate) are more formal and some (i.e. webcomics) less so. But there's an agreement there that is upheld on all three fronts: characters, creative team and deadlines.

Now what that says about the treatment of comic strip creators versus comic book creators, and who might be compensated more fairly, I'm not going speculate on tonight. My point is just that comic book publishers are suggesting options are more limited than they might really be.

What about this? The big publishers essentially split their respect lines down the middle. There's one title for each of their big characters (Superman, Wolverine, etc.) that comes out spot-on regularly every month. They're not necessarily all individual done-in-one inventory stories, but you essentially line up a long series of inventory type stories that might play out over one or two or three or four issues. Get them done. Completely. THEN schedule them in that title for however many months. So for those people who want to read about Green Lantern every month, there's a GL book there every third Wednesday of every month.

Then, on another track, you do the more creator-driven projects. Like the infamous Morrison/Quietly Batman. I don't think doing this is a bad thing in and of itself, but it needs to be countered by the regularity of other material. Marvel and DC are not doing that currently and are essentially treating every title as one of these creator-driven projects. And it's not working.

Of course, the quality of those more inventory-ish stories has to be there, or else you're back to that value question again. (Which, I might add, I was discussing well before it's current run through the comics press.) Given also the notion of having each issue complete before it's even solicited, this would essentially mean moving production months ahead of its current schedule. Which doesn't strike me as likely, given everyone's (not just in comics) propensity for taking maximum advantage of just-in-time deliveries the past several years. (That's not exactly a criticism, mind you; there are definitely benefits from a business perspective.)

Which leads me to the larger idea. That nothing substantial will change within the current mainstream system. Because the publishers have to provide advance information to the distributor who provides it to the retailers. Retailers use that info for ordering purposes, so if you switched the system to something where the advance information was unnecessary (because you'd have the same creators every month, or that the issue was in fact complete and retailers could review it for themselves) that eliminates a large need for a specialized distribution process. (Since distribution could then be handled by, say, FedEx or UPS.)

All of the issues comicdom is facing -- well, many of them at any rate -- remain problems because of the distribution system we're currently saddled with. I'm not blaming Diamond here, mind you; it's the whole system that's faulty. It was designed for a very different era and does not have the internal infrastructure to handle contemporary needs. Much like our school system was designed in a very different era and doesn't meet the needs of today's kids. The system isn't the problem, but it's preventing any real solutions from being enacted.

I could try going down some prophetic path about how digital is going to destroy comic retailers because the current system can't adapt itself, but I've had a really long week and I'm not even sure what I just banged out is even coherent at this point. I'm going to bed now and, if I read this tomorrow sometime and think it still resembles something intelligible, I'll try to continue onward in some thoughts about the future.
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Matt K said...

It's a bit of a ramble, yes. :-) But that's okay; I ramble even when I'm as healthy, wide-awake and alert as I ever get.

A few points:

"You can have the characters you want, the creators we told you about, or the issue in your hands on time; pick two." I love this!

Regarding that point, I note that your observation about comic strips may be sometimes valid and sometimes not. e.g., while I'm pretty sure (based on what I know of the man) that Jim Davis approves every Garfield strip published, he hasn't been the only one working on it for a long time.

Plus, of course, Garfield and many comic strips are in a sense completely "inventory stories," in that there's almost no continuity or change (even an appearance of change) to the status quo. A Garfield strip from 1986 could be published today, and vice versa, and few would notice.

And so even if, for argument's sake, it is all the work of Jim Davis, it's certainly easier to work ahead and fit in one's own "inventory stories" when the continuity of one's work is at a level more like "The Simpsons" (i.e. minimal) than like "Days of Our Lives" (i.e. high).

I think the concept that you describe as "one title for each [big character] that comes out spot-on regularly every month..." has been tried, more or less. I think one of the Batman books does this now, in fact, and seems to do A-okay; Marvel, however, has met pretty abysmal results with this kind of thing.

I know Spider-Man has had at least a couple of such series, neither of which lasted. Of course, you say that "the quality... has to be there," but: 1) That's always the trick, isn't it? and 2) recall our recent discussion of Untold Tales of Spider-Man. It had a big character, plus at least some element of long-form story arcs, good talent and high-quality stories. And it was dirt cheap!

And...? Meh.

Presumably a serious fault in UToS, from fans' perspective, was that the stories did not "count." Yeah, they were real, but all from long ago. Not even the hint of suspense which current-continuity stories offer.

Marvel for its part seems acutely aware of this with its constant "event" stories, and its decision to charge a significant price premium for the series which "count" the most.

I'm pretty sure that a considerable portion of Marvel's, and probably DC's, sales are basically selling participation in (or at least up-to-date observation of) their respective shared universes. And that, even more than long-form story arcs and status quo evolution in a single series, really seems incompatible with inventory stories.

Of course, one might observe that it's not perfectly compatible with late books, either. :-) But I suppose they're the lesser of two evils here.

I think the concept that you describe as "one title for each [big character] that comes out spot-on regularly every month..." has been tried, more or less.