We sail tonight for Singapore,
We’re all as mad as hatters here.
Courtesy Tom Waits and his singular album Rain Dogs, which I always find myself fishing out this time of year, prodded by the featureless gray sky and insistent drizzle of the season. Yes, there is a rainy season in Southern California. That’s how you can tell it’s not summer.
Not that this was a terrible year, by any stretch, but it was a frustrating one. Top of the list of the reasons for it would be the inability to get Strangeways out of the gates this year. And really, I can talk about how the publisher got jerked around by Lamppost printing or Quebecor being impacted at the end of the year, but those are just facts. My gut tells me that I should have gotten the job done myself. Of course my gut tells me dumb things like “that second chili burger ain’t gonna hurt” when I know that’s simply not the case. All the same, if you’d asked me in spring, I’d have said that it was a no-brainer that the book would be on the stands. And that bites, really.
But it was frustrating for a couple other reasons. One of those would be the damning conservatism on the part of the Big Two in comics. Don’t get me wrong, books they put out probably tote up to about half of the comics work that I read this year. And they’ve put out some good books, even some good superhero books, which is something of a surprise, given that I’m not real fond of most superhero books these days. But for every nod I tossed their way, there was at least one grimace at their behavior as well. I could name them all, but you know what I’m going to say. And ultimately, all the dumb things I got mad at were things that were meant to serve one purpose: to retain their control of a shrinking readership.
I’ve seen very little on the part of either Marvel or DC to actually do anything resembling market expansion. There was that story about Marvel trying to get back into 7-11 stores, but I don’t recall hearing any sort of follow-ons as to whether or not it was succeeding, and if it had done anything to expand their numbers or get more eyeballs rolling towards traditional comic pamphlets. DC is in the same boat. Sure, they get press coverage for the “risky” moves taken by INFINITE CRISIS and the follow-on series(es) to come (and I’ve already talked about why they aren’t risky moves at all, at least with regards to the audience as it stands).
Both of them are too wedded to the form that they’ve perfected and that retailers are primed to sell. That being the 32 page pamphlet at the three dollar price point (four dollars for IDW’s books, though they’re no more expensive to produce than the typical Marvel/DC book, and probably a lot less when it comes to paying the talent). Not only that, but this story chunklet (and let’s admit it, it’s rare that you get a satisfying chunk of story in 22 pages plus cover and ads of a standard western-format comic) is only available in a few stores. Sure, if you’re in a major metropolitan region, you’ve got a good chance of having more than one comic store within your stomping grounds, but not everyone is.
I live in San Diego, the sixth-largest city in the US. You know how far I have to drive to get my comics? Twenty-five minutes to get to a good store. Twenty to get to a crummy mall store that doesn’t stock outside the big two. I go because this is the only way to get my fix. God help anyone who lives in a truly suburban/rural region and is a comics fan and wants to browse the books before they buy. Yeah, there’s DCBS, but with them you’re depending on Previews being on the money and giving you enough of a taste to get excited about the books to put your money down.
People say that comics wither on the vine because of the exaggerated presence of superhero comics. I say that’s a strawman. There’s plenty of genre diversity in comics, though I’ll admit that you have to go digging for it, and get out of the top 200 books. Sure, I’d be happy if there was more, but there’s enough to sustain a wider audience. It’s not the content that people are objecting to. It’s the form that causes a problem (both in actual form and the outlets selling that form.) Twenty-two pages of comics will very rarely come off as a satisfactory chunk, much more so to “civilians” than to people who are used to getting their stories in serial chapters. That makes comics seem expensive to most readers. Add to that the fact that you can only get comics dependably in a (comparatively) few outlets (as opposed to say, music stores or DVD stores, etc.), and you’ve got a bunch of strikes against wider adoption of the form.
But hey, it’s what folks are used to, right? Ain’t inertia grand?
And of course, you’re going to turn around and say “well, what have you done about it, smart guy?” And I’d have to admit, “not a darn thing.” Realistically, the audience for the single issues of Strangeways begins and ends with the Direct Market. When there’s a collection to offer, giving an entire story (and then some), you can be sure I’ll be beating the bushes of Western Bookstores and book clubs and horror bookstores and book clubs, ISBN in hand and drawing attention to myself. But for the monthly pamphlet, the market is much, much smaller. And far more temporary. Trades aren’t the whole answer, but I bet you can get a lot more interest and sense of apparent value from a trade collection that you have to go the store once to buy, as opposed to six serial trips to the comic store that might be aroud the corner (or half an hour away).
You know what I want to see in 2006? Original graphic works offered for a reasonable softcover price (and yes, there’s publishers who do this already). I’d really love it if they stopped publishing, for instance, Superman in singles and went to a spined magazine format that gave solid value and gave you long stories that you could read in longer than half an hour. I’d love it if there were more crime books that were something other than wallowing in the depravity of the week. I’d love to see cover design and trade dress that didn’t make comics look like comics (and yes, this is being done, but not by publishers with the clout to make the practice expand.)
Of course, I’d be down with comics being published with every intention of them being permanent works and not just another placeholder or 1/6th of a future trade collection. Sure, there’s lots of works that have bloomed out of the manure pile we often refer to as pop culture (guys like Dickens and Chandler come to mind). The editors had so many pages to push out, and sometimes geniune diamonds rained from the sky to ornament the banquet of mud that most of them put out on a regular basis, but still, it’d be nice to have an eye to the future illuminating the work of the present.
I’d like to come to the end of 2006 and not feel so damn maudlin about the industry, and certainly my work within it. Sometimes it feels like all I’ve done is grumble, and that’s likely true when talking about 2005. Hell, it feels like the only writing I’ve actually done this year is online, which often amounts to bellyaching. And that’s not the way I want to be looking down the sights at 2007. Need to get more actual writing done, though sometimes that’s hard to justify when you’re looking at projects that only work as 12-issue limited series and you’re having trouble getting that 4-issue cowboys and werewolves story close enough to the edge to give it a swift kick and send it flying.
Why is it that I have time to bellyache (and it comes so naturally), and I’ve had precious little time to actually celebrate the good stuff that I’ve read this year? Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old man after all. My white hairs would back me up on that one.
Ah well. May 2006 be a little less rocky than 2005. Or at least let it present some kind of sense of achievement and closure, and maybe just maybe, a little triumph, to us all.
We sail tonight for Singapore,