Sunday, August 24, 2008

16 years ago

"These days, it seems as though believing in even the possibility of such simple things and obvious things as basic order and unconditional justice is the product of a foolishly optimistic and laughably unrealistic mind. What the hell's happened to us, anyway?"

- Lou Stathis in Reflex magazine, 1992
Found this quote in a Vertigo comic I picked up in the dollar bin at my local shop a while back. That month's Vertigo comics had an obituary for editor Lou Stathis who died in 1997 from a brain tumor. I found it particularly relevant to things I've been thinking about recently concerning politics and science fiction. Once upon a time one could imagine the world getting better, that technology could make our lives better. Now, it seems humanity is doomed to be forever distracted by "bread and circuses" and we shall go the way of the Roman Empire, perhaps taking the planet's hospital atmosphere with us while furiously texting away on our iPhones about some viral video we just watched.

Stathis seems like one of those people I'd have loved to have met. He chose to work with many of my favorite artists and helped create some great books. Not to mention that his work in Reflex really opened my eyes to cartoonists like Kyle Baker and Dan Clowes when I was probably reading lots of X-Men.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What's up, Manchester

For some reason this blog is getting a lot of hits from Manchester, England in the last few days with none of them coming from inbound links. So, just out of curiosity, what's up, Manchester? You can leave a comment or send mail to my profile name (Joe Willy) at Red Flag Publishing dot com.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Web comics are the answer

In my last post, I talked about how I believed the comics industry, especially the mainstream "Big 2" publisher, should embrace the anthology as a means to deliver the monthly, serialized "floppy" comic book. Because of changing economics and industry dynamics I think the anthology is a way for the larger publishers to go back to their roots and return to the successful formula that launched their greatest creations, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and countless others.

Now I want to talk about how I think the smaller companies and independent creators need to take a harder look at web comics as their model to replace what used to be the means for unknown or underground voices to enter the comic book industry, the black and white indy comic. Although, I would also like to see more indy anthologies (and there area and have been a a lot- Mome, 24/7, Flight, Comic Book Tattoo, Drawn & Quarterly, etc.) but the problem in today's market is that distribution has devolved into a nearly mainstream-only delivery system in the majority of most direct market comics shops. Retailers, forced to place their bets on what they will sell and not get stuck having to keep (or if they do what might have a shelf life) are betting on Coke and Pepsi's big names and not stocking very deep into the distributor catalog.

In fact, in an average 6 months I shop at at least four area comic shops. A fifth I used to go to but gave up on. In the aftermath of the 90s these shops all slowly cut back on their ordering of alternative comics, even as that part of the industry developed superstars like Los Bros. Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, etc. When retailers got stuck with the bill for thousands of unsold "hot" properties, they counter-intuitively dumped the stuff that appealed to aesthetic or literary interests and firmly entrenched themselves into the fanboy collector market by placing even more chips in the basket of the Big 2.

And so I have over the years found it harder and harder to find interesting alternative work. Stores that used to get an issue of The Comics Journal, Acme Novelty Library, or Optic Nerve might now just order a couple extra copies of Punisher War Journal or Catwoman. Because of the deeper discounts from the publishers who have signed exclusive deals with Diamond, retailers have gone with the products with greater profit margin and a "reliable" customer base- the every Wednesday crowd.

Now, I see where more and more indy comics creators have gone from publishing comics to making mini-comics. Higher paper costs and printing increases have helped this along. But once upon a time a tiny publisher or sole creator could expect to publish his book on a press, have Diamond carry it and see a fair amount of orders. Now these creators are forced to go to photocopier publishing or print-on-demand (POD) and hand-sell their creations, meaning if you don't live near these creators you have almost no chance of seeing their book. While some web sites have attempted mini-comic distribution on-line they were often plagued by poor site design and interface, a lack of preview art, little to no advertising, and perhaps in the early days a reluctance for consumers to engage in e-commerce (print fetishism may be an issue here- some of us still want to touch the merchandize- to "squeeze the Charmin" as it were), not to mention high shipping costs- unless you want to order a dozen mini-comics you may be paying as much for shipping as you are for the product you are ordering.

Meanwhile, we've seen a generation emerge that has been creating web comics for several years and already produced "superstars" that make a living at their work and are getting signed to book deals from major publishers. Sadly, most of the people embracing web comics seem to be humor-based strips often aimed at youth culture niches such as gamers of fantasy-based or furry-oriented. While it's nice to see these areas flourish there is a gaping hole where the traditional indy comics crowd and aspiring mainstream creators should be. While we've seen a start very recently with projects like The Chemistry Set, Transmission-X, and Act-i-vate, I still see a lot of newer creators dumping money into print without first establishing a desire for their product, something which can be created almost free by using the internet and web comics.

This lesson was one learned the hard way. Long gone is the time when creators could create the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon with a self-published black and white comic or the days where an R. Crumb could sell-sell his way from Zap #1 to a chateau in France. In fact, I'm not even sure it's still possible for a Dan Clowes to come up the way he did, starting with Llyod Llewelyn and then moving to Eightball, selling enough copies to at least keep going and progressing. I also think the fact that a lot of record stores used to carry indy comics was a boon to the industry, not only providing an alternate sales outlet by by having music fans get turned on to interesting artists that could provide cover art, helping further expand the reach of the artists and also help provide a more stable outcome. Alternative newspapers also serialized comics and bought illustration from comic artists which further made it possible to keep the young artists going and improving. A lot has changed...

Now, the best way for an artist to be seen is to put art on-line and hope it gets picked up by Boing Boing or some other outlet that bring eyeballs to a site and creates exposure for an artist. The upside is now you can be seen by millions, but the trade-off is that you are now not just competing against the artists in your city or region to get noticed but every artist in the world. While you can still make some money off print it seems harder than ye olden tyme days and I think that means artists have to be willing to make work available for free on-line- something which goes against the instincts of many people who value their creations and believe them to be of some worth. We live in a culture where people are supposed to be paid for their work, in fact that's sort of how capitalism works, yet we find ourselves in a time where there's billions of web sites with countless hours of free content available. Every artist has to compete against YouTube, MySpace, iTunes, and more.

It almost seems like some of us are doomed to have missed the boat of the black and white boom of the '80s or even the alternative comics explosion of the 90s, yet maybe aren't young enough or tech-saavy enough to take advantage of the changes of the Aughts. I can see a whole generation of younger people almost intuitively understanding the world they live in, while this thirty-something is caught between the rock of a withering print industry and the hard place of a constantly-evolving world of tech which seems to move every time I think I've grabbed it. But I still see others who haven't seem to have caught on. It amazes me how many comic book message boards I go to where some unknown author is looking for an artist for their 12-part mini-series to be printed ye olde fashioned way.

Print is still viable if you an art comix creator who wants to silk screen covers and hand sell at conventions which is great if you live on the East or West Coast and your goal to is to get printed in Kramer's Ergot. Print is still viable if you're looking to break in at Marvel or DC. But if you're one of those other people who wants to work in the middle- in that grey area between precious (sometimes pretentious) art comix and the commerical (sometimes exploitative) superhero industry, I think you're only chance of making a go of it is to put your comics on the web and try to build an audience to eventually sell books, prints and other merchandise to in order to be repaid for your work. The audience for that work is poorly served by the current state of the industry. Not that I think web comics are the perfect solution, but they are the best one we have right now.

One last note about the fact that web comics aren't the perfect solution, but the best one we have right now: A big problem I see is that the audience still wants to read stuff in print, except for the people who are actually fans of web comics- usually people following humor based comic strips since a four panel strip isn't hard on the eyes the way a 300-page graphic novel would be. Current fans of web comics expect one thing while fans of print expect another. We need more web comics portals that cater to fans of print-based comics looking to find what's new and interesting, to help those creators build an audience for their off-line work and we also need to educate the audience that the distribution and retailing arms of the industry are acting as a blockage that is preventing the next Eightball, Love and Rockets or Cerebus from being a success. At a time when comics are dominating Hollywood and boosting bookstore profit margins, it seems even harder than ever to find good comics in your comic book store.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Anthologies are the answer!

I was thinking this past weekend about writing a post about some issues regarding the comics industry and then along comes Tom Spurgeon with some well-timed nuggets of wisdom that really kicked my thoughts into overdrive. While Spurgeon occasionally seems a little vague or obtuse in making his points or in his use of historical analogies (although, the fault probably lies more in my ability to understand than in his writing), I find a lot there to digest.

For one, the hard number that it takes 3500 copies to break even on a black and white comic or 4600 for a color comic is nice information to have out there in an industry where hard numbers are hard to come by and sometimes even avoided. Some comics pros even take to message board bemoaning the fact that some pesky journalists demand to see sales numbers. Thanks to Spurge for plucking that one out.

The idea of a sales threshhold “magic” number also leads one to question the “profitability” of comics that fall under that sales threshold. I guess cover price has a lot to do with it since most comics come in at $2.99 and a book priced a buck more might be able to sell less copies but make more than that minimum needed to continue publishing. The price of “talent” and overhead likely is a factor- comics that pay an inker, a letterer and a colorist (or person to do graytone- colorist doesn’t seem a good term to begin with but especially when a book lacks “color”) are probably much harder to be considered a profitable or even break even venture with so many mouths to feed from one product. An indy book created by one person for a small company could maybe continue on under the 3500 level where a book with a large creative team from a mid-level indy company might not (or, conversely, maybe the mid-level company has a lower overhead cost per-book than someone doing it on their own as a sel-publisher- an interesting thing for further future investigation). Much like a touring band (where a power trio may be able to make enough to keep going where than 9-piece orchestra has a much tougher time), a book with less people to pay can be profitable at a smaller level.

This is one reason why Vertigo takes so much heat when the monthly sales charts are discussed at Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat is that people understand that a large company like Time Warner (DC) means more overhead and higher costs, thus more copies need to be sold to keep a book going. Although a large company can also afford to swallow early losses if they think a book will pay for itself later (either in trade paperback form or through other media such as film deals and licensing). A Big 2 title selling near that 4600 mark has to be in danger of cancellation and Spurgeon makes great points that companies seem to be doing a piss poor job of finding a larger audience to sell those books to.

This gets in to the next phase of this rant and that is the catch-22 in comics where the existing audience and market often do not support new and interesting books that could represent the growth of the medium and the industry but the mythical “potential” audience isn’t interested in walking into a direct market store outside, perhaps, of a few select outlets scattered in major cities, most along the coasts.

Every comics reader with a blog seems to realize what has been labeled the “death of the floppy” but few seem to understand the larger implications of it and companies seem so beholden to the cash flow of their weekly output into the direct market that they appear unable to break free. Lots of fans have offered advice but are shot down with the usual line that they don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t understand the big picture, and if only they knew the inside super secret password then they'd see that all is fine and even if it wasn't there's nothing anyone can do about it anyway. But it’s pretty obvious to most anyone with half a brain that the big picture is the entire media landscape is shifting and things don’t look much like they did 10 years ago and in another 10 years may be even more unrecognizable. It’s apparent that the landscape has shifted and all media companies are having to evolve or die. We may be a long way off from the deaths but it’s never too soon to start the evolution.

One part of that evolution is for everyone to realize that the current method of serializing comics in monthly pamphlets is becoming more economically unsustainable. Higher paper costs, higher gas prices leading to greater shipping costs and other factors are driving up the costs of what was once a disposal “sampler” package. In the early days of comic books, the basic format was a higher page count with a variety of many stories in different genres- in other words, the Golden Age blossomed under a rather similar model (with many less pages, obviously) now employed by Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat- more bang for your buck and giving new series a chance to find an audience. With production and distribution virtually free on-line more and more people are understanding that a model that includes the web in the “first run” makes more sense* (something I will hopefully tackle in my next attack on this subject matter).

Currently the US comics market makes it’s money on monthly pamphlets that later get collected in trade paperback. The problem is that the model is redundant. It might make sense if the cheap sampler package was affordable, on cheap paper and could be easily recycled or thrown away, but due to the collector’s market that boomed in the 90s (and led to a bust, I might add) we now have what was once a trash, disposable medium printed on archival paper with prices that effectively shut most people from buying as many books as they’d like or a newcomer from sampling that first taste that might get them hooked, especially children.

The answer, it seems obvious to me, is for comics companies to go back to the model that worked in the past when paper prices were high- more pages and more stories, and definitely more genres. We see this starting to take place, and I don’t expect like some commentators do, that this change can happen overnight or that companies will ditch one reliable revenue stream
(even if it is a dwindling one) to try a whole new one. But I do notice that more and more I notice Marvel repackaging recent material into different format, this is especially true with it’s kid-friendly Marvel Adventures line where stories that originally ran in the monthly comic get reprinted along with others (including some classic early stuff from the 1960s) and puzzles, games, pin-ups, etc. in a larger magazine format (which I think are even sold at newsstand outlets or big box stores). Marvel seems willing to at least test the waters.

Now, my dream is to the Big 2 US comics companies try to publish one monthly anthology, perhaps at the end of the month, collecting all their “family” titles into one themed anthology book. Imagine all the Bat-Man titles in one “Detective Comics” anthology bringing that book full circle? Imagine one complete Avengers anthology or X-Men. Imagine an all-Vertigo anthology? Marvel is already doing as much with it’s thrice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man though still publishing three separate books- how about on the fourth week they publish one fat with those three issues in one comic for those who can wait and want it all in one chunk? Why not try it?

Does anyone in comics realize Heavy Metal has been around for as long as it has operating on a similar model? No one in comics seems to notice Mad Magazine or Nickelodeon as potential models either.

What I like about the idea is that, as I said, it brings comics full circle. One reason, besides lowering overhead, that comics flourished in the days when they were published in thicker anthology style comics is that anthologies allow for experimentation. If DC had only featured one hero in Detective would they have given Batman a chance? If Marvel didn’t have an anthology of “Adult Fantasy” would Spider-Man have gained enough audience to sustain a monthly series? Without those anthologies would names like Siegel and Shuster or Kirby or Ditko be as well known? Would those creations even exist?

Anthologies allow unknown creators to get a few pages in front of an audience to develop, grow and even experiment. Anthologies allow new ideas to be tested in the same ways big companies use test markets to try new products. Marvel threw a lot of stuff at the wall in those early days and a lot of things didn't stick, but enough did that a tiny company with a handful of employees became a dominant force in the comics industry and now in Hollywood... all because of anthologies.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Spectre

I was messing around with an old sketch of The Spectre I did a couple years ago. I had picked up issue #1 of the new DC series in the dollar bin at my local comic shop and had drawn a really fast head sketch. I'd scanned it in and never did anything with it until the other day when I was surfing through my hard drive and ran across it. I spent a little time in Photoshop, extending the body and adding some cool effects and it ending up looking kind of nice- too nice considering that the initial sketch had some real weaknesses. So, I decided to start over from a new (and hopefully better) drawing. It came out looking quite a bit different than what I'd planned as I tend to follow the "happy accident" theory of picture-making where I sort of experiment and mess around and see where the picture leads me instead of following a pre-planned formula.

This is a character I always liked even though I never really read anything with him in it. I missed the 70s supernatural superhero wave by a few years but I always saw the back issues in the comic shops and have been drawn to those characters. The Spectre is a dead cop superhero and so he provides a nice mix of three genres- crime, horror and superhero- all in one character.