Saturday, May 27, 2006

Comics and Correspondence II

In tidying up my living room today, I came across the October 2003 issue of Comics & Games Retailer, in which I have a letter of comment published. In order to safely relegate it to the archives, here is that letter:

Don Allen's Quest for Success column in the September 2003 issue of Comics & Games Retailer raises an interesting issue. Is it true that made-for-trade-paperback storylines shoot monthly sales in the foot? Or is it true that the traditional periodical pamphlet format is increasingly ill-suited for the evolutionary emergence of longer-form storytelling?

I'd argue the latter.

Unless you publish comics featuring iconic, perennial characters with deeply involved and convoluted continuity that requires recapping what has come before for newcomers and return readers (a la the panties and capes cabal), monthly pamphlets make less and less sense. In fact, they make little sense at all.

Stories that are written to be longer-form books -- comic books, not graphic novels that collect a pamphlet-driven story arc, per se -- are unwisely released in periodical form. Too often, the monthly sales, if they decrease over time, spell the premature demise of the longer storyline and its resulting book. Think Alan Moore's 1963. When will that "lost issue" be published? Where's the 1963 trade paperback? Or consider Warren Ellis' recent work. Releasing Orbiter as a book makes sense. Serializing Strange Kisses, Stranger Kisses, Strange Killings, Strangle Klezmer, and whatever else makes less sense.

Allen's mainstream super-hero suggestions -- Marvel's Tsunami and the origin of the Fantastic Four -- are bad examples. Both were published by a company built on the monthly pamphlet format -- one, while it was establishing it. But, if you consider the recent illustrated novel Blankets by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf), which was not serialized -- or even Highwater Books' recent Marc Bell and Mat Brinkman collections, which draw on multiple small publications released over the course of four years or more -- it's clear that neither book will suffer from the material's prior publication -- or that peope skipped Brinkman's delightfully disturbing self-published short-run minicomics or Bell's appearances in various publications waiting for the collections. Instead, the books will sell better than any individual photocopied mini or edition of Exclaim! magazine -- in large part because of the fan (read: reader) base both creators established over time.

Similarly, Allen citing Dave Sim and Cerebus strikes me as ironic, especially given Sim's letter in the same issue. If Sim wanted to publish only books, he could. But, even though I'm not privy to his sales numbers over time, I'd wager dollars to doughnuts that the serialized issues do well enough on their own -- and that they help promote the phonebooks, which would probably not sell as well, were Sim not so consistent.

What's the solution? Save longer-form stories for book format. Market those to bookstores as well as comics shops. Serialize story arcs better suited to periodical publication. Market those to newsstands and comics shops. Or, as exemplified by Jason Little, creator of Shutterbug Follies (Doubleday), serialize online. His periodic Web publishing only helped the sales of his book, I bet. Especially given the story's acceleration, I doubt some people stopped reading online knowing the book had been accepted by a publisher. Instead, we kept reading and sighed in relief when the book was released and we could read it in one sitting. I expect the same sign in relief when Chester Brown's Louis Riel is collected. (It will be, right?)

Besides, I, for one, won't be surprised when Joey Manley and Modern Tales begin to publish books. That will be a banner day, indeed.

P.S. Sidenote to Sim: If you do decide to publish Cerebus hardcovers, print short runs and charge up the nose. And, yes, a phonebook of lettercols -- or multiple books -- dating back to the beginning would be welcome.

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