The audience migration from monthly comics to graphic novels (tpbs, if you prefer) has always been a fairly contentious thing. There’s not a lot of point in denying that the book format is continuing to make gains and a lot of new readers prefer it. When Paul Levitz writes about graphic novels being “a clear majority of sales,” it’s probably time for a wider range of people give up the ghost and talk about that format as an end game.
Cards on the table, I’m in the process of migrating over to being more of a tpb reader. A string of work projects caused me to get behind on my reading (kids… think twice about running back-to-back Kickstarters with no break in between) and once you get 6 months behind, you’re functionally either reading tpb-sized runs of single issues or getting something with a spine.
From my perspective, part of it is Heidi MacDonald’s theory of the “Satisfying Chunk.” There are too many comics where you don’t get much actual _story_ in a single issue and it can be even worse with first issues. Sometimes it just reads better in larger chunks and the price can even out a bit. Besides, there’s something to be said for having the whole story in your hands. The other major part is there are too many comics that cost $3.99 and can be read in 5 minutes or less. The cost of an hour’s reading is something in the neighborhood of $48 and those issues tend to be lighter in story, too.
With that in mind there are a few things that creators and publishers really ought to be revisiting when moving from serialized installments to collected editions. Let’s get the Big Two publisher things out of the way first. The Big Two, after all, are vocally derisive of advice coming from “the Internet” and have a set of issues (pun intended) that the worlds of independent comics and webcomics really don’t.
Over last weekend, DC announced the creative lineups for most of their June relaunch. If you prefer book collections, this is a bit frustrating. Why? Because they’ve cancelled most of the last cycle before the book collections have had a chance to sell through. A couple weeks ago I picked up Prez, possibly the best comic DC has released in the New 52 era. At least that one will be back for another run. Over C2E2 I picked up Martian Manhunter, which I enjoyed enough to likely pick up the second, final volume. Doctor Fate is sitting on my nightstand. I believe Omega Men is due in the Fall. Pragmatically, DC is likely delaying the book releases to nudge readers towards the serialization. Unfortunately, what they’re really telling readers is that their patronage only matters if they’re buying the monthlies. Not exactly the message you want to be sending the segment of the market that’s growing. “We already cancelled these, but here’s your books.” The guilt trip that trade-waiters get books cancelled no longer flies. It’s a valid format or you wouldn’t be seeing original graphic novels coming out from the Big Two.
You see things like Squirrel Girl outperforming with their print sales over at Marvel. DC could have that happen, too… except it’s less likely to gain momentum if the titles are already cancelled. You really want to get that first volume out for a couple months before there’s any cancellation to see what you’re dealing with. Retailers used to tell me, back before Vertigo got caught up in company politics, that once a Vertigo book had three tpbs out and it hadn’t been cancelled, THEN they would start to see a sales uptick. Forget about that cycle in the current environment.
The Artist Carousel
All this business about bi-weekly titles or 18 issues/year titles (i.e. bi-weekly every other month) means you don’t always have the same artist for an entire story. It’s dicey enough switching out artists for the single issues, but when you put it all together in a book and it switches ever couple of chapters, that doesn’t always work out so well. Some titles and editors handle it better than others, but one suspects the amount of lead time and understanding the realistic speed of a given artist are the keys here.
I get that crossing over with the big event helps monthly sales, but does it really help the book sales? If you’re thinking of the book as having a longer shelf life than the month they come out, when volume 3 of a series is a crossover with the event of the month, that doesn’t always make for good standalone reading. Is the potential reader more likely to go back and pick up the crossover collection or just move on?
Let’s face it, DC and Marvel have struggled with how to do the collected editions of these crossovers. Thinking about it at inception might help and it’s not clear that’s been happening as much as it should. In some ways, this is where something like Marvel Unlimited is really helpful. I was having a conversation during C2E2 with someone diving into Civil War with MU. MU just linked EVERY title, presumably in release order. I ended up telling him, should the sheer volume of crossovers start to wear on him, to drop it down to Civil War, Civil War Frontline and maybe Wolverine, but on that platform he can bounce from title to title much more easily than he can in print. Alas, those attempts to maximize single issues sales each week with crossovers can really break the reading experience with the book format for the ongoing titles.
The Temporary Hero Gimmick
Also along the lines of things that don’t always make sense when taken out of the monthly continuity, is the temporary hero gimmick. Ever been reading a book, maybe an Avengers family collected edition, and about halfway through say to yourself “oh, this is SUPERIOR Spider-Man, not Peter Parker. That’s why he’s out of character.” Or wonder why Superman is wearing a t-shirt and doesn’t have all his powers. Things that make sense for the year that the Spidey or Superman plot is going on in their books, but completely throw you when you’re reading the character appearing in the collected edition of a contemporary arc in another title. It’s a little thing, but it can take you out of the story.
Now, outside the confines of the Big Two, the graphic novels tend to either be chapters of a larger saga or individual volumes. And it sure seems like the sagas are more prominent, which creates their own set of issues.
The Problem with Sagas
There are a lot of famous comics that are really one extended story. A saga. Elfquest. Bone. Probably at least half of Vertigo’s golden age that helped pioneer the collected edition sales. A couple current series near the end of their run that got me thinking about this are Chew and The Sixth Gun. Would you hand someone the second to last volume of The Sixth Gun as their introduction to the series? Of course not. They’d be lost.
The thing about sagas is they lend themselves to omnibus editions that can take on a very healthy life of their own. Bone is an excellent example of this with its ridiculously thick “every issue between the covers” edition. The omnibus can be an excellent endgame, even after the endgame of the book editions.
The trouble starts when you get a few volumes in and there starts to be a barrier to entry for the readers. Let’s say the saga is on volume 8 (or issue 44, for that matter). Does the reader go back and read the previous seven volumes? Reading seven volumes might even be construed to be WORK and it’s not cheap. This is where the omnibus can pick up a whole new family of readers, but things can also slow down towards the end as picking up new readers to offset “ye olde standard attrition” gets challenging.
Being hard to jump into is a problem for a lot more than graphic novels. It applies to monthly comics. It can apply to webcomics. It can apply to particularly continuity heavy television shows. You need to have points of entry or you’re locked into the attrition and omnibus cycle.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a saga, but it’s not the only way to write a series.
Individual Stories Within a Series
We don’t see this one celebrated as much on the independent side of things and the continuity and crossover emphasis at the Big Two makes it perhaps a bit less common these days, but this is an option that’s a little more common in series fiction like detective novels.
Let’s take Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels as an example. For the most part, you can pick them up out of order and know what’s going on. There’s a brief introduction of Spenser, Hawk, Susan and so forth, but you’re just jumping into the mystery. If you read them in order, there’s a bit more character progression, but that’s a bonus. You don’t need to have read all 40 in a row.
This used to be a little more common with superhero collections. Something like Kraven’s Last Hunt is a standalone story in the world of Spider-Man. Demon in a Bottle and Armor Wars are two standalone Iron Man books you can pick up cold. (Picking up a middle volume of Superior Spider-Man, on the other hand, might be a little odd.)
When I think of the independent world, the books I think of picking up cold tend to be more along the lines of a volume of Sin City or Criminal. The continuity tends to be a little heavier and the emphasis more on sagas for a lot of the more famous independent titles.
If it’s not a full-on saga, it’s not a bad thing to make sure the new reader picking up a volume cold are able to jump right in. Otherwise, mountains of continuity present the same problem as jumping into the middle of saga, but potentially without some of the upsides you get when the omnibus phase hits, since in this case the omnibuses aren’t necessarily the complete edition of an epic. Reader access is important.
As things continue to shift towards graphic novels having their own audience, it would benefit everyone involved if publishers and creators deliberately carved out some time to about how the book format of the comic should look.
Want to learn more about how comics publishing and digital comics work? Try Todd’s book,Economics of Digital Comics.