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Is the pamphlet the future of comics?


The native are restless. Or at least the artists are. In our previous item we mentioned Bryan Talbot and ALICE IN SUNDERLAND — it took him five years to finish it, and that’s a long time to be working on anything. The one downside of the graphic novel boom is that creators have to sequester themselves for years at a time, and sometimes they have to sequester themselves from a paycheck as well. It started with Becky Cloonan:

So we’re seeing this huge boom in “OEL” books right now, believe me I think it’s great. Many people are seeing more publishing opportunities and this 5×7 format has really taken off (my favorite size is still 6×9 for gn’s though). But I have a bad feeling about it– some people say the market is getting over-saturated– and I agree to a point. However, I feel that the biggest problem is that most artists weren’t meant to work this way, that is drawing 150+ pages at a time.

“But look at all the graphic novels coming out from Japan!” Yes, look at them! And they are all first published in small, 10-20 page chunks in a weekly or monthly magazine. (Not to mention most artists have assistants there– hmm it’s not much different than the so called “assembly line” production you see on mainstream American comics.)

Corey Lewis also chimed in:

But how fucking honestly reasonable is it to ask ONE DUDE to produce a roughly-200 page OGN in the span of a few months? IS THIS SOMETHING WE CAN REALLY DEPEND ON? I’m dying every fucking second. I have no studio. I have no “people”. Sharknife Co. Ltd. ™ is all one guy. It takes a shit ass load of energy and intelligence to construct an entire universe for this shit!!! I’m not complaining!!! I FUCKING LOVE TO DO IT. But without instant success, piles of royalty checks or some kind of media tie-in deal, the OGN format is amazingly hard for a young BASICALLY “freelance” artist to commit to.

A few days ago Tania del Rio piped up, and working on the monthly Sabrina comic, she had a different take.

But now that I’ve been working on Sabrina for 3 years I can definitely see the advantages of this format. Not only do I get the gratification of seeing my work on newsstands consistently, I have a steady paycheck. Every week I turn in pages, and every 2 weeks I get a paycheck. It’s nice! As long as I keep doing my work, I don’t have to worry about when my payment will arrive (a rarity in the world of freelance!).

I’ve also been lucky in regards to getting fans and loyal readers. Rather than putting out one graphic novel, and trying to maintain my audience’s attention for the next year until the next one comes out, I’m fortunate that new issues of my work are available at any given time, and that each month, I gain new readers. For every issue I get feedback – I can tweak a future storyline if I realize my fans aren’t digging the direction I’m going in, or sometimes I’ll deliberately do the opposite just to stir the fans up! (Hehehe)

Tintin Pantoja points out the economics of multi-formats:

The real money is in reprints, in the trade collection and merchandising.
You only really start to seriously profit from your comics after they’ve been reprinted and exploited several times, in different formats. I know it’s pretty cynical, but look at it this way: a comic artist has only so much time to work on a comic. Comics are notoriously labor-intensive. Sure you can have your $15 super-glossy-cardstock full-color album-sized masterpiece, but why not subsidize it by another edition of the same comic, but this time printed on toilet paper, selling for $1?

This is exactly Phil Foglio’s strategy: Girl Genius comes out on the web, as a black and white phonebook-sized newsprint ‘omnibus’ , and as a full color hardbound collector’s album. My argument here is that to make money, creators have to be a little more flexible in terms of formatting. That way one can have the art and the money too. Sure, the omnibus looks like crap (compared to the albums anyway) but they’re pulling in newer readers. We need a cheap disposable and serialized format AS WELL AS a prestige format, even if one or the other isn’t the bext format for your book.

Vanessa Santone also comments, while wondering if the Shojo Beat-like anthology can ever take off here.

I would love to see a low-price monthly anthology, but the industry doesn’t seem to be going that way. Shoujo Beat is $5.99 an issue. I assume that Shonen Jump is about the same. But nobody seems to want to try it with original comics in American. There’s an interview with Kurt Hassler on Newsarama (which I haven’t read yet, ’cause I’m lazy), about Yen Press. They’re going to be publishing a monthly anthology, containing translated Japanese comics, and original American comics. I’m hoping that if things go well with Yen Press, other companies might try following suit.

As a creator, I would love to get my comics out to people every month. (But then again, I’m not published, and I’m slow as fuck, so who am I to talk?) On the other hand, I don’t think OGNs are necessarily a bad thing, either. After all, comics are books, and prose novels don’t come out on monthly, one chapter at a time, schedule. I’m kind of torn on the subject.

Vanessa is torn…WE’RE ALL TORN! Unfortunately, the pamphlet long ago ceased to be a “satisfying chunk.” The monthly comics ARE essentially one-story serializations of the graphic novels. Go back and look at that Web 2.0 business plan Joey Manley was talking about. With the monthly print anthology — Yen and Viz aside — still failing to find any traction here, monetizing web serialization for the eventual print collection appears to be the most likely business model for the comics of the future, whether its in the iTunes/Eyemelt model, or the Penny Arcade model.

As all signs point to Marvel and DC ramping up their online business plans, the delivery system is really going to become more and more important.


  1. I completely agree with Becky and Corey. However, I would add to it, that the part of the issue is a growing industry (?) with an overall inability to pay sizable advances to proven talent. In the larger book industry, they have the funds to pay advances. The advances give the author (artist) time to work on their next project. How much time would $60,000 (after taxes) afford you? $100,000? If you live in New York City or Portland, that money probably wouldn’t last as long. If you live in Arlington, Texas, you could live quite well for two years. But how many comic book publishers can pay a $100,000 advance?

  2. David, to both support and contradict your point, the average novel advance is just $5k. While I agree with you in principal, I wonder how many comics creators would ever get a six-figure advance. It was reported recently that Cancer Vixen earned its author an $250,000 advance, but that’s going to be an extreme rarity.

  3. Why does Heidi always compare and favor manga heavily over American comics. There aiming for 2 different markets, one for primarily male in 20’s, 30’s and the other for junior high girls.

  4. Well there the ones who read it in all the bookstores. Every now and then youll see a creepy white guy standing next to them reading.

  5. IMO, if your goal is a really solid graphic novel, you’re better off aiming for a book deal and hiding in your house for a year than serializing. How much room is there for comprehensive editing if you’re putting out a floppy every month? Sure, it’d work if you had a super tight script hammered out beforehand, but things always change in the drawing phase. At least they do for me!

    Prose writers disappear for years between books, and I don’t see why it should be different for cartoonists.

  6. How about something like Flight, but more along the lines of monthly? I’d buy it. If the Japanese are successful with it, why can’t someone here do the same? The Japanese market seems more mature (e.g., more advanced) than the US market. We should follow their lead.

    I’d like to see, for instance, Dark Horse Presents come back. Don’t let it devolve again into a training ground for new artists. Put the big shots in there. Frank Miller. Alan Moore. Grant Morrison. Don’t force them to have a “cliffhanger” every 20 pages or so. Cerebus basically stopped caring where the floppies ended a little over halfway through the run, and he worked towards the collected phone books. People still bought both.

  7. Do we know how Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat do on the newstand and in bookstores? They seem to be popular with the college kids i know, but i don’t know if they’re all buying it, reading their friends’ copies, or downloading it.

  8. John, you’re absolutely right, which is why I sympathize Becky and Corey’s perspective. A large advance (admittedly rare and precious), in theory, should buy time for your next work. These larger advances are far more common in the book market.

    Not all novelists are cranking them out like Tom Clancy or Janet Evanovich. Yet somehow we expect this of our comic book creators. (Gotta pay the bills.)

    Who’s the Harper Lee of comic books? Writes one incredible book and then says “Thank you. I’m done.”

  9. One way is too work on it during college, perhaps even making it your thesis. (see: Frank Cho, Jeff Smith)
    Or use the moonlight/weekend model, subsidizing your dream with a ninetofive job. (Larry Marder)
    So, how do Scholastic Graphix, First Second, and Minx make the OGN model work?

  10. Honestly, Girl Genius has it down right. Even to the point of using readers as copy editors – if they spot an error, it’s not that hard to go in and fix it up.
    And as for the quality of comics, why on earth are the paper standards so high at the moment? I can’t find a printer that will print on something more pulpy, and I miss that feel and texture of those comics I grew up reading. Some people may gripe about the sub-par production of it only being a temporary version of the book, sort of a fill-in before that prestige version comes out.
    But you know what? The MAJORITY of comic-reading Americans read their comics on crappy, greyish, pulpy paper. The comic book industry is the one sticking to the high-quality paper (Trying to figure out where I’m getting that fancy claim of a majority? Open up your newspaper).

  11. I know I’d love to see a comic strip pamphlet. I think they would work just fine with graphic novels as well, but the nature of comic strips makes them ideally suited for the format. Just imagine how awesome it would be to once again have full page comic strips, with the artists given complete liberty over their layout.

  12. “Honestly, Girl Genius has it down right.”

    GIRL GENIUS has found what works for GIRL GENIUS.

    The world is full of a variety of formats and styles, and there are no absolutes.

  13. Of course, Cloonan, Lewis et al forget about one important factor – were they to serialize, their pamphlets probably wouldn’t sell. The majority of periodical pamphlets generally see their sales drop with each new release. If it’s a 3 part “monthly,” then it’s not so much a problem because the Direct Market stores have probably ordered the books sight unseen, dropping orders for each pamphlet. If it’s a longer form work, like East Coast rising probably would be if it were serialized, you’d probably see sales drop even more dramatically unless the book was a surprise hit. (Cloonan’s American Virgin isn’t exactly breaking any sales records, so were I one to gamble, I know where my money would be.) And then a year from now you’d see the same creators bemoaning low sales and launching “save my book” campaigns.

    And of course, although the pamphlet sales will probably decrease, the fixed printing costs do not. Just reserving the press and turning it on is the biggest fixed cost in printing. That’s why the per unit cost for 2000 units is much less than for 1 unit. So if you’re printing a 4 issue serialized graphic novel, that means you have to turn on the machine 4 times. If you’re printing the whole thing at once, you only turn it on once. If the goal is to get 2000 total copies in print, either in serial pamphlet form or single volume form, it’s much cheaper to go the one volume route.

    If it’s a money thing, get a day job. Tend bar, wait tables or do commercial illustrations and storyboards. Whoever said comics would pay the bills for everyone.

    If it’s an exposure thing, find different ways to get that exposure. The web’s a great start. Make the online serial a revenue producer. Add a tipjar at the bottom of the page – “enjoy reading this comic – a buck or two would go a long way.” Add links to original art sales and commissions. If the strip is very popular, NPR telethon style campaigns – “we want to show you more comics, but first we have to raise $1000, please give”

    But hey, that’s the beauty of creator-ownership – creators can make their own choices on how they want to see their work published. However, this is why serial pamphlets are usually a poor choice.

  14. Oh, and one other thing – Vanessa Santone calls for a cheap serial format. That brings up an excellent point – in the comics market, the serial pamphlets usually cost as much as or MORE than the final single volume editions. If the serial is cheap, then more readers might be willing to hop along for the ride. But if the serial pamphlets are expensive, then readers may be more likely to wait for the better, potentially cheaper edition.

  15. How about the free weekly newspapers? Conceivably, a weekly paper funded entirely through advertising could be made to hold a collection of serials. That’s as cheap as you can get, and I bet it would be quite popular. Or, you could charge a buck or so for it and it would still probably distribute pretty well.

    I really like the idea behind those kinds of publications. They combine one of the best qualities of the internet (free access) with the physical medium that a lot of people prefer. Anyone want to partner up with me to make this? ;)

  16. It might be more satisfying for artists to see their work published every month, or even quarterly, but more and more I am seeing that the pamphlet-style comic is not the best format for many projects. What if your story would be better told if it weren’t divided into several 22/24-page installments? And, as Hope pointed out, it is more effective to edit a story as a whole than to do it as you dole out each installment.

    Because the U.S. hasn’t had a thriving comics market within mainstream society for a long time, I’m thinking that the model we might best look to is not Japan’s manga industry but rather the traditional publishing industry. Reproducing what Japan has with manga would require a serious cultural shift; however, marketing graphic novels more or less as novels requires something that’s more achievable. If sequential art appears in a form more readily recognizable to American readers as something mainstream — a novel rather than a series of saddle-stitched comics — then they are more likely to accept it as something mainstream.

    This makes it sound as if American consumers are superficial in their thinking, but, heck, maybe sometimes they are. After all, the same goes with prose literature — if your book is published in trade paperback format (which has a different meaning in the prose publishing industry) it is going to be perceived as having more literary merit than if it were published in mass market paperback format.

    Perhaps the distinctive format manga now has — those undersized graphic novels that Borders has shelves to fit specifically — is what drives a perception that they are somehow meant for teenage girls only. Since they gained the most popularity with teenage girls early on, manga books in that recognizable format are going to be associated with teenage girls for those less willing to consider content and only see the packaging.

  17. One of the cheapest and bestest comics being published today is Fell, by Ellis and Templesmith, yet it doesn’t make the top 100 on the Diamond sales chart.

    Making single issues cheaply doesn’t seem to influence consumers.

  18. “Perhaps the distinctive format manga now has — those undersized graphic novels that Borders has shelves to fit specifically — is what drives a perception that they are somehow meant for teenage girls only. Since they gained the most popularity with teenage girls early on, manga books in that recognizable format are going to be associated with teenage girls for those less willing to consider content and only see the packaging.

    I agree.

  19. “One of the cheapest and bestest comics being published today is Fell, by Ellis and Templesmith, yet it doesn’t make the top 100 on the Diamond sales chart.

    Making single issues cheaply doesn’t seem to influence consumers. ”

    That’s a genre specific title driven by creators with small, dedicated followings.

    Make a cheap comic with a popular character and solid storytelling and I think it would be different.

  20. I think the crux of the issue is that we are in an evolution period when it comes to the business model for comics. Periodical comic books are aimed right now, almost exlusively, at adult males and driven through a very small, very specialized distribution channgel (comparitively speaking). That audience is not interested in what the larger culture (i.e. outside of comic fandom) is coming to know as “graphic novels”. The periodical audience is primarily interested in their monthly fix of genre, corporate-owned, product. They are not, on the whole, interested in creator-driven works. As such, the periodical comic book format would probably be a spectacular money-loser for creators such as Corey Lewis and Becky Cloonan.

    OTH, the larger is culture is slowly beginning to accept “graphic novels” as a valid form of artistic expression and they are doing so through mainstream bookstore distribution channels. (People can cite all the anecdotal evidence they want and try to cast whatever voodoo they choose over the Direct Market sales #s to dispute this but we are talking about two different audiences/markets with a little bit of bleed over. Not the same audience/market at all.) As such, the “graphic novel audience” is not going to go to a comic book store or look at a comic book rack to find a monthly/quarterly/etc. serialization of a novel. They will want the one chunk purchase. The experience they are looking for is decidedly different than that of the “periodical comic book audience”.

    As acceptance of the form grows, the potential of an anthology increases. But that is way down the line. And still, even the most well-known fiction anthology today, McSweeney’s, still does not have the same audience impact as a single novel by one of it’s contributors (i.e. Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, etc.)

    I think the bottom line is this: Creators working right now are working for the future, not for today. You gotta do it because you love it, and figure out the ways to pay the bills because, odds are, they’re not gonna get paid by your work anytime soon. Five, maybe ten years down the road, if things keep going the way they are there will probably be a good chance. But right now, there are no quick fixes. Evolution tends to happen slowly. It’s just very frustrating for those who are in it right now.

  21. I would add to the above the following:
    Finding a way to make it work may mean compromising some things you want. For example, Kodansha (I believe it is) is putting on, essentially, a talent search for international talent. Someone like Corey Lewis would probably be ideal for this. But, it would mean putting up with a lot of editorial interaction and input.
    It might also mean taking on an assistant. It was in reply to either Becky Cloonan’s original post or Corey’s, but Amy Kim Ganter (Sorcers and Secretaries creator for TokyoPop) mentioned that the best thing she did recently was take on assistants to do her toning work. She simply e-mailed the jpegs to the assistants and they took care of the toning work. This is common place in the manga industry where manga-ka are expected to put out 20-40 pages of comics in a WEEK! They still manage to do it and the ones we know the best are those who still manage to put their creative vision on the page.
    I think there are two ways a creator can choose to define their success right now. Either you define success in terms of putting your sole, singular, vision in print with no outside interference or help. Or, you make some compromises in your “vision” in order to reach a larger audience and get compensated better for it.

  22. “So, how do Scholastic Graphix, First Second, and Minx make the OGN model work?”

    Can’t speak for the other two, but I believe Minx pays advances.

  23. Above someone mentions that Minx pays advances…do they also pay (and the same goes for First Second & Graphix, etc) page rates to help support the artist as they create the work? Are they advances large enough to sustain an artist while they’re working?

    Anyone know?

  24. I dunno if Minx pays advances or not, but both Marvel and DC have a “pay as you go” system whereby you can invoice every 8 or 16 pages or so, so essentially doing a graphic novel for DC is like doing a monthly book. Most other comics publishers don’t pay page rates as high as the Big Two — maybe Dark Horse sometimes.

    Regular book publishers haven’t adapted this “scheduled payment” idea. It’s all or nothing with them. Advance, then royalty. As far as I know, the graphic novel lines at the publishers are the same way. Some, that are work for hire, may even pay when you FINISH a job.

  25. A model that works (and I know because I did it with Rumble Girls: SWT in 2003, before Girl Genius left print for web) is to serialize on the web to get that feedback, have readers spot errors, and keep one’s name in front of people while waiting for the GN to hit stores.

    There’s little money to be made in web serializtion (I think Scott Kurtz and Gabe and Tycho filch everyone else’s–just kidding!), but there’s little to be made in publishing pamphlets, either, unless you’re drawing for a company that pays a page rate (advances are painfully small–I bet Tania delRio makes more per 200 pages than a TokyoPop artist does, I’m guessing a difference of $5,000. for TP v. at least $10,000. for Archie (and that’s presuming Archie only pays $50. a page.))
    For self-publishers, pamphlets are just not worth the agony of production, printing and shipping, and fighting in a market that generally does not care about anything but Marvel/DC/Image/DH.

    The great thing about a GN collecting web-serialized work is you only have to go through the production pain once, and you have a product you can sell in traditional bookstores and to libraries. Try that with a floppy.

  26. But what about novel writers? How can they make a living? What sets graphics novels economics apart from the rest of publishing industry?

  27. Let’s see, size of audience, price point, distribution penetration, profit margin, the cultures willingness to read novels vs. their willingness to read graphic novels.

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