Home Culture Commentary The Road to the Future of the Graphic Novel

The Road to the Future of the Graphic Novel

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Todd Allen wraps up his overview of the Comics Doomsday scenario with a look at how graphic novels would fare in a world populated only by Charlton Heston and Will Smith:

It seems that as DC and Marvel move towards universe-wide story arcs tying in an increasing number of individual titles, they aren’t stopping to think how these things should be collected. DC made a tacit admission of that with their Final Crisis correction.

Should the direct market contract, more people will be looking to either the TPBs or the Internet for their comics. Now maybe reading the serials online and in parallel on a weekly basis will keep this sloppy treatment of crossover collected editions going, but having read both Final Crisis and Secret Invasion as an individual mini-series in one sitting to approximate the reading of a TPB, I can assure you the book crowd is not going glom on what ends up being the truncated version forever.


Speaking of Allen, his previous entry in the series covering webcomics, yielded a particularly cranky response from Spurge:

I intensely disliked this essay from Todd Allen on monetizing webcomics. It presumes or asserts a lot of things that I think aren’t true. I could hash some of those out, but I’m not sure that should be up to me. I’d suggest the bigger danger in the piece is that it just sort of failes to meet what should be the minimum standard of expectations for such articles at this point in the on-line comic’s development. Jeremiads about a coming storm may have worked in 2002, but today’s essays demand specifics. If you’re suggesting a whole new model for players to endorse based on a current model or series of same, shouldn’t there be some figures available about who is making money, how many of these people there are, and how they’re doing it? Without specifics, what we get is less of a cogent argument and more of a late-night rant at the hotel bar. I think we may be better off with a full night’s sleep.


Behind-the-scenes time: Allen’s three-part essay began life as a column for PWCW but after some discussion between Todd, Calvin Reid and myself, we thought it would be better suited to run as a column on Todd’s site. This was partly due to the length but also, I felt, due to the speculative nature of the first part of the piece. It’s certainly thought provoking (or just provoking, in Tom Spurgeon’s case) but might have more weight when coming from PW than it would as a blog posting. (Ah yes, the “Authoritative source” strikes again.) I still feel that way, but I don’t think Tom’s response is any better. I agree that we need concrete examples, but to deny that This Is The Way It Works Now is ostrich like. Neither Todd or Tom have done a totally convincing case of painting an accurate picture of The Way Things Work — but even though I to this day have no clue why I get a shock when I stick a fork in an electric outlet, I know there is such a thing as electricity. Ben Franklin is coming to comics, and he’s got a kite.

Earlier today I linked to an accusatory essay by Percy Carey in which he said most comics companies “would rather go out of business than make some money.” Some people call this attitude “taking the high ground,” but it’s true that the comics industry has had a lack of vision for many years, or else vision coupled with an extreme lack of funds.

For instance, Eric Reynolds digs up a gem of an interview with D&Q’s Chris Oliveros from Destroy All Comics, a zine published by Jeff Levine in 1996:

Q: Do you think it’s possible that there could be more work in the future where the artist could sit and draw for two years, and release the entire story, or do you think just the way the industry is set up, and with history on the side of the periodical nature of comics…

Oliveros: I think the periodical approach is a good thing. In order for comics to be released in book form, where an author would take two or three or five years to complete this novel, the medium would have to attain this sort of popularity you have in general fiction, where you have fifty or a hundred thousand readers, and your best-sellers have five hundred thousand readers, where because you have this guaranteed income, you can get this advance from a publisher of, I don’t know fifty or one hundred thousand dollars, and then you can afford to work on just your own project for a couple years. That obviously will never come to be in comics, so I think, for better or worse we’re left with this set-up we have here, where the work is gradually being serialized, which in turn allows the author to collect a royalty on those issues. Without that, comics just wouldn’t exist. Whether you like it or not, it allows these works to exist, and it allows the author to make some kind of living while the story is being produced.


Emphasis mine. But to 2009 and D&Q’s Associate Publisher Peggy Burns is being interviewed just today at Robot 6 regarding D&Q canceling some of their critically acclaimed pamphlets.:

How much of a hindrance are these new policies? How much of an impact do you think they’ll ultimately have on your bottom line?

It’s not a hindrance. It’s business; about ten times a day we face business decisions that make us reflect what we are doing. Choosing what kind of paper to print on, whether or not to overnight a press request, everything is a business decision that affects the bottom line. My whole day could be one big hindrance. Really, the minimums were more of a wake-up call that the medium has profoundly changed to not include the alt pamphlet.


Oliveros is clearly one of the most vision filled published in the industry when it comes to publishing some of the greatest comics of all time (Tomine, Seth, Barry, Modan,) and a paragon of taking the high road, but 13 years ago, he wasn’t into the vision thing. It was impossible for him to visualize the medium he’d devoted his life to being popular and speaking to a wider range of people to the point where a business model he dreamed of would be a reality. To be fair to Oliveros, we all felt the same way. Or rather, we all WISHED for a world where cartoonists could just be paid to draw great comics, but we also wished for world peace and green cars and so on.

I dunno why we’ve always had such a gloomy outlook. Look at the name of the zine DESTROY ALL COMICS. Carey’s outlook isn’t a giant leap forward, though. (For background, Carey is a rapper, known as MF Grimm, who was paralyzed after a gang shooting and wrote about it in the GN SENTENCES, so it is fair to say he has experience in a few industries under his belt.)

Maybe the fact that most people in comics would rather run things their own way than sell out is a GOOD thing. Isn’t it possible that the way we all do this for love is a strength rather than a weakness? I’d like to think so. I’ve been offered a couple of chances to sell out in my career and though I curse myself as I breakfast on yet another Ryvita crispbread dipped in tofu spread, I don’t really regret it. I like Ryvita and I like doing things my own way.

To link all this together, even after a morning reading the smartest commentators in the business, we’re no closer to figuring it out than we were before we cracked open the Ryvita crispbreads. I guess we’ll have to keep muddling along, doing amazing things along the way. As the Oliveros quote above shows, no one has any clue where we’ll end up, and that’s half the fun.

  1. I think the long term goal for everyone should be an industry where the work is created and supported like the work of a “regular” author (obviously, I’m not talking about Marvel or DC here). Do novelists sell out? Sure some do, but think about the greats…hopefully great work beget success. Is this naive?

    The love for the art-form IS a strength and not a weakness.

  2. I wasn’t painting a picture of how things work, nor would I care to. I don’t believe it’s a fruitful exercise. Maybe I’ll try such a piece if I ever have a site again, but I doubt it.

    What I was suggesting is that writing the “webcomics is the future” essay should come with different standards than it did in, say, 2001, because some of that future is now here in the present.

    I was clearly not denying This Is The Way Things Work Now. For one thing, I haven’t been given a convincing “this” to deny! I’m hearing the same cherry-picked anecdotes, non-quantified examples and loaded language about being out of touch if I don’t jump on board with whatever triumphalist rhetoric the speaker of the day chooses to use.

    I take on-line media seriously. I was making a living on-line in 1998, and I make a living on-line now. It’s not my area of expertise, but I was covering on-line media outside of comics in 1999. I cover webcomics as much as I’m able to in my overall coverage of comics. I could do better, but I could do everything better. Hey, I even deign to include them in my best of year lists where they belong. They’re a part of my comics-reading life and I’m richer for that.

    I’m still going to continue to challenge their advocates to bring better arguments to the table, because I think that’s important, too. I don’t see how that makes me an ostrich, but whatever. Ironically, that’s the kind of vast oversimplification and loaded language that makes most webcomics advocacy unconvincing.

  3. Eventually, everything is digital. Print-On-Demand technology allows the reader to create whatever trade paperback (or hardcover) they wish. Color or Black-and-White? Treasury, modern, or digest size? Landscape with two comics pages per page? Appendix with extra material?

    Where does this leave traditional publishing and bookstores? Well, there will always be a collectors/antiquarian/used book market. Economic factors will favor mass-produced editions, and they might contain material not available in the Print-On-Demand catalogs. (Signed-and-numbered plates, better paper, slipcases, better printing…)

    As for doomsday scenarios… if the Direct Market shrinks, how does this effect Diamond Book Distributors, and the publishers who use them for trade distribution? Will publishers follow the example of DC and Viz and Tokyopop and find mainstream distribution? Will some rely on small press distribution? Without fewer stores to order product, and many of them working on a returnable model, will publishers be able to survive?

  4. I wonder how much of the problem with comics lacking meaningful story content results from an artist thinking, “Wow! I can draw well! I want to make money off this!” and setting out to create comic books while emphasizing the artwork, not the story content, and making matters worse by immediately trying to do a series to create a flow of income.

    One can’t assume that any given character or group of characters is worthy of a series of stories, however nice the artwork for the stories is. If the creator lacks experience in genre fiction, he’ll be even worse off. If he doesn’t write series stories, though, he’d have to market each publication individually. I doubt that many prose fiction writers expect to make their livings within a couple of years writing stories. Artists might be overrating their abilities relative to the rest of the creators in the entertainment industry. And if the content of a graphic fiction work is esoteric — sales of 4,000 to 7,000 hardcover copies of a literary novel is considered good.

    As for Marvel and DC, I continue to believe that the people in charge see themselves as producing disposable junk and the readers deserving nothing better, even if the creators of a given issue see things differently. See Steve Bissette’s piece re SWAMP THING or Brevoort’s 3/30 to 4/3 blog entries. Brevoort’s done that before: When people don’t comment on his blog entries, he solicits comments by asking what readers feel strongly about, and then ignores what they have to say. Contempt isn’t hard to discern.

    If graphic novels were conceived and marketed as the equivalents of prose novels, the comics industry would be different.

    SRS

  5. I’m not really such a worthwhile voice in this because I really have no idea how the business works or what is involved in producing a book from start to finish. But I do know what I, as a reader, prefer.

    I would love to see creators freed from the 18-, 22-, 32-page constraints that pamphlet releases force. I want long-form comics to arrive fully formed. I stopped purchasing in pamphlet form three years ago and find myself perfectly willing to buy well-told stories in book form. Comics have barely even begun to scratch the surface of their deep potential to convey the kinds of story depth we see in other media. But I think the liberty of publishing fully-formed books would go a long way to opening up the medium.

    Two of my favourite works more or less went this route. Craig Thompson’s Blankets just appeared one day, 500 pages long and beautiful. Lawrence Marvit’s Sparks (so far as I’m aware) was published across about six pamphlets and then ceased. Out of nowhere the book was collected and finished with about 200 pages of previously unpublished story, making it one of the best things I read that year.

    I can’t even begin to imagine how the comic’s-publishing industry would accomplish this (I think Thompson works on other jobs to pay the bills while he creates new books), but I sure would be grateful to the industry if it could figure this stuff out.

  6. Dane: Thank you for your last paragraph! That’s what everyone else who makes these arguments, including Todd, leaves out: How to pay for the content. Marvel doesn’t publish 32-page comics because they have no imagination or because they’re hopelessly stuck in the past. They publish 32-page comics because people buy 32-page comics, which helps them pay creative teams. The argument “go straight to trade” makes sense in some cases, but in many others it just cuts down your potential audience and the consequent money available for creative teams.

    Yes, this is all changing, and the landscape may look different in ten years, just as it looks different now than it did in 1996. But a lot of these arguments in favor of straight-to-trade seem to me to come down to readers not wanting to wait for their preferred format. I understand that, really; but there’s a reason AMAZING SPIDER-MAN isn’t a 400-page book first, just as there’s a reason CSI doesn’t go straight to DVD.

    Also, is Todd right about FINAL CRISIS? I thought DC had decided to put all the extra issues in the hardcover.

  7. “The argument “go straight to trade” makes sense in some cases, but in many others it just cuts down your potential audience and the consequent money available for creative teams.”

    That seems to imply that comics readers should feel duty bound to support creators who do series by buying the issues as they come out, even if non-serialized, close-ended stories would be better for the readers. For all the comments comics fans make about the limitless potential of the comics format, insisting that they buy serialized fiction for the sake of the creators confuses the content with the format.

    SRS

  8. “graphic novels were conceived and marketed as the equivalents of prose novels, the comics industry would be different.”

    Yes, but it’s almost impossible to do so. The upfront costs are too daunting– an advance for a midlist graphic novel could run to $60K easily, with a separate writer, penciller, inker, letterer, and colorist, not to mention printing costs.

    Serialization, of one form or another, is needed to amortize costs.

  9. Steven: No, no, I’d never say that. Buy your comics in whatever form works best for you! Just don’t expect publishers to give up serialization when the money it makes helps make the works possible.

  10. Comics will continue to be serialized for a host of economic reasons as cited in the comments above. That serialization will undoubtedly migrate online as the pamphlet is already a zombie format — an overpriced and demonstrably inferior product compared to the inevitable collected editions that follow. It’s only a matter of time before even the Marvel Zombies and DC Drones abandon it as well.

    But does that have to mean the End of the Comic Shop As We Know It? Of course not. How much revenue do most stores actually derive from selling pamphlets? And how much do they LOSE each month on their unsold, non-returnable pamphlet stock?

    Savvy comic shop owners have been moving from a periodical model to a more trade-centric and merchandising heavy business model for the past decade. Retailers have to embrace the Long Tail and become even savvier in their purchasing decisions, but there’s no reason that stores can’t survive and even thrive in the post-pamphlet environment.

    Evolution doesn’t have to mean extinction.

  11. “Yes, but it’s almost impossible to do so. The upfront costs are too daunting– an advance for a midlist graphic novel could run to $60K easily, with a separate writer, penciller, inker, letterer, and colorist, not to mention printing costs.”

    If that’s the case, then the American approach to publishing paper color comic books deserves extinction.

    Star Trek: TOS fans who loved the original novels and wanted to write their own would routinely be advised by pros that they needed to learn how to write fiction well, in a general sense, before they tried to submit stories to anyone, and they should have goals more diverse than writing the greatest Star Trek novel ever. Once they became craftsmen, writing good fiction and possibly succeeding in selling a Star Trek novel would naturally follow.

    The artistic drawbacks to doing work for hire stories about characters are so obvious — Arguing that serialization is necessary for economic reasons is equivalent to stating that paper (color) comic books are a crippled format. “Forget what you know about writing fiction; the rules are different here.” I doubt that many people who witnessed the “One More Day” fiasco involving Spider-Man have forgotten what Marvel Editorial was saying: That making the hero easier for formula fiction writers to handle, so they could crank out their stories with minimal trouble, justified ignoring practically everything writers were taught in workshops and classes.

    The “economics” argument isn’t tenable if the artistry in stories is a concern.

    SRS

  12. “Marvel doesn’t publish 32-page comics because they have no imagination or because they’re hopelessly stuck in the past. They publish 32-page comics because people buy 32-page comics”

    So the people have no imagination or are hopelessly stuck in the past?

  13. I think you’re just being funny, but in case it was honestly confusing: “Marvel doesn’t publish 32-page comics because they have no imagination, nor do they publish 32-page comics because they’re hopelessly stuck in the past.”per se Clearer?

  14. Oops — that got a little garbled:

    I think you’re just being funny, but in case it was honestly confusing: “Marvel doesn’t publish 32-page comics because they have no imagination, nor do they publish 32-page comics because they’re hopelessly stuck in the past.” Clearer?

  15. Steven’s response wasn’t addressed to me, but I totally agree about writers being writers first and Star Trek, or comics, writers second. I don’t see what that has to do with serialization, though. If the stories are bad, you won’t want to read them in 22-page chunks, 150-page books, or thousand-page Barnes & Noble compilations.

    As for the 22-page format: Yes, it’s restrictive, but that’s the way commercial writing works. If you want to write TV drama, you write 42 minutes per episode. A film is between 90 and 150 minutes, generally. Novels are more flexible, but good luck getting your 500,000 word opus (or your 20,000 word “novel”) published right out of the gate. The economics inevitably influence the format to some degree.

    And I think you’ve misinterpreted the intent of “One More Day.” I can assure you it was intended to bring the character back to a state that Marvel considered truer to his essence, not to make it “easier for formula fiction writers to handle.” Writing stories about married Spider-Man isn’t inherently any more difficult than writing stories about single Spider-Man; it’s just a different game.

  16. Glenn Hauman wrote: “Yes, but it’s almost impossible to do so. The upfront costs are too daunting– an advance for a midlist graphic novel could run to $60K easily, with a separate writer, penciller, inker, letterer, and colorist, not to mention printing costs.”

    True — and that’s certainly one major reason why the explosion in graphic novels from non-comics publishers (Pantheon and so forth) is so tightly focused into single-creator works: publishers can write one advance check to one person, and that person then delivers a complete manuscript. That pushes comics into a model more like prose fiction and non-fiction, rather than the assembly-line model that grew up to feed the ravening maw of monthly magazine publication. And as more books are published under that model — particularly the more successful those books are — the more likely it is to spread.

    I’ll also note that a lot of the flood of major-publisher memoirs are printed in black and white, which doesn’t have the stigma it used to have, pre-manga explosion. That also reduces costs for the publisher and time for the creator(s).

    We could also see a greater use of the studio system if the swing to book publication continues, since I expect there will continue to be pressure from the publishers’ side to make a single contract for a book. (And that won’t be terribly different from what happens with book packagers today — many packaged books already are heavily illustrated and relatively expensive to produce.)

  17. Question: When a publisher decides to have a mini-series completed before serialization (because the creators can’t make deadlines) or has a creator work far in advance of publication because the series is so complex (Final Crisis), how do they pay the talent?

    Isn’t it based on a page rate plus royalties? How does this differ from an advance? (Advances are paid like a loan, then royalties are applied against the advance, until the balance is paid. If sales don’t cover the advance, the author finds work elsewhere.) How did DC pay Azarello and Bermejo for the Joker graphic novel?

    Heh… would be ironic if comicbooks revert to the studio/packager model which started the industry! (See: Eisner’s “The Dreamer”)

  18. Yes, it’s very analogous to an advance. The accounting practices are a bit different, but it works very similarly. Some of DC’s upscale projects are paid on a strict advance model, just like a book contract.

  19. The economic incentives (higher per unit costs and longer production times over prose) will always continue to favor serialization even as book advances for OGNs become more common. Though as online distribution becomes more viable, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the book publishers started serializing the chapters of their OGNs online.

    It makes a lot of sense, especially for ongoing series, in that it keeps the material in the public eye and doesn’t allow the audience to forget that it exists.

  20. Yeah, seriously, Heidi? You and Calvin made the right call not publishing that. There’s almost no content to anything Todd Allen wrote, it’s all unfounded assertions and hyperbole. I really like webcomics and count a number of creators among my friends and acquaintances, and even they would agree that a better class of argument needs to be made on their behalf.

  21. Josh Elder asks:

    “How much revenue do most stores actually derive from selling pamphlets? And how much do they LOSE each month on their unsold, non-returnable pamphlet stock?”

    But, Josh, wouldn’t they still lose money on unsold, non-returnable Graphic Novels?

  22. Andrew Wheeler said:

    “True — and that’s certainly one major reason why the explosion in graphic novels from non-comics publishers (Pantheon and so forth) is so tightly focused into single-creator works: publishers can write one advance check to one person, and that person then delivers a complete manuscript.”

    But they still have to cut another check to the artist, the inker, the letterer, and (sometimes) the colorist.

  23. The system Chris Oliveros suggests is EXACTLY the way they work in France/Belgium (except, of course, most authors don’t get that much in advance). Works like a charm there…

    Best,
    Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

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