29 May, 2009

The Warlord of Io Incident part one

Amidst the debate about why Diamond Comics Distributor decided not to distribute James Turner's The Warlord of Io, from Slave Labour Graphics, few commentators considered the monthly comic format as a culprit.

Like many people who like comics (as a medium), but complain about their price, I no longer buy monthly comics, but wait for them to be collected as trade paperbacks.
The monthly comic book occupies no special position, as a format - it is subject to the same technological, commercial and cultural forces that affect every other medium - and yet the argument persists that it deserves preservation in its own right.

Serial comics stories have appeared in various formats apart from the monthly booklet - from the newspaper strips and pullout sections, to features in lifestyle magazines (for example Jamie Hewlett's Get the Freebies strip in Face magazine, in the 90s), to anthology magazines (like 2000AD and various manga) - and will continue to do so (web comics of varying frequency of publication and delivery to electronic devices).

The monthly, thirty-two-page comic book is an anachronism that belongs to another time - in both the history of publishing and printing and in the evolution of the comics medium - and it needs to go.

The problem with the monthly book is not simply price, but that most comics, as Tom Spurgeon pointed out in a recent article, are simply poor value. The comparison in value between monthly comics and trade paperbacks/graphic novels does not need to be restated.
"One of many, many reasons manga has been successful is that it not only seems to connote value on a one on one basis - a manga trade vs. a comic book - but that the perceived value works according to a standard model of participation. A lot of folks seem to feel that buying x-amount of dollars in manga has a better chance to give you a more rewarding experience than buying x-amount of dollars in American comic books."
And the barrier for participation in many mainstream comics is ludicrously high. As I've argued previously, the content of mainstream comics reflects this cultural issue. It may reward the die-hard Wednesday crowd, but it does a profound disservice to a medium that could easily reach a much larger audience.

If the format of a medium is relative to the narrative's length (ie. a long narrative demands a long format) it makes perfect sense for Image Comics to publish a compendium of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead (or indeed Jeff Smith's Bone) to give readers a sense of the story's scope. I predict that this compendium will do well, though it may burn slowly.
"Even the best serial comics only approach those standards [of Jeff Smith's Bone] occasionally, it seems, in between larger segments where nothing very much at all happens and what happens doesn't happen in a way that's memorable. Serial comics readers remember the good runs for decades afterward, and I think live in partial denial about the dominance of the fallow periods."
Apart from the disproportionate financial burden placed on the reader of serial monthly comics - Spurgeon estimates comics prices are about three times ahead of inflation - the medium fails to consider the changed media landscape. Following a serial narrative requires commitment of time and attention that relatively few can afford.

The tendency of comics publishers to merchandise their properties into other media might endear audiences to brands and characters, but not necessarily to monthly comics. Publishers need to listen to what the majority of comics readers are telling them.

Comics have long since ceased to be the magazines of their pulp origins, they are now books.