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Friday on the Hamster Wheel

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday on the Hamster Wheel

I have to admit, I am sort of torn about this whole Spider-Man thing in Civil War. On the one hand, watching the entire internet light up like a forest fire with brawls a’raging between the illusion-of-change crowd and the real-change advocates really vindicates my whole theory about the basic rift between the two schools of superhero fans. Every columnist everywhere loves to be right. I am certainly no exception.

On the other hand, I hate the actual idea every bit as much as I said I did in that same column. I dunno who this guy is they’re writing about now in the main books, but he’s not really Spider-Man as I understand him to be.

Anyway, there’s enough people writing about that. I want to talk about the other half of the epiphany: the part about the way people READ mainstream superhero comics and why that’s all messed up now.

Okay. First a little background. I’ll make it as quick as I can so bear with me, but I am describing this in hopes of getting you to see a bigger picture here. There IS a point, I promise.

Like most superhero fans my age, I came to comics through television; the Batman TV show and the Filmation cartoons in the late 1960’s. So I was primarily a DC guy to start, though I sort of knew about the FF and Spider-Man from their cartoons. My allowance in the 60’s was a quarter — yeah, I know, olden times — so my preference was for big reprint books, because that way I got the most bang for my buck. And, key point here, they were SELF-CONTAINED. The most dreaded words I ever saw in the back of a superhero story then were “To Be Continued.” Because I was out my quarter and no real chance of finishing the story.

Remember, this is before comics shops and pull lists…I was up against often-irregular newsstand distribution, and to read a ‘continued’ story I had to A) have money, B) have an adult drive me to a drugstore that carried comics, and C) time it right to catch the next part. That was damn near impossible if you were an eight-year-old comics fan in 1969. So my reading tended towards the bigger reprint books. 80-page Giants and Specials that went for a quarter. Because they were self-contained, even Marvel Tales and Marvel’s Greatest Comics tended to put the whole story in those double-sized reprint books, and rarely were the early Spider-Man stories more than two parts. (I did get suckered a few times by Marvel’s Greatest Comics, though, which reprinted Dr. Strange as well as the FF, and those late-era Ditko Doc stories, much as I loved them, were ALWAYS continued.) Over the next few years, the allowance went up, the books got pricier, but my pattern and preference stayed the same. “Continued” = screwed.

In the summer of 1974, a couple of things happened. I was getting old enough to actually be able to mow lawns, do chores, and stop being dependent on parental whim for my income. And the grocery store down the street started to carry comics, a venue I could walk to.

So, stripped of the Norman Rockwell trappings, the bottom line was that I was a fan steeped in history who suddenly had disposable income and a dependable source to buy comics. And that was pretty much what the lawn-mowing money went to. I could FOLLOW a book. Comics consumption shot WAY up. I remember what a breakthrough moment it was for me when I got Thor #245, concluding a story I’d started reading in #242. A four-parter and I had gotten ALL FOUR PARTS OF IT.

Hot damn!

But here’s the reason I’m telling you all this in such detail. Back then, I was the exception. Marvel and DC knew there were people like me out there, but they weren’t really very concerned with me; they knew that their bread and butter was the impulse buyer, the kid that was just in the mood for some superhero action.

Now, it’s different. Those days are over. Today, I am the rule. In fact, today I’m the weirdo, not because I buy a lot, but because I don’t buy EVERYTHING. There are no impulse buyers, or if there are, it’s as though publishers don’t want them. Marvel and DC expect readers to be steeped in history. Their entire publishing program is aimed at hardcore fans, people they expect at a bare minimum to commit to buying a book for months just to decide if they actually like it. Or — and this is the part that’s really kind of nuts — just so we know what the hell is going on the books that we actually DO like.

Many, many people have written many columns about why this is an insane way to publish, castigating publishers for doing it. But I don’t really think it’s their fault. What I’m wondering about is why we keep doing it. Right now DC and Marvel are locked into this weird no-man’s-land between book publishing and magazine publishing, where we are reading superhero comics novels at the rate of a chapter a month for three bucks each. But that’s not the publishers’ doing. We keep them there.

It’s not like the “original graphic novel” experiment hasn’t been tried. I have vivid memories of early experiments in the 70’s and 80’s with changing the size and shape of comics, guys like Byron Preiss and Don McGregor and Steranko  and — of course — Will Eisner, desperately trying to break out of the 32-page booklet prison. To make us graduate to actual goddamned BOOKS.

But fans weren’t having any. At least, not mainstream superhero DC and Marvel fans. We wanted comics to be seven inches by ten inches, in color. Period. The end. Marvel’s noble experiments in black-and-white comics magazines, while often magnificent, weren’t selling anywhere near the numbers of the color superhero line, and that was the SUCCESS story compared to some of the other tries people made in the 70’s and early 80’s. No way in hell were we paying for something as weird-looking as what Eclipse or Byron Preiss were trying to do. $4.95 for a hundred pages of comics in that odd size? Five dollars for a comic? Are you out of your MIND?

On the other hand, less than a decade later we went completely nuts for The Dark Knight Returns, a paperback book cleverly disguised as a comic. It was an original graphic novel, squarebound, but it was the RIGHT SIZE. What many people forget was that the format for that book, the packaging and price break, was every bit as innovative as the content. Suddenly the mainstream had found a format for upscale graphic novels that people would BUY.

Seriously, it was complete craziness. Those that were around then remember Dark Knight as the monster hit of 1986, but the fan catchphrase of the moment was ‘Dark Knight format.’ That’s really what made Green Arrow a star all of a sudden, in what had to be the most naked imitation of a previous commercial success this side of the original Battlestar Galactica. The story was just okay. But the book still did insane numbers in its initial offering, because it got caught in the format fever.

To a rational outside observer, especially one that knew something about economics, we looked clinically insane. Fans that at the time screamed bloody murder and refused to buy a $6.95 complete graphic novel were going bonkers and buying multiple printings of $2.95 paperbacks where the only real difference was that A) they were the accepted size, seven-by-ten, and B) they were incomplete, on the monthly installment plan. Spending more money, for less gratification.

That is so crazy that it’s no wonder comics publishers were baffled by it. It took us a while to train them but now they are right there with us. We wanted full novels, but we want them in installments, seven-by-ten, and we want to spend insane amounts of money to get them piecemeal only to buy them over again later in a collected edition.

At first, this was viewed as an aberration. Now this is the industry standard for the mainstream superhero tale. Gigantic stories unspooling over a multitude of titles and if you can’t keep up, then screw you. Civil War and Infinite Crisis are just the latest. Our other Greg is doing an admirable job dissecting the ruthless corporate thinking behind a lot of the recent DC event books, but he left out something that I think is one of the worst parts of it — the fact that even the collected trade editions of these stories are incomplete, and so incomprehensible that they are all now prefaced with a recap page as well as ending on a cliffhanger.

The nuttiest part of the whole thing? We keep going for it. The books are huge sellers. We can gnash our teeth and bitch and carry on all we want about what a mess it’s all become but this is exactly what we asked for. We trained the publishers and the mainstream marketplace. This is what sells.

Understand this — I am not really crabbing so much about content as I am about the lunacy of demanding this kind of PACKAGING. We want novels. This is clear. We expect these stories to be hundreds of pages long, to begin and end. Look at Sandman, Starman, even No Man’s Land or the current Civil War. (Before the quality police jump in here to yell at me about comparing the great Neil Gaiman to the latest Marvel hackery, remember that I’m talking about length and structure, the basic format design.) These comics are no longer serials in the traditional form. They’re just chapters, about as welcoming to a first-time reader as a stapled booklet of Chapter 22 of War and Peace. The insane thing is, though, we don’t want these stories packaged as novels because we have to have the monthly installment plan. We have consistently refused to try it any other way… for DECADES.

In my youth, fighting and biting and kicking to get hold of a complete story, I’d have cheerfully sold my soul to have everything right there in book form. One of the reasons I was instantly hooked on Marvel’s Essentials was because of the wonderful luxury of having stories from my youth in a single volume. Finally, conclusions to stuff I remembered being left hanging on as a kid, right there in front of me, with a turn of the page.

Now we have a chance to make this the industry standard, to make the graphic novel the accepted method of reading mainstream comics… but instead we have convinced DC and Marvel that the only way we will consume their product is in monthly 7×10 periodical installments. Hard Time and Fallen Angel got really, really screwed by this habit — and, damn it, that’s all it is, is HABIT. Those books are clearly novels, paced and set up to BE novels, and I think they took a real hit by being placed on monthly comics racks and forced to adapt to that format.

Let’s make the leap. Let’s BE a book publishing industry. This hybrid lame-ass serialized-novel thing is no good for anybody. It satisfies no one. We have complained for years about how comics need to grow up. So why are we so attached to a 32-page booklet format that really only worked for kids? The indie publishers are miles ahead of the mainstream on this, their books come in all shapes and sizes. You want comics to grow up? Let them be published in a grown-up format. Quit giving them the freebie, habit sale by having to ‘not break up a run,’ or ‘waiting for it to get good again.’

It’s not like there’s not a publishing model for this… not just manga digests, there’s even examples with U.S. publishers doing continuing characters in adventure fiction. Not comics, admittedly, but look at what the book industry has done with tie-in licensed stuff like Star Trek or Star Wars or Buffy. They put books out once a month, there are series within the main series, there’s even a shared-universe format and most of those authors came in through a fan network. But they’re still BOOKS.

I think superhero comics could work just as well in that format, published as graphic novels of a couple of hundred pages, once or twice a year. You just have a bunch of different writers and artists on deck, so you’re still getting books out once every month or two. Only then writers and artists could pace the story according to its OWN needs, and they would have to compete based on actual story MERIT, there’s be none of this completist installment crap where you have to buy a story in seventeen parts across three different titles and four mini-series, or whatever. That would be REAL writing for the trade. Imagine that.

Well, okay, yeah, there’d probably still be some completist crap. There’s always a few. But right now those obsessive-compulsive completist types, the ones addicted to the monthly installment plan, are the fans dictating not only what we read, but how we read it. Is that really what we want? Changing format and size only helped indie publishers, they’re still in comics shops but a format change opened bookstores to them. What the hell are mainstream fans so afraid of? Free yourself from your seven-by-ten 32-page shackles! Let’s have real books with size restraints dictated by story and nothing else!

Too scary? Too radical a leap? All right, then at least think about what you are enabling when you insist on your weekly booklet fix. It doesn’t lead to good comics. But it does produce an awful lot of bad ones, I think.

See you next week.

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