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Pipeline, Issue #331

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Pipeline, Issue #331

MOVING TO TRADES, PART TWO

Last week’s column discussing my increasing move towards trades over single issues caused quite a bit of discussion, both in my e-mail box and at the Pipeline message board. Some of this may seem old hat, if not redundant, for those who’ve been following this movement over the past few years. Since I’ve never gone too far in-depth with it in Pipeline, though, I’m going to touch on some points in the column now.

The comics industry is at an interesting crossroads. I think all of the sniping and bickering and complaining about the monthly format may finally be paying dividends to those advocating the change. Trades are becoming more popular not just for their ability to catch new readers up to speed, but also as a vehicle for pre-existing readers to get their story doses.

The trick now is in the transition, if it is to happen. Flipping from one format to another can’t happen overnight, although it would be the simplest way to go. That’s human nature. Barring an economic catastrophe or impetus of some outlandish type, this will be a long-term transition. If it happens at all.

We’ll probably lose some comics along the way. (DC’s BAD GIRLS might be one of them.) That’s why it needs to happen as quickly as possible. I think there will always be single issues. I don’t think all comics will be in a 100-page format or better. That would be cost and time prohibitive for the self-publishers and small press creators. There will always be one-shots or primers or independent books in 32 pages for three dollars. How will those “short stories” fare in comparison to the “novels”? Will new anthologies pop up and be successful in just packaging those random short stories? Are we destined to have a pulp magazine style for comics, along the lines that science fiction readers have in ever-decreasing quantities, such as ASIMOV’S? It’s still too soon to tell.

In the short term, Marvel is making it easier to switch to trades. While many of us scoffed at first at the idea of a trade being released within weeks of the last issue of a storyline coming out, it’s proved to be quite popular for those waiting for trades. I’m not just a believer now, but also a follower. It makes it much easier to make the switch, as the lag isn’t that great. If you had dropped TRANSMETROPOLITAN, for example, when it still had six issues to go, your wait would seem like an eternity. The last issue came out in September 2002, and the penultimate collection is now due out in November. When will the final volume come out? It won’t be until at least January 2004 now, 16 months later. If you did the same with ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN this very month, you’d be able to read the current storyline completed in just a few short months.

There’s a financial advantage to moving your reading to trades that you might not recognize today, also. Take a title that’s on your list of iffier reads. Maybe you like it, but you’re not looking forward to it every month. Maybe there was a recent creator change and you’re unsure about the new team. Try switching to the trade. Wait six months or a year for the book to come out. When you see it on the store shelf, are you excited for it? If not, skip the trade and you’ve effectively dropped a marginal title from your reading list.

One of the problems with moving to trades is that the expense for the company to produce them would be greater. Right now, the paychecks for all the creators can be paid in monthly installments, and only mere royalties need to be paid on the collected editions. That means a lower price on the collection, theoretically.

If there were no monthly editions, wouldn’t the cost of the trade go up to pay the page rates of all the creators? Not necessarily. If the readers of the monthly edition all transferred to the trade, the sales increase would be enough to lower the cost of the thicker volume by quite a bit. Imagine a trade paperback with a first printing of 50,000 copies, instead of a few thousand. The economy of scale can work.

Yes, the publishers might lose ad sales on that, or they might have to introduce ads to the middle of these thicker volumes. My unscientific straw poll would indicate that ads at the back of a trade wouldn’t bother too many people. Placing them in the middle of the stories might prove to be a bit much, though.

The question of Warren Ellis’ mini-series (nee Pop Comics) being collected came up. Ellis recently wrote that DC wasn’t interested in the thin trades that three issue mini-series become. DC, obviously, needs to take a hint from AiT/PlanetLar, who stretched out 39 pages of REX MANTOOTH stories into a 96 page trade paperback with little difficulty. The other solution is to collect multiple mini-series into one thicker book. Two or three of these mini-series, when packaged together, would create a good read at an acceptable price point for DC. I can see it now: WARREN ELLIS’ COMICS AND STORIES. Somewhere, Carl Barks spins in his grave.

And kudos to publishers like DC, Oni, and AiT/PlanetLar for giving us more original graphic novels.

My current reading list for collected editions only: THE INCREDIBLE HULK, QUEEN AND COUNTRY, UNCANNY X-MEN, NEW X-MEN, THE PUNISHER, X-STATIX, X-TREME X-MEN, CAPTAIN MARVEL, and BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL.

Some books are in the middle. RUNAWAYS, INHUMANS, and SENTINEL are books I didn’t read when they first started, but I’ll be sampling with their first trades due to good word of mouth. They might very well be added to that first list soon.

At the conclusion of their current storylines, I’ll be adding these books to that list: WOLVERINE, NEW MUTANTS, KINGPIN, NYX, SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, THE AVENGERS, and VENOM. I’m also considering doing this with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and even ULTIMATE X-MEN, after Bendis’ run concludes. There’s no way I’m giving up my monthly fix of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, though.

ON THE DEPARTING BILL JEMAS

[Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas at the Marvel Retailer Rally.]
Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas together in October, 2001.

It appears right now that Bill Jemas is out. I hope, for his sake, that whatever contract he might be riding out right now lasts until the spring. Otherwise, I’d be most annoyed at the timing. I would have pushed for an extra three months so I could get straight to work on my golf game after leaving the office for the final time. Leaving an executive’s job in the cold season means either frequent travel to the south, or finding a different hobby until the next job comes along.

I come not to bury Bill Jemas, but to praise him. It’s been all too fashionable in the past couple or three years to poke fun of Jemas, if not outright crucify him. Conventional wisdom on the ‘net states that any good idea Marvel has must be Joe Quesada’s. Any bad idea is obviously Big Bad Bill’s. They played the Good Cop/Bad Cop roles perfectly. But it’s ultimately what did Jemas in.

Jemas’ entire run at Marvel can be validated with the ULTIMATE line. There has been no finer run of titles at the company in a decade or more. Without Bill Jemas, you wouldn’t have had that line of comics. Thus was his entire tenure justified. Period. End of story. Think back real quickly: What did his predecessors do that was so well received?

There’s more than just that, obviously, but credit becomes murky. In the combined tenure of Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada, though, Marvel saw a veritable renaissance. It changed the way it attracted talents, treated it, and sold it. It ended some of the incestuous practices of hiring from within (editors writing books) and strip mining continuity for plots, relying on veteran readers to fill in the gaps of stories.

I think the big problem with Bill Jemas wasn’t his ideas, but his unwillingness to play the role of politician with the industry. His often-abrasive comments regarding everyone from readers to retailers may have taken the heat off of editorial, but the lightning rod approach to criticism ended up shining poorly on Marvel as a whole. I don’t disagree with a number of things he said, particularly when it came to retailers. The problem is, insulting your customers isn’t gong to win you many awards. The policy of not overprinting comics should have acted as a great wake up call to retailers to show them that many of their practices are misguided, and that their business habits need to be broken. Instead, the result of that decision was just a groundswell of sympathy for those shoddy practices. Some steps have since been made to slowly move back towards a more reorder-friendly system, but even those steps are greeted with disdain and cynicism. Marvel can’t win.

It might just be like politics — ’tis a far better thing to change hearts than rule them. You can legislate against an activity you dislike, but that won’t stop it. (Prohibition, anyone?) If you can convince people to agree with you, they will change their activities and no legislation will be needed. Perhaps because of some of the rhetoric on the part of Jemas, not many minds were changed.

However, the results speak for themselves. Marvel owns the top ten list and competes closely with DC every month for the pole position in sales. The sad thing is, if you reinstituted full overprinting/reordering practices, Marvel sales would drop through the floor, as would complaints from readers who weren’t able to get their books because their retailers sold out. By comparison, everyone raves about how great DC is doing in selling out of so many of their books lately, but people fail to see the flip side of the coin: Retailers are consistently underordering those books, in part because they rely on DC’s overprinting to pick up the slack. It can’t always do so, and DC is feeling the consequences of that now, though they might couch it in glowing P.R. terms.

I’m off on a tangent already. Look at some of the things that happened under Jemas’ guidance. The level of his involvement in these projects will be a point of great argument for all time, but here are some of the things the much reviled “Quemas” tandem at “NuMarvel” came up with in the past few years: Oversized hardcovers reprinting a year’s worth of a given title. The ULTIMATE line. The 9/11 poster book. Marvel comics in WalMart. The Tsunami line. The Epic line. A rapid trade paperback program, with the addition of more trade paperbacks of both current and past works. A line-up of Spider-Man comics that people want to read again. A creative powerhouse that includes just the writing talents of Brian Bendis, Mark Millar, Nail Gaiman, J. Michael Straczynski, Greg Rucka, Jeph Loeb, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, and Chris Claremont. If you had bet five years ago that Marvel would publish work by that group of people over the course of three years, most people would have choked on their copy of SPIDER-MAN: CHAPTER ONE and take that bet. When you offered double or nothing on two long-lost creators like Chuck Austen and Bruce Jones, you’d have been putting a down payment on your next house in no time flat.

This isn’t to say Jemas wasn’t without bad ideas. Mixed case lettering is directly attributable to him, after all. But you have to take the good with the bad, and I see far too many people dancing on graves and focusing on the good. It’s about time someone stood up for the other side. Thanks, Bill Jemas, for your part in turning the Good Ship Marvel around.

And don’t let the bastards get you down.

(If, in fact, this entire thing turns out to be a ruse, then please disregard this week’s column as proceeding from a false assumption. I’ll save it and reprint it at a later date, when it’s appropriate.)

RANDOM QUESTION FOR THE WEEK

In his column yesterday, Rich Johnston pointed out this page, in which DreamWave advertises for artists from the local Toronto student population. The guidelines on the page include this little gem:

“Please submit ONE to TWO pieces of digital artwork rendered using Adobe Photoshop or Painter software only. DO NOT submit original artwork.”

Are they afraid people are going to send them their hard drives?

Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday, October 21. I’d like to think there will be reviews aplenty in there. Really, I would. We’ll see.

Various and Sundry has been updated all week with the ugliness of the Red Sox, the waste of time that is RULES OF ATTRACTION, the sad state of televised cursing, sound quality on THE LION KING DVD, the woes of HALF LIFE 2, blog apathy, a complete update on AMERICAN IDOL projects, problems with the second season release of DAWSON’S CREEK, and more. It was a pretty good week, all things considered.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Nearly 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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