One of the mostly hotly debated subjects in comic book fandom today is the notion of trade paperback collections or original graphic novels replacing the monthly comic book that has dominated the industry for so long. In a special two part series, CBR News will be interviewing a variety of industry professionals to gain their insight and perspective on this newest debate that has captured the minds of comic fans everywhere. One such fan, who just happens to be one of the biggest writers in comic books, Brian Bendis (“Daredevil,” “Alias,” “Ultimate Spider-Man,” “Powers”), has some definite thoughts on this subject and while he hasn’t been too outspoken on the subject as of yet, that’s all about to change.
Bendis is not kosher with the many fans colloquially refer to the monthly comic book as “the pamphlet,” as he sees the reference as derogatory and offensive to the creators who invest a lot of heart into the product. “It’s always been the case within our industry that we’ve treated ourselves as second-rate and not as a valid medium, like somehow we’re second class citizens. WE’RE NOT! You are what you think you are and what you let yourself be treated as- you have that choice. If you treat the medium like a valid form of entertainment and valid form of self expression then that’s how people will treat it, but if you treat it as $2 toilet paper then that’s how people will treat you and I refuse to acknowledge people like that.
“I’m not just pointing my finger at Warren [Ellis] since the whole ‘pamphlet’ thing (I think) came from him, or at least his direction. I do disagree with this point of view but I don’t disagree with his right to have that point of view. I’m very comfortable with what we have- monthly and trade paperbacks holding each other’s hands.
“If you don’t have a passion for the medium you shouldn’t be reading them and really, the complaints often sound silly, because it sounds like the people are angry at the comics….and why? I can’t figure it out. I think that people can enjoy a comic as a monthly and in a trade paperback- I know I do.”
One thing that Bendis does have a problem with is the all the doom and gloom purported by fans regarding the perceived death knell of monthly comic book. “No, that’s not happening at all and that’s exactly what I want to talk about. You keep hearing people talk about this subject even where you have people campaigning to get rid of the format, but it just isn’t going to happen. It’s like when video tapes came out and people said ‘you can kiss movie theatre’s goodbye’ because why would you want to go out to a theatre to watch a movie when you can do it at home? You just can’t replace that experience. same thing goes for the monthly comic book. You can’t replace that feeling. Also, you have to consider the marketing aspect of the monthly comic, which is obvious when you look at comics like ‘Authority’ or ‘The Filth’ that build steam over the course of their release as people constantly talk about them. Then when the trade paperback comes out, the person buying it can feel more confident because they’ve heard so much good stuff about it, so it work out pretty well for people who are uncomfortable taking a chance on a $20 book. I know it worked really well for me, especially on my crime stuff like ‘Jinx’ and ‘Torso,’ books that have picked up a lot more readers through word of mouth. We’re talking mainstream comics now, but when I was in independent comics, I damn well knew that most of my audience was reluctant to take a chance on me because they didn’t know if I’d go the distance and complete the project because so many of my peers couldn’t or didn’t nature of the industry. But when the trade hits- you can say ‘Here’s the trade paperback, read the whole story’ then they’ll be more confident in the purchase.”
“If someone tells me they’re dropping ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ from their monthly buying list to get it in trade paperback format, fine, as long as you’re buying it, I don’t care. Hell, if you’re reading it for free online, I don’t mind- as long as you’re enjoying it somehow! I’m not going to tell people how to enjoy their comics- I just want people to enjoy them in whatever way works for them. But then we have they people who wanna crap on the other people who don’t agree with them just because they feel they’re right. I mean, if you wanna create original graphic novels, go ahead, that’s great!
“But it’s funny when people make a decision and want to crap on other people’s decisions, which is really another discussion about human nature and not about comic books.”
Bendis is a fan of both the trade paperback/graphic novel and the monthly comic, but he can see why one would choose the former over the latter. “With trades I think it really comes down to people liking to know if they’re going to get the whole story. People don’t like to play that game where every 2 issues the creative team is changing- they want to know for sure that they’re getting what they want and the entire story arc.”
With the popularity of trade paperbacks skyrocketing and the demand following suit, comic books companies have a huge business opportunity and Bendis feels that, from his perspective, that they aren’t doing a bad job at all. “I can only speak for the companies I work for, both Image and Marvel, have embraced the format fully.
“There’s very little in the amount of original graphic novels being published again and that comes from the financial aspects of it all. Y’know, you can defer a lot of the costs by producing it as a mini-series first in order to produce the collection which is too costly for most people to afford to do in the first place. Marvel’s taking steps to making sure their work reads more like OGNs- their recap pages help with this- and I like where this is going.”
As he said before, Bendis is a fan of both the monthly comic book and the trade paperback, so he sees the value in both formats. “The plus side of the monthlies side is the quick fix- it’s hard to resist that new adventure every 30 days. As a creator, it’s great for my ego too- I love when I hear fans say how they promised to wait for the trade of ‘Powers’ or something but then they saw the issue on the stands so they just had to buy it. It is the medium’s oldest, other than comic strips, format of expression and there’s something precious, delicate about the monthly that makes it very delicate to hold. Very intimate. When you’re holding a trade, it’s like holding a big book, but when you’re holding a monthly it’s like holding a little baby in your hands. Like I said before, there’s the art of the cliffhanger- I love that feeling of ‘ahhh, what’s going to happen next?’ but I find it funny that it makes some people angry with cliffhangers in our instant gratification society. Another bonus that people often forget is the letter columns, a dying art form in comics, something we take very sincerely in ‘Powers’ and something that really epitomizes the dual experience of reading the monthly along with the trade. Reading ‘Powers’ as a monthly is a different experience from reading it as a collection, and with the extras, you get to choose which kind you get.
“Now when it comes to the graphic novel, you have a lot of plus sides there too, don’t get me wrong. You’ve got the knowledge that you have a complete story in your hands and it’s been pre-tested by others so less of a gamble- you know a lot others love the material inside too. Plus there’s the opportunity to get a lot of bonuses inside- and the collections look gorgeous on the bookshelf. I love those Marvel hardcovers! I’m a huge fan of DVDs especially the behind-the-scenes stuff, commentary, casting and all that, so I’ve tried to integrate that into the ‘Powers’ trade paperbacks. I’ve tried to make them ‘double DVD box set trade paperbacks’ if you will.”
The pricing of monthly comics and their perceived value is an issue and as Bendis touched upon earlier, he does believe that you can make the monthly worth it by packing in extras. “Well, I do think that monthly comics are overpriced and that trade paperbacks could still be better priced. It should be noted that monthly comics are priced according to what the market will bear. I’ve had this conversation with almost everyone about what can be done at this stage and it seems that nothing can be done, but you’re also talking to a guy who thinks that DVDs and CDs are overpriced, so perhaps that is just the way things are.
“Maybe there are things we can’t do anything about, but what I try to do, like in ‘Powers’ is try to pack that puppy full of good stuff. The letter columns aren’t four pages of people kissing my ass- who needs that?- and we try to make everything as entertaining as possible. We kind of got this idea from Todd [McFarlane] where we made the back of the comic like a magazine where if you want to know anything about ‘Powers’ then all you have to do is check out the back of the comic and you’re up to date. We just pack it full of stuff for readers because I think a lot of creators forget how much these things cost and so I’m trying to make sure our readers get the most for their money.”
But even with those assurances from Bendis, there are assuredly readers out there who believe that he and other writers are “writing for the trades” and ignoring the monthly audience. “I can only speak for myself, but you become very aware that a trade is coming, so you become very aware of both, you’re trying to make the single issue as good as possible but is it part of the whole? It isn’t like you’re writing for trades, but you’re aware of the story you’re telling so it’s an organic process. As far as any pressure from Marvel, as far as trade paperbacks go, it isn’t like they tell me how long to make my stories: they just want to know what I’m doing so they can work out the details for the trade. I can’t speak for DC or any other company, but at Marvel story comes first, and the collection is second. They didn’t tell me to make the first 9 issues of ‘Alias’ seem like one large storyline so they could make it into a hardcover. They just talked about whether or not to collect the first one or two storylines based on their merits.
“When ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ started and when we were trying to figure out how to make it more reader friendly, Bill Jemas came up with the simple, reader-friendly recap page. When I saw how effective it was and how freeing it was to the actual issue so you wouldn’t be bogged down with tons of exposition in the first two pages like ‘I’m Peter Parker and I’m Spider-Man’ when you could have just skipped that stuff and stuck to the story, you know, it’s freeing. When you put it together in the trade paperback, it should read really smoothly and I think people will enjoy it. After ‘USM’ I did it to all my books, so it makes all my books read less clunky. It’s hard to describe to someone that if we didn’t embrace the trade paperback format then we’d be idiots and embracing one format doesn’t mean we’re tossing the other aside. I wouldn’t be writing ‘Daredevil’ any differently if trades weren’t coming since I don’t make the final decision and can’t even guarantee that they’re coming anyway.”
It’s no secret that comic book companies would love to be able to sell their products to a larger audience and many advocates of the trade paperback format argue that the relative value of the format makes it the ideal vehicle to attract readers young and old. “I hear about price all the time and I wish comics were cheaper as well, but when you look at how much CDs cost or how much video games cost- they cost $50 bucks! I know a kid in the neighborhood who puts all his allowance into buying these games at the store, so I don’t think price is nearly as much of an issue as we think it is. I do think that graphic novels have crossover appeal particularly appeal to those who wouldn’t walk into a comic store because they’re more likely to pick it up from Borders or wherever if it looks like something that people wouldn’t associate with comic books- it’s all a bunch of snobbery, but it’s true.
“Something like the ‘Acme Novelty Library’ or one of those oversized coffee books doesn’t look like your traditional comic. For some reason it’s very hard to get people to walk into comic book stores so having these graphic novels in bookstores can only help introduce people to medium. One story I like to tell is that the person who gave me my copy of ‘Maus’ was my Rabbi. I didn’t know it existed. So on some level this graphic novel was able to get into the hands of this clergyman who had no bones about buying it whatsoever.”
As a fan of comic books, Bendis is torn between his love for the monthly and the trade paperback, with no clear winner for his affections. “I do love both- I am the kind who will buy the monthly to find out what happens and then buy the collection for the bookshelf, which I’ve been doing for years and years. That’s the highest compliment I can give the series and when people tell me they do the same with my work, I’m really touched. I could wait for some trades, but I do buy a lot of issues. When I put together trades of my own work, I make sure they are full of quality material so people want to read them over because I know if I had them on my bookshelf I’d want a reason to read them over and over.”
So where does Bendis see the trade paperback format evolving to in the future?
“I think we’re going in the right direction. What’s surprising, in a good way, is that when Wal-Mart had a choice between the single issues and trades, is that they chose trades because it was their impression that people would rather have trades at an introductory level. I hope I don’t see a lot of ads going in trades, but then again I never saw them being placed on DVDs, and there they are.. I think with things like the hardcovers, faster releases, extras and things like that the future is bright. I like where we’re going, I really do.”
“Now I must admit, when you do get an e-mail from a reader who’s read a trade paperback you’re getting a complete experience from a reader, which is a satisfying thing for a creator and it’s like ‘wow’ here’s someone who read an entire story I wrote. I mean, I love the letters I get on a monthly basis too, but there’s a special feeling when you get when you know someone invested that much time in reading a complete story that you wrote.”
Tomorrow we’ll continue this discussion “Lucifer” writer Mike Carey, “Dungeons & Dragons” writer Jeff Limke and Tokyoppop Vice-President of Sales and Marketing Steve Kleckner.