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Friday’s Missed Deadlines

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday’s Missed Deadlines

You know, watching all this craziness with the Batman books unspool over the last month or so, something really struck me as odd.

There’s been all sorts of nerd rage and gnashing of teeth over the new direction of the Bat titles….

…but virtually none over the scheduling.

Considering that the books have shipped in quite possibly the worst possible order as far as creating any dramatic tension is concerned — “The Road Home” specials came out ahead of the story in Batman and Robin that features Bruce Wayne’s return, which itself in turn came ahead of, uh, The Return of Bruce Wayne, which — as I read it — should have been chronologically the first of the bunch.

It seems to me that, well, THIS should have been the order in which these books would ship. It was exactly the opposite.... and NO ONE CARED.

Everyone just kind of shrugged it off. I mean, I’ve seen a couple of angry posts on a message board, that kind of thing, but none of the usual suspects in the comics press have been calling for an apology, or suggesting that this is symptomatic of DC editorial’s complete incompetence, or anything like that. We all just said ‘oh well’ and read the books or didn’t, and enjoyed them (or didn’t) without giving a lot of thought to the shipping schedule.

I’m not suggesting that we all should have thrown a huge tantrum. Far from it. I’m just sort of surprised that we didn’t.

If anyone has been wondering about when the much-ballyhooed ‘death of monthly comics’ is going to happen… well, truthfully, I think this proves it already has. The whole point of the traditional 32-page superhero comics booklets is that they’re serialized periodicals on a fixed schedule. At least, it used to be the point. The entire premise of doing monthly comics with continuing series characters was originally to habituate readers to the idea that they should come back every month.

But in today’s marketplace, no one really cares about that any more. Not the publishers, not the editors, not the fans. At least not nearly as much as they care about Creators Getting To Realize Their Vision.

It’s not just Batman, either. I can think of all sorts of allegedly monthly comics that have been — let’s call it ‘paused’ — while readers patiently waited for the creative team to get it together. Ultimates. Lone Ranger. Astonishing X-Men. Etc.

You really are deluding yourself if you call titles like this 'monthly.' (I'm not picking on John Cassaday -- these were random selections from my list, I didn't make the connection until I posted the covers -- but yeah, he is one of the Usual Suspects that fans seem to give a free pass.)

I’m sure you all could come up with a far longer list if you spent a minute or two thinking about it. And in each of those cases, when those books ship late, for the most part fans just grunt or make a snarky remark… and then they’re done being mad about it. That’s what tells me that monthly comics, as we knew them, are essentially dead.

Now, at this point, the alert reader is probably snorting with derision. “Are you kidding me? I’m sitting here with a pile of monthly comics I bought on Wednesday. You yourself ran a bunch of pictures of them a paragraph or so up from this one. This is just another one of those asinine blog pontification things that doesn’t make any sense to a normal person.”

Well, that seems like a fair point. But hear me out for a moment.

For a long time — for most of their history, in fact — comics lived and died by the idea of a deadline. Newspaper comics had to be in the paper every damn day, or at least on every Sunday. And comic book publishers had to have books ready to ship when it was time or they’d likely lose their place on the newsstand, there were dozens of companies fighting it out in the marketplace in the old days. In fact, publishers had to have their books ready on time or there were financial penalties from the printer, as well. It was hammered into everyone in the industry that you made your deadline, no matter what. That’s why the creators in the business that got the most work tended to be the guys that were not just pretty good, but also — maybe even more important than being talented — they were rock-solid dependable. They were “professional.”

In the 1970s, when the comic book industry was first infiltrated by a wave of fans-turned-pro, those newer writers and artists still had that deadline obsession indoctrinated into them — but they also had higher ambitions for the work itself than those who had come before. They were going to by God make capital-A Art, damn it, and if commercial considerations like a deadline got in the way of that, well, that was too damn bad.

And so one of the hallmarks of the early 1970s comics industry became the blown deadline. Books that were late, books that went reprint, etc. At Marvel, especially, this got so out of control it was actually given a name — “The Dreaded Deadline Doom” — and it became a matter of routine for editors to slot an inventory story or a reprint framed with a couple of new pages for when the book’s regular writer or artist couldn’t summon the requisite creative genius to get work in on schedule.

In fairness, some of these fill-ins were actually pretty good. It was Tony Isabella’s story of the Assassin that got me reading the Avengers regularly, way back when.

I quite liked both of these fill-ins... but most of them frankly sucked.

And Son of Satan #8, the final issue, was actually an inventory story by Bill Mantlo and Russ Heath that was just too cool not to print, according to the letters page.

But those were the exceptions. Most of these fill-ins were pretty bad… and at Marvel, which was building its rep on the idea of a cohesive, constantly-evolving universe, it really hurt a book to suddenly go reprint for a month. Especially since, with their regular ongoing reprint titles like Marvel Tales, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Marvel Triple Action, Marvel Super-Heroes, Marvel Spectacular, Marvel Double Feature, Marvel Super Action, and the tabloid-sized Marvel Treasury Editions, they were reprinting everything all the time ANYWAY.

Steve Englehart's titles were among the worst offenders. AVENGERS alone went reprint or fill-in four times between #136 and #150.

When Marv Wolfman took over as the Marvel editor-in-chief, he assigned Bill Mantlo to “Marvel Fill-In Comics,” a phantom title that actually meant scripting a just-in-case inventory story for every book in the line. Most of these were pretty awful… but it guaranteed that at least we would be getting something new every month.

I mention all of this not to bemoan the loss of the crappy inventory fill-in issue, but to point out the contrast. Think a minute and ask yourself, under that system, how many times would, say, Planetary have had to ‘go reprint’ during the course of its existence? It ran 27 issues over the course of ten years. At no point did anyone suggest getting those slackers Ellis and Cassaday off the book and replacing them with some real professionals. That would be ludicrous. It’s not Planetary without those two.

And that’s not an isolated case, either. Outside of the Marvel/DC superhero axis, it’s become a pretty standard way of doing business for publishers to wait until the creators are done and then just ship the book, without obsessing over holding to an arbitrary monthly schedule. And, as I noted above, it’s obviously become pretty standard in superhero circles lately, too, if the current big Batman event can fall victim to such a scheduling snafu and nobody cares.

If scheduling doesn’t matter — if the comic just shows up when it shows up and we all agree to that — then it’s not really a magazine at all. It’s just a book you’re buying on the installment plan.

I have mixed feelings about this. I think there’s a certain craft and discipline that comes with working to a deadline, and that it’s important for any creator who’s doing this for money to understand that this is work, it’s a job, and thus it’s necessary to take commercial and deadline considerations seriously. I set myself a weekly deadline here for the same reason. In my cartooning classes in the middle schools we set strict deadlines for the class ‘zines and we stick to them. I do this partly because I am trying to teach the kids how to pace themselves and budget their time, but there’s also that undercurrent of seriousness, to give them the sense that a deadline is a real thing and missing it has real consequences. If my seventh graders can understand that, shouldn’t the adults who are doing it for an actual paycheck be able to understand it as well?

On the other hand, I also understand that obsessing over a deadline to the exclusion of all other things can be idiotically counter-productive. (I’m not blind to the fact that despite trying to get this column up every Friday, I don’t always make it — it’s often Saturday or sometimes even Sunday when it goes up. I do try to make sure I never miss a week, and so far, for the last five years I haven’t… but I’m also very grateful that there’s no panic from Brian or Jonah when I’m running late.)

I also remember how livid I used to be when I opened a long-awaited issue of a favorite book and discovered it was a reprint — yes, I’m looking at you, Dr. Strange #3 — or, worse, a hack job fill-in story that made it achingly clear how important the regular creators were to the success of a title (like, say, the excruciating Defenders #30.)

Still bitter about this one.

In cases like that, meeting the deadline alienated me as a reader rather than placating me. Did they think I wouldn’t notice?

On the whole, I think I’d rather wait for the real thing, even if it means taking a decade to get out 27 “monthly” issues. Especially since, these days, the vast majority of my “monthly” comics arrive in the form of trade collections anyway. Books, in other words, not magazines. That’s clearly the direction we’re taking and I think it’s a good thing, as I’ve said many times. Hell, most people have only read Watchmen and Dark Knight as book collections these days and have no idea how late those comics were when they were originally published as monthlies. Late shipping is, slowly but surely, becoming irrelevant to the modern comics landscape.

Still, though, I’d think publishers could meet us halfway on this. If we’re willing to lighten up about the whole monthly schedule thing, surely we can at least get our serialized fiction released in the proper order. Just saying.

See you next week. (On Friday, or maybe Saturday. But next week for sure, dammit.)

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