"Well, thank you, Steven... That's very kind of you...
I'll tell you, if you ever get the chance, and are so inclined, you'd be doing me a huuuuuge favor if you let the Review Journal know you like the strip. I can't tell you how much that helps a new strip like mine! If not, that's fine, also. I'm just glad you like it.
Thank you again"
A few years back, afriend of mine, Lee Nordling (currently graphic novel editor for Platinum Studios), wrote a book about creating and selling syndicated strips, YOUR CAREER IN COMICS (Andrews and McMeel, 1995). (If you want it, best to check library shelves or the used books on Amazon.) It paints a fairly grim, though far from hopeless, picture. Realistic. Though guys like Charles Shultz and Scott Adams made fortunes doing comic strips, the odds on surviving three years at it are minimal. As with most other things, we remember the successes. The failures usually sink without a trace. And the vast majority of comic strips hang on by their fingernails, day in and day out, for years. It's a field that, even more than comic books, takes guts, tenacity and a unique approach to seriously crack. There are far more restrictions on it than on comics, despite some of the things (like the above strip) that get through to them. Newspaper editors are by nature a fairly conservative lot, not necessarily in their politics but in their reticence to promote complaints from readers. There's also the occasional pressure to "freshen up" the comics page, which makes strips perceived as not having an audience fair game. Not many editors get a lot of mail about comic strips, except for complaints. So, yeah, Pastis is dead right about mailing the editor: even one or two letters can mean the difference between staying in a paper or being replaced, and all it takes is a few replacements to put a strip out of business. It's a tough racket. Strips forced out of business rarely come back. Even successful strips can use the perception someone out there likes them, because nothing but, apparently, CATHY and DOONESBURY is sacrosanct.
So it is in comics, to a degree.
Recently the comics world was "rocked" by the sudden cancellation of Wildstorm's WILDCATS 3.0 and STORMWATCH:ACHILLES, despite a recent high-profile crossover that involved both books with on-off hit THE AUTHORITY and another tenuous but highly-regarded title, SLEEPER, and brought a sales bounce to them. Both brought new ideas and new takes to the well-trod superhero genre. WILDCATS 3.0 was a unique attempt to upgrade superbeings to a corporate environment. STORMWATCH:ACHILLES was a highly politicized series about paramilitary human response to super-action. Both were well done. Both had audiences. And only an idiot would be surprised by the cancellations.
Because, good as they were, they weren't selling.
The fact is: cancellations are a fact of life in the comics business, and all cancellations upset someone. (Besides the talent involved, I mean.) It's easy to rave about how good a book was and how it didn't deserve cancellation, and y'know what? It probably didn't. Hell, I've been there. When I was doing X-MAN at Marvel, it got big raves and I still get e-mails from people telling me how much they liked the book. I appreciate it, but the time to bring it up was when the book was being published, and I'm not the one who should've been told. Neither are Joe Casey or Micah Wright, the respective writers of WILDCATS 3.0 and STORMWATCH:ACHILLES. Or the talent behind any book. Not that we don't like to hear it.
But the people you should be telling are publishers, editors, retailers and other readers.
There are a few factors at play here.
By now you may have recognized that comics companies do a crappy job of promoting, particularly with new "untested" concepts. Comics companies, like most other American entertainment media these days, are geared toward The Franchise, that "iconic" product that can generate sales on name alone and will, theoretically, continue to do so for the indefinite future, from a variety of sources. (With a big enough franchise, like Superman, the actual comics sales become irrelevant to the secondary market money.) New properties have a major liability: they aren't franchises and most aren't likely to be, and no one has yet figured out the formula for deciding what the next big franchise will be, try as they might to pretend they do. (I did an interview last week on the basis of the PUNISHER movie – no, I haven't seen it yet – and was asked about Marvel's "enthusiasm" for the character when Mike Zeck and I were doing the PUNISHER MINI-SERIES aka "Circle Of Blood," which really got the whole thing rolling. Despite the character's guest appearances in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and particularly Frank Miller's first DAREDEVIL run, a week or so before the mini-series came out, a high ranking member of Marvel's marketing department scolded me "Marvel's readers are not interested in the adventures of a homicidal maniac." A week later, they were setting up an overship program for the third issue.) Most companies continue to try to "instant franchise" various properties by binding them together into "lines," "imprints" or "universes," despite this pretty much never having worked. (There are some rare exceptions, like Vertigo, but Vertigo has pretty much always been run as a standard comics company within a company, with a much greater breadth and variety than the usual "line.") Generally, promotion consists of a blurb (sometimes an ad) in PREVIEWS, some house ads in the other comics they publish, if you're lucky a puff piece or two designed to make the book sound like the answer to the unified field theory on news sites that understandably give equal weight to everything from the death of a giant in the field to a minor character guest-starring in some other character's minor book. (Have news sites ever considered redesigning to have a newspaper look for their front pages, with a new major headline every day, and minor stories in other "columns," etc.?)
Which means, like it or not, if you like a book, or think you're going to, and you want it to survive, promotion largely falls on you.
Freelancers do the best they can, in general, but most freelancers don't have the time or resources to do whole hog promotion on their books. Neither do you, but you don't have to. All you need to do is hit your little corner of the world. I'm not talking about "comics activism," putting up posters all over your town or handing out copies of select comics to strangers on the street. All you need to do is a) try to get your retailer personally interested in the book, or even a clerk at your store – it's amazing how much more effort retailers will put into talking up a book they personally like, and a retailer's recommendation can sway a lot of on-the-fence buyers, and b) get one other stinking person interested enough in the book to buy it. Micah Wright says approximately 11,000 people bought STORMWATCH:ACHILLES every month. If 22,000 people were buying it, it would most likely still be around. And if each of the 11,000 people brought in "recruited" another 11,000... Sure, that's sort of pie-in-the-sky, but 40,000 people buying a specific book isn't anywhere near out of the question. As I've said before, the best advertising in comics is still word of mouth, but it's a grass roots thing. It's got to come from you.
I understand why that might be more effort or commitment than many readers are willing to put in. That's cool. Just don't be surprised when books get cancelled. The majority of comics get cancelled. It's the rare few that stick around.
Predictably, the cancellations prompted calls for letter writing campaigns to barrage the publisher, DC Comics, a ploy that at one time was fairly successful, until companies brought back comics on the basis of frantic letter writing campaigns but the books still failed. We're sort of spoiled in comics. Series do come back, but the fans of those series are virtually always disappointed, because the concept has by that point been tinkered with, or different talent is handling it, with a different slant. Look how much grief DC has taken from fans on their new FIRESTORM book, and it isn't even out yet, while Firestorm was never a major character at the best of times. The thing is this: when bringing back a series, a company (or even a creator with a creator-owned series) will usually examine it and try to determine what elements made it fail in the first place, then try to alter, replace or eliminate those elements. Thing is: those elements were usually what generated whatever passed for the hardcore audience of each book. Once a book goes away, it's almost never the same book when it comes back.
So the time to write letters is before a book gets cancelled. Long before.
Letter writing is something of a lost art in comics, not the least because letters pages are largely a thing of the past. The reasoning at comics companies is that the Internet is where people say things about comics now, and the reason they got that idea is that it's mostly true. Readers don't write letters to comics anymore, and companies don't encourage it. Considering letter pages were the glue of the camaraderie that created comics fandom in the first place, and comics fandom was linked to the companies by their letters, that's sad.
Letters ultimately don't mean a lot in the face of sales, but they mean something. A new book getting, and maintaining, piles of fan letters is something a company will take into consideration, at least for awhile, simply because it's so rare these days.
But a letter writing campaign after cancellation? Uh-uh. I'll say it again: the time to write letters is before cancellation, and letters alone won't save a book. At best they'll buy time. How you use the time is up to you.
But cancellations, like everything else, are part of the evolutionary process. It's overstating Darwin to suggest evolution is hard and cruel, but it's certainly unsentimental. We're at a cataclysmic time, with lots of interesting little mutations springing up, but mutations by their nature have brief, often tragically short, lifespans. Occasionally, a little furry mammal finds a niche to thrive in, but it's not common and never was.
Publishing is risk. Being a fan is, to some extent, risk. There's always the potential for disappointment and tragedy. But that's true of anything. Even if you're a total activist for a book, that's no guarantee your efforts will be successful, or that the book you're touting will survive. The question is whether you'll answer with cynicism and annoyance, or whether, like the people creating the books you like, you'll move on to something new and give that all your support. If you're upset with the cancellations of WILDCATS 3.0 or STORMWATCH:ACHILLES, keep your eyes open for the next work Joe Casey or Micah Wright do, and give that your support. Keep track. Spread the word. Get your localized promo efforts in gear. There are new little furry mammals, new mutations, springing up all the time. At least some of them (THE AUTHORITY's a case in point) are going to click.
If you don't support them, who's will?
Welcome to our world.