The selling of comics has become a horribly simplified enterprise. In its most basic version; the creator/publisher/creator-publisher has Diamond Distributors agree to distribute their work, Diamond solicits the work for orders in PREVIEWS, stores order, the books are shipped to the stores on a non-returnable agreement two months later. Yes, there are other distributors, and, yes, there are other ways of doing it - but this is how it works 98% of the time.
You get one shot at convincing the retail community to order your work. Your place in PREVIEWS. For many people, that's it - everything they've worked for is balanced on a little heap of ink in a 500-page magazine.
If you're connected with a major Diamond-exclusive publisher, like me, then your presence in PREVIEWS is often unavoidable. And if, like me, you're currently considered of value to some of those companies, then there's no chance of escape. Hell, one of my projects was on the cover the other month. But if you're a marginal presence at one of those companies, or working for an indie or self-publishing -- which latter two mean you're relegated to the distinctly black-and-white, low-rent end of the comics catalogue - then your visibility, compared to mine, is reduced by a factor of ten or twenty. And, since, under the current system you've got (I'll say it again) one shot at convincing people to order your work… well, you immediately see the problem. That one shot has to count.
Now, I'm not saying everyone who makes it into PREVIEWS has the right to a free lunch. I'm also aware that there are issues with exactly who Diamond chooses to allow to solicit in PREVIEWS, and why. What I'm saying is this: that there are ways you can help the works that need and deserve help. And that some creators need to wake up to what they can do for themselves.
A glaring case-in-point is Carla Speed McNeil's FINDER. FINDER is an sf series that's run some fifteen issues now, published by McNeil's own Lightspeed Press. Scott McCloud calls it "the best comic you haven't read," and he's not far wrong. Because you haven't read it, have you? If you have access to a copy of the May 2000 PREVIEWS, check out its listing. Page 277. Innocuous little thing, isn't it? Five lines of nicely-written but somewhat cryptic solicitation text, a cover repro the size of a big postage stamp. No mention of the fact that FINDER's starting concept is beautifully presented in a handful of panels at http://www.lightspeedpress.com/legends.html. Go and check it out now. With this in hand, you can pick up any issue and at least have a handle on the protagonist. It's a marvellous selling point. At least, it would be; if McNeil told anyone about it.
You know… someone who liked FINDER could print that off and take it into their local comics store next time they dropped in their comics order. Just like they could've printed off the "virtual ashcan" Lea Hernandez put online when she was launching her new limited series, RUMBLE GIRLS.
Now, I'm a little avuncular about RUMBLE GIRLS. I'm a consultant on the book, in which capacity (as I've told people until they're sick of the sight of me) I came up with the title and format-related stuff such as making the space to run essays from real-world authors like screenwriter Max Adams. So take me with just a little salt when I tell you that RUMBLE GIRLS is TRANSMETROPOLITAN dipped in lipstick and estrogen and then chucked through a TV set. It's suffused with a glorious hatred for popular plastic culture, and crackles with sex and lies and horrible beatings into the bargain. And Lea put a black-and-white version of an #1 sequence on her website, http://www.divalea.com. I know it convinced people to order the book. Printed off and dropped into - or left lying around in - a comics store, it might have convinced more.
This is simple, grass-roots activism of the kind I've frequently espoused here and on the Warren Ellis Forum (which I know sounds like a supremely egotistic and self-serving name for a message board system, but it does make it bloody easy to find). RUMBLE GIRLS has a half-page full-colour ad as part of its Image Central publishing deal, which puts Lea ladders ahead of McNeil in the visibility stakes, but it's still a marginal Image title, outside the superhero mainstream - and it's bloody good work that requires activism to get it to the audience it deserves.
If you're a little better capitalised, or a little more aware of what's required, then you can of course pay for an ad in PREVIEWS. If Larry Young's soliciting a new AiT/PlaNetLar book, he buys an ad (as he does for his reprint volume of Alex Amado, Sharon Cho and Charlie Adlard's NOBODY, packaged with a Greg Rucka intro and a haunting Brian Wood cover. Page 200). Simple as that. But how many of you glanced over the ad for the second STRANGEHAVEN trade paperback collection on page 194? It's a greyscale piece, elegant and restrained. I've already plugged the first trade paperback in PREVIEWS and listed it in INSTRUCTIONS, so it probably comes as no surprise that I'm mentioning it again. But it needs mentioning again, because the ad contains a quote from me, a mention of an introduction from Bryan Talbot (without an excerpted quote), a quote from something called Illuminations, and a line from COMICS INTERNATIONAL's most frighteningly irrational reviewer, whom, it is alleged, was removed from his post when it was found that he wasn't buying the comics he reviewed, but instead simply reading them briefly in his local comics store. Frankly, if I were you, I wouldn't order the sodding thing either. But you should, because it's among the best British comics to have been produced in the last five years, and Gary Millidge makes most of the rest of us look sick.
Gary can at least continue to relist the work, as it's a permanent edition - although it's doubtful he'd buy another piece of serious ad space to promote it. Eddie Campbell won't get another month to plug BACCHUS #53 in, because this is a transient, superficial business, and we drop last month's calendar page on to Winston Smith's desk to have it erased from history. Eddie has been telling a rambling tale of the life of British comics from the early 80's onward. I haven't caught all of it, but what I've seen has been marvellous. And the cover for this issue is shown - page 251, if you're interested - and it looks a lot to me like Eddie drawing FROM HELL, haunted by William Gull. Which I take to mean that, this issue, Eddie's talking about working on FROM HELL with Alan Moore. The solicitation notes that the story may lead anywhere, but that's a given with Eddie's organic storytelling form, and the solicitation art is a bit of a giveaway. This, therefore, would seem to be a comic that most people who've read FROM HELL would want to read. And Eddie doesn't get a second chance to say "Jings, crivvens, helpmaboab, ah focked tha' up, but." (Only, you know, in Scottish.)
The step between you and the work is the retailer. If the retailer is given insufficient information about a book, the retailer cannot do their job. This doesn't necessarily mean flooding the retailer in information. It means choosing the most useful information on the book and aiming it at the retailer. Remember, PREVIEWS is intended as much as a service for the retailer as for the follower of comics. And even bloody geniuses like Peter Kuper (whose new EYE OF THE BEHOLDER collection is on page 278) or Seth (creator of the sublime IT'S A GOOD LIFE, IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN, whose new work, CLYDE FANS, is on page 246) can get lost in it. Information in PREVIEWS is often the only tool the retailer has for choosing whether or not to carry a book.
PREVIEWS - and you.
If you order your books from PREVIEWS - that is, order them based on the information therein, two months before their publication, just like the retailer - you are accomplishing many things. You are showing the retailer that there is an audience for the work. You're offering the retailer a guaranteed sale. If enough people at your store pre-order a book in this manner, the retailer will likely order an extra couple on top to put on the shelf for general sales. If it's just you, then chances are good that the retailer will take a look at the thing themselves when it arrives.
And if you want to be an activist for the good stuff that slips through the cracks, then you'll pre-order and you'll do something else. You'll print off an online ad or a virtual ashcan or a short webcomic and take it to the store and put it in front of your retailer with your copy of PREVIEWS and say "I want to order this."
If you want to make comics better, then you need to ensure the good stuff survives, as a foundation for what is to come. It starts here - with you.
I can be contacted by email about this column at email@example.com. My terribly beautiful website, updated earlier this week and now containing an online store (carrying most things listed in INSTRUCTIONS) and a 24-hour rolling news service, is http://www.warrenellis.com.
INSTRUCTIONS: Read THE COMIC BOOK HEROES by Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs (Prima, 1997), listen to THE BEST OF NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (Mute, 1998) and hit columnist Paul T Riddell's excellent archive site, THE HEALING POWER OF OBNOXIOUSNESS, at http://www.hpoo.com.
Also, hit SAVANT magazine, at http://www.savantmag.com. A while ago, I suggested that comics magazines similar in approach and form to the British music weekly papers, the "inkies", would be useful. A group of Warren Ellis Forum members took my ramblings to heart and have launch a web-based magazine based on the "inkie" precepts I put down. I think it could be the start of something very useful. Go and take a look at it.
Today's recommended graphic novel is FINDER Volume 1: Sin-Eater by Carla Speed McNeil (Lightspeed Press, 1999). A column on FINDER and McNeil is forthcoming, but I urge you to pick this up in the meantime. If you have problems finding it, go to http://www.lightspeedpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Now begone.