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Shapeshifting Saturday

by  in Comic News Comment
Shapeshifting Saturday

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my personal ambivalence towards digital comics and where that comes from.

Because common sense tells me that this is where the industry has to go if we want to keep comic books alive as a mass medium. Digital production and distribution is the only mass medium left that can cheaply accommodate what comics does.

The trouble is… I don’t really care for digital comics. At least not the ones I’ve seen so far.

…no, that’s not fair. There are lots of webcomics out there I like a lot. My ambivalence is specifically towards Marvel and DC digital comics, or let’s say superhero/adventure-type digital comics.

This should totally be my kind of thing -- bulk comics, cheap!!-- but I just can't get interested in these.

Many, many people have tried to convert me. And of course we get digital review files here at the blog all the time. And I do try to get into them, just out of a sense of guilt on the review items if nothing else.

But I really, really hate trying to read digital comics on a screen. Invariably, if it’s something I need to go over carefully (usually research for here or for school) I end up printing it out and reading that instead.

Several folks have suggested it’s the reader I’m using. And certainly, since I started using Comical, it is a lot easier for me to read digital comics files than it was with Adobe Acrobat.

But that’s not enough of an improvement to make me a believer. There are a bunch of other issues– particularly the inability to go cross-platform with a lot of the comic files I get sent to me– but the bottom line is that reading comics on my screen is just too damn annoying for me to take the time and trouble to figure it out.

The whole experience is giving me déjà vu, though, and suddenly I realized…

…it’s Format War time again in comics.

What? You don’t remember the Format Wars? Well, gather round, children.

Long, long ago, Dell Publishing realized that maybe they could reprint newspaper comics in a booklet and kids might buy them… and we got comic books.

Now, there was little-to-no page design involved in this effort, except for the covers. The production guys just pasted up old newspaper comics to fit the new page size, whacked together a cover, and off they went.

Later on, when comic books began to use original content, this approach really didn’t change. The artists were still using a grid that looked like stacked newspaper strips.

In fact, the first Superman stories were cut up and re-purposed newspaper strip samples.

It took a couple of years for artists to realize that the comics page, itself, was the design unit… and that the elements on an individual page could be arranged in any way they liked to tell the story they wanted to tell.

The guy that did more than anyone else to promote the idea of designing the entire comics PAGE as a single unit was Will Eisner, which is why they named awards after him and stuff.

So you could say that the first victors in the Comics Format War were the artists who figured out how the page design itself worked. They set the standard. Everyone who followed learned from them and tried to do what they did.

But there was more. In the late 1960s we started to have the battles over what the finished, published books themselves should look like. There were all kinds of experiments with various sizes and publishing models.

There are all sorts of people competing for the honor of 'first graphic novel,' but I always give it to Gil Kane and BLACKMARK. It was designed as a book and sold as a book. Of course, it had its biggest SALES success when Roy Thomas cut it up into comic-book pages and published it as a backup in the Marvel Magazine line. ..

There was a lot of back-and-forth amongst creators, editors, and publishers about what a comic book should look like, who the audience was, were they books or magazines, and so on and so on.

Byron Preiss Visual Publications, especially, kept trying to re-invent the wheel. Here's EMPIRE from Delany and Chaykin, a graphic novel that seems obsessed with the idea of not looking like a comic book at all. Because graphic novels are SERIOUS. It is a lovely book though.

DC and Marvel certainly weren’t going to be left out. They kept trying out new formats all over the place.

From digests to tabloids...

All sorts of experimental books, all in hope of finding that fabled adult reader.

From 1967 to around 1983, Marvel and DC were experimenting with books, magazines, any damn thing they could think of except the standard 7-by-10, 32-page stapled booklets. Because those were for kids and comics were SERIOUS AND ADULT NOW. Despite the flailing desperation of the whole effort, they often did luck into putting out some very cool books. Here's a couple of my favorites.

There were many experiments with content and genre and style, as well, but this is a reminiscence specifically about the Format Wars. (If I start in on how every Bold New Experiment in adventure comics ended up looking like the same old thing but with more topless girls and profanity, we’ll be here all day. This is about presentation.)

And there’s one experiment from that era in particular that’s relevant to this discussion — a format that was just a failure no matter how many times DC or Marvel took a swing at it, though I have a nostalgic fondness for it.

I refer to the Pocket Books and Paperback Library reprint comics collections. These weren’t digests, but actual paperback books.

These were meant to live on the drugstore spinner racks right next to all the Mack Bolan books and PEANUTS collections.

Now, you’d think this was a brilliant idea for marketing DC and Marvel reprints. Because the paperback spinner racks of the time were LOADED with comics collections, particularly newspaper strips like Peanuts and B.C., as well as collections from Mad magazine.

At their peak, something like a fifth of any given drugstore rack's selection were books like these.

What’s more, some of the most successful paperback series of the time were superhero novels in all but name. Doc Savage, Perry Rhodan, The Avenger, Cap Kennedy, The Destroyer, and so on… many of them reprints of the original pulp-magazine stories that inspired superhero comics in the first place.

And here's another fifth of that rack selection. Maybe even a third.

So of course the powers that be at both Marvel and DC looked at that set of circumstances and thought, people love comics paperbacks, they love superhero adventure paperbacks… how could they NOT love SUPERHERO ADVENTURE COMICS paperbacks!??

Except people didn’t, not really. Most of these books did negligible business. The format didn’t work well. They were annoying to read.

Mostly because you really can’t re-purpose comic-BOOK comics for that size of paperback the way you could newspaper strips. It just doesn’t work. The revolution led by Will Eisner and others in the Golden Age, the idea of using comic-book pages as a single unit, means that it’s very difficult to re-format them for other kinds of publishing. It’s a production manager’s nightmare.

Marvel tried it in full color, just shrinking the pages as a whole, and putting six issues’ worth of stories in each volume.

Of the two companies, I think Marvel managed this better than DC.

This has its good points — the chief one being the density. At least you didn’t come away feeling cheated. A six-issue collection, especially in those days, was a genuine sit-down-and-settle-in reading experience.

However, the art was being shrunk to an absurdly tiny size — an 11-by-17 inch original, designed to print at seven-by-ten, dwindled to a little less than four by six inches. Add to that the issues with muddy color printing, and trying to read lettering at less than half the size it was meant to be printed, and you have a mess from a formatting and production standpoint.

DC had a different solution.

Admittedly, the DC books were better-designed... but the reading experience felt like a cheat.

Their idea was the same one Dell used in Famous Funnies, all those years ago. Cut up stats of the original art and paste them up to fit the new page size.

Unfortunately, that means you get fewer stories –only two or three issues’ worth in a single volume, and though the DC production department tried hard, the finished pages didn’t really look very good.

The effort fizzled out after a couple of years, just another casualty of the Format Wars that raged throughout the Bronze Age. Eventually DC and Marvel figured out that they could publish their paperbacks in basically the same 7-by-10 page size as their regular comics, except thicker and with heavier covers, and all was well.

But the format hassles weren’t limited to just the superhero paperbacks. The truth was that newspaper strips didn’t do all that well translated to paperback size, either.

Two dailies and a Sunday from one of the PEANUTS collections. Not as bad as the DC paperbacks, but not great design either. Still a lot of unused real estate on the page, meaning you need to use a lot more paper that you then have to pay to print on.

Eventually those books died out as well, to be replaced by much slicker and better-formatted trade paperbacks.

Classier, easier to read.... definitely the best way to do strip collections.

Why did that happen, though? Why was there such a drastic change in format, especially since the other design was so successful?

Because the spinner racks that the books were originally designed for went away. Since it was no longer necessary to fit books into a specifically-sized metal slot, publishers realized that there was no need to twist the comics themselves into impossible shapes just to fit that arbitrary page size. In particular, they realized that newspaper strip reprints shouldn’t have a vertical layout at all, but a horizontal one. Landscape, not portrait.

Suddenly comics paperbacks looked like this. Not hard to see why.

Simple, right?

You know what else is in landscape format? My goddamn computer monitor.

So are the webcomics I like. Because they are easy to read. I can just enjoy the story, without a lot of ancillary mouse-clicking and screwing around with the zoom controls.

The books derived from those webcomics work fine in landscape format as well.

See where I’m going with this?

The smartest thing I ever had anyone say to me in all my years of working in printing and production art, putting out countless book and magazine projects, was from my very first boss. Over twenty years ago, when I was just starting out, Ken Sanders down at Cougar Press told me, “Look. Your pressman’s your buddy. He makes you look good. Design with the press, not against it.”

Meaning, be aware of how the work is going to end up, what the format is going to be. Think through production problems at the design stage before they have a chance to happen.

For example, a sheet-fed offset press needs at least a quarter-inch of grip space at one end of each page signature sheet going through, and it’s better to have half an inch; so that the rollers catch the sheet easily without smearing anything important. Be aware of that when you are thinking about page margins and bleeds. Likewise, a page with a lot of heavy black solids needs to be laid out in such a way that you aren’t making an ink roller do more than it’s able, like for example putting a heavily-inked area at the END of a layout sheet after the plate’s already laid down two-thirds of its ink load. Little tricks of the trade like that.

For superhero comics, production design restrictions originally included things like being aware of how the ad pages laid out so you didn’t accidentally break up a double-page spread, or avoiding the words “flick” and “Clint” because the ink would fill in on the cheap newsprint and you’ve suddenly got a hugely profane typo. Stuff like that.

And yet, the single biggest design restriction comic book publishers like Marvel and DC and Dark Horse and all the rest impose on artists really isn’t necessary. Hasn’t been for years.

Spinner racks, except for a very tiny nostalgia market, are dead. Comic book pages don’t have to be seven-by-ten any more. In fact, it’s probably better if they’re not. Because the industry’s going digital and most monitors and other video devices are designed horizontally.

The ugly truth is that, from a printing and production view, seven inches by ten inches as a page size has almost nothing to recommend it in any case. It’s non-standard. This is why small-press publishers avoid it for the most part. Eight by five is standard, or eight-and-a-half by seven, or eight-and-a-half by eleven. Those are all based on sheet sizes– letter, legal, and tabloid– that go easily through a press or a copier, and then fold to a nice readable size.

In fact, seven-by-ten is so non-standard that you can’t even comfortably store comics in normal paper-case boxes. This is why an entire industry has sprung up to supply collectors with longboxes and mylar snugs and all that… because all of it has to be custom-made. You can’t improvise it from stuff you have lying around.

By all rational measures, it’s a dumb page size. So why do we still use it?

Because comics fans won’t buy anything else.

The only reason superhero comics haven’t adapted to changing publishing technologies like every other kind of comic printed, whether it’s newspaper strips or webcomics or manga, is because we handed over superhero comics to a collector market. And collectors want their superhero comics at seven-by-ten. Period.

Now we are at a place where if we want superhero comics to remain viable at all, we have to find a different way to distribute them and to do that we are being forced to reformat them somehow. And the easiest place to solve the attendant production problems with that effort, as my old friend Kenny said to me long ago, is at the design stage.

If DC, or whoever, wants to roll out a new line of digital books that are meant to be a mass medium, then they need to rethink the formatting at a conceptual level. Just selling scans of the same old seven-by-ten pages isn’t going to cut it.

The hell of it is, I’m afraid comics people are so set in their ways that it hasn’t even occurred to them how many problems with digital layout go away if you use different page proportions. I’m betting they are staying with that idiot seven-by-ten size because, well, that’s what the size has always been… and so the big new digital era is probably going to fizzle. It’s likely to end up as the 1970s format war thing all over again, trying to jam a comics page into a shape that doesn’t fit… and just getting a mess that nobody wants.

Really, DC– and Marvel and everyone else– production problems truly are most easily solved at the design stage. And what was true in the Golden Age is still true today: the elements on a page can be put together any way you want. It’s totally your decision, especially now that spinner racks are gone.

Why not at least think about a different-sized page design? It worked for paperback newspaper strip collections and webcomics. I bet it would work for you.

See you next week.

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