How To Save The Comic Book Industry
An Alternate Viewpoint
by Mario Di Giacomo
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In issue #20 of this very web magazine, Michael Hutchison made a lot of very good points with regard to his thesis that the comic book industry should be doing more to attract young readers.
I agree with that.
He also states that comics should be more accessible to the public.
I agree with that, too.
But, with all due respect, I think that his assumptions, while valid, are missing one crucial detail. Like many comic book fans, he seems married to the idea that comic books, as a medium, must be ongoing series.
Comic books, by and large, are books. Stories, with a beginning, and middle. What they lack, in 99% of the cases is an ending. Since the writer (artists as well, but I tend to approach things from a writer's perspective), knows that the character must be around next month, (and the month after that, ad infinitum, or at least ad cancelarum) he tends not to make strong character developments, settling instead for hoary clichés and fight scenes.
I'm not saying that all comic books should be written for the mature reader. But they should be written maturely.
I like to read, and hence spend a *lot* of time in bookstores. There are shelves after shelf of mysteries, fantasies, horror stories, and romances written for all ages. The only things they have in common are words on paper.
Comics, though, have allowed themselves to be Balkanized. Superhero comics, by and large, overwhelm the market. The same basic story is told, month after month.
This is old news. This column isn't going to go into that. What it is going to do is compare and contrast the SF novel biz with the comics biz. In the end, I think you'll see my point.
First, let's look at your standard novel. An eye-catching cover, with the title and author clearly displayed. If it part of a series, this is indicated. The publisher is usually tucked in a small corner, sometimes barely visible. Your standard comic is basically the same, although the publisher's name is larger, and the writer/artists may not be listed at all.
The one crucial difference is one of focus. The best selling books in the youth market are the Goosebumps books, and R.L. Stine is the name to look for. In comics though, everything is about the series. Who is writing a book is almost irrelevant. So my first point would have to be MARKET THE CREATORS, NOT THE SERIES.
Next, reconsider the idea of the ongoing series as a requirement. There are very few long-running series of books out there, and nearly all of them have one thing in common. The story ends at the end of the book. Characters may carry from book to book (although some may not), but when the last page has turned, something was accomplished. So the next key is TELL SELF-CONTAINED STORIES. I'm not saying one-issue (although that would be ideal), but think about it this way for $5.00 you can buy one novel. If a storyline requires 12 issues of a $2.50 comic, that's about the equivalent of six novels. Six stories, for the price of one.
I'd also suggest a caveat that may be unpopular: WHEN THE WRITER HAS TOLD HIS STORIES, CANCEL THE BOOK.
"But wait?" comes the cry, "what if someone else wants to write stories about the character?"
Ask permission of the creators. Give them the copyright. If they say yes, go for it. If they say no create your own characters.
If a creator really wants to tell a long, sprawling storyline, that's OK too. "Stage 3" comics depend on it, if I understood Mike correctly.
But in order to work, these stories require change. Going back over the same territory, month after month, will eventually drive a character stale. Sales will dip, and the PTB will start to say, "Maybe we should do something drastic to boost sales." Instead, take a page from some of the better comic strips, and let your characters grow. In short: LET TIME PASS. Let your characters grow up, grow old, and die. Create new characters to fill the gaps.
On a related note (and these applies primarily to superhero comics, but can be used elsewhere) LEAVE THE PAST FIXED, AND THE FUTURE A MYSTERY. Changing the past (as opposed to adding to it, which is acceptable, so long as it's consistent) is almost always a bad idea. It usually means that something in the present has boxed the writer in, and he (or she) is forced to pull a hat out of the rabbit to save their skin. Quite often, this is because the creator doesn't have a fixed ending in mind, and so lets the story take it's own path right to a dead end.
Showing the future is merely setting yourself up for a forced retcon, unless you can guarantee that you will get there.
Actually, retcons have been made unpopular in the past several years, primarily because of the way the term has been misused.
In truth, there are 4 (yes four) separate actions that are now commonly called retcons. To this end, I've been toying with a system to classify them, along with examples of what (IMO) are good and bad examples of each.
First, there's the pure retcon, for retroactive continuity, as used by such luminaries as Kurt Busiek and Roy Thomas. "Everything you know is true and this happened too." Continuity is not so much changed, as added to. The nicest version I've seen in the past few years would have to be the "XS meets Barry Allen" story of a few years back. The worst? Probably "Emerald Dawn".
Next comes revcon, for revised continuity. Everything you know is true, but not exactly the way you remember it. The difference with retcons is that continuity is actually changed in subtle (or occasionally not-so-subtle) ways.
When done well, such as in Batman: Year 1, continuity is enhanced. When done badly (some of the changes made to New Gods continuity, like Izaya's second wife), the story can fall prey to the "movie serial" mentality. The writer finds himself stuck in a corner, and must change the events to give him an out.
The new addition to the list (the others have been bandied about before) is what I call a repcon for replaced continuity. The classic "Everything you know is wrong." Huge chunks of continuity are declared invalid, usually occurring with a new writer/editor on board.
The only good example of a repcon I know is PAD's redefinition of Justice over in the New Universe I prefer it to the original. OTOH, bad examples abound the first that leaps to mind is the fate (or is that Fate) of Jared Nelson, who's past was changed after 13 issues.
And finally, the most extreme example of the breed the rebcon (rebooted continuity also called a reboot.) Everything you know is wrong and never happened at all.
So far, there haven't been any _really_ bad reboots. Marvel hasn't done any, and DC has pretty much rebooted everything (although not simultaneously) since Crisis. I suppose some might feel bad about the Legion reboot, but it has its fans as well.
Another problem with hero comics is the fact that they are in a shared universe. You have multiple creators, each with their own vision, trying to fit things together. I've written stories in shared universes, and the key to consistency (if not continuity) is simple. HAVE EDITORS WHO WANT TO EDIT, NOT EDITORS WHO WANT T WRITE. In other words, the editor may wave the baton over the orchestra but he doesn't lean over and try to play the clarinet. Also, PARTICIPATION IN CROSSOVERS SHOULD BE VOLUNTARY.
A mind-experiment on continuity
Imagine, if you would a large table. This is the DC Universe. Each title is a house of blocks on the table. You are a new writer.
Every issue is another few blocks with skill, you expand on the work of the past, taking it in new directions, using your own style of construction. Occasionally, you enter the territory of another builder, but with cooperation you can build around him without destroying either's work.
There is always growth you never destroy the foundation or the entire structure may collapse. And in time you finish your creation and move on.]
If a series is not an ongoing, but the writer has more ideas, linked miniseries, such as used by the NEXUS creators, could be also used. That is to say, each miniseries (with it's own numbering) comes out, but hidden in the indica are the "actual" numbers. Really, when you get down to it, A BOOK ONLY NEEDS TO COME OUT REGULARLY WITHIN AN ARC. Otherwise, if a writer needs more time to work out a story, let him take it.
Like I said up top I look at this as a writer. There are probably dozens of reasons why this wouldn't work from a financial perspective but I wish it could.
What do you all think? Would this save the industry, or are there problems with this proposal? Your viewpoints are welcome! Write to us today!
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This column is © 1999 by Mario Di Giacomo.
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