30 January 2013

A Survey of the Comic-Book Terrain

Writing comics, genre fiction, television, and film would seem to share various tools and tropes. They reward episodic, open-ended narratives in which as many problems and questions are created as mysteries are solved. They reward the creation of memorable characters and visuals, but allow for somewhat repetitive plots.

Indeed, as sequential art forms, comics and films can be seen as something of mutually generative engines, although there's more money to be had in movie-making than comic publishing. In 2012, the total U.S. comic book and trade-paperback sales was nearly $370 million. The worldwide gross for a single blockbuster superhero movie, "The Avengers" (2012), was four times that. No wonder comic-book publishers seem to constantly mine their existing intellectual properties, which can then be sold and resold as action figures and movies and T-shirts and other stuff.

Comic books are still relevant, but they're not necessarily the biggest show in town.

The publishers of comic books have changed with the times. The only problem is, the times they are a'changing still.

Single-issue stories—so-called "one and done"—are more rare than they were in the 1980s. When spinner-rack consumers couldn't count on buying sequential issues, comics were more likely to deliver a complete story in a single issue. Occasionally, publishers will still present "one-shot" issues, which relate complete narratives. Larger "annual" issues may deliver twice the pages of a monthly comic, but at premium prices.

Ongoing narrative arcs now comprise 6- or 12-issue chunks, so that they can be easily repackaged and published as trade paperbacks (often abbreviated "T.P.B."). It can be confusing, trying to figure out whether and when to "jump on" to an ongoing narrative in the floppies, or to wait 6 or 12 months for the trade paperback.

Assuming they are connected to an existing character or set of characters, Original Graphic Novels (O.G.N.) tell stories that take place outside of an ongoing narrative.

Comic-book publishers are as confused and concerned about digital publishing as the producers of newspapers, magazines, and greeting cards. They're shackled to stagnated publishing model: kill trees, print comics, distribute via specialty brick-and-mortar shops. At the same time, however, the comic-book shop is where the magic happens, where communities of consumers congregate, where browsing and buying pay-off in sharing new stories and characters. Lose the comic-book shop, and publishers will lose the war. And consumers will lose out altogether.

Still, I have to wonder: How much of my love of comic books is rooted in nostalgia? How much is driven by the physical acts of consumption—collecting, collating, culling, and cataloging a library of materials—rather than the intellectual pleasures of a good story, well-told? If it was just about reading words and looking at pictures, you'd think that an e-reader solution would be the way to go. Pages would never get bent, every issue would in mint-condition, and whole back-catalogs would be accessible (and marketable!) at the touch of a button.

What would the world look like, however, if comic books were no longer in print? It sounds ... practically apocalyptic.


  1. thanks for sharing!

  2. I still hope that comics are still in print because it will lose its nature if it will be only available virtually. I expect that when someone conducts a survey about this and their target people are those who are techy, they will probably prefer e-books.

    1. I'm not a heavy e-reader user myself, but Household-6 would probably prefer it if I could somehow digitize my old collection of comic books (a couple of boxes in the basement) and read them all on a handheld of some sort.

      And, I'll admit that reading on a tablet computer would lessen concerns about crimping and finger-printing the paper pages. The focus would become solely one of reading, rather than collecting. And I'm still wondering how much of the appeal of comic books lies with the going and finding and bagging and boxing part of the hobby ...


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