Emerald Specter 116: Redefining Comics

There is a movement in the comic book industry that is finally starting to take a little hold and I wanted to talk about it because if I can make my own comics, this is the method I’d like to use.

Before I get into that, though, I wanted to point out to anyone that might be hiding under a rock that I’m doing a BuJoRPG Dev Blog (which by this posting has had two written posts). If you look on the main page and simply scroll below this post, you’ll see the blog post.

The idea of the Dev Blog is to keep everyone up to date on what I’m working on with the BuJourneyRPG… and to keep myself publicly accountable for not doing anything if I have a lengthy gap between entries. There will be written blog posts and as soon as there are enough graphical things to show, I’ll be doing some YouTube videos as well…

But now, onto the meat of the column.

Since forever, comic book publishers have been working on a “monthly release” model for comics. That means that if you want to read Captain America, you’re picking up a 22 to 26 page book every month for some progression in the ongoing story. (I chose a recent issue to highlight in that link.) This is how the entire comic book industry has worked for years, decades, and forever. Sure, there has been an original graphic novel now and then, as well as trade paperbacks (collections of specific runs of issues that tell a cohesive story in a single title), but basically if you have been reading comics, you’re reading issues month after month.

This isn’t news, I know, but I’m getting there.

Recently, however, there has been a movement by some creators to stop the monthly model and instead going for a graphic novel (GN) model. Rather than release 12 issues a year, they might choose to release one or two GNs a year in their place… telling a complete and cohesive story.

Two major reasons for moving to this model are 1) creators are essentially at a sprint all year long to keep up the pace of a monthly release schedule and 2) more customers who read the comics are moving to the trades instead of collecting the “floppies” (individual monthly comic books are sometimes referred to as floppies).

“Back in the day,” which everyone should know signals a “Wednesday,” comics were sold at newsstands and releasing monthly issues kept consumers coming back for new stories while also keeping the characters in the forefront of the consumer’s minds. Just like with any business model, if you don’t start adapting with the times, you eventually begin to die out. (For example: old school newspapers are slowly dying because they don’t have catchy, click bait headlines or have an almost exclusive online presence.) This may have worked in the 50s, 60s, and 70s… and when the 80s rolled around, the comics started moving to direct market (i.e. local comic book shops).

This isn’t bringing in new readers. Basically, if a reader wants to discover a comic, they have to go to a physical location with this model to “browse” (or, for the purposes of not re-explaining this in a different form, online, too).

I don’t know about others, but I discovered my comics on a spinner rack at my local “five and dime” store (as well as the drug store down the street) before I ever thought of looking for a comic book store.

Another important factor in this is the big companies, Marvel and DC primarily, keep relaunching their characters in “new books” so that they can put a new “#1” on the cover as a starting point for new readers. While this may have worked for a couple of years, I find it highly ridiculous that there are eight volumes of Avengers because they keep relaunching with “new #1” issues.

People just want cohesive stories and some folks aren’t buying issues anymore because they want to know that the story will be complete when they read it. There are a ton of unfinished comic book stories out there, or dangling threads that were never finished, in the monthly release cycle. This is why trade collections are more popular, because anyone wanting to read the story actually gets the whole story and not left hanging because a creative team changed hands.

Personally, I consider the idea of GNs to be brilliant. First, people don’t have the time to read monthly issues as often… prime examples of this would be Adam Mudough of Comic Geek Speak, who infamously is probably a decade behind on reading. (He has a “spinoff” podcast he does called the Time Bubble, where he talks about the old comics he’s just getting to reading.) Second, people want complete stories to be able to read through without waiting to see if there will ever be another issues (for those that remember, see CrossGen Comics). Third, people like the idea of continuity and crossovers but actually hate them in practice… which a GN can do without bogging down a potential customer with needing to buy 75 issues of different titles just to figure out how to read the damn story.

That’s just THREE reasons! There are more… but I’l move on.

I personally consider the GN model to mirror what the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is currently doing. Set up a rotation of “releases” to come out per year, link them together if you want (but don’t make them “required” in order to love the story being told), and you’ve got the “movie release” model working 100%. This doesn’t bombard the reader with needing to have tons of floppies to follow what is going on and the story is all in one place, start to finish.

I started thinking of my “making comics” goal to be more like this GN idea. First, I start with my first GN (I’ll call it Robots from Hell), which tells a cohesive and complete story all by itself and release that in a January. Next, in March, I release my second GN (I’ll call this one Mutants), which also tells a complete story from start to finish… and it may contain an “easter egg” that relates back to Robots from Hell, but you might also see that there were easter eggs for Mutants in Robots from Hell… then, in July, I release my third GN (I’ll call this one Quantum Man), which is complete and cohesive but has easter eggs for both the previous GNs (that aren’t required reading). A couple years into the process, those who were on board for the whole ride might start noticing a larger “through story” that was happening in the background, leading up to (for lack of a better example) an “Avengers” moment where all the characters meet to tackle a threat… they’ll be the Power Patrol taking on the Robots from Hell, or something like that.

Nothing is required to read other that what you pick up. Will you need a little background to understand what is happening in Power Patrol? Sure, but you won’t need to go and buy all the previous GNs because the gist is completely within Power Patrol… hopefully the lure to knowing the details is great enough for someone to pick up one of the previous GNs, but it still doesn’t need to happen.

This is a far better way to create comics, especially for those bigger companies looking to capitalize on the potential of selling more stuff to a broader audience with the potential of a larger story arc between select GNs.

Would there be eight volumes of a signal title? Maybe, but those “volumes” would be referring to an entire GN rather than just a run of monthly issues.

I think reading Green Lantern recently with their run of Rise of the Third Army, which went into Wrath of the First Lantern was not as good as things could have been. You can tell when you move from one series to another (like from Green Lantern to Red Lanterns), because the tone and focus shifts so hard to that series you’re almost left wondering what happened.

As a series of releases, these would have been written and drawn by the same people in a cohesive manner, which is hard to capture with multiple creative teams in multiple titles.

Some creators have already moved to this model with indications that others are strongly considering or will be moving to this model in the near future. This is the future of the industry, I believe, and I’m excited that things might be better as a result.

Sure, there are drawbacks. Superman isn’t constantly in everyone’s face, month after month, so that people don’t forget he exists. Creators working for the big companies may not get as much work, or as steady, because of the big releases instead of the “many little” releases model.

This could allow for better exploration of characters in complete stories, though, and would avoid the “random cancelation” problem that has happened frequently over the past decade. We would also avoid the “random creative team change in the middle of a run” that has also plagued us.

While I don’t believe Marvel or DC will move this direction, I think places like Image and Dark Horse would benefit greatly from no longer trying to compete in a monthly model. They’d have complete stories, released as frequently as they choose, by steady creative teams not bound by creating 12 cliffhangers a year so that you keep readers coming back.

I am still plotting my “GN release” strategy with my own stories. Do I have an “Avengers” finale in phases? Maybe, but I’ve shifted from that being THE thing to that being just a possibility. I will definitely be connecting all the characters in a larger shared universe, but there won’t be some “Thanos level endgame” strategy in play… at least not now.

Rolling around in my head have been stories, or different genres as well as different eras, that I’ve personally decided to put into the same universe. I do have a cohesive reason why this exists the way it does and I could absolutely work towards a giant “mega-phase” event cycle, like the MCU phases. Hell, I’ve even got the final “big bad” in the background that would require a massive amount of characters to be present to defeat… but I haven’t decided that is the direction I want to go.

I’m reading Black Hammer. The universe has been expanded, too, with Quantum Age, Doctor Star, and Sherlock Frankenstein. I love the hell out of this universe of titles and I can’t wait for more… and Jeff Lemire hasn’t indicated an intention to make his “phase level super-crossover” book at all. There is a thing linking all these together, but that isn’t the “big focus” of all the stories. Each of these is wonderful on its own.

I just hope I can create something as wonderful… and if I choose to make my version of the Avengers, then I hope I can make it as epic as it needs to be to succeed.