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Committed: Keep Me Hanging On

While marketing departments say otherwise, I would always rather wait for an incredibly late “monthly” comic book than read below par work or fill-in artists and writers. Increasingly I find myself appreciating the comic book creators who withstand external pressure and take the necessary time for their work.

Recently I found out that Optic Nerve #12 will be in comic books this August. It has been more than four years since the last excellent issue of Optic Nerve came out. While this is a long time between issues of an ongoing comic book, I haven’t forgotten anything and I’m absolutely ready for it. Tomine thoughtfully ended the last issue (which had been an ongoing story, spanning several issues) and so we weren’t on any kind of cliffhanger. Four years does not seem in the least excessive because this is not an ongoing story, but a series of interconnected human observations. Apparently this time even more so, as this will be a series of self-contained short stories in this issue.

My friends in the comic book publishing business repeatedly tell me that my opinion on this subject is not one held by most people, but I refuse to believe that more people don’t appreciate quality over quantity. I agree, it is very nice to go to the comic shop every month and pick up some regular titles. But that does not mean that I’m not going to buy a title if it isn’t monthly. In fact, comic books that hire fill-in artists or writers are much more likely to lose me as a reader, because I’m more likely to notice a change in quality than I am a delay in publication.

I deeply appreciate that Adrian Tomine only releases a comic book when it is fully baked. He doesn’t just bang out any old rubbish once a month in order to keep some hypothetical audience “on the hook.” We aren’t fish, he isn’t shooting us in a barrel. He is providing a discerning and loving audience with a work of art. It is ready when it is ready. This is why I am perfectly happy to wait for Optic Nerve until it is good and ready for me.

Tomine has a knack for creating characters with a solidity to them, even when we only see a small glimpse of their behavior, they seem to have other aspects to them. Unlike some writers, he is able to create warm, relatable, familiar characters even when they’re making choices we can’t understand. More exposed and self-reflective than most comic book characters, the players in his stories don’t shy away from telling each other harsh truths. These are people who know each other intimately, and we’re privy to their most mundane, idiotic, unpretentious moments. Tomine betrays himself as an excellent observer of the human condition and we’re lucky that he has the skill to communicate it to us so elegantly with his comic books.

Another book which is taking forever to come out and I find that absolutely fine is Batwoman. From what I can gather from his blog, the initial lateness was a consensual decision, the following delay was from the publisher side. Honestly, that galls me more, because it so obviously an attempt by DC to ride the coattails of JH Williams with their ludicrous relaunch. As far as I’m concerned, they can release 500 other titles at the same time as Batwoman, but it will still stand on alone. The utterly stunning masterpiece of Batwoman: Elegy proves that any following work will be highly marketable, this doesn’t mean that the 51 other titles they release will be. However, despite the marketing machinations of the great machine, I’m happy that Williams and his team have extra time for their art. This book hasn’t even come out yet, but because of Williams commitment to his art, sight unseen, I like that he chose to delay rather than push for earlier publication and potentially compromise the quality of the book.

Remember how we all waited four years for the last issue of Planetary? That was fantastic. Okay, no it wasn’t. Unlike any of the other extremely irregular books I follow, this one was definitely an ongoing story and I really wanted to know what was going to happen. Combining all of my favorite things (science fiction, grumpy old hot guys, incredibly strong women, elegantly detailed art, mind-expanding concepts, conspiracy theories and even more science fiction) of course I was obsessed with Planetary.

I must admit that not only did I loudly complain for about a year, but I accosted Cassaday at Comic-Con about it, then teased Ellis about it on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, neither of them really liked that (I have no tact.) However, after that first year I sort of relaxed, realized that it just wasn’t going to happen and let it go. Now if I’d been more cognizant of the fact that it is deeply not a monthly comic book, I probably would have been less impatient. When it finally did come out, I found myself deeply unprepared for it to end. Something really beautiful happened in the intervening four years. The act of waiting for the book had kept it alive in my head. It was more present and more important because of the time I spent waiting for it. I’m not saying I’m a patient person, in fact, the opposite is definitely true, but in this instance, I think I loved it a little more because of the wait.

Love & Rockets used to be late a lot, or at least it was on one hell of an erratic schedule. Before there was the internet and ways to get emailed an alert when something was being published, I would just go into random comic stores and ask when they expected the next issue. They’d always groan, as if they’d been hassled by a million other diminutive punks wanting more Love & Rockets, explaining that they had no way of knowing when the next issue would be out… But what is punk rock about keeping to a schedule? It made sense to me that it was erratic.

Now that grown up Maggie and Hopey aren’t little punks anymore and Luba is a grandmother, the format has changed to a bi-annual publication and it feels like New Love & Rockets comes out all the time! This revealed something that I hadn’t known before: I am very happy to buy a comic book which hardly ever comes out, particularly if I know it hardly ever comes out. In fact, because Love & Rockets is officially only coming out every blue moon, I don’t expect it and so I’m not miserable when it doesn’t come out. Instead I’m pleasantly surprised when it does.

With these titles and many more the quality of the work makes it absolutely worth the wait for me. I realize that this is not a popular opinion, but I have always found that while I will moan and plead for more, I am more than happy to wait for great art and literature. I’ve said this before and I only wish that publishers would take note because I truly believe that I’m not alone. Fill-in artists and writers only denigrate an amazing story, stay loyal to the work as a holistic continuity and allow it to grow at the pace it demands.

26 Comments

“[P]articularly if I know it hardly ever comes out.”

There is your answer right there. Don’t promise a monthly – as Paul Grist did on Jack Staff – and then don’t deliver. Don’t leave a cliffhanger and get testy when fans wonder what is going on. Be up front with the buyer, and they will remain a buyer.

(Or not. I am sure I have missed an issue of Staff because it wasn’t regular. And when you get past the first year, as many titles I follow have done, I really can’t blame my shop for forgetting to order me a copy. You may not think of yourself as a fish, but thanks to the economics of the DM, creators only have one week to drop bait and nope to catch you. And that is only if they remembered to get the license from the shop owner three months earlier.)

F. U. J.M.S. 4 the 12 !

Tom Fitzpatrick

June 29, 2011 at 11:44 am

Bet you like to be fasionably late for parties, Ms. Harris! ;-)

Someday, 40 years from now, when that final issue of The Twelve comes out, it will just seem like a pleasant surprise.

I’m all aboard with this.

I want artists and writers and writer-artists to take their time and produce something amazing, rather than something rushed and half-finished.

I’ve seen this discussed a fair deal over the years and noted that there are two sides to this. Indeed it doesn’t particularly matter if a book like Optic Nerve has erratic schedule, because first of all it hasn’t claimed to have a schedule, and second, there isn’t an ongoing storyline. Saying that you will be doing a five-part story and then failing to deliver that fifth part is definitely a problem.

Generally I am more in the camp of “it comes when it comes” schedule, but a considerable part of my comics reading is closer to Optic Nerve than Planetary, which allows me this “whatever” attitude. But it should also be pointed out that if the comics creator wants to, you know, eat and have a roof over his head and bourgeois stuff like that, it’s generally a better plan to either put out a product regularly even if quality occasionally suffers, or have another source of income (which makes demands for time and energy which leads to even more erratic publishing schedule).
And it should also be pointed out that I have effectively moved to reading trades and albums, so Optic Nerve #12 means nothing to me, I won’t be buying it anyway. This was partly due to majority of the pamphlets I was reading having seriously erratic schedules, and since I didn’t buy that many pamphlets anyway to have to go to comics shop every week, don’t have eidetic memory and consider previews catalog to be both waste of time and inherently evil, it meant giving up pamphlets. So as far as I am concerned the hypothetical children of Mr Tomine will go hungry until there is enough material for him to put out a collection, for my buying schedule is just as erratic as his publishing schedule.
(and yes, I actually like Optic Nerve).

There’s a world of difference between comics like Optic Nerve and Love & Rockets, and monthly superhero-universe comics. As others have pointed out, Optic Nerve was never promoted as a monthly comic, much less a monthly comic that’s part of an interconnected universe. Also, Optic Nerve is done by one guy (who has a full-time job that’s not making Optic Nerve, IIRC). Love & Rockets separate parts are each done by one guy (by and large). DC and Marvel comics have teams of people making their comics, and they have the resources to plan ahead and make changes if necessary. Also stuff like Optic Nerve is about an artist making work that means something to them personally, and thus is at least partly dependent on inspiration. DC and Marvel books are not. They are ongoing serialized entertainment. It’s no surprise if a fine artist displays her work irregularly, whenever she has enough good new pieces to make a show. That’s fine, that’s how it works. But if a sitcom ran weeks of re-runs when they’ve promised new episodes, with the excuse that “we’re trying to make this next episode extra funny”, no one would buy it. There are differences in what’s promised to the audience, in resources, and in intent. The inherent expectations, and implied “contract” between readers and publishers are totally different.

Who else here remembers how long we waited for the final issue of Watchman, or for the final issue of Camelot 3000?

Sorry… “Watchmen.”

Squasha and Buttler, I was thinking the same thing about the Twelve. It was a great series that just disappeared midway through. What happened? How does a publisher allow that to happen? Don’t they have contractual rights to force the creators to finish the promised series? Does an editor or someone get fired when something goes totally sideways like that? Why don’t they get someone else to finish the series, based on the information the original writer provided about what the story was?

Tom Fitzpatrick

June 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm

How long was that final issue of the Watchmen being late compared to the final issue of Camelot 3000?

I know that Camelot 3000 was incredibly late (especially the last two issues), but I don’t remember the Watchmen being that late.

Speaking of Warren Ellis, it’s funny that you mentioned Planetary, but not other books like Fell, Desolation Jones, and newuniversal. Those books seem to have been very late and then abandoned. (maybe with the exception of Fell).

Watchmen #12 was a month late. In the context of the times, this was horrible. But if we were being honest withourselves then, skip weeks and even skip months had occured, even at DC, even in on-going titles.

Camelot 3000, however, is a perfect example. I love Mike Barr the way this column loves Adrian Tomine. I love Brian Bolland even more. The first few skips, no big deal. But by #11, I had almost forgotten the book was still coming out. By #12, I had forgotten, and worse yet, I no longer cared. If I was not an obsessive collector, with each issue bagged and boarded, and organized so that I could go back and read them all in one sitting, even I might not have bothered to buy that last issue.

And this was at a time when I was at my shop every single week, so I would know when it did come in. Nowadays I may skip a week or even three, and if it is not still on the shelf when I do come in, I may not know it at all. Not to mention that it was back in the day when shops could afford to buy extra copies in hopes of selling them after the first week, and would even buy copies of books that hadn’t been selling just in case someone became a fan halfway through the book. Some shops can still do this. But again, in this economic climate, I can’t hold it against them that they don’t put out more cash up front in the hopes that I will run across the book a month or six later and decide to buy it. It is rude for a creator to expect his fans to wait. It is just stupid for them to expect a business to do the same.

The easy solution is to move to OGNs — complete stories or chunky story sections (for serials) solicited only when they’re entirely done. The format in which the work is published is part of the paratext, and apratext communcates meaning. Artists and writers should understand that, since it’s ostensibly part of the job description to understand how each level of the work is communicating with the reader.

People understandably complain when things in periodical format are late, because the format tells them the publishing schedule is meant to be regular. Fewer people complain when a novel takes some time to finish up, even when it’s a novel in a series. I am not sympathetic to exceptionalist claims for comics published as if they are magazines in terms of page count, binding, and overall size and shape. Frankly, that’s a format designed in market terms for regularized subscription periodicals; there is a reason you will find precious few successful narrative formats published as irregularly-released magazine-sized installments outside of comics.

The irregular floppies issue isn’t a crime committed by pigheaded fans or lazy creators. It’s a bizarre insistence on publishing and consuming material in an obsolete format which, by its very nature, sends confusing mixed messages to consumers about content and scheduling. This “l’art pour l’art” notion that format says nothing fits poorly with the rest of the presentation of comics (and “comix”) as mass-consumable publications.

Most literary magazines don’t get away with looking like periodicals and publishing whenever they damn well please; few if any good TV shows get away with an unannounced, lengthy hiatus in the middle of a story for simple business reasons. So it’s not as simple as tired arguments that the philistines don’t understand how their impatience is inimical to art. On the other side, there’s no reason comics should be published in formats and at price points that are effectively imposed by the rapidly failing direct market system, either. The 22-page monthly pamphlet addiction is bad for comics, but the solution is not to keep the pamphlet format but make the schedule hopelessly erratic. The solution is to tailor the format to the story by looking at how every other narrative art form that is currently thriving packages its content.

If the story you have to tell is is short, wait until you have more than one — or gather collaborators with their own short pieces — and publish it as an anthology in a sizable chapbook/one-off style or as an anthological OGN. (We need more of those, too.) But for reasons obvious to casual consumers of every other non-comics category of magazine-formatted publication, comics content presented in a magazine format should indeed be regularly published…if you can get enough people to produce and buy them that way.

Mike Loughlin

June 29, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Optic Nerve, Stray Bullets, L&R, Planetary… I don’t like the delays, but they’re creator-owned. Kevin Smith or Joe Quesada taking forever to finish 8 Daredevil comics? That was rough. I blame the rise of lateness in Big 2 comics on that one project, incidentally. Everyone complained, but still kind of accepted it. Then, we had Ultimates, New and then Astonishing X-Men, Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk, etc.

DC tried to allow for writers & artists who took longer a few years ago (e.g. Allan Heinberg’s Wonder Woman, Carlos Pacheco’s Superman) by running other issues in between chapters of their main story. I don’t think anyone liked that solution. Having a rotating team of artists works better. It’s unfortunate that many of the top artists in the field don’t produce work on a monthly basis.

Overall, I’ll wait for high quality, but publishers or editors should make sure the creators aren’t put on monthlies.

Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin

June 29, 2011 at 6:01 pm

@Tom Fitzpatrick

“Speaking of Warren Ellis, it’s funny that you mentioned Planetary, but not other books like Fell, Desolation Jones, and newuniversal. Those books seem to have been very late and then abandoned. (maybe with the exception of Fell).”

Well, the reason why many of those books are late is because Ellis’ computer crashed and deleted all the plots, scripts and notes he had there, so he had to start from scratch.

Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin

June 29, 2011 at 6:05 pm

@buttler

“Someday, 40 years from now, when that final issue of The Twelve comes out, it will just seem like a pleasant surprise.”

That might come sooner than you think, since Chris Weston is currently inking his pencil art for issue 11.

I’m torn. I want high quality, but I want it now.

Dark Horse uses a FANTASTIC artist for their Star Wars books named Doug Wheatley. The guy can draw an accurate Star Destroyer right down to the last cannon. Problem is, the guy is incredibly slow. When they used him on the “Darklighter” arc, he took so long that they had to insert several filler issues into what should have been a 4-part story. The end product is great and makes for an outstanding TPB, but if you were reading it as it came out, you had to be really patient.

They currently use Wheatley on the “Dark Times” series set between Episodes III and IV. I love the book, as it really focuses on brand new characters (other than Vader) and isn’t just rehashing Chewbacca and Boba Fett. Again, problem is that he takes his time on the book. The first 5-issue arc took MONTHS longer to complete than it should have. For the second arc, they used a different artist, but the quality of the story really went downhill. For the third arc, they used Wheatley again, but it was a two-issue part of the larger “Vector” story running through all the SW books. They were trying to keep “Vector” on its “12 issues in a year” schedule, so they had a second artist work on those two issues to help out. It doesn’t look horrible, but it’s noticeable.

So for the fourth arc, Wheatley did the whole thing. It looks great, but they waited for him to be finished. From what I recall, the two “Vector” issues of Dark Times came out in spring 2008, while the next issue didn’t come out until early last year. So, yep, about 2 years between issues. The series is starting up again next month, about a year between issues.

The problem with this is that it’s hard to keep track of a serial when you’re not even sure when the next issue is coming out. If it weren’t for the monthly advanced solicitations, I wouldn’t think to look for it. If I were a casual reader who stopped in the shop once a month, I’d have no way of knowing if the series still existed.

It’s funny, I didn’t even remember that Camelot 3000 was late, and I bought it eagerly whenever each issue came out. What I remember is how satisfied I was with it as a series when all was said and done. Contrast that with, say, Omega the Unknown, which seemed to be building up to something awesome but then was cut off before it got there. So I guess I don’t mind all THAT much if the comics I like are late as long as they freaking get there eventually.

IMHO, plan for it. You all know who is likely to be late. Plan good fill-ins in advance, and complementary artists (since art is more usually late than writing).

Travis Pelkie

June 30, 2011 at 4:23 am

L&R is bi-annual? I thought it was annual?

I might comment on the rest when I get a chance to read more. But Los Bros definitely went the right way in delivering a book a year (even though, yes, I have forgotten about it and am missing all the New Stories after #1). They’re still producing about the same number of pages a year, about the same price, but all in one book so a big long story is possible.

Although, typing that out…I’m thinking maybe they should go back to quarterly comic. Same price, same pages a year…seems that the big benefits are book store “real estate” and longer stories, so I guess economically it makes sense…

Uh, me tired, me write more later.

I agree with Omar that the addiction to monthly “floppy” comics is what hurts comics. I look over my comics all the time and feel that my graphic novels are much more precious to me than any collection of single issues. Reading someones run on a book all in one big sitting is a lot more practical when comics are so expensive and filled with ads. I feel that too many people buy comics out of loyalty rather than actual enjoyment.

I should add that I feel it hurts comics by causing the creators to look at a smaller scale and not the big picture. In these times if a creator is not looking towards a collected edition of their work in a larger format then what is the point? Most great novelists or film directors do not make their name or money from short stories or films so why should comic book creators? They are both narrative art. Short films and stories have their place but they are definitely in the minority of what I (and probably the general population) consume.

Love & Rockets and Acme Novelty Library have the right idea.

Ellis confirmed recently that a couple of issues of FELL are on the way. Hopefully soon.

As others have observed, I have much more tolerance for creator-owned or self-published books running late than I do projects from Marvel or DC. Often on the former, the creators are working on their books while simultaneously holding down a full time job, and financing the publication themselves. So, while delays are regrettable, they are at least understandable.

I think that Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez know that they cannot produce a monthly Love and Rockets series, and they recognized how erratic their publishing schedule was on volume 1. Which is probably why they made the decision to made volume 2 have an official publication schedule of three times a year, and New Stories be an annual publication. So for the last decade they’ve been very up front about the fact that L&R will be released infrequently. And, in any case, they’ve both been involved in other projects, especially Gilbert, so it is not like we are being deprived of the Hernandez Brothers’ work.

Marvel and DC (and, to a lesser degree, Image and Dark Horse) are a different story entirely. They are large companies with huge editorial, management, and publication staffs. For books to fall through the cracks, especially high-profile projects, is unprofessional. It makes both the company and the creators look bad. I can understand an occasional delay of two or three months. Unexpected things happen, the occasional deadline is missed. I get it. believe me, I wish that the editor of the classic Punisher miniseries “Circle of Blood” had given Mike Zeck an extra month or two to draw the final issue, instead of yanking it away from him and having Mike Vosburg do a rush job so it would come out on time. All these years, that last issue has stuck out like a sore thumb. I’ve often wished that Marvel would approach Zeck & Steven Grant to re-do that fifth issue, and re-release the trade paperback as a kind of “director’s cut.”

But there is a huge, huge difference between a hold-up of two or three months and a delay of two or three YEARS! Seriously, looking through “The Late List” feature that CBR is currently running, some of these projects have become total jokes. I am just grateful that I was lucky enough not to have gotten into any of those series that are now years behind schedule.

I talked about how creators’ reputations can be harmed. Want to know what my first reaction was when I heard that Jim Lee would be drawing the new Justice League series? I said to myself “What, are we going to get a new issue every four months or so?” All Star Batman, combined will all the other late books that Lee has been associated with over the years, have left me extremely leery of picking up any projects that he is involved with, unless it happens to be a self-contained one-shot. Because I have much better things to spend my money on than the first two or three issues of a series that might end up never even being completed.

JC LEBOURDAIS

July 1, 2011 at 4:18 am

Whoever decided that comics had to be periodical?
Sure that’s the traditional american model, but it pays to think outside the box.
Over here in Europe, the world’s biggest selling comic book of all time, Tintin, has been published since its creation in 1929 through 22 hardcovers (“albums”) of 45 pages each, kept in print ever since, and bring back truckloads of money every year to the Hergé estate.
Read it again: 22 stories. Less than 1000 pges overall. yes you got that right.
Compare that to the hundreds (thousands?) of crappy Superman stories put out month after month for 7 decades, by committee of taylorised fashion designed to cater to the dreaded deadline doom of the monthly pamphlet.

So. Now. What is better, a timely book or a good book?
Pay Artists what they are worth for turning up full, completed work sure would be straying away from yankee corporate greed process, so, you know, why bother?
’nuff said.
You decide. Vote with your wallets :)

By the way, serialisation is ok.
Have a weekly or biweekly prepublication newsstand Superman magazine reprinting both old and new stories and over a few years get rid of what doesn’t stand the test of time.

There. I’ve solved all the problems of the american comic book industry.
Don’t forget to send the royalties check my way ;-)

Yeah, the European approach was much of what I was thinking of too, JC.

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