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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:




Now that’s interesting, don’t you think? Rich Johnston has turned up the rumor that DC is going to start instituting harsh measures for freelancers who cannot complete 22 pages of pencils in a 4 week period. I’m assuming that this applies to some of their marquee artists, unless stated in their contracts. Or Jim Lee. Or Frank Quitely. Not to pick on them in particular on a personal basis; I’ve heard that Mr. Quitely is quite the nice guy and I’ve seen Jim Lee’s generosity and personability firsthand. But neither of them has been very good at hitting deadlines recently.

Okay, taking this at face value, it won’t be enough that these artists could stockpile pages for an upcoming run, anticipating that they’ll slip in the schedule. You know, like the ULTIMATES series was supposed to go. Or like ONE MORE DAY. Or hell, even like WATCHMEN (recall the 11-month gap between the pen and the ultimate chapters). Or Camelot 3000. No, you can’t just stockpile pages. You have to complete them and get them inked, colored, lettered, re-dialogued, etc. After all, there’s a monthly schedule to maintain.

Only that’s a laugh. And it’s been a laugh for several years, even decades now. Seems to me that the dissolution of the bullpen model and the move away from newsstand distribution (more or less coterminous) pretty much destroyed the Monthly At All Costs model. Remember, in the days of newsprint comics and newsstands, the product got turned over every month like clockwork. There had to be a new issue of FANTASTIC FOUR on the stands, even if the pages were late and they ran a filler issue. That or you stated a bimonthly schedule, which was a practice pretty much done away with by the beginning of the 80s. But in the 60s and 70s? Publication deadlines were do or die.

But with the 80s and the rise of the mini-series, as well as the emphasis on the writer writing epics and the artist illustrating epics, and not just a monthly comic, the reliance on clockwork monthly publication began to fall by the wayside. I’d argue that the rise of the Direct Market and the hardcore fan enabled this to a degree. Newsstand owners had plenty of distributors and plenty of product to pick from to fill their face-out spaces. If there wasn’t a BRAVE AND THE BOLD that month, then something else would take that place. But in the DM, you can display the previous issue (assuming you didn’t just order to fill pre-orders plus ten percent) for another month. The fans would wait. The people who sell comics would be irritated and Brian Hibbs will still call the egregiously late on the issue with his infamous “Asshat of the Week” title. But ultimately, people would pick up the latest issue without changing their buying habits.

Newsstand owners wouldn’t put up with that junk. They had immediate bills to pay and clients to satisfy (and not just the customers, man). If Atlas couldn’t bother to get an issue of HUMAN FLY or SUPER COPS to ‘em, well to hell with that. Or were those Charlton books? Hard to keep track.

And this is the time where I point out that pencillers like Jack Kirby did two books a month or more, plus covers. But those were different times for different audiences. Today, there’s a demand for an increased level of “realism” in artwork. Never mind that “realism” is shorthand for over-inked fussiness with detail crammed into every square inch of your typical panel, and oh yeah, that cartoony stuff is junk for kids. Include the drive towards expanded storytelling, and it takes more pages of art to tell less story. It’s easy for the writer to come up with half an issue of a conversation in a phone booth. It’s another, much more thankless task, to illustrate the works and make it interesting. So, with the de-emphasis on compact storytelling, the art has to work that much harder.

Which means that unless there’s a head-start, artists are typically going to get behind. Fans gnash their teeth and wail, hammering on their keyboards as if their life depended on it, but they buy the next issue and love it, love it, love it.

This is not to excuse late books. They cost retailers money. They cost publishers money. They cost the creators money and time. But late books have been a fact of the market for some time. You know why they’re excused? I’ll tell you.

Trade collections.

The monthly books are to reach the primary audience and get tongues wagging. The trades are there to sell to folks months, years, and in some cases, decades after the initial run (evidence: BONE and WATCHMEN, but they’re extreme examples, I grant you.) However, in a “typical” miniseries/story arc, the monthly book is just repackaged, sometimes with a new cover, sometimes with some bonus material (though that’s usually saved for the MEGA DELUXE SILVERBACK FAN edition) and put out on the shelves. Art isn’t tweaked, dialogue isn’t rewritten; Hell, typos make it through the process.

The monthly books are made with an eye towards collection, which is the permanent record of that project, whatever it may be. So instead of keeping the monthly book like clockwork and fixing any boo-boos later before the trade collection, the (semi-) monthly chapters are constructed as if they were the final product, labored over carefully, no matter how long it takes. This is because the comics market is transitioning into a trade-collection market, or at least away from a monthly magazine market.

But DC’s move, assuming it’s not rumor, seems to be a step backwards in this regard. They’re asserting the monthly-ness of their comics and cracking down on those who can’t carry their load in the schedule. That’s great, if you’re banking on the monthly-ness of your books. It’ll be a boon to retailers who will get what they order when they expect it (barring other, outside, circumstances.) And it might even put a lid on fan whining about late books. But it’s likely to get people complaining that they expected artist A, but instead get artist B without warning, because artist A was penciling backgrounds and not getting more pages done.

This move, however well-intentioned, is not particularly compatible with how the comics market works now. We’ve moved past clockwork product and expect a higher level of craftsmanship (which is not to necessarily say “better”) in the books we pick up month to month. Well, the books you pick up month-to-month; I’m quite happy with trades, thanks. Though I’ll admit that I’ll probably pick up FINAL CRISIS as I would any other Grant Morrison book: in its first available offering.

It’s almost as if DC is saying: “We’re a monthly comics publisher,” and really, it’s hard to argue that point. Their trade program is good, but not as speedy as Marvel’s (which some retailers argue, rightly, may be too speedy and instead cannibalizes monthly sales.) But part of me says, “good.” Cannibalize those monthly sales. Train the audience to a new, more permanent form. Wean us off of monthly magazines that are crammed with ads that are either ugly or downright insulting. Wean us off of weekly trips to the comic stores that are too out-of-the-way to justify weekly trips to (yeah, I know, I made some friends there.) More importantly, train readers to a form that they’re more familiar with and one that feels as if it’s worth their time and money.

When comics were only available as monthly books and were plentiful and easily available, then their disposability was an asset. We’ve moved way past the era of disposability, when comics cost three to four dollars apiece (perception trumps inflation every single time). The fastest-growing facets of the comics market aren’t monthlies. They haven’t had that title for some time. We’re living in a transitional market, even if that’s a painful market for some. I can’t see this set of strictures stopping that momentum, even if they do make life more unpleasant for some folks. Someone predicted that there would be a loss of goodwill on some freelancer’s parts, and maybe even a boost of exclusive to Marvel artists. That might indeed be true, but no matter what happens, the emphasis on trades that the publishers themselves have pushed (having been once seen as an easy way to double-dip their audience, just like Compact Discs were back in the 80s) has started the ball rolling in a new direction, and that ball isn’t going to change direction anytime soon.

Matt Maxwell

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