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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:









 

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FULL BLEED 21: BLACK MIRROR

Lotta stuff kicking around this week, and it’s a busy one for me, between extra normal dad stuff and getting ready to head up to Seattle for the Emerald City Comic-Con this weekend (flying with two kids and no backup—silly me) and trying to stay one step ahead of the artists for THE THIRSTY, I’m perhaps more scattered than usual. And that’s pretty scattered for those of you who’ve been following things with their personality tests in hand.

Now, just what’s been rattling around lately?

Reviews. Yes, those. Here’s a simple metric. Good reviews beat bad reviews. Bad reviews beat the hell out of no reviews whatsoever. There is nothing, nothing worse than sending out review copies of a book and not getting any kind of feedback on them. Now, in the spectrum of good/bad reviews, there’s a whole range, like “Good review, but they liked it for the wrong reasons” or “Bad review but maybe I really do need to work on the thing that they picked on” or even “Good review from the guy who always gives good reviews so that he can get blurbed on the back cover.”

All of them are of varying utility. A good review that is without substance might be a nice ego-booster, but it’s like a Twinkie. Sure, it’s tasty, but you eat enough of them and you’ll turn into a marshmallow who’s gonna die because they’re not getting the fundamental nutrients that keep you healthy. Man (and woman) cannot live by Twinkie alone. I oughta know. I tried it for a week when I was in college. Twinkies and Coke. After the third day, I deeply and truly believed that I was an unstoppable force of nature, irresistible and immovable simultaneously and at the same time.

The comedown off of that was harsh, dude.

A “bad” review coming from a smart reviewer (and yes, they’re out there) might be a bitter pill to swallow, but if you’re paying attention, it can get your head straight about the work. Now, I’ve been pretty lucky in that nearly everyone who’s given MURDER MOON a review have been smart people who wrote thoughtful reviews that addressed both the strengths and weaknesses of the work. I even agree with a lot of the “negative” reviews I get; believe me, there’s plenty of things that I’d like to have fixed before the book got shipped, but the truth of it is that I didn’t have the luxury of having pages redrawn.

Different readers are going to have different concerns and different motivations and different responses to the same work. I’ve mentioned this before, but the work being reviewed is as much a mirror as it is itself. Some people are going to examine structure, some the art, some will be strict formalists and others will only concern themselves with the words on the page, forgetting the art altogether. There’s folks who will be worried about the comparative dearth of werewolves and others who will fret over the historical accuracy of the piece. When I’m looking at a review, I have to see if they’re looking at the skin of the work, or if they’re digging deep and prodding at the bones. The stuff on the skin, I’m not so worried about; a nip here and a tuck there and I can address that for the next time.

The bones, however, are another matter. Those are harder to work with, and ultimately, much more important as far as I’m concerned. Some readers aren’t even going to see the bones; even some critics won’t. But since I’m the writer, that underlying structure is much more my realm and more my worry. Don’t get me wrong. If you don’t look at the bones, that doesn’t make you a bad person. When I’m reading, I’m usually reading for pleasure. Well, at least when I’m reading comics. There’s not a lot of comics I read to improve my own writing, though when I see a trick of the page, I’ll note it for my own use and abuse at a later time.

And if you do want to see how it’s done, read the first CRIMINAL trade. Read some SCALPED. Read SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE. Read WATCHMEN (but don’t try to write a grim superhero book afterwards). Read that first SIN CITY trade (or the DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN collection.) That’s off the top of my head.

So yeah, even a bruising can be instructive. This isn’t to say that you should concern yourself with appeasing your critics. Because you can’t make everyone happy. You. Just. Can’t. This is not the end of the world. Do the best work that you’re capable of. Learn from mistakes. Don’t take it personally. You know, all that stuff that dads are supposed to say.

Oh, and another note on reviews. Like I said way up at the top, the non-review is the worst. Not only do you feel like you chucked a review copy into the trash, but you have to wonder if “well, geez, maybe it was so awful that they couldn’t even bother.” Have you ever read that BATMAN annual that Alan Moore wrote about Clayface and the mannequin? It’s a perfect summation of this. The mannequin obviously can’t say anything, it’s a chunk of plastic. But Clayface’s illness and paranoia lead him to all kinds of fantastic scenarios and delusions that end up just destroying him. That’s the non-review, a sucking void that it’s best not to look into. That Nietzsche guy may have been onto something.

Other things of note. For some reason or other, I’m running into questions of “The SANDMAN Effect” a lot this week. Mostly because it’s the yardstick by which all Vertigo books get measured (which is ironic, as it was only a Vertigo book for the last, what, quarter of its lifespan? If even that?)

People, stop measuring books against THE SANDMAN. It’s utterly unfair. Even when the book was in cancellation territory, it was selling better than most every monthly book on sale now. You’re not going to see sales numbers on another Vertigo book like it. Ever.

Why? Easy. Let’s examine.

Market Contraction
SANDMAN was hovering near cancellation when it sold only 110K copies. Only. If a book sells 100K now, it’s a tentpole franchise (which SANDMAN has become, given all the spin-offs it spawned). The loss of newsstand sales and the concentration of all monthly comics sales into the Direct Market means there’s only so many sales even possible given the size of the DM.

Timing
Alan Moore had more or less single-handedly revitalized the magic/horror arm of the DC Universe with SWAMP THING. He was turning critical and reader heads with WATCHMEN (though as I recall, the critical response was not as uniformly positive as it seems to be now). And oh, right, he wasn’t writing anything for DC anymore, after some public disagreements over royalties and rights. The early issues of THE SANDMAN were very much “If you liked Alan Moore, you’ll LOVE this!” Give PRELUDES AND NOCTURNES a read again. It was clearly its own thing, but it was being aimed at a specific market, and a market, I’ll add, that hadn’t been sequestered away from mainstream DC as a whole. Which leads us to the next point.

Unicameral versus Bicameral markets
Today there’s Vertigo readers and there’s DC readers. Vertigo started as an offshoot of DC’s main universe, off the successes of SWAMP THING and HELLBLAZER (the imprint’s longest-running series) and THE SANDMAN, as well as all the other books that were made from the DC Universe’s cast-offs (BLACK ORCHID and too many others to mention; I liked the MISTER E series by K.W. Jeter and…who was that artist again?) There was some fifty years of back characters to work from, because DC and Vertigo hadn’t yet put up the walls between the DCU and itself. Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle showed up in THE SANDMAN; The JLA showed up in DOOM PATROL (not a Vertigo book, but a prototype for what Vertigo-style books did extremely well for a time). DC books could feed into Vertigo readers. This is no longer the case.

Format hobbling
When THE SANDMAN launched, the monthly comic was it. The only trades out there were freaks, or collections of really old material (like those Fireside Books which made me a Marvel Zombie so many years ago.) There was a very tiny bit of experimentation with format (prestige books and the occasional hardcover—I still treasure my copy of ARKHAM ASYLUM). But there wasn’t any percentage in selling trades. Until THE SANDMAN. By the time the first two years of the book had come out, you could get trades of nearly all of it. You could be caught up and picking up the monthly book in the space of a weekend. No singles to track down and pay outrageous prices for. SANDMAN didn’t do this single-handedly, but it sure got the rock rolling over Sisyphus.

New Vertigo books have a hard road ahead of them. They have none of the advantages of the old pre-Vertigo DC books, no feeder audience, other than the established Vertigo audience. They have to be written as serials, even if their real home is in a collected edition to be distributed in a wider market. They’re covering different, more difficult, material than most of what’s out there. They’re smart (believe me, smart is harder to sell than not-smart).

But constantly comparing them to THE SANDMAN isn’t going to make it any better. Some people have figured this out, but most haven’t. THE SANDMAN is one of those once-in-a-generation books that becomes a phenomena. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it with a snap of their fingers.

Okay, time to work on my sales pitch. I seemed to do okay with it at Stumptown, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for improvement.

Two weeks, people.

Matt Maxwell

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