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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:



And I’m a mama-papa coming for you.

So yes, interesting times. The groundwork was laid in 2008 (and really for several years before that, but coming to a head last year and popping this year like the proverbial pimple or mug of beer.) What groundwork am I talking about?

The death of the single issue, of course. Okay, I’m overstating things a touch, as is my wont. The single issue isn’t dead yet, but equilibrium has been fatally punctuated. Once upon a time was, you could get together twenty odd pages of story and get it printed on newsprint with a cover (spot color optional, full color would certainly sell it better) and get it out to one of a handful of distributors and into comics shops or even record stores/head shops if that’s how you swung.

Single issues were cheap and disposable, but delivering enough punch to make the price worthwhile. They were a low-ticket item, which is fine when space is plentiful and you’re moving enough volume to make up the pennies that the single issue brings in. Newsstands and grocery stores began feeling squeezed for space through the seventies and comics were among the first things to go. Luckily they had a Direct Market to jump into, right?

That was kind of out of necessity. If you’re being pushed, then it’s a good idea to jump, so long as it’s not off the edge of a cliff. And the landing looked pretty cushy (I mean, who wouldn’t love the idea of a store filled with comics and only comics) so why the heck not? Hell, I love the idea of a store filled with comic books and nothing else (so long as those comics have spines). I drive a long way to get to them, so I better love ‘em. Or else I’m just insane.

Wait a second…

Comics started being less and less disposable. Shiny paper, shiny gradated colors, shiny page rates. Suddenly these disposable chunks of culture were expensive enough that they weren’t disposable any more. I’m not touching on the collector impulse here, either. That’s an entirely different set of obsessions which I can’t really comment on because they’re so alien to me as to be incomprehensible. I don’t put my monthly comics into plastic sleeves when I’m done. They get read and then put into a box which gets stacked by other boxes.

Sometimes they get re-read, but often not. Or if they do get re-read, it’s when they get what…

Collected and put together in a package that has a spine and can sit on a bookshelf. But that’s just me. I’m not an average comics fan.

But the average comics fan is moving closer and closer to my stance on things. Five issues worth of comics will very shortly be twenty dollars. And that will not be an entire story. Whole stories tend to come in six-issue chunks (not even thinking about crossovers here.) Twenty four bucks for a story. That’s the price of a mass-market hardcover, give or take. Which will I go through faster? Yeah, thought so.

The only advantage is that you’re not going to be able to read an ALL-STAR SUPERMAN or CRIMINAL or HELLBOY in novel form. That’s it. If you want HELLBOY, you’re going to be reading comics. If you want graphic storytelling, you’ll be reading comics.

But the days of serial comics being written for serial form are over and done. The days of the single issue being the startup format or way to launch a new character? Done. Over. The startup costs are too high for any real outsider (we can discuss the gradations of that tag as they apply to brokered and non-brokered with Diamond publishers at a later time.) Single issues are now a boutique format with a fixed audience. And really, the stories aren’t being written with the single issue in mind. I’ve said it before, the single issue is an act of a larger story. There are some writers who get around it or some who embrace it, but mostly the single issue is a story throttle. Write some pages, put in a story turn at the end to bring ‘em back next month.

And time was that I was in thrall to the monthly cliffhanger, that the anticipation of the next chapter would make it even sweeter. Now I just get irritated. Hey, you wanted honesty, right?

Funny the other thing that’s missing now in monthly comics, which might make them seem more engaging: the absence of long-form storylines that take years to unfold. Yeah, this one is counter-intuitive, I know, given that I grouch about the inaccessibility of comics storytelling by and large, how these giant chunks of continuity are hard for new readers to digest.

Or are they? When it was something that I wanted to get into, I found the Marvel mythology of the 70s/80s a little daunting at first, but very easy to apprehend. Granted, the breadcrumbs that were left in the comics of the time to enable that sort of immersion/comprehension are pretty distracting (read Frank Miller’s first year or so on DAREDEVIL to see how clunky they could be.)

But disposability (both in price and in other less tangible qualities) is gone now. And disposability is not a bad thing, even though the connotation may sound negative at first. The sheer frenzy of needing to get something, anything out to avoid going to reprint may have created some awful messes, but sometimes the creators could squeeze out sparks of real, frenetic joy, whether they intended to or not.

Instead, monthly comics more and more are chunks of a larger whole. When more readers figure this out, and develop some degree of patience (anathema to the giant crossover event), then they too will wait on the trade, or find another form that feeds them what they’re looking for.

Disposable and ephemeral aren’t words that are going to be tied to print much longer. Double dipping audiences with monthlies and trades won’t have the power it once did to bring in dollars. Will this make comics companies act more like book companies? Is this even a good thing? I won’t pretend enough knowledge of the book industry to make that particular judgment. I do know, however, that unless more readers are drawn to this particular form, it’s not going to be around for long.

Hell, it’s already gone. Look at a comic from fifteen years ago and compare it to the offerings today. The only similarities you’ll find are some characters, overall dimensions and staples. Everything inside is already different. Only the memory of the delivery vehicle remains the same. 

Matt Maxwell

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