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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:



I come not to praise pamphlets, but to observe them. Time was, I bought a lot of comic books. I wasn’t particularly discriminating, as these things go, because what the hell, it’s just fifty cents. Yes, I’m old. I even remember comics that cost just thirty-five cents. ROM #9, featuring ROM fighting a Great Big Lizard Guy was awesome not only because of that cover, but because you coulda bought three copies for a buck five.

And I add without hesitation that you’d get twenty-two pages that felt like twenty-two pages. See, nobody had ever heard of a trade paperback back then. Okay, I misspoke a bit. There were the Fireside Books collections of Marvel (and even some DC) material like ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS and SON OF ORIGINS (my personal favorite) and BRING ON THE BAD GUYS. But those were oddities, freaks, genetic aberrations on the order of Nightcrawler. And they were expensive. Six ninety-five for something like twelve comics worth of material, approaching a fifty percent price hike.

But you know what? I read SON OF ORIGINS (more like flip through and absorb, particularly the Watcher and Silver Surfer sections) far more often than I read, say, ROM #9. Part of that is quality. I know. We’re talking about ROM here. In some places, he’s revered as a deity, but I just think he’s a somewhat entertaining look at a bygone age now (but I hear rumors, rumors, you understand…) But a far larger part of that is that I know where the hell to find my copy of SON OF ORIGINS because it has a big fat honkin’ spine with the words SON OF ORIGINS in block type on it. It’s mighty hard to miss on the shelf next to say, my Marvel Visionaries volumes (which I think are a great idea and an awesome way to get me to shell out money for material I probably own in the form of a MARVEL TALES reprint). But, as I’ve pointed out before, I’m the prime target audience for these legacy reprints. You’re not going to hook too many new fishes with that old saw. Ah, but the fishes you do catch are relatively big ones, yes? Which is why the Big Two keep putting out books in this format. They’ve already foot the bill for the creation of this content (and boy did they get a bargain). All they need to do is convert the original films to data and perhaps recolor them, and boom. You’re done. Instant money.

This works on manga, too. Granted, publishers gotta cough up a license fee and get the book relettered (but not re-flopped, thanks to the genius of Tokyopop and Viz in reprinting so much in a right-to-left format that cut their costs and headaches by…a lot.) Old material gets repurposed and they can start pulling down the bookstore dollars. Assuming all the kids lying in the aisles eating snacks out of their backpacks while they get Cheeto-stains on the pages actually pay for manga. And either they are or bookstore buyers are slower on the uptake than everyone gives them credit for. I’m pointing towards the former. Of course, manga are printed on newsprint and in black and white and generally cheaper to produce than the “typical” Western comic book. Different sets of page rates for creators, higher quality of paper, limited print runs in some cases, etc, all add up to a package that requires a three or four dollar price point in order to work. I won’t even get into the vicissitudes of working with Diamond, where the stark reality is that each item needs to ship fifteen hundred dollars of wholesale value (not retail, so you’re talking about double, more or less) in order for Diamond to realize their investment to get the item into the system in the first place. This is not a criticism. I’m working with Diamond on STRANGEWAYS: MURDER MOON currently (should be listed in the January PREVIEWS, thanks for asking) and it’s been good so far.

Granted, the fifteen hundred dollar minimum doesn’t apply to the biggest of big publishers, since the volume of INFINITELY CIVIL CRISES by far offsets the low points of their catalogs (and really, I don’t think that any of the Big Two’s monthly titles, even Vertigo’s, bottoms out on those minimums. Though some might come close). It does impact the guys in the back of the catalog, but that’s a subject for another time. I’m getting off-topic. I hardly ever do that, either. Weird.

Now, there’s been a bit of a fuss lately about the fate of the monthly comic in an age where the value of trade collections is increasing in the marketplace. But it’s not yet at a point where we can abandon the monthly comic to the wolves. But there’s a lot of tension between the audiences who are there at comic stores every week on new comics day and those who get their comics out of bookstores or only get to a reasonably good Direct Market store once a month if they’re lucky (ahem.) There’s tension between the publishers who benefit from the double-dip affect and the retailers who think that collections are rushed out to market too soon and cannibalize monthly comics sales. Not to mention tension between the monthly-boosting retailers and the retailers who favor a bookstore model and are not as interested in pushing monthly comics.

Frankly, monthly comics look like a lot of bother to me. You have to manage fifty-plus titles from the Big Two, plus one-shots, plus the other publishers, for a unit price that gets you a much smaller per-piece return. You have to turn over inventory on a weekly basis, and that inventory has a limited shelf-life at best. Yes, there was a time that you could run a brisk trade in marking up back issues should something become hot quickly or someone wanted to catch up on a new favorite series. Trade collections decimated that, as well as the collapse of the single-issue collector market. Yes, there’s still a remnant, but they’re a lot pickier, and they can sniff out true rarity. But then they turn around and buy variant covers, go figure.

Oh, and let’s add that monthly comics don’t really sell outside of the Direct Market. Some of the various kids’ lines get sold in places like Wal-Mart, so I hear. I have yet to see them. The DM is the only place you’re going to get a range of monthly pamphlet comics. Mostly (as I understand it) due to the tiny margins and shrinkage and loss of selling space and general bother that drove them from newsstands in the first place. Monthly comics as they stand won’t break out of DM shops. That’s fine if you’re just selling into the DM, I guess. But if you’re trying to appeal to a larger market, you need to branch out into bookstores, etc. And bookstores don’t want to mess with monthlies, for the same reasons that newsstands don’t want to. They’re finally stocking trades, though.

I won’t even bother with the structural problems of monthly pamphlet comics in terms of modern storytelling fashions (but they’re there, oh boy are they there) or the perception of value. Those are issues that could be addressed and make the monthly a much more viable platform, but that wouldn’t fix them to the point where newsstands or bookstores would re-embrace them. Not going to happen. Too fragile, too numerous, too troublesome, not enough space.

But what if those problems were solvable? Perhaps if an enterprising publisher made a thicker magazine anchored by their bigger characters with longer chunks of story and some relevant reprint material to buff out the package? Give it a nice cover and a spine (so you can hold all the ad pages that you’re trying to sell) and charge something like what a regular magazine charges. No, you couldn’t support fifty of those, but you might get ten of them. It’s not a panacea. It is an option to subsidize new material that would eventually get collected into a trade format. And if maybe we could break the stranglehold that ARCHIE has on the digest racks in supermarkets…

Personally, I don’t think that monthly comics are going to recruit any adult readers. Not as monthly comics, anyways. There’s plenty of folks who will pick up a trade, though, once they get pointed to it and once there’s enough quality material to hold their attention (both of those are easier and harder than you’d think they are.) I’ll happily pick up SCALPED as a trade when I couldn’t be bothered to pick up a single issue in the stores (because I hate dealing with serialized longform stories, but that’s another issue). But then I’d buy a collection of James Jean’s FABLES covers in a heartbeat, though I really don’t care for the series itself. Monthly comics, like tentpole crossovers, service a legacy audience, one that’s gotten older and is eventually going to burn out on that sort of material (or move on to other fare).

Hell, I even read novels these days…

Matt Maxwell

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