Sunday, January 4, 2009

Comics by Fans for Fans

The recent entries on the recruitment and development of comic book editors and creators generated a fair amount of interest.

So, for now, I’ll table the blog entry on the merits of breeding African egg-laying tooth carps in large outdoor tubs in favor of another entry on comics editors and creators. (For those who think I’m kidding about an entry on breeding tropical fish in tubs, just wait until warmer weather returns!)

Since the late ‘60s, many of the writers and editors, and virtually all of the artists, entering the comics field grew up as comics fans.

By the late ‘70s it was unusual for people who had not grown up as comics fans to enter the editorial or creative ranks of the comics business.

Fans entering the business already had a great appreciation for the power of the comics format to tell compelling and exciting stories. These fans usually had at least a basic knowledge of the creative, editorial, production and manufacturing, marketing and distribution processes involved in publishing comics.

However, some of these fans-turned-pros (FTPs) had attitudes that needed modifying before they could become consistently successful contributors to the field and to their company’s corporate culture.

Ha! You Didn’t Know Wolverine is also Logan, Weapon X, James Howlett and…
Some FTPs assumed that their readers were as steeped as they were in years of character/story/universe continuity.

For years, many comics were crafted so that the issue-relevant portions of a title’s long and short-term status quo was re-capped—integrated into the story of each issue. This information included character motivation, abilities/weaknesses and goals. (A very short blurb at the top of the splash page was often used to re-cap the character’s origin.) There were a couple of excellent reasons for this recapping.

For younger readers, the time between monthly issues seemed like an eternity.* Many readers also read a variety of comics titles. So, giving readers a bit of a re-cap “on the run” (within the course of the story) was standard operating procedure.

Perhaps an even bigger reason to give readers an “on the run” snapshot of the status quo was to attract and retain new readers. An ongoing comic title is engaged in a battle of attrition for readers. For various reasons, individual readers will stop buying a title, or stop buying comics altogether.** Unless an equal or greater numbers of new readers replace those who drift away from a comics title, that title will eventually end in cancellation.

When new readers try to latch onto an established series, it is up to the creators and editor to hook them. Every issue of a comic series is going to be someone’s first issue of that title. If a reader who is new to an established series is confused due to a lack of status quo information, that reader will probably not buy that series again. Some FTPs assumed that new readers would be intrigued by the mystery of what the heck was going on in a established title and would therefore keep coming back to learn more. For every masochistic reader that this approach worked on, there were probably dozens who gave up and tried something else—or gave up on comics.

Balancing the need to attract and hook new readers while not overloading regular readers with redundant information is a difficult craft to master. If done properly, within the flow of the story, establishing basic status quo info feels effortless and natural to the reader.***

Today, some comics don’t bother to establish the names of the characters early on in each issue—if at all. The creators and/or editor seem to assume that all of the readers should know the names before they pick up the book.

These days, the craft of re-establishing long and short-term status quo info “on the run” within each issue of a series seems to have fallen out of favor.

Part of the reason may be that many writers and editors were not trained in the craft of “on the run” re-capping. If there is going to be a re-cap at all, it’s much easier to use a text blurb re-cap at the start of the book than to try and slip in into the flow of the story. Also, since many comics today are meant to be collected into trade paperbacks, some creators and editors feel re-capping “on the run” every 22 pages will seem redundant to the collection’s readers. It’s easier to edit out the prose status quo re-caps for the collection than to alter “on the run” re-caps. Ideally, since only the info that is needed for a particular issue needs to be re-established, the “on the run” re-caps should be done in a way that work for both individual issues and as part of a collection.

Posting print comics online also throws a new wrinkle into this matter, especially if a 22 page issue is broken up into smaller chapters online.

Are You Your Audience?
Some FTPs assumed that they were creating comics for themselves and their friends – that they were their target audience. Due to the magic of self-fulfilling prophesies, this is truer today than it was through most of the ‘80s.

Until the late ‘80s, more comics were sold on the newsstand to “casual readers”. The dedicated fans who bought their comics in specialty stores took over after that.**** Sales in general were considerably higher then and the comics audience had a lot of casual readers who occasionally missed an issue of a title they liked.

The readership covered a wider range of age groups than today. The tastes of those readers who did become pros naturally changed as they aged. Some of the aesthetics and editorial approach of the comics they grew up became un-cool for them to use when producing their own comics. So they produced comics aimed at their own ever-advancing age group of fellow fans while increasingly ignoring the younger and more casual audience. This, along with distribution changes and competition for the audience from other media, lowered the number of younger and casual readers getting into comics.

Frustrated Creators Turned Editors
Some people who came on board the editorial department were frustrated comics creators. They could not get hired as writers but they were determined to get into comics. Being an editor was the next best thing for them. Some became very good editors.

Unfortunately, in some cases, instead of helping hone the work of their writers, an editor would exercise their frustrated creative muscles by force-feeding plots, dialogue or detrimental changes to their creative team.

The Hollywood Syndrome
As the direct market grew and the ability of star talent to sell books increased, some FTP editors became “star f@%&!#s.” Early on in his career, I published a book by Michael Allred at Marvel’s Epic imprint. About the time I started working with Allred, I was attending a convention in Dallas with a number of Marvel staffers and creators. The Marvel-associated creators in attendance ranged from star vets to newbies. Allred was in attendance and so the Marvel crew asked him along when we’d go to dinner after the convention closed. A FTP editor from another publisher asked us why we were wasting our time feeding and entertaining such a “non-A-list” talent as Allred. That comment confirmed my less than stellar opinion of this particular editor’s priorities and sensibilities. It’s also no surprise that this editor was not known for finding and developing new talent.

Writer/Artist Editors
As Bill Rienhold pointed out in his comments on the last entry, a number of writer/artists did well as editors at Marvel. These included Archie Goodwin, Al Milgrom, Mark Gruenwald, Bob Budiansky, Larry Hama. There were others who were known more as writer/editors but who had drawing skills they didn’t demonstrate to the public very often (Mike Carlin, Joey Cavalieri...)

There were also great Writer/Editors including Denny O’Neil and Ralph Macchio.

However, one of the best editors at Marvel was Louise “Weezie” Simonson (known as Weezie Jones before she married Walter Simonson). She established herself as a great writer long after she’d established herself as a top editor at Warren and then Marvel. A fair amount of the credit for the rise of the X-Men franchise can be given to Weezie for her calm guiding hand and ability to—
-Recognize quality talent
-Get the best work out of her teams
-Nix bad ideas or work without killing the enthusiasm of her creators. (“The Weezie Effect” as Ralph Macchio referred to it.)
-Get contesting creators to play nice with each other.

That’s it for this outing. As always, comments are very welcome!

*I’ve always wondered what was behind the seemingly-universal feeling that the sense of time speeds up as we age. A history professor I know suggested that since 5 years to a 10-year-old is 50% of the child’s lifetime, those 5 years seem much longer than they do to a 50-year-old because 5 years is only 10% of the 50-year-old’s lifetime.

** Competition for comics readers’ attention was always an issue but is even more intense today due to the universal popularity of electronic gaming. Comics readers sometimes lose interest in a title or in comics in general as they get involved with other media (especially electronic) or get involved with new social, academic or athletic activities.

*** Shortly after Tom DeFalco took over as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, he attended a convention where the writer and penciller of a Marvel title complained to him that their editor required that, each issue, they re-establish annoying information like names, powers, motivations and story status quo. When Tom returned to the Marvel offices, he took that editor aside and said, “I didn’t realize how good of an editor you were until these guys complained about you.”

**** This was due to the explosion in the comic book specialty store “direct market” and the decline of the newsstand market. Many newsstand retailers decided that they didn’t want to be bothered racking and returning relatively low-cost and low profit margin comics. Comics became too labor and time intensive to make it worthwhile for the newsstands to rack them.


Pj Perez said...

As someone who has made a career out of moving from fan to creator (music fan turned musician; magazine consumer to magazine editor, etc.), I do see where you're coming from here, Carl. And I can relate.

It seems the mainstream comic titles in recent years not only returned to recaps, but moved from the single-graph style we saw in the '70s and '80s to a full page featuring characters, backstory and sometimes even full panel flashbacks.

Though honestly, I think some of the better writers 20 to 30 years ago were able to reintroduce characters and recap continuing storylines in dialog pretty well without the need for a wasted page of text.

Marc Siry said...

Great post, Carl. I'd also like to hear your take on the two different styles of story opens- 'hoo-hah' style action packed splash pages, vs. 'cinematic' opens with a multi panel lead into a second page splash.

By the way, I still use the lessons I learned as an assistant editor about short term and long term status quo. When we build web experiences, I always remind our designers that we have to explain what the overall point of the site is (long term), and what we expect them to do now that they have gotten there (short term).

Pj Perez said...

The use of effective splash pages is a lost art.

Prof. Roy Richardson said...

Been meaning to comment on this one, but school started back up this week, so I've been a bit distracted.

The "star f@#$%r" syndrome you talk about is in full swing in comics, w/ the increased success of all the comics movies. Many movie & TV writers are scripting comics these days, with decidedly mixed results. These guys are the main advocates of the "decompressed" (translation: lazy-a**ed) style of writing, which is very slow-paced, has a lot of dialogue, and very little action. Someone needs to tell these guys that the screenwriting rule of "one page equals one minute" doesn't apply to comics.

Screenwriters slumming in comics are also partially responsible for the death of a Marvel mainstay, the "plot-first," or Marvel-style or writing. I recently poled one of my classes on this, and not a single one of them had a clue as to what I was talking about.

Newbie editors working w/ newbie artists have also contributed to the death (or at least hibernation) of this Marvel mainstay. Hardly anyone working in comics these days has the experience to follow a plot, much less draw a comprehensible comic based on one.

I force my students to read "old" comics (anything published more than 5 years ago is considered "old" these days). I think it's important that Sequential Art majors should know that Galactus wasn't always a cloud, that Miller's career didn't begin with "Sin City," and that Jack Kirby contributed more than square fingers to the field.

They gripe ("Look at all these words! This is so corny!"), but they usually settle in and read the books cover to cover. Summation comments run along the lines of "That was corny but I liked it," or "There were too many words, but I still wanted to know what happened." Getting across the how of producing a page-turner comic is where the real work comes in...

Lou Bank said...

<<** Competition for comics readers’ attention was always an issue but is even more intense today due to the universal popularity of electronic gaming. Comics readers sometimes lose interest in a title or in comics in general as they get involved with other media (especially electronic) or get involved with new social, academic or athletic activities.>>

There's no research to support the theory that electronic gaming saps dollars from comics, or anything else. However, the research I did through the Marvel sales reps back in the early '90s showed that we chased away a large number of readers with those cover enhancements. If #474 of the Hulk sold 200,000 copies, and the cover-enhanced #475 sold 500,000 copies, #476 then sold 175,000 copies. (Those numbers are off the top of my head, but I have the actual numbers around here somewhere.) If we made *any* new readers (not collectors, readers) with those enhancements, we clearly chased away a lot more of our dedicated readers.

<<**** This was due to the explosion in the comic book specialty store "direct market" and the decline of the newsstand market. Many newsstand retailers decided that they didn’t want to be bothered racking and returning relatively low-cost and low profit margin comics. Comics became too labor and time intensive to make it worthwhile for the newsstands to rack them.>>

The other piece of it--the piece I certainly didn't realize at the time, but makes sense now--is that it became less and less profitable for the grocery stores and pharmacies to carry comics as specialty stores proliferated. When specialty stores were rare, collectors still had to go to the spinner racks to get their comics, thus "subsidizing" that spinner rack in that grocery store. But once the collector had a specialty store to go to, he abandoned that rack, thus decreasing the profitability of the rack. So it was no longer profitable for the grocery store to maintain the rack. And when that grocery threw out the rack, the kid who was a casual reader--who might have grown to a collector had he had that rack there to nurture his interest--lost any chance of having contact with comics. (Because what parent was going to take that child into the average specialty store?)

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I'm glad I found your blog.
I would like to "amen" a couple of your ideas:
*editors today seem to have no real skills in "visual storytelling", ie. the front end recap...
*editors/writers today want to make comics for themselves (as audience)...I think this is one of the primary reason for the continually shrinking monthly comic sales: comics have forgotten WHO the target audience is. Sure, the majors TRY to put out a "kid" line every few years, but for some reason they don't seem to understand the concept of "brand"...
Good posts.