This half-month's order of comics arrived with the comment that, yet again, one of my regular titles had been cancelled. I think it was Sudden Gravity, but what I'm about to say doesn't just apply to the independents: if you're more familiar with The Minx, feel free to substitute. Maybe I was irritated at being left hanging in the middle of a dense and complex narrative, with the vague suggestion that this cancellation would allow the publisher to persevere with the "graphic novel" collected edition, in which all would be resolved; or maybe I was frustrated at the interruption of a comic which was just beginning to find its own pace and rhythm, and promising at last to turn into something rather good. I had come to assume that I could rely on periodically published comics to deliver my regular fix of high-quality narrative, and now I was reminded of my first encounters with comics: how uncertain the supply was, and what that meant for my attitude towards the medium.
I started to read comics in London in the late 1950s. My brother and I were each allowed one comic of our choice, delivered regularly with the daily paper. For a long time, mine was Bunty, and my brother's was Boy's World, later subsumed into the Eagle. These were, of course, anthology titles, with several continuing stories which we followed from week to week. But sometimes we would go with my grandmother to a different newsagent, who stocked American comics, and we spent our pocket money on a selection from the racks. This was a much more exciting affair, a sort of treasure hunt, as you never knew what would be available. Sometimes there would be nothing but black-and-white collections of short narratives, usually creepy or horrific with a moralising twist in the tail (when I try to recall these in more detail, my mind recreates them with Steve Ditko artwork: I don't trust my memory over such a period, but that should give you the flavour). On a good day, though, there would be four-colour superheroes (my earliest memories, for what they are worth, are of Superman, Green Lantern and the Flash). Folklore has it that American comics were not imported for their own sake, but brought over as ballast on ships, and then sold off. I don't know if that's true, but it would explain a lot. We were frustrated by complex multi-issue stories, because we might never find the last installment (or the last installment might be the only one we found). This didn't really matter with the Superman stories: if you missed the month where the Man of Steel lost all of his powers, or Lois Lane was turned into a wombat, it didn't matter, because everything would be back to normal next month. So I came to expect this sort of inconsequence from comics; when my brother discovered Marvel comics, and tried to interest me in Spiderman, I resisted: "This isn't as silly as Superman!".
Later I learned to love Spidey, and to appreciate how involving a continuing story could be. The comics supply became more reliable, and it became possible to follow the story and characters from one issue to another. I even overcame my prejudice against team books, to the extent of becoming an X-fan (at the time when the original run was being reprinted under new covers, but that's another story!). Soon Chris Claremont arrived with the new X-Men, and continuity became everything. Unresolved and contradictory plot elements ceased to be a fault and became a rich source of future storylines; characters swapped powers and allegiances, died, married and had children (sometimes, thanks to complex timelines, in that order). At the time it was immensely exciting to read slowly developing and frankly character-driven stories, which rewarded the reader for returning month after month, reading each development with knowledge of the past. Now, this approach has become convoluted and inbred to the point of parody, and the best writers reject the never-ending story for a narrative which progresses, by however roundabout a route, from beginning to end. And this, more than ever, relies on the reader being able to obtain each successive issue of the comic, preferably in the right order and at not too long an interval. Can you imagine having to wait indefinitely to find out whether Miracleman, or rather, Mike Moran can escape from the terrifying Miracledog? Or why, when Evie is finally released, she discovers that her prison opens directly onto V's Shadow Gallery? Not to mention the frustration of waiting for those Great Lost Third Issues of Big Numbers and Lost Girls!
This state of affairs can't be any more satisfactory for comics creators than it is for us readers. After all, publishers and creators don't set out with the intention of tormenting their loyal fans. They want to sell us the stuff as often as they can; but, as Bart Beaty explains in issue 207 of The Comics Journal, sometimes we just don't co-operate:
"I had an interesting conversation in a comic book shop a short time after I learned that Walt Holcombe's comic book Poot had been cancelled by Fantagraphics. I told a friend that I felt that it was a shame that someone with Holcombe's considerable abilities couldn't generate enough sales to keep his title afloat in the contemporary market. The manager of the store asked me if I thought that perhaps the fault lay with a decline in the quality of Holcombe's work, that Poot didn't compare to his highly acclaimed Xeric-winning King of Persia. I had to admit that I couldn't be sure, since I hadn't actually read Poot yet as I was foregoing the serialized comic books waiting for the inevitable collected edition, and I asked what he thought. He told me that he was waiting for the collection as well."
When you consider periodical publication as a medium which is subject to disruption of its publishing schedule, risks cancellation halfway through the story and in which even the successes will be demoted from display space after three or four weeks, going direct to collected / graphic novel format has a lot to recommend it. Jamie Delano, interviewed at UKCAC '98 (the interview is reprinted in comics Forum), argues that
"People don't want to commit to something that's going to go on for ever. If you go out to buy a video or you're going to buy a book or a CD or something, you buy the damn thing and then you go home and play it, listen to it, whatever you've got to do, read it. You don't have to keep going back all the time and snuffling around a dismal comic shop somewhere to root it out, and worrying about whether or not you've got the story down in your head right because you've missed the first thirty-five issues of whatever it is."Personally, I like snuffling around comics shops, the thrill of the chase, finding unsuspected treasures in the 25p box, seeing how my understanding of the story changes as I learn what has gone before; it's a large part of the pleasure I get from comics. But some comics respond better than others to this pattern of reading.
I picked up a random issue of Charles Burns' Black Hole and thought "Clever, but slight"; I read the first 6 issues at one go, and was knocked out by the richness of the story, the recurring images, the subtlety of the characterisation. Similarly, I was lucky enough to discover Replacement God (from which the graphic above has been abstracted) in the collection which brings together the early installments of the story. This gave me enough material to want to go out and find the successive episodes in magazine format. The narrative is currently advancing so slowly in the magazines that, if I weren't already hooked, I might not have persevered.
So it's lucky that Replacement God was recommended to me by someone I trust enough to buy the collection; and that it's in black-and-white, and therefore not as expensive as graphic novels can be. I don't suppose that anyone is to blame for the high price of graphic novels: they are large format books, and often printed in colour. But if comics only appeared in this medium, I would be very reluctant to try anything I didn't know for sure I was going to like. And how would the comics creators live while working on a magnum opus? Few people would have the tenacity of Howard Cruse, whose Stuck Rubber Baby, a genuine graphic novel, made its original appearance in book format - a book which represents four years of full-time work, not to mention the applications to sponsoring foundations and other fundraising. On the other hand, could so massive a work have appeared in any other format?
What this seems to add up to is that the format in which we buy our comics does influence what we get. If we insist on comparatively cheap magazines, we will get stories which don't lose too much from being read in short bursts and at intervals. As Alan Moore has pointed out with reference to his ABC comics line, there is a place for such "pocket money" comics, particularly in gaining a new generation of readers. But if we want complex, densely plotted material relying on subtle effects, comics which will not be appreciated in periodical episodes and will therefore fail commercially in that medium, we may just have to pay grown-up sums to buy solidly bound books. I'll give the last word to Jamie Delano:
"Yeah, I think the more self-contained volumes with the beginning of the story and the end of the story between the same set of covers, the better I shall like it and the more chance ultimately of the business surviving in a viable form, that's my personal opinion."
I would appreciate your feedback about my comics reviews, and your views about these remarks. In particular, it would be interesting to know more about how this works outside the British/US market: I know that in France, a much higher proportion of comics are sold in album format. But I know also that this may not solve the problem of episodic publication: the French edition of Watchmen appeared in a series of albums, each corresponding to two of the original DC issues! Japanese manga are reputed to appear in big, thick volumes (and to have a wider respectability than western comics): I haven't heard that this generates an overall higher level of narrative subtlety! But it's over to you...
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