Comics, and How They’ll Never Be Mp3s

Posted: September 7, 2011 in Braak, comic books
Tags: , , , ,

Graeme MacMillan put up this piece about thoughts shared between Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker and Brian Michael Bendis about the digital distribution of comics.  I think it’s an interesting idea, likening the “trade” to an album and the single issues to individual songs, and suggesting the notion that, with the prominence of digital distribution then notion of “waiting for the trade” is going to come apart.

I kind of think it’s baloney, though, and let me suggest why.

Wait!  Before I do that, let me bring up what I think is an extremely important discrepancy in the nature of comics, and that is the notion of “discreteness,” and the different ways that we can talk about it.  Something is “discrete” because it is a single, complete object — we can talk about Sandman #30 (“August”) as being discrete, because it is a single thing.  You do not need any more than the exact number of pages that appeared in that issue to have issue 30, and if you had any less, you wouldn’t have it.

We can also, however, talk about it as being “narratively discrete.”  That is, it tells a single story from first page to last and, while there is additional context that informs the story on a large scale, you do not need any more than what is in those pages in order to read that story.

By contrast, Sandman #34 (“Bad Moon Rising”) is a discrete object — one single issue of a comic, with X number of pages — but it is not a discrete narrative.  It’s part of the much longer narrative A Game of You — something which is, itself, discrete (for as much as any of the narrative arcs in Sandman can truly be said to be discrete).

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  For a very, very long time, there has been a discrepancy between the format of comics, and the narrative of comics — most monthly titles are discrete objects available once per month that describe a longer narrative that is discrete only in terms of whenever it’s finished.  It could be one month, it could be six months, it could be three years.

The thing about it is that Warren Ellis is right to say that this format is incidental — it started as a monthly collection of serialized daily comic strips (each one a discrete object often telling a narrative over the course of several days — a microcosm of “waiting for the trade”) and one month was about how long it took to have enough to make selling a single issue worthwhile.  For a long time, monthlies were discrete stories, once they’d become unmoored from the newspapers that they were born in.  One monthly issue meant one discrete story (there are a million insane Superman stories like this).  Two-part and three-part stories were the exception, not the rule.  Until they became the rule, and the big Discrepancy became the norm.

You want to know why people wait for the trade?  Why monthly sales are declining?  Think about this for a second:  A Game of You is a single story — one discrete narrative — that the author has chopped into six pieces and distributed individually, which pieces you are then supposed to collect and reassemble BACK into the one story that they are.

That’s completely fucking stupid.

Now, of course we can say, “Music is exactly the same way!  iTunes has made it so that single albums get chopped up and people buy the bits they like all the time!”  Except obviously, no, duh, that’s not at all what happens.  If it were true, people would just buy albums, and the reason that they don’t is because songs are discrete.  That is what makes them songs.  Even in the best concept albums — even in Tommy, you don’t need anything more or less than “Pinball Wizard” to appreciate “Pinball Wizard”.  It is one thing that you can buy by itself, or, if you feel like it, you can listen to it in context.

Some songs are longer, of course — “Thick as a Brick” is one 45-minute song with several movements that you can’t listen to individually, because they aren’t discrete parts.  And some songs are shorter, but every song by its nature is discrete.  In fact, everything about the nature of “different songs on an album” contributes to making them discrete:  they are in different keys, they have different melodies, different rhythms and bass lines, different lyrics, different emotional color, &c.

Comparing comic books to music is ridiculous — two parts of A Game of You isn’t two songs off of Tommy, unless the last forty seconds of “Fiddle About” had actually been chopped off and stuck onto the beginning of “Pinball Wizard”, and the last thirty seconds of “Pinball Wizard” had ALSO been chopped off and stuck onto whatever song is next on the album.

Imagine if Pete Townsend were writing X-Men with J. H. Williams III, in which every issue had the same leitmotif of racial or sexual prejudice and civil rights, and which was part of a long, abstract narrative about human and mutant equality — but every issue was a single story, following different characters, with a different page length and a completely different style of art.  That would obviously be completely fucking awesome, but it’s also NOT AT ALL how we do comics these days.

And once you accept that there’s this discrepancy, it naturally follows that there’s nothing particularly natural about 20-30 pages every month.  Dan Didio may think that he thinks that monthlies are the natural form for comics, but it’s completely crazy — discard, for a moment, the practical economics of shipping and distribution.  If it’s not cheaper to ship 10,000 units of 30 pages every 30 days, then why should you do it that way instead of 10,000 units of 15 pages every 15 days?  Or 10,000 units of 180 pages every six months?

I say to discard the economics of shipping and distribution because that’s exactly what digital distribution does, and probably exactly the problem that DC and Marvel have with it.  Digital distribution says, “Listen, you want to do a page a day?  No problem.  Five pages a week?  Do it.  100 pages twice a year?  GO FOR IT SUCKER.”  Webcomics have long been showing us that readers will accept any completely insane format.  Penny-Arcade updates three times a week; Wondermark updates twice a week; Bad Machinery updates 3 days a week, and then does a half update on the other two; Hark a Vagrant updates whenever Kate Beaton thinks of something; Freakangels updated five pages every Friday.

So DC says, “but wait.  Our entire business model is based on 24 pages released monthly, completely regardless of whether or not we’re telling a 24 page-story once a month.  Why is everyone waiting for the trade?”  Well, because you’re writing trades, guys, you’re just pretending that they aren’t trades and releasing them discretely.  Once you’ve acknowledged that discrepancy and disconnected yourself from this kind of old-fashioned notion that comics have to be released one issue every thirty days, it becomes a lot more obvious what digital distribution has done:  it’s given you the opportunity to write discrete stories of however long they are.  Every story is a single, not an album.  It’s just that some stories are 44-minute concept albums, and some stories are a minute and a half of Joey Ramone playing mile-a-minute downstrokes.

What that means is that the notion of “deliberately writing against collection” is ALSO crazy, because the wave of the future obviates the need for collection.

There is no collection because the stories aren’t getting artificially and arbitrarily divided up in the first place.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    The idea of anyone other than Ellis suggesting single comics as music-singles, building to an “album” of sorts in the trade, makes me chuckle – I can’t even picture Bendis doing a done-in-one story, let alone a series of them building up to a broader narrative or thematic collection.

    But Ellis, in his work-for-hire mode, tends to strive for this kind of “brief slab of culture” ideal. Nextwave, with its two-issue story format, can easily be released in this fashion, and his approach to Secret Avengers appears to be a done-in-one Marvel follow-up to good ol’ Global Frequency.

    So I get what he’s saying, but it takes a certain discipline to do this, and that’s not what Marvel’s been pushing for the last decade.

    And we’re not even talking about writing for the trade – Fraction and Brubaker have been writing Iron Man and Cap for the damn Omnibus editions. I can’t hand anyone SOME collection of those books. I have to give them the FIRST collection, and hope they like it enough to cope with all the peaks and valleys that follow.

    That said, they DO have writers capable of it – Fraction’s Casanova, at least initially, approached storytelling in this way, so I’m sure he’s capable of it – but it would take a concerted effort from editorial on down.

    The downside here is Marvel saying, “See what Ellis did on Nextwave, structurally? Do that, please,” and as a result getting a bunch of sub-par comics.

    I’ll still take that over the majority of what DC has been considering “entry-level” first-issues (so far) to be like.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Though now I’m thinking about your complaints with Rucka’s webcomic, and how Freakangels was formatted, and things Chris Hastings has said. That last one’s most important:

    He was talking about how every page of Dr. McNinja had to tell its own story, further the plot in some fashion, AND provide a joke. And when you think about how consistently he manages this (if only with a pithy alt-text, which still counts), Dr. McNinja is actually even more impressive.

    So I THINK the real idea here – the idea worth pursuing in the webcomics age – isn’t to make individual COMICS that become an “album” in collected form, but to consider each PAGE a single, readable and enjoyable in its own brief right, and taking on greater prominence when collected.

    OR in terms of The Who’s “Who’s Next”: You’re not always going to get a “Baba O’Reilly” out of every page, but hopefully you can shoot for a “My Wife.”

  3. braak says:

    That is the thing, though: ultimately, even a page is an arbitrary amount of space. What if you had a website, and you could scroll down a hundred yards at a time? THAT needs to advance the plot and have a joke, but how long is it?

    That’s the point: if you do a thing in pieces, each piece has to be it’s own thing — if it is a page, or five pages, or twenty-four pages. And the thing about digital distribution is that there are no rules about what those sections need to be.

  4. John Jackson says:

    Bah, I’ve not done comics too much, but practically have only bought trades. I just got issue 1 of Suicide Squad and Demon Knights. While there might eventually be some good stuff out of that, just one issue more annoyed me than kept my interest. At least Suicide Squad had a story to it rather than 22 pages of set up.

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