Summer 2000

Comic books come back with a cautious bang

After a 1990s bubble that went splatt, the comics industry has begun to renew itself through new formats, from glossy hardbacks to cheap pulp

Comic book formats have rarely been as varied – or as interesting – as they are now. From oversize luxury items to photocopied small press mini-comics, there is a greater willingness among publishers to experiment, pushing packaging and design further. After an eight-year recession in the industry, complacency is not an option and many publishers know they must reach new readers RIGHT NOW or end up as dead as Superman after a breakfast of Kryptonite Krunchies.

The situation is arguably that serious: for most of the 1990s sales have been sliding in dramatic fashion, and titles that used to sell over a million (X-Men, Superman, Spawn) are now selling 100,000 or fewer. Comics shops have been closing down, titles have been cancelled and publishers have gone bust. The once mighty Marvel has just crawled out of a lengthy bankruptcy battle to be rebranded as one arm of a toy manufacturer. One cause was speculative buying – individuals ordering multiple copies of the same comic to resell at a profit – which created a disastrous bubble.

Against this background, the renewed attention to innovative formatting can be seen as a way to break into new markets. There’s nothing new in this: in the 1950s, several American publishers started to format their comics as black and white magazines to avoid the strictures of the newly instituted Comics Code (which essentially censored anything but the most anodyne content). mad and several horror titles benefited from this, and found that by calling themselves ‘magazines’ they distanced themselves from the juvenile connotations of the word ‘comic’. Something similar happened in the 1980s, when graphic novels started to be stocked in regular bookstores – bestowing ‘respectability’ on the medium.

Similarly, several recent comics releases reveal some inventive thinking design-wise. One striking example of a mainstream title given a format makeover is 300 (Dark Horse) by Frank Miller (famous for his 1980s classic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). It is unusual firstly because it is an historical epic – the story of a ferocious conflict in the Greco-Persian war (480 BC) – and secondly because it is a hardback coffee-table style graphic novel with painted art across large format double-page spreads. The sizing is a deliberate attempt to imitate a cinema screen, as a spokesperson from Dark Horse explains: ‘Frank was inspired to do the story by seeing the movie 300 Spartans (1962) in his youth and he wanted to capture that kind of awesome scale.’ The result is a remarkable action novel: the writing may not always be hot on authenticity (more Tarantino than Thucydides), but the artwork comes alive in a way that is unexpected – and which works better than in the comic book series from which the hardback is collected. Miller has always been a supremely cinematic artist, but here the panoramas of armies on the march, and of hundreds of spears flying through the air, are doubly spectacular.

Other hardbacks currently in the shops demonstrate a similar attention to packaging detail. Mark Beyer’s We’re Depressed (Water Row) is a collection of strips from earlier in the creator’s career reprinted in the style of an oversized children’s book (very apt for Beyer’s surreal primitive technique), and measures twelve inches square with thick card pages. Charles Burns’s El Borbah and Big Baby (both Fantagraphics) are reprints, but again attractively done in an oversized manner, with spines of red cloth. These books are better seen as the descendants of the 1980s vogue for experimentation pioneered by raw, a comic in which both Beyer and Burns were regular contributors (and which established the principle that non-traditional material was best served by non-traditional design: see Steve Heller’s excellent article in Eye no. 8 vol. 2).

Elsewhere in the graphic novel market, the trend is away from the dominant card-cover trade paperbacks towards more literary black and white books. There are a number of striking ‘compact’ examples: Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary (Drawn & Quarterly) is an autobiographical story about a young woman trying to settle in the Big Apple (and finding that the core is rotten), and has a beautiful embossed cover, plus photographs of the creator and some of settings; Ben Katchor’s wonderful The Jew of New York (Pantheon), about the spiritual descendants of a politician who attempted to create a Jewish state on an island near Buffalo in 1825, is also attractively embossed, and comes with a paper sleeve for the back cover and a map of the city. There are also books on a contrastingly large scale, telephone directory whoppers, that are correspondingly expensively priced: From Hell (Eddie Campbell) written by Alan Moore with art by Eddie Campbell, is a terrifying occult-driven melodrama based on the Jack the Ripper case, and at approximately 400 pages, comes complete with academic notes on sources; Cages (Kitchen Sink) by Dave McKean is a similarly ambitious – and gigantic – meditation on life, art and the whole damn thing.

This trend for literary black and white books is not just confined to the UK and US. Paul Gravett of The Cartoon Art Trust (and known as an expert on European comics) comments: ‘None of the competition winners at this year’s Angoulême Festival [Europe’s biggest annual comics fair, held at a town in south-west France] was in the traditional European album format. There’s definitely a move away from Asterix-style colour hardbacks, and today, black and white is becoming more popular, with longer, more writerly graphic novels grabbing the limelight. Nobody is quite sure why, though it’s possible to speculate that the old-style albums have associations with childhood that aren’t always appealing – the design is almost like wipe-clean books for babies.’

Will hip(per) design values help graphic novel sales? What is interesting is that publishers are prepared to make the effort. They still see the mainstream bookstore market as a way forward despite the fact that sales are less robust than expected during the graphic novel boom of the 1980s. Though there have been no bestsellers on the scale of Dark Knight or Maus, the market has survived, and graphic novels occupy as many shelves as, say, poetry or experimental fiction. In the light of the decline of specialist comic shops, this is a situation publishers can live with.

If these books represent the luxury end of the market, there is significant movement at the cheaper extreme. Part of the panic surrounding the current state of the industry involves a recognition that the old newsstand network has all but disappeared and has to be recaptured – in other words, that the 90 / 10 per cent split in favour of the specialist comics stores has to be reversed. One way to do this is to produce cheap comics that are family-oriented (thus avoiding any problems with the Comics Code in America) and which are formatted in a traditional way. A prime example is the launch in the us of RaceWarrior, a weekly about ‘auto racing in the year 2020’, the distribution for which eschews the specialist stores altogether in favour of the remaining newsstands, grocery stores and drug stores. The press release boasts: ‘By the end of March there will be 4,250,000 copies on the stands. This is the biggest launch of a comic ever. RaceWarrior draws from the golden era of comic books, when parents didn’t have to worry about what their kids were reading.’

Meanwhile, cheaper formats are being tried elsewhere to entice adult readers. A new manga comic from Dark Horse, Super Manga Blast, is being produced on cheap newsprint at 128 pages, and retails for little more than the price of a regular comic. The softcover anthology is a homage to the style of manga packaging in Japan, where sales for such ‘accessible’ comics can famously head into many millions.

Even lower down the price scale, there has been a flurry of activity in the small press, where formats have become ever more inventive to reach the widest possible readership. The UK’s Slab-o-Concrete, for example, has been successful with its ‘Missive Device’ line. These eye-catching A6 mini-comics are self-sealing and can be mailed like a postcard using a standard stamp. They sell for £1.50, and are available from all manner of unlikely venues (Levi’s shops, American Retro stores and art galleries as well as regular book and comics stores). Publisher Pete Pavement says: ‘The philosophy behind them was simple: I knew that the regular comic book format was widely despised, but I also knew that everyone is familiar with the comics vocabulary through advertising, greetings cards and postcards. So, I came up with a design that mixed comics and postcards.’ How far readers actually use the post in this way, as opposed to collecting them in time-honoured fashion, is open to debate. So far, there have been 42 Missive Devices, including work by big names such as Peter Bagge (Donna’s Day) and more obscure titles, such as Nigel Auchterlounie’s Dole Scum and Aleksandar Zograf’s Dream Watcher.

Yet of all the possible alternatives to the predicament the comics industry currently finds itself in, the Internet is the most hyped. Net evangelists claim it has the potential to not only save the situation, but make comics a ‘mass’ medium once again. What they mean by this is that reading from the screen will one day become as natural as reading from the printed page, and that comics producers must reformat to suit the new technology. Although Net comics are still in their infancy, there are already hundreds of sites. The alternative and self-publishing sector has made real headway: for example, Steve Conley’s acclaimed strip Astounding Space Thrills is promoted as ‘the strip that pioneered the mass distribution of comics as free content on the Web’ (a claim that is almost impossible to verify). Conley has now been approached by mainstream publisher Image with a view to turning his creation into a print comic. Another interesting online development is the appearance of Abby’s Menagerie by Jenni Gregory, the first ‘e-graphic novel’. Serialised at the pace of a page a day, with an archive to help you keep up, it is free, and the quality is not at all bad.

How far such e-comics represent a viable alternative to the print tradition is a matter of debate, involving such well worn issues as the question of expense (is the Net really ‘cheap’ when the costs of getting online are so high?), of accessibility (how many people think in terms of taking a computer on the bus?), and the problems of reading off a screen (often the integrity of a comics page will be destroyed by having to scroll down). More than this, there’s the issue of a computer’s ‘aura’, its lack of charm: compared to the tactile thrill of flicking though a new print comic, the act of clicking a mouse remains an inferior substitute.

But even if there’s little doubt that the old-fashioned print comic still represents a highly sophisticated consumer product, this does not necessarily mean the format is the industry’s best option. For, when the avenues for the distribution of that format start to narrow, that’s when graphic novels, coffee table books, postcard comics, and the Net come into their own. Comics may be in economic trouble but, creatively, there is much to celebrate: as well as some of the names listed above, artists such as Joe Sacco and Chris Ware are pushing the envelope in incredible ways. In other words, however deep the recession, comics are bound to survive – in one form or another.

Roger Sabin, writer, author of Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (Phaidon), London

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 9, 2000

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.