Comics Train: 1

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series comics train

The Comics Train was what they called the train out of Oslo to Bergen for the Bergen comics festival. The industry was in Oslo, the festival was in Bergen, so everyone in comics in Oslo got on the one train to get them into Bergen that night. My family and I – my daughter was not quite three years old, I think — actually went to the station to help greet the Comics Train. It seemed to be a thing.

I like trains, as mentioned. I like train schedules. You come to understand them, early in life, as speculative. They’re the stories everyone tries very hard to make come true.

Oh, but sometimes the rolling stock gets old, and the overhead lines rot out, and a dozen different things start happening that prevent the train from leaping down the rails into the future.

(Joe Maneely, one of early American comics’ most unique stylists, on the verge of his very best work, died on a train. Crushed between coaches. Not sure why I feel the need to note that, but everything I write here is Not Fully Baked and intended to be sorted out later, so I just throw everything in.)

(I’m throwing in bracketed comments already, like DO ANYTHING (UK) (US). This may not bode well.)

I remember, years ago, a prominent comics retailer doing an aria at me about how the small tankoubon editions of LONE WOLF AND CUB were a crime perpetrated upon the market by the publisher. They were too small, they were going to be easily nicked, they were hard to rack, etcetera. They quickly became the best-selling book in their category. I remember, a little later, a retailer looking me in the eye and telling me he didn’t want new stuff, he wanted the old stuff done better. When I pointed out that, from that stance, he never would have ordered a copy of WATCHMEN, he kept eye contact and said, “That’s right. So?”

I accidentally sort of invented a weird cheap comics format, which, later, to not enough fanfare, introduced Matt Fraction and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie to the wider world. Bet you that guy made many gold coins off those three.

Comics can get caught up with market issues and opinions, and forget the engine pulling the people to the next station.

Given that this space is always Not Fully Baked thoughts, and given a recent cursory look that suggests Anglophone comics are in a similar space to that I found when I created said goofy format, I kind of want to spend a little time looking at the engines.

Said similar space: everything I look at lately looks kind of the same.

Additional: Comics Are The Ghost Train

Comics Train: 2

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series comics train

I accidentally sort of invented a weird cheap comics format in 2005.

This is just slightly technical. Comics are printed in what are called signatures – eight pages to a signature. Comics have generally been four signatures, 32 pages – either with a cover on a different stock, or, increasingly from the early 2000s, what are called “self-cover” – the cover is on the same stock as the interior signatures.

Comics were getting expensive — there was the beginnings of pressure to go from a standard $2.99 to $3.99 — and also getting less dense. So I came up with something stupid. A three-signature self-cover comic. So the whole thing, including the covers, was 24 pages, all on the same stock. And the story inside was sixteen pages of comics, with backmatter notes to fill out the page count.

(None of this was radical. Previous to, say, the early 1980s, many comics still contained only sixteen or seventeen pages of material. History is there to be learned on and stood upon to reach for something hopefully new.)

I set up many difficult problems for myself on this book, with the additional work involved to make it look not-difficult. The main one was this: each issue would be a self-contained story. A new reader could join the book at any point, not be lost, and get a complete experience out of it.

And it sold for USD $1.99.

Oh, the hate mail I got from retailers.

Until the first issue went to a fifth printing.

And my email instead filled up with shock and pleasure at a comic that wasn’t trying to gouge their pockets.

For various reasons, that project came to an end. My friend and co-creator on that book, Ben Templesmith, went on to bigger and better things, became completely independent and runs his own show through Patreon now.

LIke I say, I set myself a whole bunch of things to solve, and this was one: in 1984, Alan Moore did an interview in a fanzine called Arkensword, and the interview is not, to my knowledge, online, but there was a bit in there that hit me so hard that I’ve been quoting it ever since: that you can walk into a conics shop with the change in your pocket and come out with, in Alan’s phrase, “a real slab of culture.”

Most things you want to read are $3.99 now. Laying down a line of books in this format at — well, it’s fifteen years later, so say $2.50 — would be a significant statement.

Image produced, to my memory, three series in this format. The other two gave you Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon.

So, you know, don’t tell me the format is bad and evil and cannot add to the culture.

(all notions herein Not Fully Baked)

Comics Train: 3

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series comics train

Someone jokingly asked me, a few months back, what I’d do if I were running a comics publishing company.  They meant Marvel or DC. But that’s not me.

This is me:

That is 5.25 inches on one side and about 7.7 inches on the long side.  It contains 96 pages within its perfect-bound card covers, and in this book 94 pages of them are comics.

And it’s black and white.

This is the old Paradox Mystery format, which, to my mind, did everything right.  Except that each book was a three-part serial, released monthly.  And bookstores, the natural audience for these works, do not accommodate monthly serials. Even Stephen King couldn’t make it work.  Each one should have been a 96-page standalone work.

It is otherwise very nearly perfect as a format.  All Andy Helfer had to do was to push back against everyone who wanted serial works, and say, no, these are going to be self-contained books for reading in a single sitting, like Georges Simenon’s MAIGRET books.

But it was not to be.  Though I should note that this line produced A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, which became the film directed by David Cronenberg.

The Paradox books had a roughly unified trade dress, but it needed something just a little more flexible and a little more eyecatching.  It needed Romek Marber, frankly.  I’ve talked many times before about the Marber Grid, the template created in 1961 for Penguin Books. 

I can daydream about setting Rian Hughes to generate his own Hughes Grid, right? And Rian styling them all with his own typefaces?

I could happily have spent much of my life just writing three of these a year. 90-page black and white stories in a comfortable format that makes you want to curl up with them for an hour or two.  I could have had a rack of them like Ingmar Bergman movies by now.

The Paradox Mystery books are, of course, from the mid-Nineties. Before manga exploded in the bookstore market.  What were outliers back then are possibly right in the zone today.  Nobody’s listened to me about this over the last twenty years and nobody will listen to me about it now.  And quite rightly, because I’m entirely mad.

I would only publish three kinds of graphic novels.  Fiction, Documentary and Theory. I would go bankrupt in about eight minutes.  I would love every second.

(Also. yes, I have had that copy of HUNTER’S HEART to hand since 1995. It’s a lost future.)

Comics Train: 4

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series comics train

Pausing here to do something entirely speculative.

One of my very first books was black and white, 48 pages (I think!) with a heavy stock cover. I remember being sad at the time that it was being saddle-stitched (by which we mean just a few staples in the middle) rather than perfect-bound (the binding that provides the book its flat spine, which means you can shelve it and see the title printed on the spine).

48 pages, for me, is the lower end of the “graphic novella” length. I say “for me” because this stuff is all entirely personal and arbitrary, I’m sure. But when I’ve done 48-page works with a level of control, I’ve had them perfect-bound and called them graphic novellas. CRECY, AETHERIC MECHANICS, FRANKENSTEIN’S WOMB. I’ll get back to this.

There is, I think, a weird space just under that. Forty black and white saddle-stitched pages wrapped in a heavy stock cover. The saddle-stitching says it’s not a permanent shelf-life item. It’s a chapter, a periodical instalment. It’s not a novella. Bit it’s big. And black-and-white means you can probably sell it for the local equivalent of five American dollars.

I have a particular way I would do this. I daydream about it. I mean, I’ll never actually do it. But, as a hobby, I put the occasional note into a document that is becoming, basically, a thing I’m writing entirely for myself, which will never see print.

It is (probably) a five hundred page story, that would come out in this format monthly. Which is impossible, because a comics artist would die or take four years to draw the whole thing before release. And it would take a year to write it. Functionally Not A Thing That Can Happen. But, in my head, it does. It’s like my Bela Tarr movie on paper, with significant text elements, sitting in negative space next to panels.

No more than four panels a page. Each page should only take four hours to draw. Every four days an offering should be burned outdoors, on a grey stone.

Every forty hours the artist must stand by the window and listen to the loveless wind howl outside while slowly eating a boiled potato

And if you decide to borrow all this and do it before me? In the words of someone else: whatever the hell is wrong with you is clearly a lot worse than whatever the hell is wrong with me, so good luck and godspeed.

Seriously, though. Given that 20 pages of comics sell for four bucks now, imagine what would happen if a bunch of people went this crazy. That would, at the very least, be fun.

Comics Train: 5

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series comics train

I do still have a little bucket list. Like, I’d like to try and do a monthly black and white book. I miss the prevalence of black and white comics. They mostly went away in the comics-shop market, and I think that’s sad. And weird, given that one of the most popular monthly comics in the world, THE WALKING DEAD, is black and white.

I’d do 24-page black-and-white guts — that’s three signatures — 20 pages of comics and space for endpapers and design elements. Wrapped in a cover of a thicker stock. Which would be printed in colour, but I’d have the colour limited in some way. Limited palette, or monochrome art with colour design elements.

I know nobody who would draw or buy that sort of thing. Which is why it will stay on the bucket list until I die. But it’s one of the things I like to think about.

Everything got very samey, didn’t it?

Apropos of nothing, except perhaps that it’s not “samey,” I happened to read a comic called DEAD KINGS, and the writer is Steve Orlando and he’s stretching and giving a sense of what he can really do, and the artist is Matthew Dow Smith and god damn did that guy get good.

Comics Train: 6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series comics train

The graphic novella is a thing I’d wanted to talk about a bit.

I characterise the graphic novella as 48 to 64 pages, ish. 40 on the “yeah, okay, if I squint at it, I can kinda let you have that” end, 72 at the top end?

This is yet another format that I’ve been banging on about for probably decades. Yeah, there’s a pattern, haha. I’ve been delighted to see Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have so much success with it, most recently with BAD WEEKEND.

In an ideal world, as I enter the late period of my career, I’d have a partnership with an artist where I could write three or four graphic novellas a year. I like the novella form. NORMAL, my last prose book, was a 30,000 novella.

At 64 pages, a graphic novella can be sold in bookstores as well as comics shops. At 48, it becomes more of a comics-shop-only thing, and that’s okay too. With the same team producing them, 48-page books can be collected into a “box set” trade paperback after a year — being very old, I have this memory that The Smiths produced a single every three months and one album a year, and the notion is kind of in that zone.

(Obviously, that citation comes from the simpler days when we’d say “okay, that comment by Morrissey was kinda strange and creepy and a bit racist, he can’t possibly have meant that,” not from today, when… well, you know)

Anyway. There’s nothing wrong with a format optimised for comics shop sales. But comics retail goes through periods of deep financial conservatism, and there’s a fair chance a few thousand stores will not want your graphic novella about something that isn’t Batman, you know? The decision that Ed and Sean and Image took with BAD WEEKEND and MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES, to do chunkier, pricier 64-page hardback editions that can appeal to both comics and books markets, is probably an economically sound one. Doing new original material in comics is always a re-invention of the wheel in a market entirely happy with horsepower and good solid saddlebags. Most people don’t want to bet their own money on the future. I’m not pointing any fingers. Life in retail has become uniquely hard in this period, and comics retail has always been more reading-entrails and rolling-bones than economic science.

I’ve told this story before, but, an aeon ago, I was at a retailer meeting, where a guy said, “I don’t want all this new shit. I just want the old stuff, but done better.” And I said to him, by that reasoning, if WATCHMEN came out today, you wouldn’t order it for your store. And he looked me in the eye and said “So?”

So when I spin out these notions and daydreams about comics formats and engines in this blogchain, I am always entirely aware that, even though I think their consideration and exploitation would enhance the medium – nobody wants these things. I’m just muttering to myself and hoping I’m providing food for thought for somebody down the line.

But, yeah, I daydream about my little line of graphic novellas with an artist who was prepared to strike out for the edges of the territory with me. In my head, they’d even have a shared trade dress, like the Second Run DVD catalogue…