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Party of Five Round I
Posted June 13, 2005

In the first edition of a new, ongoing Bookshelf Comics feature, Party of Five, editor James W. Powell poses a question to five members of the comic book community — a creator, a publisher, a retailer, a critic, and a fan — to get a variety of perspectives on an important subject. Party of Five features a rotating panel, so if you would like to participate in future edtions, email the editor. Or, perhaps you'd like to be the one asking the question? If that's you, we'd like to hear from you as well.

Now, on to the first question...

 
 
 
 
The Question
Party of Five logo Original graphic novels are gaining popularity in the comics community, and they're also getting more and more mainstream media attention. Even many diehard comic fans are switching to collected versions of their serialized favorites. With that in mind, do you think that the original graphic novel is the future of comic books?
The Creator
The Creator: Robert Tinnell
Robert Tinnell

The graphic novel format — and I'll include the prestige comic format in there — is certainly appealing to me and not just as a creator, but as a fan. As comics have become increasingly decompressed, the amount of time that it takes to read them shrinks. That creates at least the perception of less value for the dollar.

There are trade-offs to be sure. A reader will most likely want the story to "finish" up if he's just shelled out, say, $10 for a book. Serialization, on the other hand, allows writers to take short cuts on character backstory. Like a long -running television show, established books don't require the kind of lengthy set-up you may need in a graphic novel.

One thing that might be interesting to evolve out of this would be monthly anthology trades — and by anthology I mean, say, if Image had three horror titles they could offer them as one big 72 page (or more) book for a reasonable price. The titles could support one another. But I'm sure I'm wrong here. How would you determine whose book was driving the sales? What if retailers balked or fans? They may not like one or more of the titles. This is probably a crazy idea, but it occurred to me and I thought, "What the hell?"

Bottom line, manga aside even, you just cannot ignore the growth of graphic novels. I think it's a format whose time has come.

In addition to writing the screenplay Sacrifice for Fortress Entertainment, Robert Tinnell has directed such films as Believe with Elisha Cuthbert and Frankenstein and Me with Burt Reynolds. More recently, he penned the graphic novels The Faceless: A Terry Sharp Story, The Black Forest, and The Wicked West as well as the screenplay Bobby at Work, an adaptation of an Anthony Bourdain novel for producers Steve Golin of anonymouscontent and Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger of Bona Fide and director David (Asylum) Mackenzie. Tinnell is repped by Jon Karas of Infinity Management International.

The Publisher
The Publisher: Brett Warnock
Brett Warnock

Interesting question. When Chris Staros and I began publishing comics almost a decade ago, we talked at length about this very question. And even back then, we used to say, "Pamphlet comics are dying, so let's completely forgo doing any miniseries per se. So when an opportunity to present a longer single narrative presents itself, let's go straight to a single volume graphic novel."

From Good-Bye Chunky Rice, to Monkey vs. Robot, to Barefoot Serpent, to Creature Tech and 3 Fingers, and then up through Blankets (a 592 book that was not serialized), we've put our money where our mouth is. And we haven't looked back. Our growth in gross income has, for the most part, doubled every year since we began. I simply don't think that that would be possible were we only publishing $3 comic books. The economics of scale just wouldn't jive.

(This is not to say we've never published regular ol' comic books in the past, or that we won't in the future. We have and we will; but generally, each one we do is a one-shot, or a small collection of several shorts stories.)

Now, as far as the "brands" are concerned (Batman, Spider-Man, et al), i'm not sure we'll ever see the end of serialized pamphlet comic books. As long as the core fanboy audience exists, along with a few thousand direct market outlets to supply said books to the fanboys, saddle-stitched comics will last. The big publishers (and their corporate sponsors) are obligated to keep the brand visible and viable.

That said, for the burgeoning creator-owned set, and the creation of more literary comics narratives, the graphic novel is ideal. Couple this with the rise of the format in book stores — who do not carry comic books, for the most part — then a case could be made that the graphic novel is taylor made to both provide a more complete reading experience, and more importantly (because of this), to allow new readers to come into the fold. Barring a manga glut that might turn off retailers to the medium in general, i see no end to the rise of the graphic novel.

Are graphic novels the future. No. But they a very critical component of the continuing health and rise of the medium, and the industry as a whole. And they're here to stay.

Publishing comics and graphic novels since 1995, Top Shelf has been had its share of hits and its share of misses. Standouts include, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, Craig Thompson's Blankets, James Kochalka's American Elf, Jeffrey Brown's Clumsy, and Andy Runton's runaway hit, Owly.

The Retailer
The Retailer: Dorian Wright
Dorian Wright
I don't think the original graphic novel is the future of comics, but it's certainly one of the futures of comics. I think a stronger case can be made for a mix of original graphic novels and trade paperback collections of previously serialized material being the more likely face of comic's future. The monthly serial format of comics isn't going away anytime soon. There are too many publishers, retailers, and fans too deeply invested in that format of publication and distribution for anything other than a very slow and incremental move away from it to occur. And for readers of certain genres, notably readers of superhero comics, the monthly serial is the strongly preferred format.

That being said, more and more publishers are starting to discover the value of a strong back-list, and in order to have a strong back-list you need graphic novels and trade paperbacks. The comic format is, let's face it, cheap and disposable, and was designed to be that way. To keep material profitable you need to put it in more durable and permanent format, and that's the the trade paperback. It's a very good format for keeping older material in print and profitable. I don't think we're going to see very much growth in the original graphic novel format until large publishers see a profit in it. The fact that smaller publishers such as AiT/Planet Lar, Oni, and even Dark Horse can put out material in that format gives me hope that they will eventually come around to seeing value in the format.

Dorian Wright is a comics retailer living in the vast, uncharted jungles of Southern California. He regularly shoots his mouth off at postmodernbarney.com.

The Critic
The Critic: Randy Lander
Randy Lander

Well, if I could actually read the future, I'd be out buying lottery tickets, but I have to say that at least for me personally, the original graphic novel is the future of comic books. It's my format of choice, and I now buy only a small handful of titles (mostly indies) in single issue form to support them, even though I spend an ungodly amount of money on comics each month.

I will say that it is my belief that the original graphic novel is the future of comic books, unless something like the PSP or other digital technology actually succeeds in doing away with the paper part of the equation entirely, which seems likely to be something I see in my lifetime (although probably near the end of it.)

Some publishers are already making great strides in publishing OGNs, not just mostly graphic novel houses like Top Shelf or AiT/Planet Lar, but bigger publishers like Image (who published an astounding number of quality graphic novels in 2005) and DC. We're not yet at the point where the average fan is ready to buy original graphic novels as their format of choice, but "waiting for the trade" has become far more prevalent, and as the price point of single issues increases above the $3 mark, even the most casual of fans is going to start noticing that these wisps of 22 pages or so are a pretty quick read for that kind of cash. True, a graphic novel will generally have the same price/page ratio, if not one that's slightly higher, but there's a great perceived value to a book with a spine for $15-$20.

In some segments of the industry, the original graphic novel is already the format of choice. Manga, for example, which makes up all of the publishing output of Tokyopop and Viz and no small amount of Dark Horse's output. Oni Press has found some success with the series of graphic novels approach as well, and a lot of smaller self-publishers are now starting out with ambitious series of graphic novels as well.

The jumping-off point for the format will be when DC or Marvel (and it's gonna have to be one of the big two) release one of their series in a trade-only format. The most likely contender seems to be a new Vertigo series. An imprint that has shown greater success in trade format than single issues, which is more easily saleable to the larger bookstore market than another superhero story (unless it's tied into a movie, of course) and which could come from highly-regarded creators whose name value will convince folks to plunk down a larger, OGN-sized chunk of change sight unseen for the new book. Something like City Lights from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon could probably successfully launch in this format, to give one example of names big enough to draw a sizable crowd. It's not a certainty by any means, but my guess (and hope, quite frankly) is that we'll see something like this in the next two or three years.

Mind you, there is one exception, and it's a big one: I'm not sure the original graphic novel is the format of the future for superheroes, and I'm not convinced it ever will be. Superhero fans are remarkably resistant to change on many fronts, format being only one of them, and there is no small amount of nostalgia for buying a big 'ol stack of comics that flop open to read. Unless the price becomes prohibitively expensive (and I can see fans of X-Men and other big name characters paying up to $5 an issue easily), I believe that the original graphic novel is going to have a long, and possibly impossible, road ahead in terms of cracking the superhero market. Given that the superhero genre makes up so much of the comics market, I suppose my answer has to be changed to a qualified "It is the format of the future for comics, but not for the casual comic-book fan, who generally reads only superheroes."

Randy Lander has been writing comic book reviews under the heading of "Snap Judgments" since 1996, and the last four of those years have been at The Fourth Rail, the website he shares with fellow reviewer Don MacPherson. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter.

The Fan
The Fan: Earl Cressey
Earl Cressey
With the recent move to decompress storytelling in order to “stretch out” the number of issues each arc will contain, both collected versions and original graphic novels are becoming more attractive purchases than monthlies. With many six-issue arcs — which seem to be the current norm — the plot for many monthlies seems to drag or become redundant.

When I first started reading comics in the early 90s, a six-issue arc was more of an event, with most storylines taking up two or four parts. With shorter arcs, the storytelling was more compressed and you often seemed to get more bang for your buck, as events actually unfolded and the plot advanced at a more rapid pace. For example, you didn’t open the newest issue of Amazing Spider-Man to discover he was eating a hotdog with Loki for a few pages.

For the most part, original graphic novels were not something I read in the 90s, as they mainly consisted of crossover or alternate universe books (Batman/Spider-Man, Elseworlds). However, the quality of the content in original graphic novels has increased in recent years and offers several advantages over TPBs. Usually planned in this format, they offer better pacing, self-contained stories, consistent characterizations, less gimmicky twists, and utilize the same creative team throughout. Several recent examples are JLA: Earth 2, Selina’s Big Score, and The Long Haul.

However, I don’t think the original graphic novel will replace monthlies, for a variety of reasons. With characters or creators I’m not familiar with, monthlies are much easier to try out at $3, than an OGN that can retail for as much as $25. Comic shops would almost certainly change without monthlies, as the output from publishers would shrink. However, I would like to see OGNs gain ground in the industry and have the “Big Two” utilize them for more in-continuity stories that actually matter, not just the latest crossover.

Earl Cressey has been reading comics off and on fifteen years. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work and has undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Sociology. He previously reviewed DVDs for DVDTalk.

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