The following doesn’t necessarily pertain to criticism or critical theory directly, but it has some bearing on the subject, so I thought I’d shoehorn it into a column. My apologies if the very idea of such a thing fills you with discontent and a weary heart.
Last week, Heidi MacDonald caught the news on the Comics Journal message board that the latest volume of the widely acclaimed, Sammy Harkham-edited art comix-anthology known as Kramers Ergot will be priced at a staggering $125 (or about $78 if you order it on Amazon).
Why so expensive? Well, it’s not for the page count, which will actually be considerably less than previous editions — only 96 pages. No, the reason Volume 7 will be so costly is because of the size. This book resemble that of the Little Nemo and Gasoline Alley books that Sunday Press put out recently. Here’s Harkham talking about it in a recent City Pages interview:
“You’ve seen that Little Nemo book?” he asks, hands spreading reflexively to encompass the famous, full-page scope of Winsor McKay’s early-20th-century newspaper strip. “Issue number seven is going to be like that. Big—big—16 by 21! Every artist gets three pages. That’s it. But with that assignment, an artist is going to make work that wouldn’t exist otherwise. I’m so excited.
“The Clowes strip in this? Mind-blowing! Mind-blowing! And it’ll never be shown anywhere else. It’s going to be expensive. It’ll cost around $60,000 to make and sell for $80. We’re going to go to Singapore and watch them print it. But if there isn’t a clunker in the book, it’ll be worth it. I’ve found that anything I find mysterious or exciting, anything really special? People always pick up on that.”
So anyway, there was a bit of a kerfluffle, both on the TCJ board and in Heidi’s comments section about whether Harkham is justified in putting out such a pricey book. For example, here’s a quick quote from Paul O’Brien that Heidi pulled out:
In all seriousness, though, I find it hard to believe that anyone is going to spend $125 on a high-end art book for their first comic. This is going to sell to people who already have a strong interest in lit-comics.
I think there’s a degree of wishful thinking in the idea that avant-garde experimentalism is going to “expand the audience” in any terribly meaningful way. The audience for this stuff is pretty minimal in any medium. At best, it makes the point that “comics aren’t just for kids” – but (a) everyone knows that, and (b) it makes that point by demonstrating that comics are also for the sort of people who go to arthouse cinemas, rather than by showing that comics are for adults in general.
So, at the risk of beating a dead, $125 horse, I wanted to offer my own few, quick thoughts on the matter:
* Did Mr. Harkham sign some sort of contract requiring that every comic he makes or edits from now until his deathbed be designed for the express purpose of “enriching the comics medium?” Do people really seem to think he must make a book for the widest market possible or else? The only issue at stake is that of quality. Whether the book becomes “talked about” or a “must-have” item or “hugely influential” is really beside the point. The previous KE volumes were influential, not because they specifically set out to be, but because the work itself was powerful and compelling enough to inspire other persons. Great art (or slam-bang entertainment for that matter) is rarely ever produced with the express intention of creating great art.
* The only people who should be concerned over whether KE7 makes or loses money should be Harkham, Alvin Buenaventura and anyone else who invested their time and/or money in the book’s production.
* That’s not to say I’m not completely cold-hearted when it comes to complaints about the price. There have been a lot of high-ticket collections from a variety of publishers in the past few months, including the Bill Mauldin collection, the new Gary Panter book, and the upcoming Humbug and massive Carl Barks collections. Not all of the intended audiences for these works overlap, but there is enough overlap there to give me pause. As small press publishers become more successful and more willing to put out lavish and expensive books, will the average fan’s pocket book become stretched to the point of breaking? I can barely keep track of the various classic strip and comic book hardcover collections (the EC series is kicking my wallet’s butt) that come out every other month now, let alone a mess of $100 books. (We should all have such troubles, mind you.)
* In a way, this news item dovetails rather neatly with Tom Spurgeon’s recent piece about how pamphlet comics are so expensive these days. In the case of KE7, the reading experience is unique enough to perhaps justify the price. One of the reasons piracy has become so rampant is because the experience of reading Batman on your laptop versus the $3.99 pamphlet version is relatively similar. Oh, you might find one more comfortable or pleasing to the other, but your overall perception of the work isn’t going to change that much. It’s not like reading an electronic copy of Batman will force you to slap your head and say “My God, this completely changes my entire opinon on how Morrison has been handling this character up till now!” Or vice versa.
That can’t really be said with a book the dimensions of KE7. As many who have written about Sunday Press’ Nemo and Skeezix volumes have mentioned, viewing these classic strips at their original newspaper size has in fact brought about new impressions of the work. In other words, KE7 will in all likelihood be one of those rare type of books where the production and design is as much a part of the aesthetic experience as the comics themselves. No doubt many of the contributors (Dan Clowes being one of them) will extend their range to see work published at such a large size.
I don’t necessarily think that this is the sort of thing which mainstream publishers should or can even afford to look towards. But, if piracy is going to become an even more pressing concern than it already is, then perhaps publishers need to find ways to make the paper reading experience more tangible and essential than the online one. Just a thought.