By Bon Alimagno
New interns always ask me whether they should develop their own projects as monthlies or another format (graphic novels, digital, etc). It’s taken some trial and error but I now feel confident of the answer: Format is Destiny. If you publish as a monthly, you’re wedding yourself to a host of expectations and complications that may taint your project, regardless of the quality of your work.
Maybe nothing inhibits the growth of new comic publishers more than the expectation they publish monthly full color comic books. While the average comic book store goer expects new publishers to follow this routine, they do so usually without realizing why. Where is it written that a comic book should be serialized every four weeks without break? It’s not written anywhere but has become the accepted way of doing things.
Yet it’s a way of doing things that vastly favors Marvel and DC Comics and immediately handicaps new publishers. Marvel and DC have rich, intellectual properties with worldwide recognition. Their characters possess archetypical qualities that can sustain a monthly grind, year in and year out. Even better for them, some of the best talent in the industry, having grown up on these characters, are now eager to work on them, refreshing these characters with every new generation. New publishers, when pondering whether or not to go monthly, have to consider whether their own characters and stories have the same sustainable qualities.
If not here’s what they face:
A monthly comic series loses a small fraction of their audience from one issue to the next due to the natural attrition of serialized storytelling. No serialized story will keep 100% of its readers with each succeeding installment. On average the typical comic probably loses 10% of its readership per issue. That may not sound bad but stretch those losses over the course of twelve or twenty-four issues and suddenly a comic that sold 25,000 copies its first issue is no longer breaking even within a few years of its debut. At that point a publisher has to decide whether to keep going or cancel. Now imagine if instead of one monthly a publisher had decided to launch many simultaneously, believing that a larger set of offerings would make their company look more impressive. Maybe a company could offset the losses making up for it with related trade paperback sales and other merchandise. But say they have a half dozen or a dozen titles bleeding that much. The losses start piling up exponentially. That scenario has played out many times over the last few years and why you’ve seen new publishers fall as quickly as they have risen.
Now, say a new publisher stems the bleeding quickly and cancels a monthly. Such a cancellation won’t be viewed as a business decision done for the sake of the continued health of the company. It’ll be viewed against the other monthlies from Marvel and DC that carry on. It’ll be viewed as a failure. Thus when the publisher re-launches the title, they’ll be in the unenviable position to explain why. The publisher then has to present something new, something fresh, and for better or worse something potentially at odds with their original vision that ended in cancellation.
Setting aside the business considerations, let’s consider the creative problems monthlies have. A typical monthly comic story is twenty-two pages. Can the story of every comic book character be told in such neat twenty-two pages increments? Of course not, yet far too many stories, possibly better served as longer graphic novels, have been sliced and diced to serve this serialized format, diluting their narrative power. Or, as many have complained, stories that once would have satisfactorily ended in a single issue are now stretched to fill a three- or six-issue arc.
This all isn’t to say that no new publishers should ever consider the monthly. But they’ve been warned: this is what they are facing. Non-Marvel and DC publishers, like us, that still manage to publish serialized comics in some form (whether as miniseries or quarterlies or the like) usually have other means of generating income apart from the actual comic books themselves. This is vital to the survival of the so-called independents. Look through Previews and you’ll see that publishers who have not only survived but grown over the past few years have done so by carefully monitoring their monthly output and publishing serialized comics with established or licensed characters and popular creators. They’re built for the long haul.
New publishers may not want to play the same tune that frankly many have already mastered, but instead march to the beat of their own drum.
Till next time…
Bon Alimagno is Director – Publishing & Editorial for Harris Comics, publishers of Vampirella.