Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

















May 3, 2009


CR Sunday Feature: James Turner's DM Troubles And Why They're Our Own

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I note with sadness that James Turner's series Warlord of IO has run afoul of the changing shape of the North American comics market as embodied in Diamond's minimum standards. Turner is a comic book maker some people like, others don't, and the vast majority of comics readers ignore. His Nil was a well-received, stand-alone graphic novel of the kind that delights people who measure comics in terms of arrivals and events. It reminded me of a mainstream hit from a world where Floyd Farland had the market impact of the Image Comics revolution. Turner's follow-up Rex Libris series was a high-concept sketch-comedy idea played out across several comic book issues and a number of trade paperbacks. Warlord of IO would have been I think his third series.

My own feelings run hot and cold on Turner's work. I think he's genuinely, frequently funny. He is visually inventive to the point I'll always pay attention to him. Turner is the kind of cartoonist who can take a comic from conception to execution, that plies their trade with a degree of sophistication and a great deal of effort for the sake of the project itself: the cartooning equivalent of The Wire's "natural police." Turner's comics aren't obviously derived from an old screenplay or meant to foster interest in a movie development deal, at least not in a way that intrudes upon the pleasures they evoke in words-and-pictures form. Turner's comics don't feel intended to fulfill a niche market need or bring X, Y, Z amount of attention to the cartoonist independent of the project itself. They certainly don't seem to be a stepping-stone to a lifelong dream of writing an Arion mini-series. James Turner is the kind of artist that comics should give every chance to succeed, the way there are certain musicians that should always have a record contract, certain playwrights who should always have their next piece mounted, and certain film actors that should have work somewhere in a character role. A shift from a model where an artist like Turner fails in the marketplace to a model where an artist like Turner is denied the opportunity to try, I think that's worth noting.

Apparently, Turner may attempt on-line distribution, and the rejected issue #1 is already up for sale. I think that's great. I work and publish on-line, and I'm as thrilled for this way for cartoonists and comics folk to find an audience as I am for any other. Turner seems a natural for that avenue of expression. I want all the markets, though. James Turner should be on-line and in comics shops, and the reason he's not going to be is because that's been decided for him. This decision was not solely made by market forces: he's able to make the comics and has someone willing to publish them. It was made in one leg of the capitalist stool by an interpretation of what those market forces should mean, not the forces themselves. Diamond could distribute his work; it's decided not to. The Direct Market may be on a timetable where one day it's replaced by a system on-line distribution, but for now I believe it's a trap to speak in terms of one market naturally replacing another when so many artificial pressures are being brought to bear in driving certain outcomes.

As Turner is escorted from the new comics day premises and thrown blinking back into the harsh light of free agency, I want to reiterate that I think this is a bad thing. We live in a tremendous moment of opportunity for comics. It's a time where comics could benefit from the healthiest possible Direct Market the way it benefits from the perseverance folks have show in getting them on bookstore shelves, the ingenuity certain smart people have displayed finding a model or two that still works on the newsstands (Kita Koga, Shonen Jump), the energy displayed by savvy entrepreneurs putting material on-line and finding a way to make it financially lucrative (Diesel Sweeties, et al). Unfortunately, what should be the jewel in the crown of multiple comics markets is more like a lump of coal shaped by arbitrarily applied market forces and short-term decision-making into something resembling an armless bust of Black Bolt. The end result is that despite an artistic flowering and sustained high level of craft that might shame any previous era of comics-making, it's harder than ever to find many comics in the place where for now they should be really easy to find: the shops devoted to them.

Twenty years ago I was forced to drive 25 minutes to a town of 30,000 people to track down some David Boswell comics; a few months ago I had to drive two hours to a town of 75,000 before I could obtain copies of a certain non-major superhero ongoing from industry juggernaut Marvel. I've spoken to more than two cover-of-Comics-Journal-level cartoonists in the last 18 months who told me independent of one another that they sense a more restrictive ceiling on non-hardcore mainstream books than there were 10 years ago. That was in awful overall market. The comics shops have in the last few years mostly rejected the attempt by Warren Ellis and a few other creators to create a modest market opportunity for low-cost entry comic books with a lighter page count -- basically by suggesting it should be more like the model they're accustomed to selling and then fulfilling that self-prophecy. The Ignatz line has survived but hasn't really thrived. It's not a dramatic jump to suggest that this rigidness may leave sales on the table in the long term. Here's a short post by someone intrigued by the Wednesday Comics effort announced by DC who has already determined that his local comics shop has almost no chance of being able to sell him one. Again, those shops are used to selling a specific experience to a specific customer, and god bless them, and I'm not going to second guess any individual store. The system, on the other hand, should do better.

This isn't the market speaking; these are structural outcomes. Further, they're structural issues driven by explicit decisions to pursue x over y and perhaps, in the doing, deny other people the same choice. It's not about looking at individual instances and deciding whether or not you can formulate an argument against market access by James Turner, or whatever far-from-the-glory-days iteration of Classic Comics is out there right now, or the next person that is not even going to be given the chance to fail. Of course you can. With enough coffee and the snarkier words highlighted in a thesaurus I bet any half-way smart person could make the case that everything below the 35 best-selling comic books and the top-selling ten trade paperbacks doesn't really deserve market access. It's not about what can be argued into not making the cut; it's the cut itself, and the lack of values driving what falls on either side of that arbitrary divide.

Unlike emerging marketplaces dependent on technology and shifting consumer attitudes, where you can argue a more flexible approach designed to engage a number of ideas is at least understandable, the Direct Market is a mature market where decisions can and do matter, where a lot of control is in the major players' hands. I don't see people making choices with the long-term health of the market in mind. When decisions aren't made on its behalf, the future gets shaped out of whatever it has available to it. In this case, that future will be built on the foundation of a price raise on comic books that seems designed to protect market share and a movie-invested bottom line, a rapidly aging fan base with growing economic concerns elsewhere and narrative fatigue in terms of what the industry is primed to cough up as a best-seller, gross inattention to market shortcomings in terms of delivery and information dissemination, different formats and different artists and different approaches strangled in the crib or sent to another market in order to thrive. It's a future I'm not sure has much if any place for comics I value. I was once an astounding customer for comic books.

I know that Warlord of IO is only one comic book, but a long time ago that what's the Direct Market was set up to do: give people a chance to buy the one comic book they wanted to buy. That obviously couldn't hold, but where the line gets drawn seems to me a much more vital issue than should be decided by a single company around which whirls occasional rumors of external financial distress. If the Direct Market will inevitably go away with the rise of an on-line replacement, why not have the best possible Direct Market until that happens? It's one thing for an evolution in the marketplace to replace a high-end delivery system with something better: more efficient, with more choices for the consumer and greater reward to the artists. But whatever gets the chance to replace a system that's this broken won't have to be anything special at all.
 
posted 6:00 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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