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

December 9, 2004

Sharp Recent History Raises Questions

imageKudos to Nathan Alderman for a concise, smart article on comics publishing that doesn't spare the reader some of the more fussed over vagaries of definition and origin. Any piece that frames Will Eisner's claim for starting the graphic novel against competing candidates both immediate
Three different works laying claim to that title came out in 1976, including Richard Corben's Bloodstar, adapting a story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, and Jim Steranko's noir mystery Red Tide. The term "graphic novel" is older still; most researchers believe it originated with writer Richard Kyle in a 1964 newsletter for the Amateur Press Association.

and even further back into history
The idea of a serious, book-length comic goes back even further. Cartoonist Milt Gross described his 1930 book He Done Her Wrong as "The Great American Novel (And Not A Word In It - No Music, Too)" Woodcut artist Lynd Ward published his own picture-novel, God's Man, in 1929.
and so on deserves at least one full read.

The part I don't quite understand is an odd assertion that I think is credited to Calvin Reid at Publisher's Weekly that the 2002 collapse of distributor LPC somehow served as a wake up call for that part of the industry, on both ends.
In 2002, just as comics publishers were beginning to enjoy steadily rising exposure to the bookstore market, the distribution company LPC collapsed. LPC was a gateway to bookstores for many small publishers and a few of the majors, and its bankruptcy showed publishers just how important bookstores were to their bottom line. The new companies who moved in to snag LPC's former customers also saw an opportunity, and began to agressively pursue shelf space in bookstores.

Maybe the distinguished Mr. Reid can unpack this a little better somewhere. I understand the correlative relationship between LPC biting the big one and a swing upwards in bookstore attention to comics, but the causative one seems to be either a reach or rewriting recent history of the kind my Mom's friends used to do on their yearly Christmas cards, where "Lance spent a few weeks re-thinking his life's direction in a positive way" stood in for "Lance went to rehab."

If anything, I hope LPC showed comics publishers the dangers of overextending in any part of your business, or at least the need to be really cognizent of the potential costs of doing so. I think instead of a Great Event hangover, the move into bookstore shelving comes from a publishing industry version of what Scott McCloud describes in this article as a benefit that comes out in press coverage -- moles in publishing, libraries and in publishing who understood the potential of a few great titles, backed by a slow build to a small, sustainable group of interesting works, abetted by a general professional attitude of acceptance or at least a willingness to admit to proven successes. We have yet to see if a non-manga surge really has a great and sustained effect outside of a few select, mostly great or already-popular books -- with so many book publisher efforts planned, the answer should come in the next 24-36 months.

If it's any consolation, I think Reid's dead-on when he notes a key to manga's surge is the decision to no longer westernize it, although I'm always suspicious that publishing analyses of manga generally underplay the role of the anime.

Anyway, please read the full article, and don't accept my quotes here as any sort of substitute. I found it via the great Thought Balloons blog.
posted 7:47 am PST | Permalink

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