Friday, July 24, 2009

Quest for the spark

Comic creators are by their very nature freelancers, meaning that even in the best of the times, they prefer to have several upcoming projects lined up in advance. With the global economical depression, the possibility of having paying work waiting on them for several months ahead would certainly seem in doubt for some of the more cynical authors. 

Speaking of American publishers, the predominant superhero giants are already working to the best of their ability, utilizing all of the characters in their libraries, at their most commercial. Yet, even among dozens of books they print each week, there exists an upper limit on the number of titles feasible in the market, thus limiting the options of the talent pool. What's more, the specific art style largely in vogue at both Marvel and DC is not something that most of the independent publishers looks upon with favour, or specialize in.

Of course, any of the established creators can always look forward to royalty checks made by reprinting their work, but there's no doubt that most of them seek current assignments, which would bring them a little more security in these hazardous times.

San Diego "Comic-Con" started off with the news that Jeff Smith, a world-renowned independent artist and publisher, has decided t continue the work that brought him most acclaim. The success story that was "Bone" is still being reformatted, actively bringing the younger readers to the field that has lost touch with it's original audience. With the advent of two new spin-offs, it would appear that Smith has decided to forgo the work on "RASL, his edgier current comic, in order to put all his energy into the all-ages title that he has made his name on.

For surely, even with his level of success in the American market, the decision to guide his career by sticking to his best-selling property currently seems the wisest one he could have made. After all, "Bone" has already had a couple of special projects added to it, notably the painted "Rose" graphic novel. But, it's actually "Stupid, stupid rat tails", that saw Smith teamed-up with writer Tom Sniegoski, which will set up the blueprint from the new stories. Reuniting the writer of the mini-series with the "Bone" creator is again, by all accounts, the business model that seems very stable, just like the announced publishing schedule.

Taking all this into account, perhaps some other creators will follow suit, deciding to come up with a strong creator-owned business plan. Despite the "Golden age" of comics being set firmly during the Great Depression, it is highly unlikely that the turbulent times will see the rise of new creations targeting wider audience. American Direct Market is very predictable in that it has exited for decades by servicing ever-dwindling fan-base that has time and again shown what it's tastes are. Therefore, presenting them with follow-ups to the rare successful creator-owned series seems like the most profitable idea outside the established systems of the dominant superhero publishers.

By their very nature, comics are a serialized form of entertainment, thus seeing spin-offs to the previously "finite" series seems like a very natural thing to do. In most cases, the creators of the series famous in 1980s and 1990s are still working, if not directly involved with the comics themselves, then a related entertainment field. And, not coincidentally, almost all of them look upon their own work with the same emotion that drew them towards comics in the first place, thus green-lighting just such a project wouldn't seem like such an unlikely idea. DC's "Vertigo" imprint has recently failed to negotiate the terms of Neil Gaiman returning to "Sandman", the comics series that brought him to fame. Reportedly, the writer and the editorial couldn't come to the terms with the salary he was to be paid for in order to script the prequel to one of comics' most acclaimed sagas.

Speaking of "Vertigo", a similar case could be made for "Preacher", the other of their best-selling series. In this instance, the creators have gone on record to note that they could not agree with the editorial regarding the printing of a very controversial special issue. In this instance, going back to rethink the publishing decision in light of the hopefully different censoring criteria, could potentially lead to rekindling the creators' interest to return to the property that was successful for everyone. With almost any longer narrative in sequential form, there has always been talk of developing the ideas hinted at, or discussed at some point in the series' history, which could potentially be reworked back into the original plan, instead of showing up in an unrelated project, where they would have to be marketed again.

Of course, the fan-interest would probably be the highest in the field of comics that were, for whatever reason, cancelled before the end of the their overarching story. By no means a rare occurrence, this unpopular method has seen a large number of critically-acclaimed work stand to this day uncompleted. In some instances, the very publishers who have given up on the titles because of the financial losses, have seen a new revenue stream by reprinting the work in question. Which brings even the most benevolent editor to a real task, gauging whether there is a chance to attract new readers to reengage a once cancelled classic series. Despite all the good will, this would seem to be a near-impossible task, also serving to demonstrate Steve Rude's financial difficulties related to his efforts to complete the long-in-development final act of "Nexus".

And that is discussing some of the most famous genre work produced in America in the last twenty years. Discounting the creators' decision to stem off the crisis by returning to some of their less famous assignments, they would still face an up-hill battle in today's market. But even when their most successful projects were independent comics some of them still managed to continue engaging the audience for year after year, like Terry Moore's "Strangers in paradise". The possibility of a return to the known quantity in American market, whether for actual creative reasons, or purely to behind the power of an already built franchise, could in the long run prove very opportune to both the creators and their readers.

Granted, "Bone" is pretty much unparalleled in the level of widespread interest it has generated, but that should not necessarily discourage fellow cartoonists. Actually, for that same exact reason, following upon any of Jeff Smith's business moves should seem like a very sound advice. And that's not even taking into account the cross media interest that could result from the creators returning to their signature work.


Chris Duffy said...

Are you certain Smith is leaving RASL? I think he's going to continue putting it out.

Vanja said...

I just came upon this piece of information in a CBR Comic-Con report:

"Jeff Smith said he plans for “RASL” to be about 350-400 pages, and will collect it in a “chunky” volume at the end."

It would appear that he still intends to finish it, but I'm not sure if this was the intended length of the project at the beginning.

Anonymous said...

As long as you keep havin' ideas, you can write a lot more books in the future. I'm a big fan of the BONE volumes and can't wait for "The Quest of the Spark" to come out!