Saturday, November 28, 2009

A whole new world

An interesting thing happened while I was searching through the reviews of the some of the 'Jack of Fables' story lines. The engine gave me a slew of results concerning the spin-off of one of the industry's best selling non-superhero works, and unsurprisingly, very little of the links had to do with any kind of established critical venue, or indeed some of the more commercial sites considering the medium. For whatever reason, a large portion of comics fans seem intent to focus on continually analysing their love/hate relationship with Marvel and DC's superhero titles, but this was to be expected. What genuinely surprised me was that I found a bevy of commentary from the completely new source - that of the new readers that have managed to elude the market for so long.

This is no small thing, especially considering the overall quality analysis that covered all the fundamentals of the book's writing. The newcomers mostly shied away from a detailed comparative analysis of Tony Akins' art style, but they provided a very nuanced and informed perspective of the complex plot heavy series. Covering the book's general direction, and discussing the comedy angle, the readers patiently shared their thoughts regarding the controversial protagonist, and going to great lengths of contrasting the book to the main Fables title. Picking up on all the layered nuances, the new readers, presumably without access to the comics criticism, still provided an informed look at 'Jack of Fables'' back story, with the eye of gouging the creative team's future direction. All this, without a concrete platform to launch their opinion, the sheer enthusiasm for the story making them post semi-anonymous on the pages listing dozens of reviews, usually with the eye of selling their trade paperback back stock. It can't be overstated how rare this is in today's comics climate, and it's interesting to try to understand the reason.

It should be noted that these seem to be primarily readers who found the trade paperbacks through the means of book stores and libraries, seemingly avoiding the contact with the month to month Direct Market serialization. As such, it's unclear whether they discovered 'the Fables' brand slowly through the spotlight that the superhero movies, or through the more direct fantasy connection that the Neil Gaiman adaptations presumably brought to the Vertigo line. These new readers seem content to follow this manga-like distribution model, tracking down new volumes of the series they already like. Which brings us to the chief point, why is it that Fables seems currently the imprint's only title capable of drawing in the wider audiences, in a way reminiscent of the line's smash hit, 'the Sandman'.

It's deceptively simple to claim simple accessibility as the answer, as it seems notoriously hard to replicate the success, at least judging from the publishing history. For some reason, comics have a tendency on focusing on the obscure, fighting the uphill battle of reviving long dormant genre properties. Is it any wonder that 'Sandman mystery theatre' failed to engage the audiences of it's parent title, with it's noir-ish interpretation of a Golden Age mystery man's period piece adventures? Matt Wagner, the series' principal writer is currently facing similar problems with 'Madam Xanadu', and it's doubtful that the title will mimic the seven year life span of the Sandman spin off, launched at the height of the 90-ies comics boom.

Nowadays, there is nothing wrong with launching a series geared toward existing audience, providing that it includes the new readers. When starting a genre title that is not a spin-off though, the publishers should try to present a mainstream offering that uses the creators' craft and talent to tell a story first and foremost. That is, if they seriously attempt to attract the customers outside of their traditional, aging base. Focusing on the revamps of decades old superhero character minutiae doesn't seem to appeal to a modern, literate audience that wants to start at a ground level, with a clearly labeled first volume of a title that attracts them conceptually. Publishing a series with a concrete goal of tying up continuity trivia and half-heartedly revamping the ideas behind the original superhero team, that was the "Justice Society of America" before Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges took over the writing reins doesn't get the new readers to post their reviews on online bookstore websites.

Instead, their "Fables" audience evidently doesn't want to crossover, leaving the publisher to hopefully try again to engage their attention, before they get too disillusioned with the self-referential nature of their new hobby.

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