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Monday, July 21, 2008

 
Bummer -- The cartoonist Frank Santoro -- whose Cold Heat comic book series suspended publication after four issues due to low sales, and will see completion as a full-length graphic novel incorporating the four issues plus the rest of the material that would have seen print in future issues -- says the fact that people are "waiting for the trade" to experience Gilbert Hernandez's Speak of the Devil is "the bummer of this post-comics pamphlet era for alt and art comics," and indicates he may have more to say on the matter.

I've already asked my retailer to order a copy of the collected Speak of the Devil, eschewing its single-issue format, because I know that works by Los Bros Hernandez work best for me in collected form; but that's not to say Santoro is wrong, at all. I can, and do, totally dig his description of the thrill of the new, single-issue release of a series you love, which is why I am linking to his comments. And a few years ago, I would have been waiting for the single issues right along with him. In fact, I was doing just that with Cold Heat, the unfinished four issues of which sit in the "Santoro" section of my comics shortboxes like an open wound. Damn you, comics marketplace. Damn you, more attractive and durable collected graphic novel format. Damn you!

I kid; Santoro is not wrong. But neither am I for waiting for the trade on Speak of the Devil. I don't want to buy it twice, and a collected version was never in doubt. But in the market as it exists now, publishers should not commit to the single-issue format if they do not already have the resources and wherewithal to see through the single issue-run to its completion whether the single issues sell or not. I'm looking forward to the graphic novel version of Cold Heat, but those four orphans in my collection are an indicator of a real problem that needs to be solved by publishers. They, too, need to decide if the single-issue format is viable for them before ever releasing a single issue, or if it's in their best interest to "wait for the trade."

In the case of Cold Heat, the truth speaks for itself, sadly. The series read very, very well to me in single issues, once I read a few and got a feel for what creators BJ and Santoro were up to; but publisher Picturebox needed to be prepared for the indifferent reaction the series got from the marketplace (both readers and retailers), and needed to be prepared to ride that out and take the hit once they'd committed to single issues; clearly they were unprepared for the reality of the current market. How is Dark Horse and Speak of the Devil different? Clearly it is, although I expect to love Speak of the Devil as much as I love any other Gilbert Hernandez work (and I do love most of them), or as much as I loved the four issues of Cold Heat. It's a fascinating, and utterly unresolved dilemma.

But ultimately, starting a series in single issues is like opening a restaurant; you have a responsibility as a professional to be prepared to take massive losses until word of mouth reaches critical mass and you can expect to start, eventually, turning a profit. In the case of Dark Horse, I'd guess -- and it's just a guess -- that they have the capital shored up to withstand a financial loss on the single issues, and they believe in Gilbert Hernanderz's saleability enough in the collected, graphic novel format to be willing to wait to make most of their money on Speak of the Devil once it is all under one cover and being sold to bookstores and libraries.

And people like me, waiting for the trade. On Speak of the Devil willingly and consciously, and on Cold Heat, against my will and entirely due to the realities of the marketplace and Picturebox's failure to properly gauge the sales potential of single issues of the series. As I have often said, one of the stark realities of any commercial enterprise -- and artcomix are that, oftentimes, and obviously in the case of Cold Heat -- just because you build it, they will not come. There's more you have to do, if you expect to sell your non-superhero single issues through Diamond's almost-entirely superhero-obsessed network of stores. You must be patient. You must have capital shored up to protect against market indifference. You must be prepared to see your project through. Dark Horse was; Picturebox was not. As a critic, and as a reader, I have more at stake in the totality of Picturebox's line of books than I do Dark Horse's; Cold Heat represents the average, excellent Picturebox title; Speak of the Devil is something of an anomaly among Dark Horse's line of middlebrow, licensed titles with a somewhat built-in expectation of financial success (being that Dark Horse has a favoured position in Diamond's Previews catalog that Picturebox is unlikely to share in any universe that I can conceive of).

I was willing to support Cold Heat in single issues, because it's the format it obviously was built for from the very beginning. I preferred to wait for the trade on Speak of the Devil because I knew Dark Horse would collect it as a graphic novel. I would still have ordered the eventual Cold Heat collected edition, no question. But that's down to the fact that Santoro as an artist resides in a higher plane for me as a reader and a critic than Gilbert Hernandez does; I crave his work in all its iterations in which I can find it. I loved the hardcover Storeyville but would buy the newspaper-format edition from a decade ago in a heartbeat if I came across it in a comic book store. Hell, I would likely buy multiple copies. And yet I passed up Speak of the Devil every time I saw it on the stands in a comic book store. And, be aware, I do hold Gilbert Hernandez's work in high, high regard as an entity unto itself; I possess many of his stories three or four times over ("Poison River" being one example).

I have no conclusion here, and I apologize if it seemed I was leading up to one. Santoro's comments fascinated me and I urge you to click through to the link above and read what he has to say. I hope he finishes his thoughts on "waiting for the trade," because as a consumer of comics I am imperfect in my philosophy toward this issue, and I know it. I need more information. I need more good comic book stores that support projects I want without me having to advocate for them to the owner every single time. And I need more good comics like Cold Heat and Speak of the Devil.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Roger Green said...

As someone who has been both in the retail and publishing end of things, I must admit a great sympathy for the Santoro position. I wasn't paying attention to comics at that point when did the trade become the standard rather than what I guess they call "the floppy"? (Still have trouble with that term, but Whatever.) It seems reasonable that the publisher needs to make enough money on the periodicals to be able to do the trade.
And this particular situation saddens me because there will be people who DID by the floppy and will now, if they want the whole story, have to buy those four issues again.
Yet it is NOT part of the evil WCTMPBTW (Worldwide Conspiracy To Make People Buy Things Twice) which producers of DVDs are notorious for doing, but just a quirk of the marketplace.

22 July, 2008 06:42  
Blogger Frank Santoro said...

the saddest part about all this is, right out of the gate I sold 1,000 Storeyvilles through Comic Relief, Wow Cool, Last Gasp, Capital, Bud Plant and Diamond in '95. Now there's only Last Gasp and Diamond from that list.
I really thought, Picturebox and I really thought, we could sell enough Cold Heat pamphlets to keep printing the new issues, just BREAK EVEN. And we couldn't do that, that is how much the game has changed. We knew it was a tough sell but we did it for fun, because we love COMIC BOOKS not as some super series "launch" of a graphic novel, y'know?
Storeyville was a difficult work and if it would have been a pamphlet, I bet I could have sold more. So wrap your head round all that first, then talk to us about properly gauging the marketplace. Points taken but I was riffing on someone like Gilbert not getting reviewed mostly.

22 July, 2008 08:40  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Frank,

Understood, completely. I probably would have reviewed it if I had been picking up the singles, I guess was my point -- or if Dark Horse had bothered to send out review copies. But it never ceases to amaze me how little promotional effort is made by some publishers, a topic that probably deserves a post of its own.

22 July, 2008 09:04  

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