Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Visit to DC Nation

I was pretty caught off guard by DC editor Matt Idelson's June 13th DC Nation column. So caught off guard, in fact, that I wasn't sure how to react or respond immediately. I mean, when you spend as much time online giving free, unsoliticted, unread and untaken advice to DC editors as I do, you get into a groove of coming online once a day to engage in a few rounds of armchair editing and then promptly moving on to the next worthwhile subject. So when a DC editor publicly says, "Hey readers, little help here—What do you think we oughta do about this problem of ours?" it's so out of the ordinary that it pretty much completely stymied me.

Idelson's column dealt with the strategies for dealing with late books, an increasing problem among the Big Two publishers, and one that is most often framed by editors as a lose-lose one, where they must choose between their comics being good or their comics shipping on time. My initial impulse was, naturally enough, to simply point and laugh, as the Internet in general did when Eddie Berganza's incredibly out-of-touch column on Supergirl ran in the same space that Idelson's recently did.

But he does seem to be asking a serious question (even though I can't believe he's seriously serious about this issue because the solution seems so obvious), so I'm going to try and give him a serious answer. After all, how often is it that DC editors actually are interested in a subject about the operation of their business that I actually have a serious opinion on?

"What're editors to do when they can't win?" Idelson begins, which seems like an awfully negative place to start with, but perhaps he just wanted a catchy way to start his column. (We in the article-writing business call this a "lead.")

Idelson continues:

As every fan knows, there comes a time during the production of a book when things run behind schedule. Sometimes it's the writer, sometimes it's the artist… even the inkers and colorists run into jams. And it seems like there's no good solution. Editors have three options open to them.

Just three? Uh-oh.

Back in the ancient days of comics, before the Internet, cable and voicemail on our phones instead of answering machines, we'd keep an inventory story in the drawer. The issue was written and drawn months prior in case of emergency. But nowadays it seems like readers react poorly – they know they're reading an inventory story. I guess part of the reason for this is that stories today are so concretely focused on the present, and how it will impact the future of the character. There's little patience for stories that fill in gaps from the past.

The next option is to bring in a guest writer or artist to keep the current story arc going. But that's met with frustration by the readers, who wanted to see a certain team remain intact for this most important of stories. I often hear fans and editors alike bemoaning the inability of creative teams to produce twelve issues a year like they did in the good old days. And yet if you go back over the last forty-plus years of comics publishing, you'll find very, very few creative teams did all the work in a given year. I suppose the general similarity between most artists' styles has fooled us into thinking a given artist did more work "back then" than they really did.

And so the last option is not to put the book out until it's ready to go, regardless of the schedule — it's not an inventory, and it's been produced by the main creative team, so everyone's happy, right? Wrong. Because really, who wants to go to the comics store and not find their book waiting for them? I know that would drive me crazy when I was centering my week around my next comics run.

Idelson notes that all three of these seem to annoy about a third of readers, and that it's a bit of a "pain in the butt" for editors. He finishes up with this: "I'm curious to know—how do you, the reader feel we should proceed? What would you want us to do? Regardless of the answer, I guess the bottom line is that you can't please everyone. The real question is: how can we, the editors, please the most people?"

If this column is reflective of the way that Idelson and the rest of DC editorial actually frames the problem of late books (and I have no reason to believe that it's not), then it seems to me they're missing a rather important point about late books. All late books are not the same, and the three solutions, with their three attendant downsides, cannot be applied to all late books in the same way, nor will they necessarily elicit the same reactions.

It honestly depends on the book—some are creator driven, some are schedule/event driven and some are character driven.

Let's take the last solution Idleson offers first, the don't-start-publishing-it-until-it's-turned-in-and-ready-to-go one. Ideally, a company DC's size would absolutely never have to solicit a book before the entire story arc is ready to go. To put blind faith in the fact that Jim Lee can draw three 22-page issues in the span of 60 days, for example, seems a little unrealistic, and you would think the company would be cautious about making promises they're not 100-percent sure they can keep. When the books are creator-driven, stand alone, out-of-continuity vanity projects—books that are completely defined by the creators creating them, and the interest in the books rests solely on who's doing them—then yes, for God's sake, don't publish it until it's ready.

We read All-Star Superman because it's Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely doing Superman; we read All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder because it's Jim Lee and Frank Miller doing Batman. Justice? It's Alex Ross, painting Challenge of the Super-Friends. I can think of a few other books that DC is currently publishing that fits this critera, like Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, or the other two announced All-Star books, and that's probably all.

Having Daniel Bereton come in to paint every other issue of Justice would have been a disaster, obviously, because no one cared if they had to wait, just so long as we eventually got it.

Yeah, we don’t like waiting—in a perfect world, Morrison and Quitely's All-Star Superman would ship 365 days a year—but we'll wait if we have to because we know what we want might take a little longer than usual.

Also, these books are all self-contained, occurring in their own little continuitiverses, so if Quitely is kidnapped and DC can't negotiate his release for six months, it's not like the whole DCU line will crash and burn. In other words, for books like these, there's no real negative to either waiting until you have a bunch down to start soliciting, or simply not having them out monthly (other than that it would be better if they were). I think if you look at the sales figures, they bear this out. As much as Newsarama.com posters will make fun of All-Star Batman, for example, it still sells over 100,000 copies whenever it does come out.

So for your All-Stars and your Justice and Shazam!:MSoE, forget the schedule. Be as lazy as you want. No one really cares, and there are no serious adverse effects to the lateness.

Of course, these books are the easy ones. What do you do with the mainline, DCU books? The ones that do all interlock with one another to a certain degree, the ones you can't not publish?

The first thing you do is that you only hire professionals with strong reputations of meeting their deadlines for the creative rosters on these books.

What was most baffling to me about the Wonder Woman fuck-up, that is, canceling the title to relaunch it under Allen Heinberg, was that a) Nobody knows who the hell "Allen Heinberg" is, in comics or outside of it, so he was hardly a "get" worth missing months upon months of deadlines and sales for, b) The work he turned in was mediocre at best (I liked Young Avengers okay too, but I bet anyone able to string a few sentences together could have turned out a "Who Is Wonder Woman?" arc that was just as literate as the one Heinberg sold you guys, and c) The guy had exactly one and a half previous comics credits (YA, and a JLA story arc co-written by Geoff Johns), and one of them was on a book that was plagued with delays. Presumably whichever genius hired Heinberg for the gig also knew that he had a demanding, full-time job in another media.

It wasn't exactly Stephen King asking to write Green Arrow; it was an inexperienced writer with a low Q Rating likely to blow deadlines who wanted stewardship of one of the company's major character properties.

More pertinent to the Supeman books is Action Comics. Yeah, Richard Donner. Great "get." How many comics has that guy done? What's he known for? A 30-year-old movie that wasn't very good? And who's drawing it? That guy who regularly blows deadlines? Theoretically, I can see how the new Action team could be a blockbuster—but only in theory. The truth of the matter is, if you would have just announced Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza and an up-and-coming artist like Renato Guedes, you would have effectively been in the exact same boat in terms of sales and stories, only without the embarrassment of looking like a schmuck.

The Donner/Johns/Kubert story, meanwhile, would have been a fine original graphic novel, the sort of thing civilians might pick up in book stores and direct market shoppers would have happily shelled out $25-$30 for…with plenty more waiting on the paperback edition (As you guys did with JLA: Earth 2, JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice and the Bizarro anthologies).

That way, the high profile team's work would be in addition to the Superman books, rather than replacing them all with...nothing, since the Donner/Johns/Kubert story never comes out anyway.

I suppose hindsight's always 20/20, but Donner and Kubert on DC's flagship monthly? That's just crazy.

The other solution requires planning ahead, and that is to build into your publishing strategy the fact that comic book art today is more sophisticated and takes longer to produce (In theory. Given the number of splash pages in some DC books, I have a hard time believing it actually takes more than 160 hours a month for some of these guys to produce 22 pages). Rather than announcing a single creative team and then waiting for the delays to creep up on them, hire a single writer for a single book (and if someone can't produce 12, 22-page scripts of mainstream, DCU superhero comics—as Heinberg seemed to have trouble with, and Jeph Loeb was having some difficulty with—than they probably shouldn't be working on mainstream, DCU superhero comics.

It’s not like you guys are publishing anything that requires more research and reference work than a flip through the The DC Comics Encyclopedia, are you? And writers don't even seem required to re-read the previous stories featuring the characters they're using, like Jodi Picoult, Adam Beechen and all those poor bastards toiling to make Countdown something other than horrible.

If pencil artists capable of drawing 12, 22-page comic books per year are harder and harder to find (Hey, give Norm Breyfogle a monthly, huh? Or how about that John Ostrander character? What's John McCrea doing? Or Rags Morales?), then why not simply hire two art teams with similar styles, and rotate them from story arc to story arc?

Andy Kubert can only get out eight issues of Batman per year? Fine, have Breyfogle pencil every other or every third story arc. The book looks consistent, it comes out bang on time, and, because the art changes are divided up by story arc as opposed to issue, trade readers will get a story that looks and reads the same issue to issue. The generational shift toward more individualized, and more stylized artwork makes finding art teams whose work look consistent with one another somewhat harder than it might have been 20 years ago, but it's hardly impossible. Rags Morales and Kevin Maguire's art would never be mistaken for on another's, for example, but they both work in highly detailed art, both are masters of subtle facial expressions, and both draw distinct characters (Unlike, say, Ed Benes, who only draws male and female characters, leaving it to the costuming and the colorists to differentiate them...which, by the way, is exactly how I draw. So, for God's sake, don't hire me...although I bet I could do 22 awful, awful pages per month for you).

I was more than a little surprised to see the derisive mention of inventory stories in your column, particularly since DC is currently publishing a comic book whose whole strategy is inventory stories. After Morrison's initial, three-part arc on JLA: Classified, hasn't every single story published within it been an inventory story, slated either for release as a standalone mini or one-shot or as a story arc in the flagship JLA title, back when it was to play host to rotating creative teams?

Inventory stories and fill-in stories don’t have to be bad. Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza, working together and alone, have picked up Dnner/Johns/Kubert's slack on Action, and given us a ton of fill-ins (as well as stalling for the too-slow-for-a-monthly Carlos Pacheco on Superman). And they've all been pretty great. How hard would it be to have regular writers and a special guest artist work up a timeless story to keep in the can to bust out in emergencies? (Between story arcs, rather than in the middle of them, of course.)

Some books that handled fill-ins really, really well were Starman, which would occasionally do a "Times Past" story set in the past (thus allowing for a fill-in artist to come in without a jarring or even noticeable change in the art), or Johns' run on The Flash, which would occasionally offer "Rogue Profiles" giving us the characters' origins and how those tie in to the story in general.

With the exception of maybe titles starring brand-new characters like Blue Beetle, I don't see why the Rogues Profile strategy couldn't be applied to almost any DCU title. Remember Busiek's all-Prankster done-in-one fill in? That was a great comic book. How hard would it be to have such stories done ahead of time and sitting in the can on other prominent members of Superman's supporting cast?

So forget the three options you mentioned, and the lose/lose/lose proposition, and simply do this:

1.) Remember not all books are created equal. All-Star Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman and Countdown are three different books with different sets of expectations from fans, and the solution to avoiding lateness is different in all three cases.


2.) Plan ahead. Hire professionals with proven track records for the monthly, main line books (those set in the DCU), and give untested newcomers from other media and/or hot artists and writers with records of deadline-missing the opportunity to work out of continuity or on minis and original graphic novels. Have high-quality inventory stories ready to go. And build a secondary art team or occasional special guest-artists (for done-in-one villain profiles or flashback stories) built into your publishing strategy from the get go.


James Figueiredo said...

You make some *really* good points, there.

I was particularly stunned at how screwed-up the Wonder Woman relaunch was. And, man was the follow-up to that a messy one...They could have at least given Jordi Picoult a minumum set of continuity points and character personality traits she couldn't overlook.

Anyway, I really wish someone at DC's reading all the input from the internet, they sure as hell need it.


Strangevisitor said...

Cute picture!