Every print publication has changed dramatically in recent years, but the simple fact of having changed as opposed to, for example, having ceased wholly to exist, must needs be regarded as a limited victory. Few publications have changed as thoroughly or unusually as serial comic books, as far as I can tell, or as much for the unqualified good. Superhero comics were basically the whole market for several decades–garish, absurd four-color fantasies that contained improbably ambitious forays into experimental art in the early years, led by guys like Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby who made flamboyantly original characters such as Nick Fury and The Fantastic Four leap off the page, frequently literally.
These rarely got any official recognition beyond the occasional Lichtensteinian homage, most of which sneeringly insinuated that the comics artists were primitives unaware that they’d been doing anything groundbreaking. Oddly enough, what seemed to change public perception of comics art was mostly a surge in the quality of comics writing, particularly the “British Invasion” of the 1980’s, during which several workaday sci-fi writers from the UK landed jobs working for one of the industry’s unsung heroines, a DC Comics editor named Karen Berger. Berger cobbled together a little fiefdom of unpopular characters and gave them to her new stable of eager hacks to reinvent; in turn, those hacks blossomed into rock stars like Grant Morrison, the great Alan Moore, and, of course, Neil Gaiman. Not coincidentally, this generation of writers was the last group of promiscuously creative artists working for the Big Two (DC and its primary competition, Marvel Comics), but the miniature renaissance earned so much media coverage that Heidi MacDonald, who runs the industry’s best blog, calls the lazy retreads that crop up every few years CAFKAs, in reference to the inevitable headline (“Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore!”).
There are, of course, still very good writers and artists at both companies, but strictly in terms of brand new intellectual property like Kirby’s Marvel Universe and Gaiman’s “Sandman” pantheon, the current crop of superhero talent keep their powder conspicuously dry for projects they don’t have to sign over, body and soul, to the publishers–both DC and Marvel own ask the characters inhabiting their “universes,” despite the companies’ mutual policy of treating artists and writers roughly the same way you might treat a temp who had been caught sleeping at his desk on multiple occasions. The more cartoonish mistreatment has abated somewhat in recent years, though the idea of returning rights to creators, or indeed, cutting creators in on a reasonable share of the money made from movies based on their ideas, is of course out of the question. Rather, the page rates have gotten better, and the occasional movie deal can be finagled by a talented writer who might look kindly on the company if it made itself more tractable. But, largely because of the inexcusable behavior of companies like DC and Marvel to their freelance employees, superhero comics with familiar names like Batman and Captain America in the titles have lost not only financial but intellectual market share to names you’re less likely to see in the credits to a Hollywood blockbuster than in the table of contents to the New York Review of Books—Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Seth, Charles Burns, Los Bros Hernandez.
What’s been particularly interesting to watch over the last few years has been the change in format all of the medium’s best artists have endured and sometimes instigated: Ware, Clowes, Seth, Burns and the Hernandezes, for example, all wrote and illustrated serialized comics that sat on the shelves next to “Action Comics” and “Spawn.” But comics were the only sector of the publishing world to undergo a massive boom during the Books-a-Million and Borders years, and that was because those bookstores discovered how profitable a well-curated graphic novels section could be, not just with kids, but with adults.
Some of this is sort of sad, if you’re a nostalgia junkie (and comics collectors are nostalgia junkies, down to the bones)-Ware and Clowes, in particular, produced gorgeous, if sporadically published editions of “The Acme Novelty Library” and “Eightball,” respectively. Both men are pretty serious artists-Ware an obsessive miniaturist with a penchant for the gloriously pathetic, Clowes an American art wonk whose work sometimes apes Syd Hoff or Charles Schulz while dealing with human behavior at its nastiest. As these periodicals started seeing wider and wider gaps between issues, they became less vehicles for the artists’ work and more obviously indulgences. Both had earned public notices for their work by 2001; by 2005, Clowes had put out the final two issues of “Eightball,” both of them containing full graphic novels.
As a reader, this was incredibly exciting-“Eightball” #23 might be the best single issue of a serial comic anyone’s ever published. You can buy the slightly revised graphic novel version (it’s called “Ice Haven”) and while it’s excellent, the thrill of cracking open a new comic book isn’t really reproducible on the bookshelf, especially when the issue in question might draw on anything from “Mad” magazine to Jack Chick’s religious tract minicomics. You genuinely never knew what to expect. In terms of content, Ware was a little more predictable; the format, though, was always astonishing. Some books were little pamphlets with cardstock covers, some were trade paperback, two were gigantic volumes about half the size of a broadsheet newspaper page, filled with some of the most depressingly existential cartoons ever drawn (title: “The Acme Novelty Joke Book”).
What the serial format does for comics, perhaps obviously, is allow the reader a chance to get a little bit of the story as the author figures it out. With artists like Ware, the value of this sort of thing can’t be overstated-he’s a recursive, self-doubting guy who infamously buys copies of his juvenalia so that he can destroy them, and his unfinished project “Rusty Brown” will either be one of the best graphic novels ever published or one of the best graphic novels never finished. You can’t read it anywhere but in the pages of “Acme,” and so the completed stories from the same series (“Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth” and “Building Stories”) are the “graphic novels” (ugh) people know him best by.
It also puts a certain amount of onus on the artist-hey, Chris, where IS “Acme” #21, anyway?-and that may be a reason to knock it off once you’ve gotten successful enough to make enough money to live off of with gallery exhibitions, publication design projects, and royalties. Who can blame you? It’s not like Michael Chabon has to turn in a new chapter every month so no one goes, “What happened to that guy? He hasn’t written a novel in 18 months!”
But as a reader, all I can say is “Up with serialization.” There’s an excluded middle between the full-form, novelistic stories and the neverending superhero sagas, and it contains the books I’m most excited about, as well as a wider range of subject matter than either. “Love & Rockets,” for example, was a regular feature in comic book stores for decades before the indie comic industry finally disengaged itself from the specialty store market and was quickly replaced by racks of $30 action figures. Now it’s an annual-ish magazine that still chronicles the beautifully written, lovingly rendered stories of life among young Mexican and Mexican-American men and women, its cast of characters now so vast and complex that the authors-principally Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, though their brother Mario occasionally contributes-simply tell short stories set in their own huge world. It’s completely unthreatening to anyone new to “L&R,” but it’s also a continuation of what is arguably the best ongoing comics story ever written.
Charles Burns serialized his amazing graphic novel “Black Hole” over ten years in pamphlet format; his new book comes out in giant, European-style graphic albums that mimic the “Tintin” books. Seth’s “Palookaville,” like “Acme,” is now an annual, filled with essays on the model he’s building of the fictional Canadian city where his stories are set. The more freewheeling sci-fi or fantasy or horror comics-Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy,” Brian K. Vaughan’s “Saga”-are published in magazine format either to appease the artists or to help sustain interest from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, but they’re much more fun and easier to read in paperback. Comics nerds even have a term for it-“waiting for the trade.”
What’s instructive is how badly most superhero books fare in this format. DC and Marvel are hip to the idea-like clockwork, every six issues of their major series come out in paperback form with a catchy title and a trade dress that suggests other books to buy (sometimes the spines form a single image with all the other paperbacks you have to read to understand what the hell is happening). But they’re almost uniformly terrible, with a few exceptions such as Mark Waid’s great “Daredevil” stories and China Mieville’s ultraweird “Dial H”-also the last book Berger edited for DC, as it happens.
So that’s what’s instructive, and what’s a little sad is that the art of the 22- or 48-page story has been lost, probably permanently. They’re still around, but almost no one reads them; the best recent one is Grant Morrison and Travel Foreman’s “The Ghost in the Fortress of Solitude” from “Action Comics” #13, though you can find others in IDW’s deliberately throwbacky “Rocketeer” comics (which was a throwback when it was new) and in whatever the great Sergio Aragones is doing at the moment.
It’s certainly not the moment to mourn for comics, or even superhero comics, but it may be a moment to mourn for magazines. The law of diminishing returns is eating away pitilessly at the bottom line at both DC and Marvel, and it’s hard to argue that they don’t deserve it-the companies earn billions of dollars off the backs of writers and artists who died in poverty, and now nobody wants to make anything new for them again. But the rapacious devotion to marketing above all else actually managed to sustain this weird little bubble of the periodical publishing world, where exaggerated heroes fight exaggerated villains in exaggerated ways that are still sometimes surprising and familiar. Take a look at your distorted reflection in it, once or twice, before it pops.
TEN BACK ISSUES I’D SUGGEST YOU READ:
“Groo” #100-“A Little Knowledge”
“Action Comics” (current) #13-“The Ghost in the Fortress of Solitude”
“Tom Strong” #2-“The Return of the Modular Man”
“Eightball” #23-“The Death Ray”
“Hellboy” #50-“Double Feature of Evil”
“Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual” #4-“Citizen Wayne”
“Hellblazer” #27-“Hold Me”
“War Stories” vol. 2, #4-“Archangel”
“Top 10” #8-“The Overview”