Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Punk Comics Manifesto

Time, I think, to synthesize several thoughts I've been having about comics as a medium and an industry into a single statement. My hope is to get this read and seen as a movement--the Punk Comics Movement, if you will--however, I'm uncomfortably limited in my experience of starting movements, so I'll probably settle for posting this everywhere they won't take it down and hoping people pass it on. Which I freely give permission to do, by the way--I give anyone who wants permission to copy and repost this in any forum, anywhere, so long as the contents are unaltered. I'd like you to give me credit, but I'm sure it'll get dropped off somewhere along the line--that's OK, the ideas are more important, and if anonymity is the price of fame, then so be it.

The Punk Comics Movement can be summed up in two simple statements, one for the artistic side of comics, one for the business side. (Once you read these two statements, it may or may not be apparent to you why I'm calling it "punk comics".) The artistic Punk Comics Manifesto is, "Write this comic like it was the only one anyone was ever going to read." The business Punk Comics Manifesto is, "Everyone should be reading comics." Those two statements might seem mutually exclusive, but read on.

1. "Write this comic like it was the only one anyone was ever going to read." You can break this statement down into two parts--first, assume that the comic you're writing is the first one that someone has ever read, and second, don't expect them to be picking up the next one you write. A good comic should always be self-contained.

There was a time when this was virtually taken for granted in the comic industry. Reader turnover was considered to be complete every two years, and so it was assumed that anytime you wrote a comic book, you were writing it for an audience that didn't know about anything that happened more than two years ago. In addition, with spotty newsstand distribution, it was considered to be so difficult to follow a comic for more than a few months that issues had to be self-contained to avoid reader frustration. These two notions have been almost totally abandoned over the years; in much the same way Punk Rock went back to the roots of the genre and simplified the message, Punk Comics aims to do the same thing.

A. Assume the comic you're writing is the first one that someone has ever read. You should assume that, really--more than assume, you should hope it. You should always hope, as a writer, that every comic you write is attracting a new reader, at least one, and you should write with that new reader in mind. Which means that you have to, absolutely have to, write an issue that a first-time reader can pick up and immediately understand. If you're writing an issue of the Flash, make sure somewhere in that issue is an explanation of who the Flash is and what he's all about--it doesn't have to be long, or elaborate, but it needs to be there. If you're bringing back Electro, explain who he is and why he's dangerous--even just a brief, "Uh-oh, it's Electro again! Last time we fought, he nearly killed me with his electric blasts!" is better than no explanation at all. Characters with backstories so complicated they need elaborate, lengthy explanations (or worse, stories with no point beyond explaining backstories from existing characters) shouldn't be involved. Simplify, simplify, simplify, and assume that your reader knows nothing.

B. Don't expect them to be picking up the next comic you write. A comic takes an enormous amount of time and effort to produce, meaning that there's a substantial wait on the part of the reader for each individual comics story. Producing a story with no pay-off, a story that ends on a cliff-hanger, is essentially telling the reader, "This story is so special that it is worth an entire month of your time to wait for the ending." Producing a ten-part story is telling the reader, "This story is so special that it is worth ten months of your time and thirty dollars of your money to wait for the ending." That's a lot to ask of the reader, and you should do it only rarely.

Instead, the medium should fit the message. If you have a comics story that will be 200 pages long and paced like a novel, write it as a 200-page graphic novel. Don't break it down into ten 20-page chunks just to fit a century-old idea of how comics are sold. If you're publishing a monthly 32-page comic, put a pay-off in at the end of every thirty-two page issue, even if you're also establishing longer plot threads that will pay off more for the returning reader. If you're worried that you're providing a "jumping-off" point for people to stop reading, then you don't have enough faith in your writing talent. Tease them into buying more, yes; entice them, lure them, interest them. But don't expect their continued patronage, and certainly don't demand it by writing a story that never seems to end.

(And yes, people will point to Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, both of whom wrote serialized graphic novels--but both Moore on Swamp Thing and Gaiman on Sandman had quite a few stand-alone issues, too. And, of course, with two exceptions, you're not Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, so you probably can't get away with what they can.)

2. "Everyone should be reading comics." The comic book industry has sunk into a ghetto. Their marketing muscles have atrophied from long disuse, and they no longer even seem to have an awareness that there's a world outside of the comic store; they consider it a far-reaching, radical step to put their product in bookstores, in the little section for "graphic novels" that's being slowly edged aside by waves of better-marketed Japanese imports. This has to change.

The comic medium has the potential to be the most pervasive in the world. Comics combine the accessibility of television or film with the intellect and ability to express complex concepts of books. They should be able to display the same breadth of subject matter as books, as films, as any other medium out there. And yet, if you look at them now, they are predominantly action-adventure material of a single sub-genre (the superhero) exclusively sold in a single type of store. Whereas books are sold in grocery stores and drugstores, videos are sold in K-Marts and convenience stores, and magazine racks are in practically every store large enough to hold them.

Comics companies need to experiment with format, with price, with subject matter. Start a line of romance digest comics, paperback-sized, and sell them in bookstores next to the Harlequin Romances. Co-produce a line of educational comics with the makers of Cliff's Notes. Create magazine-sized "Treasury" comics that you can sell next to Disney Adventures and Nickelodeon Magazine. Market a line of teen fantasy comics to sell to the girls who buy Tiger Beat, and a boy's action comics line to sell in video game stores. Stop thinking that comics have to be 32 pages long, all the same length and width, and sold in comics stores to the fanboys. Readers are not going to walk through your door and demand your product. You must find them.

3. Conclusion: Comics need to be more accessible. To the writers, this means writing a comic that anyone can pick up and enjoy, not simply an infinitesimal fragment of a never-ending soap opera. To the publishers, this means putting the comic out where anyone can find it, where it is the perfect impulse purchase instead of the province of a dwindling number of devoted enthusiasts.

Punk Comics. This is a pen. This is a pencil. Now start your own.

13 comments:

Arturo said...

Hmmm.... I remember reading the comics when I was young, in Mexico, where we often got long runs of old 60s comics just-translated. I remember even then, in my pre-teen years, a constant irritation at feeling like the comic was "talking down" to me by repeating, ad nauseam, things about character backgrounds...

I see your point, but there is a very fine line to thread between "making every issue a good and resonable point for someone to jump in", and "starting from scratch every issue." No doubt you are advocating the former. For example, a little insert at the beginning of the story reminding us of the "origin" of the superhero (this was relatively common; sort of like a voiceover at the beginning of a TV show... "A lightning strike on his chemical equipment imbued Barry Allen with the powers of... The Flash!") is good; a two panel flashback showing us his origin is bad. An aside about the powers of the villain, as you suggest, good. An extended exposition-dialogue between the hero and the villain to tell us who is who and why they hate each other, bad. And we've certainly seen a good share of the latter, just as we've seen needlessly serialized and over-complicated story arcs.

John Seavey said...

It is true that all too often, "old-school" comics tended to over-elaborate and over-do their recaps--'Secret Wars', where Jim Shooter (a very old-school Marvel writer) felt the need to recap everything that had happened every two issues, got profoundly irritating when read in one trade paperback as opposed to twelve monthly issues.

But I think that comics have decided to deal with that 'very fine line' by running as far away from it as they could. :) In JSA, Geoff Johns introduced Yolanda Montez' brother as a new supporting character...which is fine, but it did require quite a bit of pre-existing knowledge to get why that was significant. (Yolanda Montez was introduced during 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' as the new Wildcat, she died alongside several other heroes in a fight against Eclipso in 'Eclipso' #13, which leaves her brother with an admiration for the JSA and a hatred of Eclipso.)

That's the point where you start longing to be "talked down" to, if only a bit. :)

def said...

agreed. I'm trying to get back into comics, but it seems to just be through trades. The current market is hostile to single issue sales. (cost is a big issue alienating casual readers)

captainfur said...

I can't help but agree with you all, as always, the point inbetween is the perfect escenario, as in "you can't spend two pages in a flashback scene to put everybody up to date but it's absolutely right to have a recap page (kind of what Marvel's doing since the year 2001) or a little introduction in the form of a tagline in each issue (as Arturo said in his comment). In my opinion, the publishers are to blame. they simply don't market to everybody they could, they have grown more and more confident in the power an reliability of the fanboy, which is, again in my opinion, nonexisten.

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Anonymous said...

Does this mean *every* time Wolverine appears (which is all too frequently) we have to sit through a line about his unbreakable, adamantium-laced bones?! Fuggetaboutit.