Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Icarus Syndrome

Another fun-packed weekend, complete with travelling long distances and little sleep, this comes as harsh contrast to my much preferred method of traveling little distances and long sleep.
We all suffer in the name of art, none more so than my girlfriend whom spent 8 hours in a tattoo studio getting an absolutely lovely back-piece done.
Still, whilst I was there, I re-read some old Hellblazer GN's, the recently released "Rare Cuts" and the brilliant return-to-form which was Ennis' "Son of Man", and one thing was made abundantly clear: Hellblazer is broken and needs fixing.

Hellblazer has pulled an Icarus.

From the dark beginnings of Delanos Newcastle mystique, through Ennis' character building (and best work I'd add), the oft-forgot Paul Jenkins run and into Ellis' short lived but well-realised stint; Hellblazer flew high. Too high.
And then came the dark-times.
Then came Azzarello.
I am sure this is going to come off as quite pretentious at times, but bear with me and try and remember one thing: I am not a patriotic person. Never have been. Nothing against the UK, there are worse places to live, but in the past and in the present, people get a little too caught up in the greatness which is "their homeland". Its associated glory like football fans who chant "we won" when actually all they did was drink beer and smack their wives about a bit. But I digress.
John Constantine is a Brit. He was created by a Brit, he walks like a Brit, talks like a Brit and for the first 145 issues of his comic series, he was written by a Brit. And that should never have changed.

I actually like Azzarello, I just realise their are some books he shouldn't write, like Batman, or Superman, or Hellblazer. By the same token, I wouldn't like to see Ellis writing Sonic the Hedgehog. Different books suite different people.

Azzarello is not a Brit, and as such his Hellblazer was sorely lacking in style and attitude, he rarely felt like "our John", not unlike the crappy movie which should have been called "Reeves Vs. the Devil 2", not Constantine. If you don't know the merits of a good old cup of tea, have never seen what Silk Cuts look like and don't feel a little piece of yourself die everytime you hear the first few notes to the Coronation Street theme, then you shouldn't be allowed to write Hellblazer.

Since that time, Hellblazer has struggled to find its way (Absolutely no offence meant to Mike Carey who I've heard is a very nice man, and I did really enjoy the "All His Engines" GN he wrote). Compared to the heights it reached in previous times, and partly due to the damage done by its Americanisation, it is still struggling to refind its place. In a world where Constantine cleaned up at the box-office and the TPB sales are way up throughout the industry, Hellblazer is still struggling to attract new readers, which is a crying shame for Vertigos flagship title.

Hellblazer is a book with a lot wrong with it: Ellis left the book under strained circumstances after DC refused to print the excellent story "Shoot", due to the badly timed Columbine High School Massacre (selfish selfish murdering bastards) and a Tpb range which, although extensive is incomplete and has no spine numbering, making the book less accessible to new readers.
Yet at its heart lies one of the best characters in the history of comicdom. Constantine - or John as long time readers no doubt refer to him as - feels like someone you've met, he transcends the pages of his comic book series, not only onto the screen and into other comic series but into reality. Constantine is at his best not when he's fighting devils or exorcising girls, but when he is being human. He makes mistakes, he cocks up, he is selfish, he can piss you off and that something we can all relate too.

And I would kill to write him.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


My Brain Hurts

This weekend was spent travelling to London, revising for my theory test and reading copius amounts of literature.
Animal Farm was conquered in one sitting, I am a long time Orwell fan but only just got around to reading his seminal classic. Its good. very good, but you should know that.

When that fell, I went straight onto Hunter S Thompsons "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign trail '72", a book which was mysteriously out of print during the last US Presidential Campaign, its re-release kept being delayed until - maybe out of frustrated anticipation - Hunter took his own life. Low and behold, new printing marking his death, with thoughts by less interesting people than himself on his life, yours for only £7.99. When did books get so expensive? There is no VAT on these things either.
Still, its shaping up to be an excellent book, though perhaps not as instantly accessable as Fear and Loathing in Vegas. The thing that really pisses me off about HST: I was meaning to read his books for ages and after a cancelled Amazon order (they couldnt provide on the Campaign Trail) I went onto Iain Banks. And then what happens? HST kills himself and I look like just another schmuck only reading his work because of the associated glory that comes with his death. God damn it.

Last week saw me reading the excellent Brave New World by Aldious Huxley, a brilliantly paced cautionary tale warning of the increasing dangers of consumerism, a book that hasn't aged a day since its 1932 publication. Nothing short of amazing and all the more fun that the majority of the book was absorbed whilst I was having a tattoo done. Two pastimes which shouldn't be mutually exclusive but due to the growing insular nature of todays society, they have become two hobbies which seem more and more disparate. Back in the studio in one week.
Catch 22 next week, and if I can find it: Farenheit 451.

Lots of good comics too: Couscous Express by the brilliant yet under-rated Brian Wood, She-Hulk Vol. 2, the sensationalist yet fun Battle Royale vols. 3 and 4, Goodbye Chunky Rice (by the author of Blankets).

All in all, some eclectic reading.

Finally managed to watch all of Dr. Strangelove without getting distrated by other vices too.

My Brain Hurts and I want to write but I am stuck at work.

My point though: An alarming amount of whom I might consider influences have or had interesting experiences with Mescalin. Should I look into it? Did they tap into something? Maybe Alan Moores fabled idea-space? Would my work improve? Would I get published?
Important questions each and every.
But then you think: "shit, most of them are dead."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

So are back issues worth it?

Now most comic shops these days seem to be cutting back on the back issue selection, but there still seems to be an exorbitant amount of comics that never seem to get to the readers hands. What does this mean for the future of the comic, the comic shop, and the reader?

So, you're a retailer and you have 50 copies of Batman #622 left, you miscalculated the orders after Jim Lee left and it turns out the Azzarello story just wasn't that good and the book has vented readers, but by the time you realised this you had already ordered the next three months worth of issues.
What do you do with the back issues? Is it better to sell a comic cheap if you have a lot of them, or do you charge the "going rate" and get top dollar while you can? Even if you do charge far less than wholesale for the comic, you still might not motivate a sale: comic fans tend to go into a store with an agenda, be it a specific Tpb, back issue or more often than not for this weeks new comics. The chance of them picking up an odd issue of Batman in the middle of a story-arc - even at 50p - is unlikely.

This is why the ordering system needs to change, the Wizard-hype machine can still generate all it needs to for 2-3 months, even still sell Previews a couple of months ahead of time, but comic stores shouldn't have to place their final order until 4-5 weeks ahead of shipment.

So are back issues worth it?

In a world where Marvel ships the Ultimate Elektra Tpb the week after issue 5 shipped, you have to believe that the trend seems to be moving away from back issues to the more accessible, reader friendly Tpb. Especially with the average Tpb costing far less than the single issues.
Problem for the retailer: The mark up for the Tpb or GN format is fairly shitty and ties up an awful lot of money awfully fast. 100 Tpbs in stock can tie up anything from £400-£1,000, which is an awful lot for an independent comic shop competing against Ottakers, Borders and the Internet. Now imagine the small indie shop with 2,000 + Tpbs in stock.

Its no wonder most comic shops seem to be either / or when it comes to Back Issues Vs. Tpbs, despite the fact that the two seem to cater to a different market.
Some comics are invariably written for the inevitable Trade release, most of the Ultimate line for example, and most creator owned miniseries. Much of the Vertigo line has had a much healthier response from Tpb release than periodicals. But there are still a lot of comics out there written for the monthly format, heralding back to the Buster Crabb days of Matinee cliff-hangers. Who can deny that ID Crisis was written as a monthly: causing rampant fan speculation in the four weeks between issues? Yet an awful lot of people I know are waiting for the Tpb.

So, in the argument for back issues against Tpbs: I have this solution: Both.

Picking just one writer as an example, and he is a writer I am not amazingly keen on so no-one can accuse me of favouritism: Grant Morrison. We live in a world where Marvel takes out of print New X-Men Tpbs to make way for Chuck Austen. Flex Mentallo has never been reprinted, due to legal constraints. Kill Your Boyfriend remains conspicuously absent from Vertigos much lamented impressive Trade list.

This is the main reasons why we need back issues as well as Tpbs: Completion and Choice.

Where do all the Comics Go???

Have you ever been to a Comic Convention? Have you travelled around to lots of different comic stores? Have you ever worked in a comic store?

If the answer to any of these is yes, then chances are you have looked around and noticed just how many comics there are unsold.

Sure, there are two ways of looking at back issue stocks; some stores have a definitive "Back Issue selection" such as Mile High, Silver Acre, Comic Connections...(I think I got away with that plug); whereas some stores have a much less respectable "Comics that haven't sold" bin such as London FP. Some stores just leave the comics cluttering up the shelf such as one Oxfordshire based store that still had Kamikaze #4 on the "New Comics" shelf 1 year after publication.
Either way, it adds up to a hell of a lot of unread comics sitting around doing nothing.

Lets look at the numbers for Marvels Top Selling Book: New Avengers; and one of DCs worst-selling-but-not-yet-cancelled-its-just-a-matter-of-time books: Trigger; for the last year. I used these books as example because they are about as diametrically opposed as you can get for two books published by the big boys.

Feb 04 Avengers #78 - 58,798
Feb 04 Avengers #79 - 55,014
Mar 04 Avengers #80 - 55,533
Apr 04 Avengers #81 - 54,987
May 04 Avengers #82 - 55,711
May 04 Avengers #83 - 55,280
Jun 04 Avengers #84 - 57,083
Jul 04 Avengers #500 - 140,033
Aug 04 n/a
Sep 04 Avengers #501 - 91,054
Sep 04 Avengers #502 - 93,105
Oct 04 n/a
Nov 04 Avengers #503 - 105,761
Nov 04 Avengers Finale - 101,431
Dec 05 New Avengers #1 - 280,286
Jan 05 New Avengers #2 - 155,742
Feb 05 New Avengers #3 - 148,973

Remember, these numbers are the numbers sold to retailers and have absolutely no baring on the number of issues actually sold to the consumer. The most important thing to remember with the month-to-month comparison is that retailers have to order 2-3 months in advance, meaning that we had ordered Avengers #502 before we had received #500, all we had to go on was the creators name, faith in the company and an awful lot of hype.
So, one thing we can tell straight away is that Bendis sells comics, but even the retailer doesn't know quite how well. The initial orders for Avengers #500 are great, and the book was well received as we can tell by the orders for issue #503, but the retailers were less than willing to risk high orders for 2-3 months without seeing any product or fan reaction, and rightly so.
So what does this mean for sales then? Are there 35,000 fans walking around with #500 desperately seeking issues 501-503 only to find not enough issues have been printed to meet demand? Are there 91,054 fans with complete sets of Avengers Disassembled and lots of overprinted issues of #500, #502 and 503 sitting around in comic shops? Or did the death of Hawkeye really alienate so many Marvel fans that no-one actually bought #503? The vocal minority would make you think yes, but that obviously isn't the case.

Marvel sold nearly twice as many issues of New Avengers #1 as they did issue #3.

How? The book is good. Had more or less the same variant incentive scheme. Solid storytelling, interesting, great artwork and it has a core group of A-list characters much like Morrisons JLA. How can it vent 140,000 issues in a two month period? I fail to see that 140,000 people all stood up and said "lets boycott this book, but we'll check out issue 1 first". Its not the destructive speculator era of the nineties anymore (thank god) so we can rule out speculative purchases for the majority of sales.

Obviously I have no way of proving this as there is absolutely no way of obtaining a record of how many comics actually reach the consumer, but it looks like something is going wrong somewhere between ordering and sell-through. And it leads to a lot of comics sitting around doing nothing.

Lets move on to Trigger, way down the sales chart at number 161.

161) TRIGGER (vertigo)
12/ 2004: Trigger #1 -- 14,019
01/ 2005: Trigger #2 -- 9,650
02/ 2005: Trigger #3 -- 8,891

The other interesting thing about this book is that its usually sent out in the DC Advance Preview Program, its a weekly mail-out for retailers wishing to sample comics the week before release so they can adjust sales accordingly. Amusingly, you can only adjust sales upwards as by the time the package ships its well past the reduce order date, which doesn't exist for UK retailers unless the book is three months late. But that's another story. But that can account for another 1,000 or so sales which may or may not be included in the figures above. Also, take into account the fact that DC overprints its books by about 30% as opposed to Marvels 10%.
The sales for this book could quite realistically be every Direct Market comic shop trying out 1 or 2 copies of each issue, because of the Vertigo banner- because you never know which Vertigo book might be the next Sandman or Preacher. This doesn't necessarily mean they are selling the book onto the consumer.
How many issues of Trigger are actually being read? 6,000? 5,000?

When you bear in mind how many collectors stop buying and sell their collection back to a store with the onset of marriage, or childbirth, or college, or puberty, it makes me ask the question: How many comics actually printed actually make it into a collection? Seventy Percent? Fifty Percent?

Think about it.