Friday, 5 August 2011


While it may be a very welcome fact that book publishers have discovered comic strips, I fear it owes more to the fact that general sales of books are declining and that twice as much can be charged for a graphic novel. As with so many other aspects of the comic strip it is aimed at the adult reader, completely bypassing the younger reader which forms the bedrock of comic strips as a mass medium (again keeping sight of our fundamental aim: re-establishing the comic strip as a mass medium).

The decline in book sales is an indicator of the general “dumbing down” in society, with visual media taking the place of the written word. Movies, television and video games now rule, requiring very little effort from their audience. The comic strip can benefit from this cultural trend, offering an experience which floats somewhere between the written word and visual media. We are entering a period of transition which seems tailor made for our medium.

If one adds the rise of the Asian markets, which are eager to learn the English language as a way of trading with the west, and for whom comics are an accessible way of helping their kids to learn English, it seems now is the time for the comic strip to come to the fore.

When I first went to school I could not speak or read English, and had to attend special classes to catch up with the rest of my predominantly English classmates. I made swift progress because I augmented the usual Janet and John books with comics which I could gradually decipher. I slowly began to understand what these characters were saying to each other having been attracted to them by the artwork (I only read speech balloons at first and didn’t bother with “boring” captions).

I entered a primary school being unable to read but in the first year of my secondary school I got the best grades in English for the entire year, not just my class (and I still mostly read comic books). So I can attest to the teaching power of comic books when it comes to learning English.

Unfortunately many book publishers hire editors with no experience in comic books, who in turn often hire creators whose first work in comic strips is a graphic novel. A graphic novel should be the destination for a creator, not the starting point. Creators, especially artists, grow with each job they complete and see in print. Therefore in the early stages of a career it is useful to work on short comic strips, which unfortunately there are all too few of now.

UK and US book publishers are also going straight to book form, and not publishing magazines. The medium has been established in other countries by publishing serialized comic strips in weekly or monthly magazines which are then collected into books. The subject matter for US and UK graphic novels is also not mainstream, but the type of  marginal books which are only published in other countries because they have a thriving mainstream market. Once again this shows a failure in understanding the basics.

The best selling graphic novels in France sell almost half a million copies, and have built up their readership over the years with various collections, and having started in magazines. The US and UK book markets will never achieve those figures until they accept that they are possible if they change the way they publish. Perhaps the book trade will learn the lessons that the comic book market has been unwilling to, after all one would hope that the book trade is run by business people who act in a more business like fashion.

My fear is that the book trade is merely looking for a quick fix to its own problems and has little stomach for the long term investment needed to nurture a new market. The sector’s interest in graphic novels may owe more to the number of movies based on them than any real interest in (or understanding of) the medium, but any glimmer of expansion of the medium is to be welcomed.

The interest in graphic novels, which is generated by their adaptation into big budget Hollywood movies, has attracted novelists and graphic artists to the field who have suddenly revealed a life long interest in the medium (even stand up comedians are hoping their graphic novel will be turned into a movie!). Unfortunately the medium in the UK and US is desperately trying to establish itself with a wider audience, and I’m afraid I would have to say that the last thing it needs is creators who have absolutely no experience in the creation of comic books.

Book publishers do already have relationships with many of these people and find it easier to deal with them. They also find it very easy to adapt books into graphic novels as they are on familiar ground, which has led to a plethora of classic comics. The market is awash with endless adaptations of Shakespeare, and flooded with Dickens etc. Perhaps the book market is more like the comic book market than I thought as it just does what is “easy”.

One problem which established comic book creators do present the book market with is the lack of many long term collaborations. The mainstream market does not follow the comic book fan press and keep up to date on all the creators’ activities. They expect books to look and read the same each time they pick them up, which gives writer/artists a distinct advantage over creative teams (unless they make long term partnerships).

This feeds in to the fundamental strength of the comic strip, the establishment of a character represented in a specific style (as I explained earlier). It is the specialist comic book market which has allowed characters to morph into mere shadows of themselves being changed every few months by migratory creators. Many newspaper strips have retained their distinctive visual style (and popularity) while being produced by a succession of creators, because they maintain a “house style”.

Book publishers also seem to fall into the trap of hiring a creator who has already been published by another book publisher. I would point out that if the first publisher has not gone back to that creator and commissioned a second book it is because the first book didn’t sell. Unfortunately there are a fair few creators who have produced single graphic novels for a variety of publishers. Inexperienced editors obviously feel they are on safe ground with these creators but if they delivered sales then they would still be working for the first publisher.

It is for this reason that weekly and monthly anthologies lead to successful book collections, the readers tell the editors which strips are their favourites. The graphic novel collections are then not a complete shot in the dark but a reaction to readers’ response. Editors are therefore not scrambling around gambling on creators and taking the safe route of someone who they know has at least been published before.

In Japan and Europe comic strip collections come in fairly standard sizes, which the general public are used to, while in the US and UK graphic novels come in all different shapes and sizes and are treated more like art books. If UK and US publishers want to sell their products to foreign markets then they would do well to package them in formats which the foreign markets are familiar with.

The high cost of graphic novels is something which cannot be ignored. If I read an average paperback on the way to and from work every day it might cost £6.99 and take me all week to read. In that time I could read about 10 graphic novels, most of which are priced over £10 (at a conservative estimate we’re probably over £150 for a week’s reading material)! On a purely economic level there is a huge disparity between the two media. This means that the graphic novel becomes a bit of a treat and something to look forward to (the publication of your favourite character’s latest collection), savoured in the comfort of your own home.

The attention drawn to the graphic novel thanks to movie adaptations has attracted many creators from outside the medium. Unfortunately the market is not established yet and there is a distinct lack of seasoned professionals who have switched from the direct sales market and made concerted efforts to reach a more mainstream market. It’s true that after a great many years of producing basically whatever they want (as many of the top names can) it is difficult to produce work to appeal to an audience that is unfamiliar with comic strips. The different pay system, a small advance against royalties instead of a guaranteed page rate, is also a bit of a culture shock for long standing comic professionals.

There is a huge talent pool made up of seasoned pros that have not been given carte blanche by comic book publishers but could easily adapt to the new mainstream type of work given the opportunity. This would be much better than graphic novels being produced by first timers and people who just fancy having a go at a graphic novel (including stand up comedians!).

The book trade is still trying to establish the graphic novel market in the UK and the US and has to be sure of the material it puts out and whether it is going to lead to more sales. If a customer decides to give graphic novels a chance and picks up a sub-standard piece of work which puts him off the medium then we’ve lost that reader, possibly forever. He can go see a couple of awful movies and not stop going to the movies because that medium is established (he knows not all movies are awful – just most of them). The graphic novel does not have that luxury, for most people it’s a new thing which they’ve never tried before, therefore quality control at this early stage is important.

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