Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What I've Learned from Reading Print Comics

A few months ago, I started doing something I had never tried before: buying monthly comics from a real-life bricks-and-mortar comic book store. I've spent years reading webcomics, and I've ducked into comic book stores for the occasional trade, but I've never known the kid-on-Christmas joys of running down to the shop on Wednesdays for the latest issue of The Uncanny X-Men.

I admit, I didn't really expect the experience to be particularly revelatory. I figured I'd learn a thing or two about superhero books, and maybe gain a little insight into all those comic news sites I'm subscribed to. And I wanted to see how big corporations handle a medium I associate with individuals. It hasn't made me a superhero convert, I'm still a bit mystified at the Marvel/DC fan divide, but I am taking home a few significant lessons about reading and buying comics.

Reading comics should be a social activity. I don't know why this surprised me, but it did; buying comics is a social activity. You head down to the shop on Wednesday afternoon -- roughly the same time each Wednesday -- and buy your books. You shoot the shit with other folks who buy their comics at the same time you do. You talk about the books you're buying, this week's True Blood, the weather, whatever. You see roughly the same people each week and, over time, you get to know their opinions on this artist or that character. I'm a pretty hermetic person, but even I think it's kind of nice.

I've never found anything that's quite analogous for webcomics. I have some friends IRL who read webcomics, but we don't really critique webcomics in the same way print comics readers do. We don't discuss Hazel's role in Girls with Slingshots or how Randy Milholland handles other creators' characters or whether Fans! makes any damn sense half the time. We don't talk about the direction we'd like to see Questionable Content take or whether the titular character in Bruno is a Mary Sue and whether it matters.

Individual comics have comment sections or bulletin boards, and some of them are a lot of fun. I've probably spent more time reading Penny and Aggie's board than reading the comic itself. But the reading community hasn't developed a central place where it can discuss the wider ecosystem of webcomics. We have websites and blogs, but we're not polishing ourselves against one another. With a few glancing exceptions, we're not forming relationships with one another over our bickering and our shared admiration. We're not elevating the discourse about webcomics. We're not creating a central place for criticisms and small experiments and parodies. We're not providing a social resource for newbies to the webcomics scene. We're not even providing a scene outside the creative community.

I'm not saying that every act of webcomic reading should be a social one. We'll always have our late-night catharsis, our secret gems, our guilty pleasures. But this is one place where I think webcomic readers could stand to take a cue from our superhero-loving brethren.

Diversity is webcomics' greatest strength -- but also a profound weakness. Can we discuss how awesome King City is? If there's one book that made this whole "reading comics on paper" experiment worth it, it's King City. Every time a new issue comes out, I can look forward to thirty minutes spent in a surreal landscape filled with mutant gangsters and shameless puns.

But here's the thing. King City isn't a superhero comic. It's not put out by the Big Two (granted, it is put out by Image, which pulls some heavy hitters). Most of the comics I've found myself reaching for are from Vertigo, DC's more topically-diverse imprint -- books like iZombie, Sweet Tooth, Demo, and Daytripper. Most of the comics staring down at me from the new issues rack still star men and incredibly busty women in spandex -- and on top of that, they're now plastered with banners reading either "Brightest Day" or "The Heroic Age." It's absurd.

I often tell people that webcomics are awesome because for every "two dudes playing video games on a couch" comic, there is a comic about post-Reformation theologians or karmically-challenged Brooklynites or a grumpy wombat on a mystical quest or the zombie post-apocalypse or an alternate-history Arizona or female professional wrestlers. There are artists who put out clean and polished lines, others who prefer to leave theirs sketchy, and still others who rely primarily on clip art. While traditional print comics wring their hands over girl power and attracting younger readers, webcomickers offer plenty of honest-to-God feminism and teen drama. Webcomics have something for everyone, assuming you know where to look.

But this also means that webcomickers have to identify their target audience, grab 'em by the ears, and pitch and market their little hearts out. DC and Marvel can lure us in with new stories about familiar characters, even if we didn't grow up with superhero comics. You can bet I'll pick up Batman Beyond #1 this week, if only because I loved watching the show so much in high school. Webcomickers have to say a lot more than "Hey, remember how awesome Terry McGinnis was?"

The archive binge is optional. I was always reluctant to delve into superhero books because I figured I'd never get caught up. With all those decades of backstory, I wouldn't even know where to begin. I'm used to the webcomic archive binge, with years of comics at my fingertips.

Everyone assured me that you just dive right in. So I did.

And you know what? It's not so bad. Sure, the experience of reading Birds of Prey is richer if you've been reading Gotham City comics for years, but it's easy enough to get caught up in the story and get to know the characters without reading everything that came before. You can always go back and read it later.

I've been thinking about this a lot in light of Goats. Perhaps we as readers would discover more interesting comics if we weren't so obsessed with starting at the beginning. These days, I'm more willing to hit the "subscribe" button on a new comic and ride with it for a few weeks before diving back into the archives.

Paying for books isn't (that) painful. I'm a notorious cheapskate. My nice shoes come from Payless. I'm waiting for Groupon to offer a salon deal so I can get my hair cut. I live next to two grocery stores, but still walk a mile to the produce mart that sells three avocados for a dollar.

But making comics part of my entertainment outlay wasn't a big deal. It was at first, but then I started to think of it more like getting a couple of beers. Comics are just a different brand of social lubricant. I'm not spending eighty, a hundred bucks a week like some guys -- just a few books a week and a couple of things in trades (mostly Fables and The Walking Dead).

Then I started to feel guilty. I'll throw a few bucks to DC or Marvel or Wildstorm, but what about T Campbell, whose comics I've been reading since college? What about Randy Milholland whose warped optimism has been a perverse guiding light? What about all the creators whose comics kept me warm during the most awful year of my life? Getting myself in the habit of paying for comic content -- even a few dollars at a time -- has put me in a better frame of mind. Why not buy the occasional t-shirt or trade paperback, especially when it's a a comic I really dig? (Plea to T Campbell: Put out a Fans! treasury. Please.)

Sharing books beats sharing links. An interesting thing happened to me recently. My mom was visiting for a few days this month, and I showed her my copy of The Fart Party. She sat down, read most of the book, then left it on a chair in my living room. Fast forward a few days, and my law school roommate, a corporate litigator who has never expressed any particular interest in comics, is staying with me. I'm trying to get some work done when I suddenly look up and she's sitting there reading the book she's found on the chair.

"This is really funny," she tells me. "Why have I never heard of her before?"

I am speechless.

This is more or less why I bought the Octopus Pie treasury. I've been trying to convince my comic and non-comic-reading friends alike of Meredith Gran's brilliance, but when I send people the link, they assure me that they'll "get around to it eventually." As a person who has a lot of comics I plan to "get around to eventually," I know exactly what that means. I got my copy of There Are No Stars in Brooklyn just two days ago, and I've already loaned it out. Giving someone a physical book to read adds a little weight to your recommendation (about two pounds -- har, har), and gives your bailee a ticking clock. They have to read your book so they can return it to you. Just make sure you can trust the person you're loaning it to -- those things aren't cheap.

Comics advertising sucks in any medium. I recently started reading a new monthly comic called iZombie. Vertigo put a preview for iZombie in the back of its other monthly books, and by the time issue one finally came out, I was itching to get my hands on it. Good advertising? Only if I was already reading a Vertigo title. I like offbeat zombie books. I like snarky urban fantasy. I appreciate people who can reference Scooby Doo and be bittersweet all in the same 22 pages. But I wouldn't have known about iZombie if my local comic shop proprietor hadn't handed me a copy of Sweet Tooth on Day One.

There's a lot of great advertising that goes on within the webcomics network. Creators are great about throwing links to their favorite new comics. Project Wonderful is a neat "I'll scratch your back and you'll scratch mine" advertising network. And sites like ArtPatient and The Webcomic Overlook (not to mention this one) try to turn people on to new and interesting stuff. But as a marketing system, we're incomplete.

A lot of people think they don't like comics until they see Fun Home or Asterios Polyp reviewed in the New York Times. Too many people probably associate webcomics with xkcd or Cyanide and Happiness to the exclusion of everything else. When I think of webcomics, I think of a rich and varied landscape -- and there be literature in them there hills. The challenge is connecting the right comics with the right audience. For some webcomics, the right audience isn't people who are already reading webcomics; it's historical fiction buffs or Twilight fans or people who grew up watching Nickelodeon in the 90s. If webcomic creators want to grow their audience, they shouldn't make the mistake print companies do and keep drawing from the same well. They need to find the readers who will really fall for their particular comic -- even if those readers aren't already reading webcomics.


El Santo said...

Fantastic post, Lauren! I wish I could say more, but I more or less agree with everything you wrote here.

Lauren Davis said...

@El Santo: Thanks! I just wish I was better at providing solutions rather than just poking at problems.

Sophie said...

The trouble, as you so concisely point out here, is that it's almost impossible to get people who don't read webcomics to read a particular webcomic. The only (massive) exceptions I can really think of are XKCD and Hark A Vagrant, which have huge audiences of non-webcomics-crazed readers.

I think part of the problem for story-based webcomics (like mine, thanks for the shout-out BTW) is that people aren't likely to twitter or tumble or [insert media 2.0 device] a comic whose humor is contextual.

Maybe the trick is to just raise awareness of webcomics as a viable medium, as you're doing here, and at cons like NEWW, rather then try to market any particular comic. That way we all win.

*Knock on wood*

Lauren Davis said...

@Sophie: That's a big part of why I've been feeling warmer and fuzzier about print collections lately. It's much easier to get someone (especially someone who doesn't read comics) to read a webcomic if you can hand them a book.

But it's also about diversifying where we talk about webcomics. When I'm over at io9, I try to talk about sci-fi webcomics. Gunnerkrigg Court should be sold at school book fairs alongside books like Smile. NYC and Brooklyn media outlets should be all over comics like Darwin Carmichael and Octopus Pie. You've got a tougher task because your potential audience isn't sitting around refreshing reddit all day; they're working on art projects or writing term papers or reading Nerve and Salon. But they're out there, just waiting for the right person to tell them how awesome you are. They problem is, that person isn't me.

Incidentally, when I "pitch" Darwin Carmichael to my friends, I always explain the "Skittles' Owners" arc. It's where you guys really hit your stride and it's a great example of how smart your humor and worldbuilding is. Maybe it would make a good mini?

Any chance you're going to SDCC this year? I'd love to chat about this stuff in person.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Great post and thanks for the mention. It seems that interacting with a screen encourages solitary behavior - which maybe means that sharing webcomics has serious hurdles to overcome.

Still, I don't think it's impossible by any stretch. If everyone keeps poking away at the problem the most reliable solution will be found.


Sophie said...

I won't be around for the SDCC (I've currently living and working in South Korea) but I'll be back in NYC in time for NYCC and Jenn and I are definitely definitely planning on attending NEWW.

We never thought about making a mini... how would you get someone whose never read DCiGTH to buy a collection of a character's backstory?

I would love to hear your ideas! See you at NYCC?

darrylayo said...

Spectacular essay.

I dove into the weekly/monthly grind when King City started. I had to pick up other stuff after a while. Too much talent on the shelves!

The social thing is key as well. I have dropped/added stores due to poor/great social environments. It's come to the point that Wednesday comics are my weekly therapy sessions. Sharing, interacting and talking are strangely lacking in webcomics. Perhaps it's because webcomics exist too close to home.

I don't know the dude's name at the comic shop, but we shoot the breeze. I could know his name, but that's about it. Online, things are very personal (email addresses, ip addresses, etc) and thus, it is important not to get too deep cuz it could follow you.

But we can rag on each other in a public (physical) space with a greater reassurance that when it's all over, we walk our separate ways.

Again, thanks for this post, insightful analysis!

Darryl Ayo

Len N. Wallace said...

Awesome post. Really made my afternoon. Welcome to the world of print, Lauren. Hope you stick around.

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