Sunday, 11 March 2012

RIP Mœbius, or "I Don't Want to Save Comics, But if I DID..."

I haven't spoken about comic books for a while. The reason being that they're not really on my radar at the moment. At least, they weren't until Mœbius, also known as Jean Giraud (or simply 'Gir') died yesterday.

I can't claim to be an avid follower of his. I've known of him since before I was interested in American superhero comics but somehow never felt the urge to look into what made him so special, despite owning Silver Surfer: Parable, his Epic Comics collaboration with Stan Lee; he was always a bit too... subtle (?) for my tastes. However, since his death was announced I felt compelled to at least do my research on the man and found that, with time, I've grown to really appreciate his work to the point where I may collect some of his original published stories in titles such as Metal Hurlant and Pilote (my lack of French language skills should help me to concentrate on his art, I think).

Anyway. This, in turn, led me to look back into European comics. Events came full circle when I found myself raging at the visible decline of the US industry. The unbelievable dominance of US superhero titles over the last few decades. Blinkered fans buying products made by blinkered publishers. Look to diversity to save you! Look to Europe.

Mœbius was one of, if not the best in his field, but he was by no means the only remarkable comics creator in Europe. The range of styles and genres employed by creators such as Goscinny & Uderzo, Stephen Desberg, Jean van Hamme, Bernard Vrancken, Leo, William Vance and the Giussani sisters resemble book publishing more so than sci-fi TV scheduling (the closest match I can come up with for the US model).

The sad part is that you can look at the US industry and pick out supremely talented creators who could absolutely revolutionise comics: Tommy Lee Edwards, Jonathan Hickman, Kody Chamberlain, Darwyn Cooke, Art Balthazar, Greg Rucka, Peter David, Travis Charest, Eduardo Risso, Rick Remender, Jason Aaron, Alex Maleev, Becky Cloonan... I could go on almost indefinitely. In some ways, many of these creators and more besides have made inroads into diversity but usually as a one-off, maverick project or a short Vertigo series, entirely dependent on the usual channels for promotion and validation.

Last October, a member on the Digital Webbing forums asked how we would set up and run our own comic book company. I thought hard about this and posted my reply, thinking I'd also blogged it here. As it happens, I never did. For the record, here is how I would do it. Theoretically. If I suddenly had the money.

For starters, I would abandon the monthly format and only publish complete stories or value for money volumes. I'm not one to say "no superheroes" just because I'm sick of them, but I would expect far more genre diversification in submissions. Modern day drama, historical war accounts, romance, education, cookery, social issues, crime, dramatisation of real-life events. All of these genres/subjects would be more welcome than superheroes, fantasy and sci-fi.

I'd be looking to produce comics squarely aimed at new readers. If the Direct Market would support that, I'd go with the Direct Market, but I'm convinced the way forward is to supply bookstores and internet distributors, bypassing Diamond. Comixology might get a look-in, but if there's a large enough internet presence for the company and your marketing is right, you could just create an app for each book, or for your publisher. So I'd do that.

Creators could pitch ideas or submit completed comics. If I spot one "your" instead of "you're", it would go in the bin. These comics would be ambassadors for the art form (at the risk of sounding pretentious, but when trying to get new readers, what else could you call them?) so why accept anything less than great quality? I'd hire artists more for their knowledge of good storytelling techniques than for their flair. If they have both, so much the better. I'd hire writers who can tell a great story without gimmicks/cliches/pandering to what is currently in vogue. The keywords here are clarity and quality.

(I'll concede that I haven't been considering budget too well, but as it's all hypothetical I don't see an issue)

I'd advertise outside of comics. The biggest facepalmer in this industry is the incestuous nature of the advertising. Put an ad in your comic for another comic? Yeah, fine. BUT DO IT SOMEWHERE ELSE TOO! The best you can hope for is a percentage of the readers you just advertised to! So yeah, I'd organise viral marketing campaigns, street teams and create a situation leading up to major publications which would draw attention to the release, ie: flash mob in a related area, something based around the success of events like this (on a much smaller scale, unless I'm suddenly a billionaire). I said the stories should exist without gimmicks...

Other things I'd (like to) include as a part of the plan:

Print on recycled material.
Draw back on fancy colour. Not everything needs to be so GAAAH!
Free, or very cheap trial copies of a few pages available on public transport in selected areas.
Digital versions include behind-the-scenes text, videos and images of the creation process, true life versions of the story, or contests.
Partnership with McDonald's to put comics in a Happy Meal (okay, not that one).

As I stated in a follow-up post in that particular thread, if it was this easy, I'm sure somebody would have done it already. Maybe not, though. Maybe it takes more balls than most publishers have.

Please, somebody, prove me wrong and I'll come back.