After the recent release of the final issue from 80s indie comic "Nexus," and the subsequent thud it made on impact, artist Frank Santoro proclaimed that "the Direct Market [is] really finally and absolutely dead
." I think picking the failure of a finale issue for a series that has been petering out for a while as the definitive sign of the end times is a little odd to me -- "Love & Rockets abandons singles" or "Diamond kills indie comics with mandatory minimums
" are much more compelling death knells -- but it doesn't mean he isn't right.The Direct Market
has been proclaimed dead (and staggered on) so many times it might as well be a comic book character itself -- either a superhero or a zombie, or these days probably both -- but it's easier if you define your terms.
The "death" of the Direct Market is similar to the way that languages die; it's not the ultimate black screen, the permanent 404 of existence, but something more gradual and conceptual. The Direct Market is dead in the same way that Latin is dead, even though plenty of people of people still speak it. And as dramatic as "death" sounds, this is the kind of death that lingers, and it is something very anti-climactic indeed.
It doesn't mean that the format won't be kept alive in a limited way by a coterie of devoted fans. It doesn't mean that the presses are going to screech to a halt, or that Diamond is going to shut down. It just means the monthly comic is going to become less and less relevant and sustainable in any broad sense, which is essentially the same thing that has happened to the large-format newspaper comics page. And while I cheer on "Wednesday Comics" as an incredibly valuable and worthwhile endeavor, no one can reasonably say that the format is capable of bringing content to people on the scale that it used to, or that it ever will again.
I like my weekly singles. Hell, I love
my weekly singles, but that doesn't change the fact that they are expensive fragments of stories that are difficult for outsiders to access (particularly as fragments) and often fail to deliver a "satisfying chunk
" of narrative. As prices rise and better formats present themselves, the Wednesday stack becomes harder and harder to justify, and in almost all of the practical ways that matter, trade paperback collections are "better": They're cheaper, more attractive, and more accessible, both in terms of format and in terms of distribution.
Santoro's second declaration is that "the bridge is over," that the world of comic books has finally crossed over to the world of permanent literature thanks to bookstores, both mortar and digital. He suggests that this has saved comics from withering on the newsstand, and ultimately on the comic book rack. And if you're talking about delivering comics content to the mainstream, that is absolutely true. Unfortunately, for the hardcore fans, it's far less of a hallelujah moment, and the diminishment of the monthly comic is both painful and personal.
Thematically, at least, you might think that fans would support the "salvation" of comics by any format necessary; the comic book collector has always been, in his heart, a salvager of sorts, taking the urgent, colorful and occasionally brllliant worlds that others would treat as disposable and enclosing them like little Kandors in cases of Mylar and plastic. To many of them, however, the stories and the storytelling format are conjoined twins, and the idea of separating them is tragic.
While the bridge to the bookstore may be a victory for the long-term survival of comics, it can also be a very difficult one for them to cross, because along the way to saving one's treasures from oblivion (or hoarding them in hopes that they would turn into gold) comic book collecting became more than just a practical way to preserve material. It became an involved experience with a complex mythology that inducted us into the ritual of archiving, the communion of new comics day, and the small, mythical miracles that the serial format delivered to us every week.
And in that sense, there is certainly something to be lost with the pamphlet comic, not only in the unique way that it communicates but in terms of tradition, just as surely as something was lost when the Catholic Church decided that it didn't make sense to conduct services in Latin anymore. Like many traditions, or rituals, there was something beautiful and almost sacred about the old ways, which is probably why they persisted for so long after it made sense in any mainstream way.
Languages die for a lot of reasons, sometimes at the sword points of conquering armies but more often through subtle changes. The shift from being bilingual to monolingual -- the loss of a language -- is typically a gradual one, as native speakers slowly begin to favor the dominant language of the culture around them until the old one atrophies like an unused muscle. Trade paperbacks are rapidly becoming the dominant language of the comic book medium, and while we may still use both, we've already decided to speak one over the other as far as our wallets are concerned.
Regardless, accepting that a language (or a format) is "dead" doesn't mean that it shouldn't be used, that it is no longer capable of expressing anything worthwhile, or that a revitalization
shouldn't be attempted. It doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of people who still want to keep it alive because it is beautiful and worthy of preserving -- even if a lot of that relates to nostalgia.
Most comic book titles depend upon monthly reader support to make it to trades or even continue to exist, and as Dan Slott
pointed out on Twitter today, the dollars people spend (or don't spend) on monthly books are often viewed as votes for a book that can determine whether it lives or dies. There are plenty of titles that I would like to keep alive despite my declining interest in singles, but I can't help but think that it's akin to casting your votes in a deeply flawed political system that artificially limits your options and sets a pretty high bar of commitment for participation.
I would desperately like there to be some way to support the creators and titles I enjoy and access the content I want at reasonable prices and in convenient ways -- if I could download my weekly books at, say, 99 cents each and then buy the trade the later?
Digital comics aren't a panacea, but they're the only way I see serial comics surviving. And I'd like to see them survive, both because I enjoy the format and the way it can tell stories, and because it's an important proving ground for new artists and new titles
. Publishers need to make it easier for consumers to give this type of weekly financial support, preferably in cheaper, disposable installments, a model has been extremely successful for Japanese cell phone comics
and P.S. sounds a lot like a description of print comics in their heyday.
Otherwise, we'll simply have to sit back and watch the slow creep of format death until the longbox becomes the new Latin book.