Monday, November 07, 2005

Weighing Options

My ongoing capsule reviews of recent theatrical film releases will continue, but here's a little detour I'll pursue only because it's clearly near and dear to at least some of you out there.

The TCJ thread I've been on (of late with Eddie Campbell and Mark Martin, both contemporary geniuses of comics I am fortunate to know) has taken an interesting turn.

Consider the following blog post from yours truly, then click on over to
  • Back to TYRANT?

  • Pick it up from the lower section of that page of the thread, and read on.

    I've taken the opportunity there to address the following:

    "Please don't misunderstand my post concerning TYRANT. I'm not seeking sympathy, as I'm happier now than I've been in years (though you wouldn't know it when the topic at hand comes up); indeed, life away from comics has been far kinder to me than life in comics ever was. So, my thanks, but don't fret for me.

    If I may, I'd like to build on Eddie's post to move this thread in a far more constructive direction, and one I'd love to know more about myself in the new comics business environment.

    That is -- relevent to FROM HELL, relevent to TYRANT, and relevent to all graphic novel projects -- how do creators subsidize their creative life?

    It's tough enough in the freelance realm, whatever one's situation and venues. That's a life I know intimately, but the commitment to major graphic novel projects is an extraordinary one, and one I stepped into experentially from two sides of the fence: as a publisher (first, via TABOO and the three serialized graphic novels I provided a venue for: FROM HELL, LOST GIRLS, and -- the only one completed under TABOO's tenure -- THROUGH THE HABITRAILS), and abortively as a creator (TYRANT).

    We are now arguably in the second generation of cartoonists/creators to wrestle with the form. What I'd like to discuss -- again, building directly on Eddie's candid post, above -- is what economic models truthfully exist.

    For the purposes of discussion, seems to me there are five existing models.

    The first three are dependent on serialization, as that model remains the most economically viable in terms of both time and income; the fourth and fifth are the exceptions, and I gather possible for those able or lucky enough to land a major publisher/patron:

    1. Self publishing/self-supporting: whether funded by outside work (a dayjob) or incrementally via self-publishing, the graphic novel is completed via periodical publication in installments or serialized form. Whether that serialization venue is self-standing (CEREBUS, ELFQUEST, etc.) or via a more free-form title or anthology (the original incarnation of YUMMY FUR) is of no consequence here, though.

    2. Financially self-supporting creator, working with a publisher-supported venue for serialization: this is relevent to published venues that do not pay advances, only royalties. In time, that income may help support the work, but the creative commitment is prepared to subsidize their own work as necessary. It is a step away from self-publishing, and necessarily dependent on legal contracts bonding the creator/property and publisher, which may have consequences. The graphic novel is completed via periodical publication in installments or serialized form. Again, whether that serialization venue is self-standing or via a more free-form title or anthology is of no concern.

    3. Publisher-supported serialization: the creator of the serialized work is paid either a page rate or advance, plus royalties. The page rage/advance income subsidizes the work, necessitating legal contracts bonding the creator/property and publisher, preferably in a healthy long-term relationship (e.g., LOVE AND ROCKETS, SANDMAN, etc.). The graphic novel is completed via periodical publication in installments or serialized form. Again, whether that serialization venue is self-standing (SANDMAN, BLACK HOLE) or via a more free-form title or anthology (LOVE AND ROCKETS) is of no concern.

    4. Publisher-supported graphic novel venue as a complete, self-contained graphic novel: the creator of the work is paid either a page rate as work is completed, or an advance/scheduled advances -- though book-industry standards of advances seems to be the norm, by all accounts -- plus royalties. The page rage/advance(s) subsidizes the work, necessitating legal contracts bonding the creator/property and publisher, preferably in a healthy long-term relationship (e.g., STUCK RUBBER BABY, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCES, etc.). The graphic novel is not published until it is completed as a whole.

    5. Creator self-supported graphic novel venue as a complete, self-contained graphic novel: the creator of the work completes work under their "own steam," sans publisher involvement. Using whatever means available, the creator self-subsidizes the work, retaining all rights. The graphic novel is not published until it is completed as a whole.

    Note that the economic models #1-3 can also be boosted/amplified by the publication of collections: that is, compilations of the completed chapters, as either larger serializations (e.g., the reprint FROM HELL volumes, SWORDS OF CEREBUS) or compartmentalized, cohesive self-standing volumes (e.g., SANDMAN's individual volumes, the definitive CEREBUS collections).

    I should also throw in variation #6 -- meaning, some combination of the above, determined by a project's lifespan and multiple publishing arrangements that usually outlive venues and/or publishers involved (e.g., MAUS, FROM HELL) -- and variation #7 -- graphic novels completed thanks to non-publisher outside support (e.g., the Xerix Foundation, MAUS's Guggenheim grant, the out-of-the-blue grant that allowed Howard Cruse to complete STUCK RUBBER BABY).

    Seems to me Eddie's candor opens a great opportunity to discuss such matters, which (if anyone's interested) WOULD go a long way toward helping me sort out the viability or options for TYRANT.

    Like other key graphic novel works (MAUS, STUCK RUBBER BABY, etc.), FROM HELL was completed only after an extensive commitment of time -- years! -- from its creators, Alan and Eddie. The publisher particulars, though relevent, aren't nearly as critical as the creator's situations. How did Eddie get through over a decade of ongoing labor, and deal with the vagaries of the market (including publisher musical-chairs) and legal nightmares associated with seeing it through?

    He's already shared some critical issues and insights. Let's continue, please.

    Though many forget the chronologies, FROM HELL is hardly alone in its case history. Dave McKean had to deal with the fallout from the whole Tundra/Kitchen Sink dissolutions for CAGES; more to the point, Spiegelman launched MAUS as a one-shot story in the underground one-shot FUNNY AMINALS; expanded and re-launched the graphic novel proper in serialized form as the insert mini-comics in the first oversized incarnation of RAW; made the leap to Penguin for MAUS Vol. 1; scored the Guggenheim Grant, which subsidized continuing labor on MAUS until the completion of Vol. 2 and thus the whole.
    That's a long haul.

    For my own circumstances, the attempt to launch a self-supporting TYRANT self-published serialization succumbed to the combo of slow (almost annual) release of installments (which isn't untenable: Charles Burns' managed the feat with BLACK HOLE), personal financial setbacks (including divorce), and the collapse of the direct sales market (which in less than a year neatly cut my initial sales reach to a dozen distributors down to one).

    However, it would be concievable to resurrect the project in any one of the 7 variations I've outlined above. Each has their virtues and detriments -- and only two (#1 and #2) are viable, given my current situation, though neither is likely in the near future.

    Well, if anyone's interested, let's dance this around."

    If we can apply the yardstick to comics history of generations of creators solving problems, it seems to me the current generation of creators are engaged with solving the problem of graphic novels as a form demanding extraordinary commitment over time and extraordinary means to complete.

    We can now chart many viable models, working to the present from the landmark of the late Will Eisner's coining the term graphic novel in 1977 with the publication of A Contract with God, while noting the precursors to that landmark (and the immediate contemporaries of Eisner's who also engaged the form, from those the market defeated -- Gil Kane's His Name is Savage and Blackmark, Wally Wood's attempts to mount his Wizard King -- and those who found or created market niches -- Jack Katz's The First Kingdom, Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy's Sabre, released simultaneously with Eisner's Contract).

    The key for any involved in this creative process is how to make ends meet while sustaining/nurturing/completing massive self-contained works -- graphic novels -- over the years (sometimes a decade or more: Maus, From Hell, etc.) necessary to their completion.

    My first attempt to mount and launch Tyrant as a self-published vehicle succumbed to personal and market forces. I am weighing my options anew, in hopes of finding a means to re-engage with the project.

    As a generation, we're far enough along in the process to have multiple economic models to define, dissect, analyse and assess (and access!).

    I hope some of you will sample the thread, and join the conversation.

    See you there.


    Blogger Mike Dobbs said...

    Haven't I been telling you for years to look into a new publishing model for Tyrant? Of course, I'm not a comics pro, just a crusty old newspaper guy, so what the hell do I know?

    I'm no creative genius, but I know what I like and Tyrant was your best work in comics.

    I've got a paper to get out!
    See ya!

    Blogger SRBissette said...

    Hey, Mike, I've been listening all along. Still, no model presents itself -- perhaps this public stirring of the paint will prompt something, eh?

    If Carl Kolchak moved to the Valley, would you hire him, Mike?

    Blogger yesdear said...

    and i thought the carpentry racket was tough. i cannot believe the bullshit you have been through, but do beleive because i know you are real man with truth in your word. sounds like a bunch of fuk'n babies you had to deal with. you are better off without the negative stuff in your life. your art is from your soul and always will be....

    Blogger Mike Dobbs said...

    Yes, I would hire Carl, but only if he told me where he gets his straw hats and seersucker suits. They are awfully stylish.

    Seersucker might get a little drafty in New England winters, dontja know?

    Got another three editions out. Now at the college over-seeing my journalism class.
    Work work work work...

    Blogger ARGOTT said...

    I'll buy it if you put it out. I always loved your work, though I must confess I'm just getting back into comic books after a 10-year hiatus and don't have a feel for the market any longer. Seems like diamond's really dealt a crippling blow to the industry, and I can't imagine comfortably taking the dive now. Good luck.

    Blogger SRBissette said...

    Well, we'll see where all this goes. The real catalyst has been my re-engaging with comics as a teacher at the CCS. I'm open to all possibilities, though as the TCJ thread demonstrates, there's a lot of tired old shit still flung in my direction whereever I pop up -- kinda like those old shooting galleries.

    If I can sort out a way to make a living from it again, or something like a living, without returning to the plantation, we'll see.

    Blogger Adrian said...

    that's a great thread and thanks for pointing us there.

    Besides the fact that my publishing remains at low-level "fanzine" level - a vanity-charity project if you will - I found it very interesting.

    Of course I finally go hold of my From Hell scriptbook ... and eventually that'll lead to the From Hell pub crawl pamphlet (currently not much to it but a list of pubs).

    Like everyone, I'd love to see you able to finish Tyrant, even though it would not be as far ahead of the game as it was back then.

    Mostly, I enjoy your educational ramblings here, and the film reviews :-)

    "The King" with William Hurt and Gabriel Gael Bernal is worth a look.


    Blogger SRBissette said...

    Thanks, Ade -- THE KING hasn't popped up hereabouts, but I'll keep an eye out for it. Hurt was terrific in his climactic role in Cronenberg's xlnt HISTORY OF VIOLENCE; I'll be posting my comments on that gem here. Anyhoot, thanks for the kind words, and will keep my eyes peeled for THE KING. Thanx!


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