Friday, April 9, 2010

Why Comics Are Not More Popular, Part 2

Now, I may be going out on a limb by saying this, but I think comics may be a bit of anacronism.  Let's see if I can back that claim up with some facts...

A few weeks ago, during my lunch break, I was looking up some noir/hardboiled fiction authors since I felt the need to read a good detective story.  That of course wound up into me doing a little research about Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and so forth.  I added The Maltese Falcon to my list of Books to Read Which I Probably Won't Have Time To, and while reading up on it, noticed this:

With the following blurb underneath: "Cover of seminal hardboiled magazine Black Mask, September 1929, featuring part 1 of its serialization of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Illustration of private eye Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy, Jr."

Whoa.  Stop the presses.  Wikipedia, are you telling me that The Maltese Falcon, one of THE most influential hardboiled detective novels ever, was originally published as serialized story in a magazine?

Raise your hand if you've ever read a serialized novel in your lifetime.  No one?  Didn't think so.

Now, I haven't done a lot of reading into the history of comics and pulps, but just from looking at this picture, I'm guessing both pulp magazines and comics where everywhere:

Pulp magazines seemed to be a part of daily life, just like buying milk and bread was.  Which is why you could get both at the same store.  It's a shame that they died out, really, becuase if you look at the list of authors who wrote for pulp magazines, it's staggering.

Now, no one reads serial novels anymore.  Why?  Well, maybe it's because we've all gotten impatient over the years.  Who wants to wait six months to finish reading a book?  I, mean, I'm too impatient to unplug the toaster oven before I start sticking a knife in it, and I have the attention span of an over-caffeinated mosquito.  But despite all that, I think I'd rather read a book in serial form than have to spend two weeks slodging through 400 pages of the same thing.  If anything, a magazine with multiple short exerpts of continuing stories would better fit our cultural ADD even better than our current method of novel reading.

So why no serial fiction?  I really don't know.  Maybe it's too much of a commitment for some folks to wait that long.  Maybe it's because people want the experience of browsing through an actual bookstore and holding one book in their hands instead of twelve magazines.  We seem to have no patience and yet most folks don't mind reading 800-page behemoths like Harry Potter--in fact, they feel like they are getting more for their money the longer the book is.  It just doesn't make sense.  In my mind, there's no reason for a book to be over 350 pages let alone over 500.  And most famous serial novels born in the pulps of the 30's and 40's (heck, even famous "regular" novels from that time period) are short.  Somewhere along the line we mistook depth of material for depth of quality, but that's a debate for a different post.  My point being: if you have the patience to read a gigantic novel (which I don't), then you should be able to handle a serialized novel.  Or maybe waiting a month between chapters really is just too much of a wait.

But think of the upside: a really good story lasts longer.  A novel stretched over months could make a story's timeline seem to unfold in real time.  It's more readable because it's in manageable sections which get their point across, then leave you wanting more, rather than current novels which, at least to me, seem to drag on forever to get to the point and make me want less.  No only that, but short stories could get some visibility in pulps that they can't get today.  And you can read more than one story at a time--how's that for multitasking?  You're always looking forward, wondering what's going to happen next, and because you stay with the story longer, the characters seem to be more alive.  Not to mention, having a month-long pause between chapters gives you a chance to think, and even better, talk about the story with other readers about what will happen next, which characters you liked/didn't like, and so on.  You know, kind of how the comics community operates today.  Wouldn't it be great if we could all talk about what's going to happen in the next chapter of a book?  I think that would be fun.

Why serialized prose isn't as popular as it was is a mystery to me.  Yes, there are a few stragglers like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (which just moved to bimonthly), but really, are those flying off the shelves?  Serial fiction is quite dead.  Yes, there are online markets for genre short stories, but hardly any of them would publish a serialized novel.  Serial stories are just dead or dying in any format: radio, movies, and print.

Except comics.  Though they have diverted from the days when "Detective Comics" actually meant a sizeable magazine of, well, detective comics, comics have hung on, in pretty much the same form as they did in the 1930's.  (Though shorter and without multiple stories, the fun ads for BB guns and seed packets, columns about unsolved mysteries and science "facts," and my personal favorite, Letters to the Editor.)  Why have comics hung on where prose died?  Maybe it's becuase comic book characters themselves never die, so an ongoing medium works well.  But guess what, comics aren't that popular with the general public from what I can see.  Certainly nothing like that old black-and-white photo.  If people today want to read comics they read "graphic novels."  No one besides the Library of Congress considers comics "magazines" anymore, but that's what they were: magazines with stories in them, that happened to be told via illustrations.

The general public gave up on serialized fiction for reasons unknown to me.  Though they are still hanging on, something happened to comics somewhere along the line where the idea of the average Joe casually picking up a copy of Action Comics or Detective Comics went by the wayside, perhaps because there are no "action" comics in Action Comics, just Superman, and no "detective" comics in Detective Comics, just Batman and/or Batwoman.  Maybe that's a key to the whole mystery.  I don't know.  I hate to conclude a lengthy post with "pulps died, I don't know why, and I think it's going to happen to comics somewhere down the line," but lacking any further insights, I'm left with no choice.

To be continued....


Tom said...

I guess you don't watch television. Otherwise you'd know that we live in The Golden Age of the Serial Novel: THE SOPRANOS, DEADWOOD, MADMEN, SIX FEET UNDER, LOST, BREAKING BAD...

LissBirds said...

I watch Lost but none of those others. I like TV more for sitcoms (which are hard to come by) than drama, but you make a good point. Still, I think there's a difference between, for example, the serialized Radio/TV/Film adventures of The Lone Ranger and The Sopranos. I just don't know what that difference is, or if there even is one outside of my own mind.

But serialized prose/actually have to read something rather than watch it on TV is dead. I guess it's television's fault. It always is television's fault, no matter what the problem is: gratiuitous violence, harmful brain waves from sitting too close to the set, diminished attention span, movie screen aspect ratios, etc., etc.

Tom said...

The problem with comics is that the chapters are too short and too far apart. Each issue takes 15-20 minutes to read and then you have to wait a month for the next one. Ridiculous. An hour each week is ideal. And having to pay $3-5 for each 15-20 minute chapter doesn't help either.

The One True GL said...

I guess I could've posted this comment on Part 1 as well, but most non-comics readers will get intimidated by the history of popular comics. For example, my sis who isn't a comic geek asked me once, "So, Superman and Batman still have continuing adventures?!? Isn't that 60 years worth of comics? How are people supposed to catch up?"

Of course, my answer was somewhat of a "Yes, but..." and I basically introduced her to the comics versions of reboots and retcons by using movie and tv equivalents...

Luckily, I hadn't written this tongue-in-cheek, somewhat bitter, and often mistaken for crazy post yet:

You need to enlarge the diagram.

Most people only get into comics via an older brother, a fanatic of a cousin, or because there was a cool animated series or movie based on a particular comic.

Maybe DC and Marvel should be doing regular "Jumping on point" comics like say the first issue of Joe Kelly's JLA run (and keep them in print like forever). I know a couple of peeps who've become comic fans because of that comic, because it made the concept of JLA (and the DCU) a bit more accessible for the new reader.

LissBirds said...

Tom, I kind of like that comics are a short read. I think that could be a selling point. Reading about five titles a week gives me a little over an hour. Maybe if the books themselves were longer and contained more than one story. (Which I seem really stuck on for whatever reason.)

LissBirds said...


I had always assumed Superman and co. were doing the same thing for 60 years and never got old. :) I remember Geoff Johns (I think it was him...?) said, when asked where to start reading Blackest Night, to start with Action Comics #1. Uh-huh.

I remember seeing that diagram on your blog. I like how the "If only I were..." just ends up all by itself. I like character-level rebirth stories, but I have a suspicion that you might not. (Though I'm not entirely sure myself if I liked Flash: Rebirth.)

And, continuing with your point that some people get into comics from cartoons or movies, it's kind of jarring to see that things are different in the comics compared to the movies. One of the first Batman trades I read was Hush, and I remember Superman showed up and I was like, "What the heck? How is Superman in Gotham City?" Oh, little did I know...

Meanwhile, my Superman-despising young friend whom I let borrow the book was like, "@#)$(&*! Get out of my Batman books, Superman!"

I'll have to check out Joe Kelley's JLA run, now. It's all news to me.

The One True GL said...

Before you run out and buy back issues...

Here’s a post about Joe Kelly’s run on JLA, including his first issue (number 61). I think DC would do well to do an issue like this whenever the roster changes and have as an offering on Free Comic Book day.

This is a series I haven’t read, but I suppose that it should also be reprinted and given away as it much more difficult for new readers to get into ensemble teams (such as the JLA, JSA, and Avengers) than say X-men where everyone is a mutant.

Also, these two posts have also reminded me of a comics writing rule that should a mantra for publishers as well:

Every comic is someone’s first comic. So make the story as easy as possible to follow as possible.

LissBirds said...

"Every comic is someone’s first comic. So make the story as easy as possible to follow as possible."

I think it was Joe DiMaggio who said something like, "I always play my best, becuase I never know if a kid's going to see me playing for the first time." It's a good maxim to follow.

Hey, I've actually read some of those stories in the Kelly run. I have the "Obsidian Age" trade. And I read the trade with J'onn/Scorch but I'm not sure I liked it. "Two Minute Warning" is a day-in-the-life story that takes a two minute slice of each Leaguer's day" Now THIS I have to read. I love day-in-the-life type stories.

LissBirds said...

I forgot to mention that I did like the Obsidian Age arc, even if it meant poor Plastic Man had to sit on the bottom of the ocean for 3,000 years. :( Thanks for the links--that site has some great reviews/overviews.