On and On and On and On
(This piece was originally written for Multiversity Comics’ 5th anniversary in 2014, so some of the details are a little outdated. But the basic principles hold true.)
Comics is an unusual medium in terms of expectation. Like TV, failure is the default, and launching any new book is fraught with risk (not just of failure, but of sheer indifference and disdain — unlike TV, a large section of the comics audience doesn’t even want new series to exist, and has no intention of buying them). The odds are stacked against anything lasting even a dozen issues, these days — doubly so if your book isn’t based around an already-successful character or franchise.
The problem is simple: in the words of William Goldman, nobody knows anything. Nobody can predict what will be a hit, or take off with the public.
That’s not only true of comics, or even movies. TV, books, theatre… my main gig besides comics is videogames, and while you may think people willing to spend $50 million and three years developing a game know what they’re doing, the truth is everyone’s just making the best guesses they can, hoping for a hit.
When even “sure things” like CALL OF DUTY sequels sometimes crash and burn — just like even BATMAN comics sometimes underperform and get cancelled — it simply underlines our inability to predict the future. Nobody knows anything…
…Until something hits big. Then the market is covered in copycats, like headlice at kindergarten, and often just as appealing. Comics is one of the worst offenders for this, partly because we’re able to go from concept to publication so much faster than other media. Anyone who lived through the holofoil variant craze of the ’90s, or the AUTHORITY-a-like craze of the ’00s, saw that for themselves. Some things never change.
THE WALKING DEAD’s success has essentially turned zombies into a whole standalone genre. Marvel solo books now emulate HAWKEYE’s approach, often at editorial behest. SAGA has even enabled a wide-scale rethink about schedules across the whole industry, proving that if you’re popular enough, you can be “off the weekly shelves” for a couple of months between story arcs without suffering.
And again, nobody could have predicted the success of these books. Kirkman launched THE WALKING DEAD at a time when most people considered zombie fiction to be already (un)dead, a tired fad that couldn’t last. Fraction and Vaughan are the first to admit they expected HAWKEYE and SAGA to each last six issues before being unceremoniously cancelled, because they went so hard against the grain.
“Nobody knows anything. Most new books fail.”
You can argue these books succeeded because they were quality entertainment, delivered by creators telling stories they believed in, rather than trying to tailor something to readers’ expectations. There’s a valuable truth in that, no question.
But there are many more comics fitting that description that never took off in the same way. GOTHAM CENTRAL was beloved by critics, but on the edge of cancellation from its first issue. FROM HELL only became a big seller when it was collected. Recent critics’ darling YOUNG AVENGERS may have been huge on tumblr, but nobody in the X-office was threatened by its sales. DEADENDERS was reduced from an ongoing to sixteen issues. More recently, GREEN WAKE famously went from miniseries, to ongoing, to cancelled at #10.
Nobody knows anything. Most new books fail.
(Which is incredibly liberating, by the way, because it gives creators a licence to experiment and try new things without worrying their reputation could be stained. That more creators don’t take advantage of this is the great tragedy of American comics. But that’s a whole other column, right there.)
But what happens when they don’t fail? What happens when you launch a series, and it sure ain’t THE WALKING DEAD, but it does just well enough to survive?
How do you keep the momentum going after that initial flush of launch? How do you hold on to your core readership? How does a creative team remain enthused about working on a moderately-successful-but-nobody’s-getting-rich book?
Multiversity asked me to answer these questions, because this situation pretty much sums up my career. Since 2006 I’ve been writing the post-apocalyptic epic WASTELAND for Oni Press; it’s a moderate success, enough that we’ve been able to keep the book going until its planned end at issue #60 next year. But I’m not giving away any trade secrets when I tell you the book’s survival is down to, um, trades rather than monthly sales.
I’ve also recently launched two books at Image, UMBRAL and THE FUSE, and all evidence so far indicates they’re going the same way. Critically praised, moderately successful, but not setting the charts alight. Again, we’ll live and die by our trade paperback sales.
WASTELAND has always taken breaks between story arcs to publish the trades, and like most Image series in this post-SAGA world, we’re doing the same with UMBRAL and THE FUSE. Unlike with monthly readers, there’s no need to even worry about being “off the shelves” with collections, because people who buy mostly trade paperbacks really don’t give a toss about your schedule. So long as they’re not waiting years between each book, they’ll stick with you.
And if you’re living off trades — which more and more comic series are, now — then by default you’re playing a long game. You need to make sure the series survives, so you can put out more trades and keep that train a-rolling.
Now, this isn’t yet another paen to the virtues of comics-with-a-spine, because god knows I’ve written enough of those over the years already and it’s nice to see the rest of the world slowly catching up to my impeccable taste.
No, this is about answering those questions above. Figuring out how you maintain momentum and morale, and retain readers.
And the truth is, I haven’t got the faintest idea.
But what I can tell you, drawing from my own experience, is five things that I think matter more than anything to keep an ongoing book running:
1. MAKE A GOOD BOOK
2. BE UNSTOPPABLE LIKE A GODDAMN SHERMAN TANK
3. MAKE SURE IT’S A BOOK YOU LOVE
4. MAKE IT WITH GOOD PEOPLE
5. BE HONEST WITH YOUR READERS
Now, the first two are kind of obvious. If the book’s no good, or you’re not determined to keep it going, just let it die and move on. But those last three… well, they may not seem obvious, especially if you’ve never tried to maintain an ongoing comic series before. But in fact, they’re vital.
MAKE SURE IT’S A BOOK YOU LOVE.
Few things cause burnout quicker than suddenly realising you don’t love your own book. This seems most common with people who start a title with a couple of good ideas, then quickly realise those ideas are all they’ve got for the book.
You have to want this story to exist so much, you’re prepared to make it exist.
There’s nothing wrong with that — a short, sharp series can hit and make a good impact — but it’s not the type of book we’re talking about, here.
And burnout can happen anyway, of course. God knows, there have been difficult times when I’ve wanted to throw my hands in the air and walk away from WASTELAND. But what kept me going — apart from that tank-like determination, natch — was that I loved the story, and I knew that if I didn’t tell it, nobody else would.
You have to want this story to exist so much, you’re prepared to make it exist.
MAKE IT WITH GOOD PEOPLE.
Not just talented, or punctual, or funny on twitter. Those are all great qualities, sure. But I’m talking about good people. People you can trust, people you can count on not to throw their toys out the pram when you argue, people who understand the work ethic needed to make comics. People who are more interested in telling stories than basking in accolades.
You’ll be spending a lot of time talking to these people. You’ll spend hours sitting next to them at signings and on panels. You’ll be associated with them in your readers’ minds for years to come. And you’ll all be playing that same long game.
If there is one thing that’ll cause burnout quicker than not loving your book, it’s not loving your collaborators.
BE HONEST WITH YOUR READERS.
In some ways, this is the most important point of all. For a mid-level book to survive, and for it to not drive you insane in the process, it needs a loyal core audience. Those don’t grow on trees. But they do grow, organically and over time, with the right feeding. And what you need to feed them is…
Wow, this is a terrible analogy. I’m so sorry.
Look, your audience needs to trust you, like you need to trust your collaborators. When they came on board, they bought into your creation, and the “story promise” you made when they picked up that first issue. These are your people, and you should cherish them.
But the onus is all on you, to keep them engaged. If they suddenly feel like you’re betraying that promise just to pander to a hypothetically wider audience, they’ll quit in droves — and chances are, you won’t get that wider audience you were pleading for anyway, because nobody likes a watered-down book.
So be honest with your readers — not just in the letters page and on social media (although twitter and tumblr are fast proving their worth as ways to cement the loyalty of a core audience — just google “Carol Corps” for proof of that). No, you also have to be honest and true to the book you’re creating. Betraying your own story to chase a few imaginary extra readers will only make you hate what you’re writing. Which we already established was a bad idea.
…And that’s pretty much it. After almost 15 years in comics, that’s about the sum total of my knowledge. If you’re planning to launch a comic — and let’s be honest, most people who read sites like Multiversity want to make their own comics, not just read them — then you could do a lot worse than keep the above in mind. It may not seem like much, but it’s hard-won.
Besides, nobody knows anything anyway.