Write or Wrong #48: The X-Men Analogy

Write or Wrong: Interesting Times

My last installment of this column seems to have met its intended purpose of causing some discussion across the web, perhaps most notably with columnist Steven Grant citing my column in part of a larger discussion of his thoughts concerning the notion of “quality comics” in a recent installment of Permanent Damage.

In his column, Grant – a man who was an inspiration to me as a columnist and for whom I have much respect – made several interesting points, not the least of which were the following observations:

Junk sells, except when it doesn't. Quality sells, except when it doesn't. So why assume making it harder to sell anything will fall in favor of quality? [snip] There are a lot of talents out there who believe, or want to believe, their careers will somehow benefit from Diamond making it harder to get books on the shelves.

In the last installment of this column discussed how a “thinning of the herd” by Diamond//Previews could (and, I believe will) help smaller press creators who can manage to attain the sales thresholds necessary to have their books listed in Previews sell more books. My rationale is that with the catalog now getting a bit thinner, it will make it a bit easier (or at least less intimidating) for store owners and curious consumers to peruse through “the back section” once a month in order to discover what all is back there.

Grant counter-argued that the rationale of equating top selling books to “quality” books, calling it a is a dangerous belief, and of course he’s right. Only a fool would argue that sales automatically justify the “quality” of any given comic.

The slippery slope in that argument, though, is equating something of “quality” with something that’s “good.”

“Good” – any way you define it – is defined by the taste and values of the beholder.

“Quality,” on the other hand, is something that I think is able to be a little more concretely defined and potentially even agreed upon… but just so we’re all on the same page (if not the same slippery slope), let’s make the difference clear, shall we?

After all, due to matters of personal taste, brand recognition and populist buying habits, we all know that some books that aren’t very good sell fairly large numbers because they always have and (theoretically) always will. Why? Because that’s what they do.

I call it “The X-Men Analogy,” although I’m by no means picking on the X-Men comics, people who buy/read/enjoy X-Men comics or even Marvel – as there are any other number of comics that could also be substituted in that title to prove the same hypothesis… which goes like this: The majority of retaliators will order a certain threshold of any and all X-Men related titled – at least for a few months – because they’re X-Men books.

Sure, if the X-Men book in question is a hot pile of steaming garbage the store owners will cut their orders… but only when people stop buying it. Sure, sure… there are some comicbook retaliators who simply won’t carry certain comics due to ideological/theological/moral reasons… but 9 times out of 10 the rule of thumb is that comicbook store owners will buy books that are guaranteed to sell. Period.

In the case of “The X-Men Analogy,” the simple fact of the matter is that there are certain comics – be it due to length of duration, movie tie-ins, etc. – are ingrained into the collective consciousness of the direct market consumers… making them likely to sell.

Given this assertion, combined with the fact that in any given month given month each comicbook store owner has so much money to spend – and given the fact that buying comics three months in advance based on potential/estimated sales is always a bit of a gamble – the usual result is most comicbook store owners staying near the “front of the book” in Previews and ordering most of their product from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image.

From a capitalist standpoint this makes perfect sense. Sure, it might be nice to try and branch out and order all sorts of random stuff from “the back of the book” by new and/or unknown creators (granted that they sound interesting and look to be of a high quality, of course)… but economically speaking this could spell doom for your local comic shop on any given month if no one buys the books.

The end result is what we see in the sales charts every month: The “big books” are devouring more and more pre-order dollars that could be going towards some equally (and perhaps occasionally even more deserving) smaller-press books.

In the age of continuous company-wide cross-overs by Marvel and DC especially, though, that simply doesn’t happen. Instead, more retailer dollars are going to books at the front of Previews while the smaller-press books that are confined to the back of the book – no matter how good they may be – fight over the table scraps to keep from starving to death.

Is it fair? No… but nobody ever said anything about comics – or life, for that matter, being fair.

Now, as one of the guys fighting for the scraps at the back of Previews (at least until, say, I’m able to prove to Marvel that I’d be able to make them mad money writing a Midnight Sons book for them) I’m OK with the fact that there are now going to be ordering thresholds in place preventing just anyone from listing their book in Previews… even if it means – *gasp* – that not everything I write and have a hand in publishing will make it into Previews.

After all, who ever said that every comicbook I’ve created and will ever create is going to be everyone’s cup of tea?

Oh, sure, I’d like it if I could someday earn the “name brand” appeal of writers/creators in the same way people Alan Moore, Mike Mignola, Jeff Smith and Warren Ellis have – and hopefully someday I will – but until then I’m willing to try and earn my spot in Previews on a book-by-book/project-by-project.

Why am I so willing to make things so difficult for myself? Well, it’s mainly because I’m not so delusional as to think that Diamond (who publishes the Previews catalog every month and is the primary comicbook distributor in the United States) owes me a darn thing.

More specifically, though, as I mentioned in my last column, I think it’s time that small press creators quit measuring success by being listed in Previews and quit whining as though they’re entitled to things in life.

I’ll be delving into this more in a future column, but remember, folks, that Previews is not the only means – nor even necessarily the best means – of getting your comic to your audience… especially if you’re a smaller-press creator.

Besides, regarding Previews, let’s be honest here: if the comic you’ve created can’t reach the minimum ordering threshold, it’s because retaliators aren’t ordering your book.

That’s all.

That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad – it just means that, for whatever reason – people aren’t willing to devote the time or energy necessary into pre-ordering it.

(That, or the comicbook store owners aren’t willing to place the your order, which happens all to often with smaller-press books and is a topic in and of itself.)

Well, considering all of these factors, why should books that can’t make the minimum ordering thresholds be allowed to take-up space in Previews and crowd the (already tough) market under the illusion/delusion that their books are on the same “level” as the rest of the books in Previews that are capable of making that threshold – be it by hook or by crook?

If you must, liken it to major league sports: Merely learning how to play football – even if you are a phenomenal player – does not automatically entitle you to the opportunity to be considered for the NFL.

Capiche?

Of course, this scenario in turn begs the following question: If you’re involved in the creation of a good, quality comicbook, how can you ensure that it gets the attention and audience necessary to sell the number of books needed to meet the minimum ordering thresholds necessary for Diamond/Previews?

Again, I’m going to be delving into the answers for that question soon – but first, let me ask you this: Isn’t the real question “Should being listed in Previews really be your main goal as a comicbook creator?”

Sure, sure, being listed in Previews is a good goal in the sense that it means you’re selling a fairly decent (if not great) amount of books… but it shouldn’t be THEE goal.

THEE goal – your #1 Goal – should be to create a great comic that can and will sustain an audience… and hence hopefully future sales.

If you’ve read the forty-seven installments (already?) of this column that came before this one and it helped you to get on the path of creating your own comics – CONGRATULATIONS.

I truly mean that from the bottom of my heart. Creating comics is not easy and I most sincerely applaud you for doing so.

However, as I’ve said several times before, creating a comic is only the first step of the process.

Now you need to ask yourself if you’ve created a comic that’s of a professional caliber in terms of quality.

If you haven’t… start over.

Hey, maybe I’m a purist, but anyone who’s serious about creating comics should first and foremost be concerned with… wait for it… CREATING QUALITY COMICS.

Mind you, even creating quality comics does not ensure you success or sales (that’s instead determined by other factors, not the least of which are marketing, word of mouth and the taste/trends of your potential readers at the time), but at least you’ll have been involved in the creation of something that you can be proud of if nothing else.

That, more than anything else, was the lesson I learned – and then lived – in the creation of my own comic series NIGHTMARE WORLD.

Yes, I know that “horror comics” – not even such as my own transcend rather than wallow in the most base and laughable trappings of the genre – are not everyone’s cup of tea.

Quite simply, there are some people out there who will never read NIGHTMARE WORLD because – when all is said and done – it’s a horror comic more than anything else and these same people simply don’t like horror comics.

I’m the same way about p0rn comics. I don’t care how well done it is, if it’s a p0rn comic I’m simply not going to read it. (Yes, that even includes Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. Sorry, Alan.)

Some people won’t read NIGHTMARE WORLD because it’s a “horror comic.” I know that, I respect that, and I’m OK with that.

However, that being said, there’s a difference between not “liking” a comic and not being able to recognize it as a well-done, well-produced, high quality comic.

(Yes, like Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls.)

For the sake of discussion, I invite you all to mosey over to NIGHTMARE WORLD if for no other reason than to just leaf through it a bit. It’s free of both cost and ads, so it won’t cost you a thing aside from a click of your mouse.

Once there, you can even click the “Thumbnails” button at the top right-hand corner of the page that will give you little preview images you can sort through in a quick fashion.

Go ahead and take a few minutes to do so by clicking right here… and I’ll wait for you to get back.

(And for the record, no, I am not “fishing” for any free hits. We’re doing just fine in that department over at Shadowline’s Webcomics Hub as one of most frequently read comics over there, thank you very much!)

You back? Good.

Now, whether or not you actually like what you saw – you know, whether or not it’s your “cup of tea,” so to speak, I’d challenge any of you reading who looked at the comic to tell me that NIGHTMARE WORLD is not a high quality comic.

I know I’m setting myself up to be potentially gang-banged by trolls here, but I think I most of us could agree that the bulk of the art (be it the pencils, inks, colors or the letters) and the presentation itself is of a professional level caliber of quality.

(In fact, I can guarantee it due simply to the fact that the bulk of artists who’ve worked on NIGHTMARE WORLD are professional comicbook artists… so there!)

Now, say what you will of NIGHTMARE WORLD – maybe you simply don’t like what you saw on any level, and if so, so be it – I’ll be damned if anyone out there could look me in the face (virtually or in the real world face) and tell me it’s not a well-produced comic…

And that’s -- THAT is the main goal each and every small press comicbook creator should be after.

THAT is why I toiled away for years on developing my writing skills and style before even attempting to bring the series to life.

THAT is why I scoured the Internet looking for the best possible artists I could work with to bring each individual chapter/story in the series to life – even if it meant shelving certain ones for years until the right artist became available.

THAT is why I devoted every waking hour I had (not to mention many sleeping hours) to the project.

THAT is why I never, ever compromised just to get a portion of it done.

Perhaps most importantly, THAT is why I can proudly link to it here proudly and with no reservation at all and say “Here! Look at this comic! This is a true representation of what I (and my artistic friends and collaborators) can do!”

I can do that – and make bold claims and openly invite critics and trolls alike to try and attack my product – my work – my most renowned work in the industry to date – the series that I devoted years of my life and countless dollars to completing.

I can do that because I did everything in my power to make sure that my comic – the comic that most people would first associate with the name “Dirk Manning” – would be the best damn comic that it could ever be.

You know what I didn’t set out to do, though?

I didn’t set out to create a comic that would necessarily meet a certain ordering threshold set by Previews at some later date.

I didn’t set out to make a comic that could easily be optioned as a movie or television series – a practice that a lot of failing creators and publishers are trying to do in a desperate attempt to stay relevant and/or afloat.

I didn’t even set-out to create a comic that would be picked-up by one of the big four publishers in the industry.

What I did was set out to create a comic series that I would never, ever be ashamed to have my name on because it stands on its own two feet as a professional quality and caliber comic book – regardless of whether or not you may be a fan of the genre, the material or even the subject matter.

Just as “unknown” artists can create amazing paintings or sculptures and “unknown” bands can create great music, “unknown” comic creators can create great comics – and that should be your goal as a comicbook creator, be you be a writer or artist.

Heck, I’ll even raise the ante for you: Your goal should be to create comics so good – of such a high level of quality – that in doing so you utterly crush the competition of your peers, laying waste to even the friendly competition.

In doing so you’ll find that your work will stand-out, and then in turn merit gaining – over time – a legion of readers and fans.

After all, when it comes to “unknown” or smaller-press creators, neither readers, consumers or editors respond to mediocre things.

Sure, sometimes people get saddled into mediocre patterns and habits in their lives – be it professionally, romantically or in their entertainment habits – but people RESPOND to those things that succeed in rising above mediocrity and the standards set by the other products in their group.

Attaining the highest levels of quality are not easy, though, and as you strive to rise above those around you there will be those that will try to cut you down or drag you away from what you want to do.

But don’t let them.

To have any chance at success in this industry you must refuse to compromise your own high standards of excellence.

Especially at the beginning stages of your career, the moment you’ve compromised, you’ve failed.

Going back to “The X-Men Analogy,” remember that X-Men came out of the box strong and was able to build-up a lot of “credit in the bank” over years and years of publication before it was given the liberty to go through some dips in quality over the years while still maintaining such a devoted fanbase of consumers... and while your comic may also come out of the box strong, you must remember that any “hiccup” – be it in scheduling, production or art values – ANYTHING could cost you readers and consumers alike.

Point blank: As a smaller-press creator, you will not be given the liberty established corporate comics have earned over the years – especially not up front.

Considering this, your goal must be to create comics of a professional caliber and quality – regardless of your genre and your method of presentation.

Be it a print comic or an online comic, it needs to be have a standard of quality that far exceeds 99% of everything else out there that can even be remotely compared to product just to have a true chance at success.

As for taste… don’t concern yourself with matters of consumer taste. Create your comic the way you want to create it and make the do so only with the highest levels of quality at every stage of the process.

Maybe – if you’re good enough – you can find some collaborators to work with you for free… or maybe you’ll need to put your “fun money” towards creating comics rather than new Xbox 360 games and going out drinking on the weekends.

(Here’s a fun little equation for you: The next time you go out to the bar, figure out how many pages of comic art you could have paid a smaller-press/up-and-coming artist to produce for one of your pitches or online comic series…)

Yes, especially in this economy overcoming the financial obstacles to create comics can be difficult, but the key is to abstain from making excuses and instead focus on results.

Period.

Now, all of that being said, even upon the creation of your professional quality comicbook you still may not be in a position to automatically generate the sales necessary to list your comic in Previews… but that’s OK.

What’s important is that you now have a quality comic that not only you can be proud of, but also one that can stand alongside any other comic out there without looking shoddy or inferior.

After all, with a strong product in hand you’ve already cleared the first hurdle of success.

What comes next is entering the marathon of longevity in the comicbook industry… something we’ll be talking about next time.

Next Time: What to do until you land that huge publishing deal.

Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of NIGHTMARE WORLD, which can now be read daily as part of the Shadowline family of webcomics. He is also a longtime contributing writer for Newsarama and a staunch advocate for comic creators everywhere. He lives on the Internet and can usually be found lurking around MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and SoulGeek. He likes dialogue that promotes insightful and/or deep thought, so keep the conversation going and spread the word.

Want to read Write or Wrong from the beginning? Here ya’ go!

WoW #1: Introduce Yourself

WoW #2: Thematically Speaking

WoW #3: How Badly Do You Want It?

WoW #4: Meeting Bendis and Finding Artists

WoW #5: Making First Contact

WoW #6: Things Fall Apart

WoW #7: Creation vs Dictation

WoW #8: Kill the Buddha

WoW #9: They’re Not Robots

WoW #10: Dollars and Sense

WoW #11: World Wide You

WoW #12: Always Use Protection

WoW #13: Contract Killers

WoW #14: Take a Look in the Mirror

WoW #15: Words Worth 1,000 Pictures

WoW #16: Mid-Ohio Musings

WoW #17: Seeking What the Masters Sought

WoW #18: Means and Ends

WoW #19: Likeable Characters

WoW #20: “What’s My (Evil) Motivation?”

WoW #21: It’s Not a Race

WoW #22: How to Successfully Play God

WoW #23: “Are you really THAT good?”

WoW #24: Things Fall Apart, v2.0

WoW #25: Climbing Out of the Hole

WoW #26: “See all those people out there?”

WoW #27: “Lose Yourself”

WoW #28: The Tallest Midget in Shortsville

WoW #29: Punisher Skrull Sex

WoW #30: The Wrath of Con

WoW #31: All We Have is Time

WoW #32: Dishin’ with Dwight MacPherson

WoW #33: The horror, the horror…

WoW #34: The End is the Beginning

WoW #35: The Weakest Link

WoW #36: Wrestling with Spidey

WoW #37: It Has To Be You

WoW #38: Step Up

WoW #39: Rage Against the (Pitch) Machine

WoW #40: Interesting Times

WoW #41: “Why So Serious?”

WoW #42: Defining Success

WoW #43: Define Yourself

WoW #44: The Power of “No”

WoW #45: Interview with the Editor

WoW #46: The Other Places

WoW #47: Quality Control is Not the Enemy

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