Launched in the last month of 2018, TKO Studios is a new publisher that sets out to “redefine the industry.” Their first wave of announced comics includes titles like Sara – a World War II story written by Garth Ennis (and drawn by Steve Epting). Now, I love Garth Ennis as much as the next person (unless the next person is Ennis scholar Kelly Kanayama), but a World War II comic by Ennis is not going to redefine the industry. Heck, it’s not going to redefine Ennis’ bibliography – the man writes World War II stories the way other people change socks.
Looking at the rest of the opening lineup we can see similar results. And there are people whose work I like; you won’t catch me saying ‘no’ do a Dan McDaid comic, and the books in general seem fine. But they also seem familiar – familiar names working within familiar genres. A second line of books, announced before the first even hits the market, includes a new Jeff Lemire series (because the man is apparently bound by a blood oath to write for every publisher under the sun).
The only unique thing about TKO is their announcement that they are going to offer the series both in single issues and in collected format at the same time. They call it a “binge-release,” which, to me, is meaningless corporate vernacular aiming to catch the zeitgeist with buzzwords. (comiXology used similar terminology with their “comiXology Originals” line.) If you release the whole story at once you didn’t make something new, a binge-able series, you just released a graphic novel. We already have these, we’ve had them for quite a while actually.
But the model thing is, at least, interesting – as a follower of “the industry,” I’ll definitely want to hear how retailers respond to this setup. If we go beyond the model, and into the material, we reach the problem. And the problem is that for all the probable quality of these new launches, TKO seems to be offering us the same type of comic books we now get from Image, Dark Horse, Aftershock, Black Mask, Vault, and Vertigo (Humanoids’ H1 line also seems to be aiming at the same market, but time will tell), and I’m sure I’m missing someone.
I’m pretty much the ideal reader for these types of stories, the dedicated direct market reader with disposable income that mostly left the superhero stuff, and I am overwhelmed. There’s just too much of this stuff, and too much of it feels similar. And if you’re wondering why Image didn’t manage to launch a hit with the scope of The Walking Dead or Saga or even Chew over the last few years, how can a tree grow when it competes over the same resources with five other trees, not to mention the hundreds of other trees that are already there, on the exact same patch of ground? Image alone had six new number ones in December 2018.
And I know you’re asking (you, Straw-Person that I have constructed in my mind for the sake of this piece), “How can more Garth Ennis war comics be bad?” the answer is: because it does not matter how good they are, too much of a good thing is still too much. Water is good, too much water is called drowning. And as essential to my continued existence is the full run of Hitman, Garth Ennis’ comics are rather low on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
I am not talking here about comics in general, but about that small patch we call the direct market. The latest Dog Man graphic novel has a first print run of five million copies. Granted, that’s an outlier, but the important thing about this massive success story of a comic book is that it happened outside the direct market, it happened when a different audience was appealed to. There are more children visiting bookstores than there are adults visiting comics stores. So why is my taste so over-appealed to? We don’t need another Image, we need another Iron Circus or Short Box. Or better yet, something completely different that I cannot conceive of (because I am old and stuck in my ways) that will appeal to brand new audiences.
One of my favorite comics-related podcasts is Contest of Challengers, made by the two long-time comics-store owners who repeatedly make the point (usually while sighing deeply) that new comics are fine, but better to have new comics for new audiences. That’s how Sandman’s success was made, that’s how Saga’s success was made. The comics market is surprisingly stable, considering how steep the drops are in the rest of the print-magazine market, but that does not mean you can endlessly divide the same pie.
Now, I suspect many of the new companies we see popping up in the comics market are not really there to make money from comics. They are making comics hoping to sell the rights and make movies and TV shows (which you can see when a series whose first arc is barely finished gets auctioned). That, in itself, is not necessarily bad – we can talk about artistic purity all we want, but folks need to eat, and starving artists don’t make better comics. They make none. People deserve to get paid, and you won’t catch me begrudging a comics creator getting a steady gig from a paying company. But as an outsider looking in, the direct market appears to me artificially inflated – the comics are not made for readers, they’re made for investors. And surely that’s a bad way to work, surely the balloon will pop sooner rather than later. Remember CrossGen Entertainment falling apart and leaving folks unpaid and titles dead midstream? They also hoped movie deals would save them.
Circling back to TKO, I am interested in their stuff, I truly am. At the same time, though, I am utterly overwhelmed by my own to-read pile. And when I say the same thing about Dog Man or the latest Raina Telgemeier book, it’s fine, because I am not the target audience; if I won’t read them someone else will. However, who but folks like me is the intended audience for read Ennis and Epting’s Sara? Or Goodnight Paradise? It’s the same old same old at a period where we desperately need something new. Not just new ways to publish, but new types of stories made for new audiences.