In Defense of Lateness

There’s been a lot of commotion in recent years over late — sometimes very late — high-profile books.

Ultimates2 #12

Ultimates2 #12

Remember how The Ultimates ran monthly, only to shift to nothing short of occasional publication? The same thing happened with Ultimates 2, effectively holding up the franchise as work continued, almost in blind faith, on Ultimates 3 and Ultimates 4. The creators were allowed to work their magic, and the title continues to sell well, although fan enthusiasm certainly does seem to be affected.

Things are a little different over at DC. Some recent, high-selling titles — including Green Lantern and Supergirl — have run late. DC’s solution tends to be the use of fill-in artists, necessary to keep to title’s publication up to speed.

DC also has a tendency to prepare fill-in issues ahead of time. When the generally notoriously late artist Jim Lee was placed on mainstream titles Batman and Superman, DC made sure to have something in the can just in case Lee’s 12-issue run on either title needed a one-issue breather.

DC does have its episodes of abysmal lateness, of course. Frank Miller’s and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder is a case-in-point: the currently-ongoing series saw three issues published relatively bimonthly, followed by many months before issue #4 and an even longer pause before the as-yet-unpublished issue #5.

Grant Morrison’s and Jim Lee’s 2006 Wildcats relaunch, supposed to be the first book to appear as part of an overall relaunch of the WildStorm line (a relaunched termed “WorldStorm”), got postponed a few weeks, makingWetworks #1 the first book of the relaunch. Then, within days of Wildcats #1 being released, DC / WildStorm announced that issue #2 would be resolicited, meaning it would appear until at least four months after the first issue. The title was originally scheduled as a bimonthly in order to help keep it on schedule.

One would think that limited series would have a better success rate in terms of timely publication, given that the publishers are only releasing a few issues and that a certain number of them are or ought to be complete prior to publication of the first issue. But, of course, this isn’t always so.

Consider some late high-profile Marvel mini-series. Kevin Smith, by himself, is a subsection of this particular subsection. Daredevil: The Target got one issue out before being effectively canned. Spider-Man / Black Cat: The Evil that Men Do was stopped halfway through, though the final issues did see print eventually.

Then there’s Joe Quesada’s Daredevil: Father, which will be completed later this year but which — like the aforementioned Kevin Smith mini-series — has seen years of delays.

A recent addition to the list Ultimate Wolverine / Hulk, which saw a very high-profile launch followed by a couple of issues, followed in turn by an abrupt stop to publication and a status of indefinite hiatus.

DC’s hardly immune. Remember how late Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again ran? Fans greeted it with a collective orgasm, then soured on the sequel to the classic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — a souring accentuated by a long delay between issue #2 and issue #3.

Infinite Crisis

Infinite Crisis

When things ran late on DC’s recent, insanely high-profile crossover mini-series, Infinite Crisis, a plethora of fill-in artists were brought in. While those artists were quite good, the overall result had something of a patchwork quality.

Civil War

Civil War

On the other hand, when Marvel’s currently-ongoing, insanely high-profile crossover mini-series, Civil War, ran late, Marvel bit the bullet and announced a new schedule for the entire event, delaying numerous tie-in issues in order to avoid revealing plot elements of the main series and offering a number of new tie-in specials to satiate the public thirst. Marvel didn’t even promise that this would be the only delay, though it promised to continue doing its best to avoid such delays.

Of course, all of this is nothing new.

Early Image comic books often ran late. Image could’ve published a comic called Shitman in 1993 and it would have sold a million copies — literally. But for all the buzz about Image, fans weren’t exactly happy when some late issues came out with stories that were only 10 pages or so, as happened with Hellshock, yet carried the same cover price.

Does anyone recall how late Miracleman ran? The historic runs by both Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman were terribly delayed. Of course, few people remember this today as they scour for trade paperbacks and back issues. Instead, they just recall the stunning quality of those final issues.

Do you recall that Watchmen itself ran late? Can you imagine reading this intricate, true graphic novel on a monthly basis and then have a long, agonizing pause before the final issue? Well, it happened.

But those two works appeared after the rise of comics specialty shops and the comics-as-art movement. Do you know what they did in the 1960s and 1970s, when comics primarily sold on newstands and fandom was confined to fanzines, instead of today’s museums and the academy? Well, they simply published a shorter story and put a reprint, or a previously prepared back-up story, in the back of the comic.

Or worse, they just published an all-reprint issue with a new cover, deceiving some into buying the comic as if it were new, only to get home and find out it was a reprint.

The Golden Age was worse. In those crazy early days of comics, New York publishers would generally round up whatever artists they could, of whatever questionable talent, and offer them money to produce stories and sometimes whole issues over ridiculously small time frames, sometimes causing those artists to farm the work out to their various artistic friends in order to meet a deadline. Almost all comics were anthologies, so many stories unrelated to the apparent protagonist or head character could be slotted into any given comic.

Hell, all of that was standard practice at any publishers whether a book was late or not. There was simply very little standard of quality, with a few rare exceptions.

So what do we learn from this little tour down memory lane?

First, let’s remember our history — because doing so puts the problem of lateness in perspective. Human beings — including those who produce comics — have been running late since the beginning of time. It’s just that the solutions, such as they are, have changed — and changed in ways that reflect the changing market.

This leads us to our second conclusion: the issue of lateness really isn’t about timely publication so much as it is about the medium itself.

After all, no one reads Watchmen today — taught in universities, revered by almost all comic book afficionados, available in deluxe slipcased oversized editions — and bitches about how it ran late. In fact, while professors vent hot air and spill ink over the magnum opus that is Watchmen, I doubt few even mention the title’s lateness in its original publication.

In justifying the recent delays in Civil War‘s schedule, which played havok with much of the Marvel line and angered fans and retailers alike, Marvel and its Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada, explained their rationale by citing the importance of the book collection of the material. In other words, someday people will read Civil War not as a magazine but as a book, and at that point — and for the forseeable future afterwards — the artistic integrity and consistency of the work will be more important than its timely original serialization.

What we’re talking about, therefore, is the medium itself — what form comics as a medium ought to take, whether we see ourselves as serialized or short fiction or as graphic novels, and whether we prefer being read in magazine form in comic book stores or in books in bookstores.

Because if you see the graphic novel as not only the terminal product but the most important one, you necessarily see comic book serialization simply as a fetish industry for a hardcore group of fans who want their chapters as soon as humanly possible.

If you’re one of those fans (as I obviously am), you agonize over such delays. When the next issue appears after a long delay, you have trouble remembering what happened previously — and therefore have trouble getting back into the story at the same emotional level. It’s perfectly understandable that such a base of readership would be upset at such delays.

But those of us who are hardcore fans, who still read monthly comic books to any degree, ought to remember that we are a dying breed and that monthly serialization in magazine format is, ultimately, a fetish industy. After all, thefuture is in graphic novels — is in the bookstore model, the general reader who reads books as well as comics and wants an appropriate retail environment. And as much as we love our monthly adventures, the joy of opening that new chapter in its own little comic book, we ought to love the medium more.

And making good choices for the graphic novel market is good for the medium. Period, end of story.

In politics, you can play to your base — your hardcore supporters who are generally more extreme in their political opinions than most. After all, you need your base to get out the vote; they have your back. But what you want is to win the mainstream, and sometimes that means alienating your base of more fanatical supporters.

It’s not that different in comics. Yes, reading serialized sequential art in magazine form is a somewhat fanatical activity these days. Times have changed. We’re nostalgic animals. But if you doubt that we’re the fanatical base, you only have to think of the internet and the thousands of blogs and message boards that light up to criticize and debate any given decision made by a major comics publisher. We’re fanatics — which is, after all, what “fan” is short for.

But a good “fan” of X doesn’t want X limited just to fans.

It’s tempting to demand a fill-in issue, to simply demand more material. And, indeed, that’s a sane response: there’s nothing wrong with fill-ins, or shoving out more material, as long as what’s being produced is just schlock. There’s nothing wrong with schlock, we all have our guilty pleasures, and there are plenty of monthly titles that are just fun to read but have little lasting artistic merit; they don’t belong in trade paperback collections except to please the same fan market that buy their monthly titles. In such cases, there’s nothing wrong with a fan-based approach that publishes fill-in issues. Fans might not enjoy it as much as an issue by the regular team, but it’s not as if the material is seen as high art with a lasting future in the book market.

But when it comes to material that does have that lasting future — and, ironically enough, this includes most high-profile projects because they have high-profile creators whose work gets nice book collections — it’s simply the best decision to wait and put out the most integral, artistically consistent product possible.

The problem of lateness isn’t limited to comics, of course. Consider how much time can pass between seasons of HBO’s The Sopranos, which at one point took a full year off because the next season wasn’t ready. Whether a due evaluation or not, HBO treats The Sopranos as if it were art — art that will have a long shelf life on DVD, or heads-up holographic display, or whatever else follows someday. And that’s probably a wise decision, no matter how much it irritates the hardcore fans.

On the other hand, The Tonight Show and Days of Our Lives probably ought to get someone to step in and host or write an episode, rather than delaying or running a re-run.

Now, this isn’t to say that publishers should be cavalier in their attitude towards lateness. It’s just plain stupid, as a business model, to roll out a new title with great fanfare only to have it delayed, alienating all those people who got excited. Yes, they may well come back when you get your act together and publish again. They may even use that time to tell their friends and the press about the delays, which could even garner new readers. But they won’t be happy about it, and the publisher’s reputation in the long term may well suffer as it’s linked to bad planning, incompetence, and / or not caring about one’s readership.

That having been said, my point remains: one’s response to lateness illustrates how one sees the medium itself, or at least the title in question.

And the continued debate over lateness is merely part of the medium’s current situation in America, sitting in the crossroads between sequential magazine publication and the bookstore market.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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