Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On the poor collective memory of comic book culture

Two creator-owned self-published books by well-known authors reached the end of their publication this month.

Rasl was created by Jeff Smith and began in 2008; it ran for 15 issues in total. Although it had good press when it launched and plenty of comments about the first issue, it quickly fell off the radar of the internet's comic book culture.

glamourpuss was created by Dave Sim and began in 2008; it ran for 26 issues in total. Although it had a decent amount of press when it launched, it quickly fell off the radar of the internet's comic book culture.

I feel Rasl was difficult for comic book mavens to discuss because it involved parallel worlds, quantum theory and various mysteries. It will almost certainly be vindicated over the years as people assess the collected series as a single story, rather than as irregular installments spaced over four years.

I feel glamourpuss was difficult for comic book pundits to discuss because a) it only barely concerned itself with narrative and b) was the work of Dave Sim, who is (to put it bluntly) reviled by much of the internet's comic book culture. Unlike Smith, Sim was unable to bring his series to a proper ending; he hopes to eventually finish the segments featuring "the Strange Death of Alex Raymond" as a graphic novel, but was left uncertain about his future in the comics industry.

The recent brouhaha surrounding Before Watchmen has had an interesting effect on the creator-owned comic book business as publishers of creator-owned material (notably, Image's Eric Stephenson) have publicly called out the exploitation of employees by Marvel & DC. Just this week there was a piece in Dark Horse's comics encouraging readers to support creator-owned books. It's fine that publishing groups like Image, Dark Horse & IDW can put up a united front, but what about the self-publishing creators? Smith & Sim are both perfect 10s on the scale of creators rights.

And yet, it's so easy to forget creators like Smith & Sim are on the marketplace because they don't have the marketing resources of the publishing groups. It's also easier for comic book fans and retailers to focus their attention on products they understand, not challenging material like Rasl and glamourpuss. There has been no dearth of Batman comic books for the previous 70 years (I think there's been at least one Batman comic per week for the last 20 years?) so one would think "Batman, chapter 2,096 of Infinity" wouldn't be newsworthy. However, the numbers don't lie: our comic book culture has room for books like Rasl and glamourpuss to co-exist with Batman, but overall, we'd much rather have Batman; we understand Batman.

None of this thinking is doing wonders for my sense of optimism regarding comics. Still, something will come along to take the place of Rasl and glamourpuss, just as these books followed Bone and Cerebus. At least this has been a fun journey!


Unknown said...

I think what killed Rasl for me was the 15 "irregular installments spaced over four years" aspect of Smith's serialization. I mean, it started as a quarterly book of not exceptional issue length, then got more problematic. There were reprints that were huge and beautiful, reprints that were small and poorly produced, and the whole thing will probably be reconsidered in its completion much differently than in the dribs and drabs as it came out.

Terry Moore, on the other hand, has put out two more series in the time that Jeff Smith has spent on Rasl. (Which, I realize, doesn't necessarily mean his work is better or worse, but it does say something that Moore was not requesting to stretch the idea of 'serialization' to the breaking point just because he was producing a new work "from the creator of Strangers In Paradise.")

Glamourpuss did suffer from being an almost non-narrative book, a valedictory indulgence from a creator that had used up all the indulgences the comics community has been interested in giving him (and I say that as a fan of his work, if not his personal beliefs). Sim's eschewing of the internet, for the most part, also makes keeping his book a known quantity difficult.

Michael Hoskin said...

There's a lot in what you say, Unknown. The unpredictable shipping schedule for Rasl did test me a few times - I actually gave up on the series at one point, then came back about half a year later (having missed, what, one issue?).

It's almost impossible to explain the allure of glamourpuss to people; those who know Dave Sim have probably already made up their minds and those who don't... man, "fashion models with snarky comments, occasional gag strips and a history of photorealism in comics" is a hard sell. Personally, I enjoyed about 1/3-1/2 of any given issue and never warmed up to the photorealism segments. Sim is at least beginning to like the internet, per his Kickstarter project.