Monday, November 07, 2005


In 1993, there were, as I understand it, more comic books published than in any other year. Just a few short years later, so few comics were selling that many wondered if the medium would even survive. Why the big turnaround? Lack of story and story-craft.

In the world of comic books, the superstars are the artists. Most fans are initially attracted to the artwork in a book. In the early 90s, editors started letting more of these popular illustrators write as well as draw.

Some of these artists broke from the major publishers and started to produce books of their own. Understandably, these new businesses wanted people to buy their product, so they touted and promoted each book as a collector’s item. This worked amazingly well.

They put out books with alternate covers. They had gold covers, silver covers, platinum covers, and glow-in-the-dark covers. The idea was to sell as many copies of a single issue as possible. Some collectors would buy ten to twenty copies of a book. This plan seemed to be working like a charm.

After a while, the speculator market dried up. I suspect they started to realize what makes Superman Number One valuable is the fact that not everyone in the world has 20 copies. And that printing the words “Collector’s Item” on the cover didn’t necessarily make it so.

What was the flaw in their plan? They went after buyers, not readers. Few people were actually reading these comics. Why? Few of these new companies bothered to hire professional, skilled writers. If the artist was not writing the book, he hired an old buddy from high school to do it. These “writers” had no sense of craft and their bosses didn’t care. After all, these books weren’t for reading, they were for putting into plastic bags and stored in a safe place until the collector saw fit to sell them for a truckload of money.

Here’s the thing: If they had tried to get people interested in the stories and characters, people may have kept buying these books, even when they realized that they wouldn’t be worth a bunch of money.

These companies devalued the importance of story at their peril. Now most of these companies are gone, or are mere shadows of what they once were, and their comic books can be found in that purgatory of comicdom—the quarter bin. Now, just twenty-five cents buys you a “collector’s item,” although the printed cover price may say two dollars or more.

One of these companies put out a guide for aspiring comic-book creators. In the section on writing, they said this: “Each issue should have a simple story goal … the next step is filler.” This is no exaggeration. This was virtually the entire chapter on writing stories.

These companies didn’t have even a rudimentary understanding of how stories are constructed or of their purpose.

On the flip-side of that same coin is this: When I was a kid, writer/artist Frank Miller was doing Daredevil for Marvel Comics, and I would read them in school. There was a girl in my math class who teased me for reading comics.

One day, she was bored, having finished her assignment, and asked if she could read one of my comics. I gave her an issue of Daredevil. She got caught up in the story and wanted to read more. I brought her the entire run of the series. She plowed through the books, and upon completing the last issue, requested the next. She was flabbergasted to hear she would have to wait an entire month!

Miller had crafted his stories well. There was plenty of action, but there was always an emotional component to what was happening that made me, the girl in my math class, and thousands of other people, wait with baited breath for each issue.

When Miller took over the storytelling chores on Daredevil, it went from being one of Marvel’s least-selling books to one of its most popular. Marvel is still making money off Miller’s run on the series two decades later.


Liddy Midnight said...

Did you know that comics are where Diana Gabaldon learned about story?

She initially wrote Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and friends. She had been a fan since childhood but noticed the quality was declining. Figuring she could do better than what she was buying, she submitted a story. The editor didn't buy it, but he did the next best thing: he told her what she was doing wrong. He bought the next submission from her, and more after that.

That editor was obviously a survivor from the heyday of comics.

d said...

I'm in the process of writing a graphic novel now because I love stories and drawing.

I love your blog. I've lamented that movies today just aren't as good as when I was a kid. (70s/80s)

I've found what's missing is a lack of concern and detail around main characters and more focus on effects and style.

What's missing is story. The one thing I've found I've been missing when I've tried to write stories is theme and structure. (What you call armature.)

Once I got over my ego, I realized, "Eureka! That's what's been missing!" I now have story ideas centered around theme. I'll be complete with my first graphic novel by this August. :)

It's my intention to create stories that grip people and are fun to read. Stories need heart and soul.

Thanks for championing this cause.

Brian McD said...

Hey d,

Thanks for letting me know that the blog has helped you.

Good luck with the graphic novel!