It’s time to try something new with how we read our event comics. The month-by-month installment model that has been the hallmark of American comics since before the vast majority of us were born is starting to buckle under the weight of change in how Marvel has been telling its stories.
If you need proof, look no further than Dan Slott and Jim Cheung’s recent The Clone Conspiracy, an ambitious story that was absolutely crushed by its attempts to break itself up into 20 page chunks. If Marvel wants to continue to publish large, sweeping narratives, it is far past time to allow the writers the room to do so. It’s time to kick the 20 page format and move on to full graphic novels.
Back in the late ‘70s, Marvel produced its first line of graphic novels under the apt yet non-descriptive imprint “Marvel Graphic Novel.” Unlike its contemporary American comics printed on newsprint with paper covers, MGNs were meant to be higher quality prestige books. In addition to its glossy paper and cardstock cover, MGNs were printed on 11×8.5 inch paper (versus 10.5×6.25 in) and had to a total page count of 60. Of course, this came with a premium price attached, $5.95, which translates to about $19.95 in today’s money – roughly the price Marvel charges now for a collected trade paperback of comics depending on the title.
But my point is, with this added room, Marvel was able to produce two of its crown jewels, The Death of Captain Marvel and X-Men: God Loves Man Kills. MGN also saw the introduction of The New Mutants as well as a solid mix of creator owned and non-cape work tossed in with titles like Amazing Spider-Man: Hooky (with art by the fantastic Bernie Wrightson) and Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Love and War.
Part of the high quality of these books was due to the relative freedom the authors had in writing them; they didn’t need to fit in with a particular run of the story and were all free standing narratives, but they were also given the space to tell their story at a natural pace. Going back to The Clone Conspiracy, it’s hard to read both the main title and the Amazing Spider-Man backups without seeing Dan Slott trying (and unfortunately, failing) to work around the constraints of publishing an ambitious story in such small increments.
Pitched as an emotional series deeply personal to Peter Parker’s life, most of the pathos of the series existed in the roughly grafted on Amazing Spider-Man back up issues where the tacked-on nature of their inclusion robbed scenes of both impact and momentum. The main and ancillary title constantly reminded the reader of the other, robbing precious page space to accommodate the first-time reader who happened to pick a poor time to jump in.
What if, instead, The Clone Conspiracy was launched as a graphic novel? We just saw Marvel release a double-sized 40 page Amazing Spider-Man #25 with another 40 pages of backup stories. There’s been some reasonable push back on a $10 “regular” issue, but I do not think that readers would have an issue paying $20 dollars for a prestige formatted special event book once a year: card stock covers like what DC did with the recent Dark Knight III: The Master Race, oversized pages to really sell those spreads and splashes, and 90 pages (to accommodate for a more decompressed writing style) to flesh out the story. $20 dollars may seem like a lot, but when we’re paying $50 dollars (The Clone Conspiracy #1-5, Amazing Spider-Man #20-24, The Clone Conspiracy Omega) for the privilege to buy a patch-work story, I’m not sure how many more of these I’m willing to shell out for when there is a clearly better option.
There is, of course, a monetary incentive for Marvel to continue to produce both a monthly edition and a collected trade, but I’m speaking purely as a consumer and on an artistic level. However, the direct market has been falling about as quickly as the trade market has been rising, so it would not be surprising to see a future where it is more profitable for Marvel to only produce some stories as a graphic novel rather than both a monthly installments and a trade.
These new prestige books could even replace the annual, which has become a place seemingly to dump inventory stories for a quick buck. So while the regular title runs month-to-month, these annual prestige comics could be a chance for an author to tell a story bigger than what they normally tell, whether it be something grand and bombastic like Spider-Verse or something more nuanced like what The Clone Conspiracy was solicited as. Because, even if you wait for the trade when it comes to big event stories, you’re still reading a product that was originally intended to be read in installments. And if authors are writing their stories for those readers in mind (a trend that we seem to be very slowly backing away from), then it’s time to drop pretenses and write stories that are meant to be read in trade as full-blown graphic novels. Plus, we would then have indisputable evidence that, indeed, annuals count.
(Editor’s note: They do.)