JUST LIKE BUSES
I hate late comics.
I hate the fact that of all the commercial serialised artforms currently enjoyed by people at present, it only seems to be the medium of comics in which chronic delays, lateness and generally disorganised release schedules are accepted as being part and parcel of the industry.
Some comics are famous for their punctuality - or lack thereof. Casting an eye over the shipping lists of the past few weeks has seen some of the most notorious laggards finally appear, either quietly hoving into view, or being given a belated fanfare. These would be NYX #4, STRANGEHAVEN #16, and the quasi-mythical MINISTRY OF SPACE #3, titles whose infrequent appearances seem measured in terms of years rather than months. STRANGEHAVEN in particular has settled into a nice easy rhythm of one issue a year, or thereabouts.
Should we readers be happy that our comics have finally come out, or should we grumble that they're only hurting their own sales by having such scattered release schedules? After all, yes, it is a rare treat when that particular concluding issue you've been waiting something like three years for finally appears. A new issue of BERLIN or AGE OF BRONZE is a reason for celebration precisely because their appearance is a rare occurrence and a result of steady and unhurried craftsmanship.
'Chronic delays are accepted as being part and parcel of the comic industry.' However, it is also true that comics benefit from a regular schedule, providing a nice stable framework from which a body of regular consumers can develop. There's nothing more frustrating than having to wait for an unspecified amount of time for a new issue of your favourite title, and for retailers, it must be absolute murder having to field endless questions about the next issue of PLANETARY, let alone having one's livelihood endangered by tardy creative teams.
So is it reasonable for readers to mutter about, scowl at and generally curse those dreadful slack creators and heel-dragging comics companies for not pulling their collective fingers out and releasing things on time?
In the examples quoted above, there are reasons for the unexpected delays, which it would be churlish in the extreme to moan about if one considers the circumstances. Joe Quesada and Warren Ellis, the writers of NYX and MINISTRY OF SPACE respectively, both had their plans and schedules thrown into turmoil by bereavement, illness and unavailable artists. As other creators such as Kurt Busiek have experienced, poor health and other unexpected obstacles generally mean that less profitable endeavours have to fall by the wayside; work for hire must take precedence over creator owned works, because it's more likely to put food on the table.
However, apologia aside, it must also be noted that in the case of NYX, it had long been established, even without any of the unexpected delays, that it might not be the most prompt book on the stands. Josh Middleton's rate of production is sedate at best, and Quesada's script output must be taken into context with the fact that he's actually rather a busy chap as editor-in-chief of the company.
Anyone who expected this book to come out on any kind of regular timeframe should be given a patronising little pat on the head and waved generally in the direction of Marvel's recent scheduling jollities. When even a flagship book like NEW X-MEN labours under enforced artist changes and emergency rush-job fill-ins, it's no surprise that an 'edgy' and rather marginal title like NYX should experience delays.
'Is it reasonable for readers to complain about slack creators and heel-dragging publishers?' Ellis' lack of adherence to schedules is more difficult to ignore or explain. Yes, he was stricken with severe illness and a death in the family, which are obviously understandable reasons for delays, but people could and did point to his constant presence online on his Delphi message board, and to his incessant methinks-the-writer-doth-protest-too-much newsletters, which promised much and delivered precious little. Sympathetic understanding can only stretch so far.
Sympathy is the last thing that one feels for the likes of Bryan Hitch and Frank Quitely, though. Yes, the art is lovely and insanely detailed on such titles as THE ULTIMATES and NEW X-MEN, but when these titles' appearances turn practically bi-monthly and the art begins to look rushed or frankly unsuitable fill-in artists are brought in, one does start to wonder whether creators and their publishers alike actually take deadlines seriously.
THARG THE ORGANISED ONE
Contrast all this chaos with the apparent metronomic serenity of Brit anthology stalwart 2000AD. Running on a weekly basis since 1977 with no less that 4 different storylines per issue (or 'prog'), it has clocked up nearly 1400 issues without ever missing one (besides a couple of uncontrollable instances of industrial strike action). Not a week's delay in over 25 years. Impressive, no?
So how do they do it? Given that some of the stories are illustrated by glacially slow artists, how can they keep to such a demanding schedule?
The answer to this became plain to me at this year's Bristol Comics Festival. At the 2000AD portfolio sessions with Matt Smith and others, it was revealed that the magazine's schedules are basically established up to 12 months in advance. This is great for readers, punishing for their extremely small editorial team, and really, really bad news for those pitching to the comic.
2000AD have perfected the skill of managing to have enough content on a week-by-week basis that an issue can always be put out. This is the beauty of the anthology title; it's not dependant on any one person's efforts, so illness or unforeseen delays can be more easily taken into account. When artwork for stories in 2000AD has been mislaid or lost in the post in the past, there has occasionally been the odd hiatus in a story, but there are always backup stories to take their place.
This used to be a common practice in US comics, where a complete and stand-alone 'filler' issue was always on standby to be slipped into the schedules should there be a delay. However, in the current climate, where all single issues are part of a longer narrative with a view to profitable trade collection, it's no longer desirable to have one-off issues suddenly thrust into the storylines.
WAIT UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR RETOUCHES
It is fair to say that late comics are bad from everyone's point of view. Reader, creator, publisher - they all stand to lose from a delay to the schedules. So, what can be done to minimise these problems?
First, it would make sense to build up enough work on a particular title before the first issue is released to cover any potential difficulties. Second, people won't grumble if schedules are made realistic - Oni Press explicitly stated that the early run of QUEEN & COUNTRY would be bi-monthly. There was none of the sense of either creators struggling to keep to deadlines or of publishers trying to convince the purchasing public that their books would be out any week now, while Joe Consumer watches the months fly past.
I would suggest that the current seemingly laissez faire attitude of, "never mind, it'll be out eventually", not only needs to be addressed, it needs to be seen to be addressed by the comics companies. Continued tardiness will taint the reputations of creators and companies alike, and there's strong justification for retailers to take these problems very seriously. If a book I like is late, or worse, I miss an issue due to fractured schedules, I'm increasingly likely to stop buying that title.
If the comics industry has any pretension to being a mature business, then it must either bring things out when it says it will, or change its promises to something more realistic.
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