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November 20, 2003
By Franklin Harris
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While on vacation last week, I made an important discovery: Comic books stink.
I'm not talking about their content. While 90 percent of comics are bad, 90 percent of everything else — books, movies, TV shows — is bad, too. It's Sturgeon's Law. So, there is no point to picking on comics. No, I'm talking about their format.
Most of the major comics publishers are moving tentatively toward graphic novels and away from the traditional 22- and 32-page formats, often referred to derisively as "pamphlets" or "floppies." That is the good news. The bad news is that they are not doing it quickly enough.
When you are traveling, you can see just how rotten a format floppies are. You can read one in 15 minutes or less. So, if you want to keep yourself occupied during a long trip, you must drag along a stack of them — a large stack. Then just try to keep them from falling all over the place.
The contemporary comic book isn't portable. In the 1940s, a boy might run around with a 10-cent copy of "Captain Marvel Adventures" rolled up and sticking out of his back pocket. But comics today are thinner and flimsier, and, more to the point, they are collectible.
That boy back in the '40s didn't know that his comic would someday be worth thousands of dollars in mint condition. But everyone today knows that any comic book potentially can become valuable, especially given the low print runs of most titles nowadays. And the problem with an instant collectable is that it is barely meant to be read at all, much less read again and again. Even people who buy comic books to read them aren't immune to collector's fever. After I read a comic, it goes into a pile to be bagged, boarded, boxed and kept in a cool dry place. I can't take chances; I've seen too many comics that would be worth serious money had someone not scrawled his name on the cover or punched notebook holes in the spine.
Why graphic novels are best
Graphic novels are better in every way. They cost less per page. They are portable. They (usually) stay in print, so they don't become a scarce collectible the moment they're published.
But the major U.S. comic book publishers are stuck in purgatory. They try to publish and promote graphic novels, but they remain dependent on floppies and the collectors who insist on buying floppies.
By now it is almost belaboring the obvious to point out that Japanese comics publishers have long understood what American publishers are only beginning to grasp. I recently saw the movie "Lost in Translation," starring Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson. The film is set in Japan, and in one scene Johansson's character is on a packed commuter train, and standing next to her is a man reading a Japanese comic. It's a porn comic, but that's not important. What is important is the comic's format — a fat, squarebound graphic novel perfect for reading on the train or during a lunch break.
This is how most people read nowadays. They read on the run. They read in bed. They read at the beach. Have you ever tried to read floppies on the beach? You'd look pretty silly.
The 22-page comic book's time is past. In a fast-paced society where reading is haphazard, it can't keep up. I can read several graphic novels while my stack of floppies sits on a table at home, waiting for me to make time to read them.
How do American publishers get from where they are to where they need to be? Well, they might experiment with an anthology magazine like "Shonen Jump," which with a circulation topping half a million and a page count of over 300, is currently the best selling comic book in America.
And I don't mean they should just reprint 22-page floppies in some oversize magazine format, as Marvel did with its "Ultimate Marvel" title. Reprinted material won't help to wean the collectors from their pamphlets.
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