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Marvel EIC Joe Quesada Slams Original Graphic Novels

Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada talks details about the Disney buyout with Kiel Phegley at Comic Book Resources — the only interview he’ll be giving until the deal goes through. While Quesada repeatedly dodges on questions about Disney properties and potential deals, he does address the concerns about Disney getting involved in editorial head-on, and denies them strongly.

The whole interview is worth a look, but I was most interested in Quesada’s comments when asked whether Disney would give Marvel the kind of leeway that Warner Bros. has given DC to invest in original graphic novels — comics that are released as book collections without publishing monthly issues:

“I’ve stated publicly on many occasions that I’ve never seen the benefits of original graphic novels. The economics just don’t work and are poor for both the publisher, retailer and the creator, especially during this Marvel regime when so much of what we do gets compiled into a collected edition anyway… Just look at it from the eyes of the uninitiated, or the neophyte who walks into a comic shop or bookstore. When they decide on a hardcover, do you think it matters to them or that in some cases they even know that it’s an original graphic novel or a collection of a six-issue story?”

Well, if they walk into a bookstore, chances are that they’ll ONLY have graphic novels — and no serialized comics at all. The only way this statement makes sense is if you’re ONLY talking about the direct market, so let’s not pretend that this is about the bookstore market and what it wants, which is graphic novels.

“From an economic point of view it makes tons of sense to release the material in serialized form first because it then allows you to sell the product in several different formats. Also, from the point of view of a creator having their material reach the widest possible audience, the price of an original graphic novel can be too steep for many. That’s why you don’t see OGN’s selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies. Yet, if the story is strong enough, you can certainly serialize it and have that many eyeballs looking at your work in installments.”

First of all, no comics sell multiple hundreds of thousands of copies right now. Only a handful of top comics from Marvel and DC breaks 100K each month, and in May 2009, no comics at all made it past the 100,000 mark, so let’s not pretend that’s a realistic standard.Publishers want the readers to buy the single issues because that’s their indicator of success, but guess what? I don’t want most comics in singles. I want them in trade paperbacks, and I wait for the trades, and I get way better value when I buy them that way than I would buying individual issues. So no, it’s not that steep in terms of price for anyone accustomed to buying books, or anyone who buys monthly comics and can do math.

My problem with singles isn’t that they exist — they’re neat! — but rather that their sales are used as the primary indicator of a comic’s success. What about the strong stories that do poorly in monthly issues, but sell far better when they’re released in collections because people are waiting for them? What about the comics that get canceled before they have a chance to establish themselves, for the same reasons?

Singles have their own advantages, to be sure, including Quesada’s valid point about keeping a title on the radar of comic shop readers for a longer span of time. They also give creators and publishers a venue to try out new talent and titles without a huge investment, not to mention the core audience that prefers them. But graphic novels are now the way a lot of readers (especially casual readers) want to read their comics. It’s also how some of the best work in the industry is now made to be read.

Designing something for the trade means making a piece of sequential art that is meant to last as a cohesive, collected work. Despite the best efforts of bag-and-boarders, individual issues have always lived in the realm of the ephemeral, and a comic book story is only going to be read in the format of singles for a limited period of time. If the work has any lasting power beyond six months, it’s going to be read as a collection, and anyone who really wants their work to last has to think about it that way. So why isn’t long-term graphic novel success a bigger part of how publishers think about their monthly comics?

The simple answer is that it is often necessary to emphasize immediate sales in an industry with tight profit margins, and that’s understandable. But if you have the financial backing to shift your priorities slightly — which is the question Quesada was asked — why wouldn’t you? If you could afford to invest in the best creators up front and give them the creative freedom that original graphic novels offer, or allow yourself gauge the success of more monthly comics as longer-term investments, why wouldn’t you?

Quesada’s immediate dismissal of original graphic novels, regardless of Disney’s support, seems like intentional shortsightedness and an unwillingness to break with the status quo — diseases that have long plagued comics publishing, and since the House of Mouse is staying out of the comics kitchen, ones that the Disney buyout may not cure.

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