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The Direct Market Death of ‘Young Liars’

In midtown Kansas City, there are two comics shops situated across the street from one another, like a squat pair of gunfighters in perpetual staredown. The one on the left is younger, a hipster establishment with a healthy shelf of independent comics and street cred. It even has a hipster name. On the right is the old collector’s store, still trying to fight off the reputation of its tyrannical former owner.

Last summer I found myself at the nexus of this struggle for this very first time, awestruck at how mother nature had gone into sitcom development. I had just gotten a temp job a few blocks away; my preferred store was across town; it was ninety-plus degrees, and I had no air conditioning. And though the OCD scratched and gnawed at me like an earwig, I knew I would have to pick one of these two. I chose the hipster store. Big surprise.

It’s a nice store. Spacious and well-arranged, smelling faintly like a church. The staff is laidback, friendly, and knowledgeable. Within a minute, I had every item on my list but one.

“Hey, did ‘Young Liars’ come out today?” I asked, knowing the answer already. It’s a polite way of asking if there are any copies left.

Actually, we don’t carry that,” he said, and quickly added “but we can order it for you.”

“Ah, no, that’s okay,” I said, already planning my Frogger-like sprint to the retailer across the street. It was a little confusing. The store had a healthy assortment of independent and Vertigo titles, why not YL? “You know it’s like the best book on the stands, right?”"Oh yeah?” he nodded. “Yeah, I love Dave Lapham, but I haven’t read it yet,” he said. “I’m waiting for the trades.”

“Ah,” I said, swallowing three pints of blood from my own tongue.

The first issue of “Young Liars” is as razor-sharp and immaculate as one can get. It’s like reading rock and roll, like listening to speed. The beefy Les Paul at the top bangs an open chord, the gun at the headstock belches a squid of smoke, a starter pistol, and we are off “At a Thousand Miles an Hour.”

Within a few panels, it was clear that Lapham had entered unexplored territory. Like “Stray Bullets,” it made use of a fractured timeline, and didn’t flinch from violence and debauchery, but did so from completely different angles. There is a speed to YL that hums quite unlike anything else, and an approach to the sequential portrayal of music that borders on the mystical. Music has been done well in comics in many different ways — from Dave McKean’s Cages to Jason Lutes’ “Berlin” — but issue one “Young Liars” is the first comic I ever read that actually had a backbeat. Through the Danny Duoshade mixtapes, story references, and visual cues, it seemed to elicit an imagined soundtrack that I was nodding along to. Anybody else?

The uniqueness of Lapham’s approach fits the uniqueness of the story — Sadie Dawkins, an unstoppable girl with a bullet in her brain, and Danny Noonan, the heartsick loser who loves her, are on the run from her deranged father, and spiders from Mars who want to impregnate her use her brood to take over the world. Maybe.

The beauty of the story is that it’s told by liars, so it’s mutable, open to interpretation. It asks for the reader’s attention and participation and exploits it, going topsy-turvy every six or seven issues and going back to start over with another version. And every time the story flips, the reader is given new looks at characters they both love and hate. Each is individually noble and deplorable, relatable and disgusting. Every small-town guy has been Danny Noonan, everybody has known a CeeCee, and everyone is just looking for their own Sadie. As every character is broken-down and reassembled, another curtain is pulled on the hidden-away parts of Danny’s mind, another layer of interpretation presented.

And it’s just that much more frustrating that it got canceled.

I get waiting for the trade. I really do. One doesn’t have to worry about missing an issue, in some cases it’s cost-effective, and the whole story is compiled in a handsome, convenient format. All good things, and probably why there have been so many calls to move to an “all-album” format. In a way, waiting for the trade is a sort of compliment to the work: if you know the creators or trust the solicitation copy, why not wait and gorge on the collection?

The reality that some people need to accept is that a lot of good comics have tanked because of that opinion. Ongoing series that don’t fit any particular mold are endangered from the beginning, and rely on the quality of the work and word of mouth just to get by. “The Invisibles” was in such jeopardy that Grant Morrison asked readers to masturbate (well, that was one idea) over dont-cancel-Invisibles sigils. Truly good, original comics are like delicate flowers, and may require the sunshine of our monthly patronage to bear the sugary fruit of extended runs. And just in case people have forgotten, comics are a serial medium.

That may be the real tragedy here. “Young Liars” was truly a comic that needed to be consumed in single issues, each one a perfectly structured race to the final panel. A healthy portion of masochistic joy came in spending a month-plus wondering what the christ was going to happen next. There was so much going on in each chapter that it practically necessitated multiple readings, and each time the story flipped and rebooted, everything that came before suddenly had a new context and required further examination.

I can’t blame anybody who waits for the trade, for whatever reason. But when the Lapham fan behind the counter in the hipster comic shop doesn’t carry a series, doesn’t buy the single issues himself, and plans to buy the collections, we’re obviously having a disconnect. I mean, it was canceled.

Meanwhile, back at the cover for issue one, Sadie Dawkins explodes from the page at us, cocked back and ready to fire, shouting at us. “Are you ready for this?”

Sigh. No, Sadie. We’re apparently not.

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