The Wrong Solution

Late books are a problem for everyone. When books ship late, readers get mad because they can’t get their monthly dose of their favorite characters. Retailers get mad because they can’t sell as many comics if the publishers don’t put out as many. Publishers get mad because quite honestly I wouldn’t want to listen to me complain about late comics either.

So what’s the solution to this problem? Don’t be late, of course. But there’s a right way to not be late and there’s a wrong way.

A very, very wrong way.

The wrong way is exactly what DC is doing with Action Comics, Detective Comics and Batman.

Action 846Recently, DC announced that the Geoff Johns/Richard Donner/random Kubert run on Action Comics would be put on a bit of a hiatus. As you may recall, it was originally scheduled to begin with last July’s Action Comics #841, but the creative team was already running behind before they even sent the first issue to press. The trio’s six issue “Last Son of Krypton” arc finally began in October’s Action Comics #844. The third issue is scheduled for release later this month. After that, Fantastic Four writer Dwayne McDuffie is going to write an issue. Then Fabian Nicienza will be writing two issues. Then comes the big 8-5-0, an anniversary issue by a host of creators. Johns, Donner and Kubert will finally return to finish “Last Son of Krypton” in Action Comics #851-853, tentatively scheduled to run from July to September. The key word there being “tentatively.”

WTF?! Is anyone going to care about “The Last Son of Krypton” after a four month of delay which followed a three month delay which followed yet another three month delay? Probably not. And especially not if the two halves of the story are separated by four months of filler. Sure, Action Comics looks to be a on a monthly schedule through the rest of the year now, but the story is going to suffer immeasurably as a result.

Batman 660DC already did the same thing, albeit to a much lesser extent, with its two Batman titles. For no apparent reason, Royal McGraw wrote November’s Detective Comics #825, sticking a rather sub-par story in the middle of Paul Dini’s stellar run. He’s writing May’s ‘Tec #823, too, which promises to be yet another story worse than something found on a crumpled piece of paper in Dini’s wastebasket. Batman was kept on a monthly schedule by inserting the appropriately named Grotesk storyline between Grant Morrison’s first and second arcs.

Inserting bad filler into a monthly title in order to keep it shipping monthly is a bad idea. I have friends who dropped one or all of these titles from their pull lists because they never had anyway of knowing if the issue was going to be by the creative team they liked or some random writer-artist team. Which means that when the “normal” creative team restarts, readers probably aren’t going to realize they should start buying the title again. So in addition to losing the sales for the months the titles would have skipped, DC has potentially lost future sales on the title.

Granted, there are certainly enough completists out there who will buy those four filler issues of Action Comics or Batman just because DC puts them out to make up for any readers who might drop the books as a result of feeling alienated. But with a readership that’s becoming more and more choosy thanks to higher cover prices, a wider selection of titles on the stands and the increased availability of trades, doing anything with a large chance of alienating your costumers is a bad idea.

At the beginning of this post, I sad there was a right way to not be late on a monthly title, and here it is: rotating art teams.

The art is almost always the problem with late books, aside from high-falutin’ writers-from-another-medium like Richard Donner, Allan Heinberg, Steven King and yes, even my beloved Joss Whedon. Surely a guy like Paul Dini could churn out at least twelve plots for Detective Comics a year. Most comic writers write two, three, four or even more books a month, so there’s no reason the writer should every be replaced if a book is running late. The writer sets the tone of the book much, much more than the artist does. When an artist gets replaced, the book looks different. When the writer gets replaced, the book feels different.

Exiles 66The shining example of how rotating art teams can work is Exiles. For years, Exiles has put out anywhere from 12-18 issues annually. Every one or two story arcs (depending on length), the art team will switch. While the one team is seeing print, the other team is getting three or four months of lead time. If an editor knows how fast each team can produce pages, there’s really no reason the book should ever ship late.

Of course, you could make the argument that altering art styles can displease a reader just as much as changing writers. That was certainly the argument behind the Civil War delay. In that case, I point you towards Captain America. There have been three guys alternating on that book since the latest reboot, and I doubt even loyal readers of the title would be able to tell you which issues were by Steve Epting, which were by Michael Lark and which were by Mike Perkins without looking at the credits.

The trick is finding art styles that don’t clash. Don’t put Alex Maleev on one arc and Michael Turner on the next (on second thought, don’t put Michael Turner on any arc, ever). Find guys with similar styles and pair them on a book. Roger Cruz and Chris Bachalo. Tony Moore and Jerome Opena. Adam and Andy Kubert. Mark Bagley and Mark Bagley. With all the talented artists out there, it’d be practically impossible to find someone that wouldn’t mesh well with someone else.

It’s one thing to get comics out on a monthly basis. It’s another thing altogether to get good comics out on a monthly basis. No one cares if it comes out on time if half of it is crap.