Friday, 22 November 2013

Watchmen & The Origins Of The Graphic Novel

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life Of Alan Moore (Aurum Press, 2013)
by Lance Parkin
(from Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life Of Alan Moore, 2013)
The first graphic novels were usually fairly slim albums, self-published by the artists, advertised in comics fanzines and hawked at conventions. But by the early eighties, Marvel and DC had got in on the act with original graphic novels that often used existing characters, like the X-Men book God Loves, Man Kills or Jack Kirby's Fourth World book The Hunger Dogs. But these were all new stories. Even series like Camelot 3000 and Frank Miller's Ronin, the comics closest in form to Watchmen, were never intended to be collected in one book. If you wanted to read them, you bought the back issues. Comic shops dedicated most of their floorspace to the section where their customers could catch up on comics they had missed. Fans might have to pay a premium for 'hot' comics they'd been foolish enough to ignore on original publication, but that was all part of the game. Ronin was published in 1983, but the collected version was not released until 1987, thanks to intense interest in Miller's work after The Dark Knight Returns. It would be fifteen years before Camelot 3000 was collected. There were digest-sizes reprints and 'graphic albums' - usually oversized replicas of the first appearance of popular characters or a repackaging of movie adaptations - but there weren't any books which collected recent comics.

Alan Moore would reasonably have expected the twelve issues of Watchmen to be published and for that to be that; when he signed the contract, there was not a single precedent to suggest otherwise. He, Gibbons and DC all fully expected that within a few years all rights would revert to the creators. Even as the early issues of Watchmen went on sale, however, the game was changing. One catalyst was Dave Sim, creator and self-publisher of Cerebus The Aardvark (1977-2004) a series which had transformed from a pastiche of Conan and Howard The Duck comics into a literate, complex discussion of religion and politics. Sim had been publishing slim collections of old material for a number of years, but found that keeping supply matched to demand was a challenge, and his printing bills were expensive. In 1985, DC began negotiating to publish graphic novels of the Cerebus back catalogue, and offered Sim $100,000 and a 10% share in royalties and merchandise. This looked like an extraordinarily good deal for Sim, but he was unhappy at having to sign over so much control of his intellectual property. He came up with the alternative of self-publishing thick 'phone-book' paperbacks collecting twenty-five issues at a time, which would be far easier to keep in print. Sim published a 512-page volume, High Society, in June 1986, and by cutting out every possible middleman he had earned himself $150,000 within weeks. He would become a champion of self-publishing, putting his money where his mouth was by supporting dozens of ventures.

The corporate publishers, though, could learn the lesson of Cerebus: there was a market for collections of recent comics, and DC, would soon reap the rewards.


Nat Gertler said...

In order to fully accept this analysis, one would have to ignore both the Swords Of Cerebus and (perhaps more vitally, considering its successful bookstore distribution) the Donning/Starblaze Elfquest collections, both of which started collecting fairly recent comics in 1981.

Jp Pollard said...

I don't think those were ignored:

"Sim had been publishing slim collections of old material for a number of years, but found that keeping supply matched to demand was a challenge, and his printing bills were expensive. "

Jeff Seiler said...

As an aside, before going to SPACE in 2005, I found a first edition of High Society that had its cover still fully glued on. My first copy of it (a later edition) had most of its cover loose for years. I asked Dave to sign the first edition at SPACE and he wrote "congratulations on finding a first edition with its cover intact". Apparently, that was a major hurdle in starting up the printing of the phone books, as High Society, not Cerebus, was the first phone book.

adampasz said...

Elfquest was the first graphic novel I bought as a kid. You could pick it up at just about any book store in New York in the early 80's, well before Watchmen or DKR hit the shelves.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I had no idea that was a problem. My first-edition High Society still has the cover fully attached, although it certainly couldn't be described as Preteen Mink condition.

-- Damian T. Lloyd, mon