Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Ten Years Ago

Cerebus #300 (March 2004)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(from Iest To Austin, IVC2, 3 March 2014)

...Ten years ago this month, in March of 2004, Cerebus completed its run of 300 continuous self-published monthly issues.  It's one of the most impressive accomplishments in comics history. For this achievement, creator/publisher/entrepreneur Dave Sim could have etched himself on comics' Mount Rushmore. Instead, Cerebus stands as comics' Borobodur Temple: a massive, lavishly-ornamented monument decaying in the jungle in the middle of nowhere. The cantankerous aardvark, despite his impressive staying power, died alone, unmourned and unloved - and remains even moreso to this day.

The reasons for Cerebus' decline into obscurity are numerous and well-documented elsewhere. But from a business perspective, the juxtaposition between self-publishing then and now is illuminating.

The Hyborean Age. 
When Sim launched his series in the late 1970s, comics were in the ditch. DC imploded, canceling dozens of announced books; over at Marvel, things were so bad that a revival of the X-Men, the failed title from the 1960s, was about the only interesting thing going on. There was no indie scene to speak of.  You could fit all the trade reprints of old comics on a single bookshelf, with room to spare.  Newsstand distribution was dying and the direct market was just getting off the ground.

On TV, you might be able to catch re-runs of "Zap! Bam! Pow!" Batman, and word was that someone was doing a Superman movie with some pretty big stars attached.  If there happened to be a story about comics in the media, the headline cliché talked about "hidden treasures in the attic!" because comics pretty much were still just for kids.

High Society. 
Into this discouraging scene jumped Dave Sim, a little-known writer/artist from Kitchener, Ontario with a self-published black and white comic featuring an ill-tempered aardvark barbarian, some promising but undeveloped drawing skills, and a penchant for poking fun at prevailing trends in the comics world.

Within two years, Sim hit his stride and announced that he planned for Cerebus to run as a continuous story for 300 issues.  He also became an evangelist for independent publishing, issuing manifestos extolling creator rights and excoriating DC and Marvel for their exploitive practices.

Along the way, he established the template for a generation of self-published comics, paved the way with distributors and retailers, and practically invented the practice of collecting back issues into trade paperbacks so new readers could catch up with the storyline. He also made some pretty amazing comics. The fact that he managed to piss all that away in Cerebus' final decade and a half is, in its way, almost as impressive an achievement as having done it all in the first place.

Form and Void.
It's hard to imagine what Dave Sim would have made of ComiXology Submit if it had been around at the time, or what fans of the platform would have made of Cerebus.  During the years that Sim was doing his most groundbreaking work in the mid-1980s, you got the strong sense that he was motivated at least in part by overcoming the obstacles placed in front of him and proving the doubters wrong. Leaving aside Sim's aversion to all things digital, having something as easy and accessible as Submit might have made the process less... rugged.

It's also the case that Cerebus and other acclaimed self-published titles from the direct market heyday benefited from a captive market. Though it was somewhat offbeat by superhero standards, Cerebus fit neatly into the tastes of old-school fandom, with an art style that was recognizably "good" according to prevailing standards and a constant undercurrent of inside jokes and references (which, unfortunately, give even the best of Cerebus a dated feel). Sim directly cultivated fans, critics and retailers within the community, and those gatekeepers helped attract attention to his book.

These days, the market and the critical environment is broader and more diverse. Fans have more direct ways to interact with creators, and with so many conventions, blogs and Tumblrs going on, there are too many gates for gatekeepers to keep. Those who have success breaking through as entrepreneurs and self-publishers are creators like Mark Waid and Brian K. Vaughan, who already have large fanbases. Compared to 1977, an unknown like Sim was at the start of Cerebus would have an easier time getting heard, but a much harder time getting listened to.

A quick examination of ComiXology's Submit portal proves that out. The site is an embarrassment of riches. Established indie favorites like Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man share virtual shelf space with acclaimed newcomers like Karl Bollers and Rick Lionardi’s Watson and Holmes and Fabian Rangle's Doc Unknown. Even fans who pay attention and have money to spend need something to guide them through the clutter, just as Sim encouraged retailers to recommend Cerebus to fans in the 80s...

Rob Salkowitz is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture and is curating a speaker series on “Comics and Digital Culture” at Emerald City Comic-Con in March. Disclosure: ICv2 has a business relationship with comiXology as a representative.


David Birdsong said...
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Christopher Judge said...

"Compared to 1977, an unknown like Sim was at the start of Cerebus would have an easier time getting heard, but a much harder time getting listened to."

This hits me pretty hard. I'm going through this with my work currently.

Jeff Seiler said...

David, perhaps it feels like longer than ten years because of all the projects that Dave has done since then?

Christopher, please don't dismay. If all else fails, just look to Dave Sim as possibly the best example of what can happen through perseverance and putting your head down and just keeping going. Good luck.