Friday, July 24, 2009

They Don't Care About Us

Before the recent success of one-shot graphic "novels" like Blankets and J.Edgar Hoover:A Graphic Biography, all comic stories that I know of used to be serialized. Yes, this means that Maus, Watchmen, Cerebus, Ghost World, and most every other work of that nature published prior to this decade was originally produced in the thin, softcover comic issues (I've heard them called "floppies" that many new graphic novel snobs sneer at. Recently, I've done a lot of thinking about the fiction genre, and how it has a similar history to comics. Fiction was not always well-respected, and was considered more appropriate for kids than adults. Fiction was also used to be unusual for a novel to come out as a one-shot, just as it is still more common for comics to be serialized today.

But fiction isn't really serialized anymore...and lately, it seems that more and more comics are skipping the traditional issue-by-issue release and going straight to book form. This means no amusing advertisements to look back on, no short 1-2 page "filler" comics or pages that display bonus artwork by other artists or fans. I originally read Dan Clowes' Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron in book form, which included the story alone. Years later, in a Seattle comic book store, I found some issues of Eightball, Clowes' comic series where Velvet Glove... was originally serialized. One issue contained an advertisement (not a parody) for a soundtrack to the comic which could be purchased by anyone. The soundtrack, by the band "Victor Banana," has a song for each chapter, cover art by Clowes, and vocals by Tim Hensley, another Fantagraphics cartoonist. Doesn't that sound like fun? It is obviously convenient to bind a story in a single book, free of advertisements or other clutter. It's easier to carry, and the reader doesn't have to sort through various pages of filler or other stories if they'd prefer to follow a single plot. But the above example hints that if serialization fades out entirely, there's a lot we'll be missing out on.

Here's another example: It's a page from the original run of Franny (of Franny and Zooey fame) in The New Yorker. I found it in the library's bound periodicals collection and photocopied it and then scanned it for you so you would have a visual aid! Please don't sue me, J.D. Salinger. This is fair use, right? A small snippet for educational purposes, and a review?

See? Isn't this neat? Look, the ads take up more space than the actual story does. Obviously, you'd want to get the book at some point. But for the first time reading this in the serialized form, isn't it cool to see all this contextual information? Perhaps Franny might have worn a dress like the one on the left. Or maybe Holden stayed at a hotel like the one in the lower right hand corner. It was only $4.00 for a single.

My point is, all the extra stuff that isn't the actual novel may clutter the pages, but it's also part of a historical document. It shows the kind of lifestyle these characters lived, or were at least heavily exposed to. Sometimes I look up old advertisements on the Internet for my own amusement or reference, but I never think, "Oh, I bet Franny went to a cafe like that, or smoked cigarettes like that." Not unless I see the story and the ads side by side like this do I make that connection. Zooey is even better:

The most interesting ad on this page is the one on the bottom right corner. Exactly what kind of camp are we talking about here? Again, the ads provide a lot of information about the slang used at the time, the ignorance, and questionable sales ethics; information that the actual articles and stories in a publication may ignore or shy away from. The pages including Franny and Zooey didn't overlap with any blackface advertisements, but such ads existed in the same volumes. Even as late as the mid-50s. But all of this is a part of our history, and someone put a lot of thought into writing these elaborate old ads, or drawing/painting the illustrations. Not everyone had TVs in those days, certainly not in color, and in addition to providing a context for articles and stories, many of the ads are extremely beautiful, creative, and well-crafted.

In addition to acting as an ads/fun filler archive, serialization also allows readers, via "letters to the editor," to communicate with the creator/publisher during production of a story. Surely reader mail has had some effect on the plotlines and/or artwork of serialized comics and, earlier, novels. Without this communication, would a horrid inker (like, say, on par with Ty Templeton on The Exterminators) be commissioned to work on hundreds of pages, with no opportunity for outside protest along the way? Will creators shy away from experimental creative asides (like the soundtrack mentioned above), as they are typically absent from novels and anthologies? Has the slow fade of serialization affected the quality of fiction novels in any way, and will it affect the quality of comics in the future? Perhaps this is something I should research. This blog entry isn't very well researched; it's basically full of remembered information and personal musings.

When I find an article in an online database, it is free of ads and filler. This is good, because my print quota would quickly run out if every other page had a giant plug for Campbell's Cream of Asparagus soup or a recipe for a fancy celery-filled Jello mold that has nothing to do with my research. But by now it should be clear that the filler still has a very important purpose. However, it looks like those bits of history are heading for the dumpster or at least for storage, and current trends indicate that, in the near future, most comics, at least those targeted towards adults, might be published as one-shots, ending this archiving marriage of interesting stories within a greater cultural context. People don't really hang onto trashy magazines or advertising fliers. The only issues I hold onto are comic books, unless a magazine contains an article of a major historical event.

By the way, libraries weed books that are unpopular, but I didn't check out those giant, heavy, brittle New Yorker volumes, and returned them to their proper place on the shelf when I was done combing through them. I believe they were last checked out in the 1960s. One would think that only someone with my unique idiosyncracies, who is graduating next year anyway, would enjoy combing through 60-year-old periodicals as a pastime. But there's no way to tell, is there? Other than a careful viewing of library security camera footage.

Fun fact: Cosmopolitan (not in Syracuse's bound periodicals collection, but available at my old college) didn't used to be a cheap rag for cheap hoydens. It was a classy magazine that, in the early 20th century, taught women neat stuff like how to cook an omelet over an open fire. I thought maybe it was a different publication with the same name.

OKAY KIDS WAKE UP! Here's that silly comic I promised you earlier! It's a parody of a 40's-style prep school advertisement. You know, when I was a young girl, my mom used to put a "new" used book underneath piles of laundry I was supposed to put away. Eventually, I just knew a book would be there and took it without putting away the laundry, but hopefully you read my "boring" article anyway, rather than skipping to the end. And please let me know what you think of it (the article and/or anything else in this blog)!

As always, if the text is difficult to read, click on the image and it will appear in a new window and a new, larger size.

Ugh, my face is so greasy, breaking out. and I skipped the gym again today in favor of drawing the above spoof. It's like I'm 14 years old again, only physically, not mentally like always. It's the blog's fault. And yes, spellcheck, blog is a word now.

After awhile, dystophile!


  1. Franny and Zooey is one of the only books that I revisit over and over again.

    Something about old ads are really charming, but, frankly, new ads insult me. Maybe because I know they're trying to specifically target me--that they use cookies (or whatever...I'm not very tech savvy) to stalk my internet persona and specifically try to target me (and get it wrong every time). I wish I lived in the heyday of serials. I really do. Good post!

  2. This was forwarded to me with a grin, so it's with a grin that I ask the question...When did I become a synonym for "horrid inker"? I'm mostly a writer or a penciler nowadays, and other than three issues of Exterminators (inked over my own pencils) and one issue of Justice League Unlimited, I don't think I've inked much of anything in ten years! What did I ink that left so bad a memory for you?

    Ty Templeton

  3. I'm sorry, Mr. Templeton. I had no idea that my blog had a readership of more than 5 people. Yes, I was referring to the Exterminators issues you mentioned. But I will delete the mention of your name in this entry, as I had no idea this was being read by anyone but my personal friends, and don't wish to hurt anyone's feelings..

  4. No, gosh no feelings hurt here. If you didn't like the Exterminators issues, then leave the post the way it is. I have no problem with someone having an opinion one way or another about my work. More than anything I was curious as to what I'd inked that was so horrid, that's all. I took no offense, it was morbid curiosity. And you may well have only five readers, but one of them forwarded the post to me, and I had to ask...

  5. Maybe, but now I'm morbidly curious as to who exactly is reading this. I wonder if any of my five readers sent an email, with a grin, to J.D. Salinger.

    By the way, honestly, I should have put some research into that parenthetical comment. It applied only to what I remember from the Exterminators, none of your other work. I wish I had the issues in front of me right now (I haven't read them since last year) so I could say exactly what it was that bothered me. For me, some of the anatomy seemed stiff, and there is a specific panel I'm thinking of where the ink was applied in sort of a heavy crosshatching...gee, I really wish I hadn't left my TBPs at my parent's house. I also appreciate feedback on my stuff, both positive and negative, if it's constructive. This is all in my humble opinion of course, I'm just a silly kid on the Internet who writes and draws non-published underground comics.

    Plus, I used to read and enjoy a lot of Ren & Stimpy and Simpsons comics, which I now know that you worked on, as well as American Splendor, and have looked up some images of your other work which looks good to me. So I'm a little embarrassed, but I think my blog got a little more exciting, for better or worse.

  6. The trade/single issue thing is something I always have a hard time with, too. I tend to get things that I like the most as they come out because of impatience, but then that's also the stuff I most want in collected format. After all holds up better, easier to access, travels better - you know. But unless it's something crazy awesome I'm not likely going to spring for a trade of something I have in serial form. Tough.

    A lot of collected books do tend to come with their own bonus stuff these days though - like a Special Edition Bonus Material DVD. Still not always the same by any means, but you can see them trying to address some such issues.

  7. I usually just buy one or the other,too. But it's nice to know that both are out there somewhere if I want to refer to it or peruse it for my own interest, so I can see the raw process. And part of the point of this post is that it's lame that some adult comics are trending towards coming out in one volume without being released as issues first.

    We know that TPBs often have extra material, e.g. letters from the artist/writer/a celebrity-fan, sketches and other bonus artwork...but it's all slick stuff like that. It's cool to see the original, raw historical documents, too. Like I said, I don't have giant old volumes of the New Yorker from the 40's and 50's in my house, but it's nice to know they're out there somewhere.

  8. @SidVicious, Facebook ads obviously target me for things I have in my profile (for example, if I list a certain band in my favorite music section, ads for the band's upcoming concerts will appear in my sidebar), but it looks like lately they're going even further, with games that ask my friends intimate questions about my personal life. I wonder how games like this will affect the ads I receive in the future. At least before I had some control based on which applications I chose, or which interests I listed. It's fascinating, sleazy, and creepy how far they are taking this.

    Saturday morning cartoons continue to have interesting advertisements for toys.