In the small corner of the internet comic book universe that I frequent I often read essays on How To Save Comics. As an industry, the American comic book market is tiny and shrinking. Once comics sold millions of copies an issue. Now it's a rare comic that sells over 100,000. The industry has shrunk because the audience has shrunk.
So how can the audience be expanded again? A variety of ideas generally come up - focus on graphic novels, publish magazine rack anthologies, do webcomics, create more kid friendly material, create more "mainstream" (non-superhero) material, tell better stories, improve the layout and customer service at retail outlets and such and so forth. Good ideas, bad ideas, wishful thinking and ideas whose time has come. One idea that I've yet to see suggested is the free comic newspaper. That strikes me as odd, both from a historical perspective and from a practical one. And also, I've been part of the staff of one so it no doubt seems more obvious to me.
The Labor of Love Design Studio (of which I was a founding partner) published four issues of GLYPH in the last six months of 1998. Nizzibet (the other founding partner) suggested what should have been an obvious idea - revive Glyph; our previous direct market magazine anthology, as GLYPH; a free, advertising supported, newsprint tabloid. Most cities of any size in the US have at least one free weekly newspaper. Most of them are tabloids (the size of a daily newspaper folded over). Seattle had two main ones - The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly. Both of them ran a few comics but comics were hardly a focus. The majority of them were gag strips of the artsy/hip/ironic favor. That barely scratched the medium's potential.
The first three issues were twenty pages, the fourth was thirty-two and they were all black and white printed on tabloid sized newsprint. The contents were a mix of genres - humor, drama, mystery, adventure, even a monthly dose of prose. Unfortunately, between creating the material for each issue, selling advertising and running a design studio with office overhead we burned up and out. Number four was the last issue of GLYPH and that version of the Labor of Love mostly disbanded soon after.
My main comics project right now is this website. Eventually I'll look for ways to get the work presented here into dead tree editions. I'll be aiming for a collection of some kind, a book with a spine. I can't see myself doing anymore periodical print work.
Out of all the print comics projects I've been involved with, the one that was most economical and reached the widest audience was the tabloid GLYPH. The minicomics were a bit of mostly private fun and never had more than 200 copies published of any one issue. Misspent Youths had a first issue printing of 2000 copies and then dropped to 1200 for each issue after that. Some of my freelance work probably saw smaller runs than that. The Glyph magazine had less than 2000 copies printed per issue.
The free GLYPH? - 10,000 copies of the first three issues and 8000 of the fourth (we printed less because it was a larger issue). The cost for those 10,000 copies was pretty much the same as the cost of printing less than 2000 (I've forgotten the exact numbers) of the magazine.
Yes, the tabloid had less pages. Yes, the tabloid was printed on cheaper paper. The biggest difference between the tabloid GLYPH and all the other comics publishing I've been involved with was the market. Misspent Youths and Glyph were printed to match the orders from the direct market (basically - comic book stores). Even then there was a minimum amount that we had to print in order for a printer to take a job. The only income they generated was from sales of copies. If you wanted to buy a copy of either publication you had to go into a comic store. GLYPH was printed to cover a market (a dozen or so neighborhoods in Seattle) and distributed to and through book and music stores, coffee shops and any other places with a spot for free publications. You didn't have to look hard for a copy, you could find copies in businesses on every other block in most neighborhoods. And you didn't have to think about whether you wanted to pay for an issue - it was free. If it looked like something you were interested in, you took it. Simple. Any profit made from GLYPH would have been from the sale of advertising.
People did read it. Most distribution spots were picked clean within a week. When we had a chance to talk to readers the response was always positive. Far more people read comics than buy comics. They read comics every day in the newspaper. They read comics when they look at airline safety pamphlets. Most people have known a Comic Book Guy.
Sadly, we weren't around long enough to establish any sort of advertising base. Our biggest mistake was not having capital to pay for a year's worth of printing and at least a basic salary for one advertising salesperson before we went to press for our first issue. That would have allowed us to be able to reassure potential advertisers of our stability. Our second biggest mistake was not having six months of material ready before printing that first issue. That would have allowed us to stay on schedule.
That's harder for me to gage.
We probably should have started with 12 page issues instead of 20 and fewer copies distributed to fewer neighborhoods and built up the market slowly.
I know selling advertising was a bitch. That's not surprising. I've seen quite a few other free publications mushroom in and out of existence here in Seattle. If I were a business person I wouldn't have a lot of confidence in the longevity of a publication until I'd seen a few issues. That we were publishing comics was probably less of an objection than most potential advertisers said. Someone who says no today might say yes in six months if they think they see an opportunity. If someone is seeing an ad and responding to it the advertiser doesn't care so much where the customer saw the ad.
These sorts of things are obvious now. At the time, well, we were trying to make things happen any way we could. Damn the torpedoes and all. Most of what we learned we learned by doing, trial and error. We were all self taught at our jobs. In the process I learned that I'm not the sort of person who should do design for a living. I'm a much better office manager than I ever was a designer or salesman. Nizzibet and Jaydogg are well suited for the current version of Labor of Love.
There's a lot of potential in doing a free comic tabloid. The pages are bigger than a regular comic allowing for more story on the page. If distributed along with other free publications it can reach an audience that would never think of going into a comic store (or looking for comics on the internet or hunting down graphic novels in the bookstore). And since it's printed in black and white and distributed with music magazines and hipster media you're more likely to be able to do comics for "mature" audiences. You would want to avoid hardcore violence and pornography (legally a good idea anyway) but the folks who are likely to pick up your publication are also likely to be at least teenagers if not adults.
For the first year, at least, you'd want to keep the stories short (probably no more than four pages) and self contained. After that, when you can afford to print larger issues you can print longer stories. If you can afford to publish biweekly or weekly then you can think about running continued stories.
Does this mean that a free comics tabloid would be a financial success?
I don't know.
But they would reach an audience that isn't currently reading comics. A comics tabloid would stand out from the free traders, singles come-ons and snarky hipster papers that generally fill the free racks. And as far as I know, no one is currently publishing one. If I were in a position to do it again, avoiding the mistakes of the first round, I'd cheerfully would. Since I'm not, I felt a need to at least write this down. I got started into comics because a stranger showed me something that seemed obvious once I saw it. Perhaps someone out in netland will read this be inspired.
Sentient 39 is copyright 2003 by David Lee Ingersoll
Notes on progress to this site (as well as general ranting and rambling) can be found in my web journal.
For samples of my art visit my gallery at Epilogue.net
Sentient 39 is hosted on Keenspace, a free webhosting and site automation service for webcomics. Love the Keenspace. Worship the Keenspace.