Can The European Model of Comics Help the US?

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on January 12, 2016.

One of the biggest struggles in American comics is establishing a model that helps expand audience and improve creator’s working conditions. Currently much of what is referred to as “mainstream comics” in America is distributed through a system called the Direct Market. It is an arrangement where stores pre-order comics, which are mostly non-returnable in order to sell them to customers. That setup has created a market where monthly sales dominate the success of any given comic and individual issues (sometimes known as floppies or pamphlets) are the deciding factor. No one will deny that it’s a less-than-ideal system, but establishing an alternative has proven allusive, but change is in the air right now.

A variety of recent announcements and successful launches at some of the biggest American comics publishers have shown promise in moving away from issues as a standard format. It indicates a trend that might push American audiences and retailers to imitate a model that is the standard across the Atlantic Ocean. So what is the European Model and why might it be beneficial for American comics?

What Is The European Model?

Just like in North America and Japan, European comics can be found in every shape, size, and distribution model from hand-stapled small press books to luxurious, over-sized anthologies. The European Model refers to a popular means of publication and distribution for that particular region. Rather than emphasizing serialized issues published on a monthly schedule, European comics promote albums. Albums are collections of stories or large chunks of an ongoing narrative that typically range between 40 and 100 pages. Their standard dimensions (8.4 x 11.6 inches) are slightly larger than American comics (6.625 x 10.25 inches) as well.

What this temporally and spatially larger model allows is for comics to be published less frequently. Many stories are able to be told in a single volume, as an album can easily contain the entirety of an American mini-series. Longer narratives are only published once or twice per year. This greater focus on content lessens the pressures on a debut issue to see a story completed. It also removes the need to include a complete chapter of a story including a cliffhanger and variety of action and dialogue scenes in a small 20-page package on a tight deadline. While there are still a mix of up- and down-sides, it does provide less pressure for creators and more content for readers when new releases do arrive.

The Belfry

Image Comics Experimentation

Image Comics has been at the front of the conversation since they reinvigorated the notion of creator-owned comics in 2011 and have since become the home to many of America’s high-profile creators. The publisher has not offered much in the way of innovation until recently though. In just the past few months, they have solicited a variety of new comics that trend away from their standard ongoing, monthly model and closer to something like the European model.

The most obvious example is the changes being made to the series Sex, created by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski. Sex began in March 2013 and after the release of issue #34  in December 2016 announced that it would no longer be publishing single issues. After the fifth volume is release next month, all future installments of Sex will be delivered as complete trade paperbacks. It represents the removal of the monthly model and a full jump to the European Model, in which Casey and Kowalski can focus on one or two new installments each year.

This is far from the only one-and-done collection that Image is offering in the near future though. In the past month they have published both One Week in the Library and Beowulf. The former is a connected anthology of stories based in an extradimensional library and the latter is a single volume retelling the epic English poem. They are being sold in the standard price range of most collections, but are not collecting other material. In this regard alone they are an oddity, but coming from Image Comics and in such quick succession, they might indicate a trend.

Even something like Gabriel Hardman’s The Belfry, a single-issue vampire story with no planned continuation, indicates a greater commitment to the success of single volumes. Its length is closer to that of a single comic, but it will not rely on selling future issues or collections, simply depending on discerning readers to discover this single story. All of these changes and new releases show there is an increased commitment from one of the industry’s leading publishers to innovate with how American comics are purchased and read. It appears they are taking a page from the success of stories like Saga in Europe to do just that.

16 - Best Comics - Ghosts

Changing the Big Two and Even Bigger

That level of change is not obvious at either of the Big Two yet, but Marvel and DC Comics have obviously benefitted the most from the current American marketplace. That doesn’t mean there are not indicators of change at either company though. The issuing of a Squirrel Girl OGN (original graphic novel) from the same creative team producing the monthly title shows that there are strong sales being found in the collected market that might not be recognized in single issues. Why else would they forgo the potential sales of one story spread over 4-5 months?

The commercial failure of critical successes at both companies like The Omega Men and Nighthawk also indicate that the American model might be at fault, at least to some degree. Both stories were designed to be packaged in 100-240 page collections with a clear beginning, middle, and end. They also were able to find new life after being cancelled and reissued as collections. The Omega Men in particular never blew up the monthly sales chart, but has been much more successful as a complete story.

Focusing on Marvel, DC, and Image also ignores the incredible success being found in the book market. Look at comics that are being published as complete volumes and primarily marketed to bookstores outside of the direct market. March, the many comics of Raina Telgemeir, and Rosalie Lightning all found great success last year. Each of these comics rests in a very different genre, ranging from historical narrative to young-adult fiction to memoir. They also were sold as complete stories, with the exception of March, which still contained 200 or more pages in each of its three books. Yet they found success often undreamed of outside of comics stores altogether. Telgemeier’s newest comic Ghosts sold more than any of the most successful direct market comics of 2016. Each of these comics are being offered in a model very similar to that of Europe, and they are the true success stories of American comics right now.

The Future of Comics in America

What does all of this mean for the future of American comics then? Right now it doesn’t indicate a clear trend or future. There are no obvious swings or changes in the market as a whole. However, what it does show is a shift with a great deal of potential. Both the largest publishers in the direct market and those targeting the book market are experiencing success in publishing of albums of comics rather than issues. Image Comics recent ventures combines with growth elsewhere is a reason to believe that Americans want to read books of comics more than the floppy pamphlets called comic books.

This doesn’t mean that monthly comics are overrated or a bad thing, but that there are new avenues for growth and expansion. The European Model is the basis for that growth and expansion. It offers new readers a model they are more familiar with, meaning both a price point and amount of content that match up with those of the book market. Providing albums or graphic novels or OGNs or whatever you want to call these collections means offering more complete stories for a more complete price. Right now it’s simply a possible trend, but it has the potential to offer a brand new future for American comics.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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