Saturday, June 30, 2007

What Do You Do When A Comic Runs Late on Deadline?

What is an editor to do when a comic book is running late on its publishing deadline ... ?

Thanks to Val's Post on her Occasional Superheroine blog, I visited the link to DC Editor Matt Idelson's post on the DC website, DC Nation #64.

Idelson writes about the editor's dilemma when they find themselves unable to publish the comic book originally solicited to ship on a given date. Whether it was the editor who waited too long to lock someone or the storyline down, or whether it's the writers or artists who find themselves behind schedule for whatever reason (like illness) Idelson wants to know what is truly the best option to handle it when Editorial's backs are against the wall.

(Btw he mentioned colorists as sometimes running late, but from first hand experience I'll tell you colorists are ALWAYS paying the price when books are late, and are ALWAYS expected to do their work in half the time or less that's usually allotted them when there is a ship date crisis. And since there are teams of colorists who work together and can specifically help out in a timing jam like this, I'm really not inclined to involve colorists in "the book is late because of them" equation.)

Anyway, Idelson says an editor's three options for dealing with a late comic are:
1 - Run an inventory story
2 - Get another writer or penciller/inker team to fill in the SAME storyline to keep it going
3 - Leave everything as is and ship when the thing is finally ready.

About a third of us readers at any given time absolutely hate any of these options when they're used, so he wants to know which option incenses the least amount of us.

I thought it was very cool of him to ask. So, Matt, here's my two cents, in order of best to worst options:

1. (2) Get another writer or art team to SAVE the current storyline.
Yeah, us fans and the retailers will probably b---- and blog how 'the art doesn't match' and 'oh my goodness why this team' and blah blah blah. But this is the most economically viable, and least offensive way to rescue the situation, especially with how DC has its Universe currently set up.

This option works best on recurring monthly titles.

2 (1) Use an inventory story.
Again, yeah, us fans and the retailers will probably b----- and blog "WT- happened to the story from last month?" and this will be annoying to us. But the core vocal bunch are also the ones online, and they will know EXACTLY why there is a substitute being used, and there are so many ways to get the word out as to why the story is being subbed out at print time, people will just get over it and wait for things to get back to normal. Especially if the inventory story used is a good little story, and pretty to look at <--- span="" style="font-weight: bold;">this is REALLY key!

This is only an option for a recurring monthly title.

3 (3) Leave everything as is and let it ship when it's finally ready.
In THEORY it's sound and reasonable to do this.

But this option really only works and best on a mini series outside of the recurring monthly titles.

Now for the whys:

1) Sub in a team for the current storyline is the best option for the recurring monthly titles, for the title's sake.

This is because the DCU has become so profoundly linear and interconnected. Sure, before Crisis the DCU was a little messy with all the versions of the different worlds all the superheroes lived in, but ya'll also had a WHOLE lot more slack to work within. Since Crisis the DCU really now works as a one-world, single, octopus-like species of animal with many tentacles (no laughter please!) instead of an entire animal kingdom. Everyone involved is on one huge linear, interconnected storyline. There's a lot less room for imagination here, cause everything has to "fit".

This singular storyline treatment of the DCU leaves no room for inventory stories. Editorial has essentially tied their own hands with this one approach they have enforced. And the Universe gets smaller and flatter and darker with each succeeding humongous crossover.

2) Inventory stories would be cool to have as an option but again, the readers can't CUT slack for inventory stories precisely because the DCU has become so linear. But this is not a chicken and egg scenario. The DCUniverse is now linear and has been for over 20 years. Why should the reader WANT inventory stories? We are not used to them. And often they just suck anyway because they are poorly executed.

If they were GOOD inventory stories I think there would be fewer complaints from fans.

Back in the day (this I learned from Jo Duffy at Marvel's old Epic Comics line, and from Dwayne McDuffie at Milestone) there was ALWAYS at least one inventory story in the Editor's drawer JUST IN CASE a schedule jam happened. When that story was used, a new one was commissioned to keep in the drawer again.

Inventory stories was also how some editors tried out new talent, like the writers and pencilers and inkers they met at comic cons. Teams on the inventory story were put on a normal turnaround schedule to see if they could handle it, and they got tested that way. If they passed, and handed in their work on schedule, then the editor knew they could be trusted and might look out for them for another project sometime. Yes, it meant the talent may not see their work in print for a year, but on the other hand, for a person who wants to do this as a career, waiting a year is nothing. Waiting a year or more to see print in prose publishing is typical.

So YEAH, we'd LOVE this option (as fans and as potential talent) -- but the stories then ALSO have to be reasonably good.

3) Let the team finish and print when they're ready.

This approach is both really good and really bad.

Writers and artists have fans and we really wanna see their work and we really do wanna see the storyline completed by the same team. Especially when it's wrapped into and sold as a tpb later (not to mention the paperwork is a lot simpler with just one team). But this has an economic factor that nobody likes to talk about. Namely, the retailer gets screwed in the short run of this scenario, and that's really not cool.

Long story short: book doesn't ship, retailers has a hole, fan buys something else. Seems good, right? If this goes on long enough fans really do find they can spend their money on something else. I don't know if this has changed across the board but retailers sometimes don't get the option to adjust their order numbers on the title. When a title starts to lose reader interest or reader dollars, getting stuck with extra can become a hardship on the retailer.

This ideally is the option for the mini series format. (We let it slide on Watchmen and Dark Knight)

OR how about option 4, which actually combines 1, 2 and 3:

4) When a mini series-like storyline inside a recurring monthly title runs into schedule problems, create a back up storyline and then run that one for as long as you need to.

Yes, it's inventory in way but better than inventory. If the first writer knows where they're going on the story set, and they're running late, then a second writer may work along with them to write a 2-3 issue run to cover in the meantime. This story doesn't have to be slavishly in continuity post the storyline in trouble (you probably don't want spoilers in it, for instance)

Or if it's the penciler or inker running late and you don't want to break up that team by using additional pencilers or inkers on the issue (which is the usual first choice) then have the writer do something within their continuity that involves another artistic team, but which then later can be rolled in into it's own tpb, for instance. Then when the first team is back on track (and you will probably want them to get back on schedule over the next two to four issues anyway) you can finish their storyline with that team intact. Awkward, maybe. But it might work in the right hands. Most comics writers I know would hand in stories months ahead of schedule if they're allowed to by their editor anyway, so surely there is a way to handle this.

If anything, just don't leave a hole in the shipping schedule. That's the worst option of all.

Good luck, Matt. And thanks for asking.

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