by Doug Smith
As a life-long reader of comics and casual observer of fan reaction around the internet, I’ve realized that the comics industry has three major problems:
(3)The two-headed monster known as JoeDan Quesadidio, which is hell-bent on destroying Marvel and DC…and thus, comics as we know them!
But lately, it seems that one-half of that Quesadidio bi-beast has taken steps towards addressing those first two points, and the methods being used could signal a change in the way that both Marvel and DC publish their comics.
That’s right, people, I’m talking about Amazing Spider-Man.
Wait! Come back! I know, I know ... I hated “One More Day” too.
But I’m not here to talk about the storylines spawned in the wake of that much-reviled status quo shakeup. Rather, I want to talk about how Marvel is successfully publishing their flagship title three times a month. Emphasis on HOW. (Successful in terms of scheduling…if you want to look at sales numbers, you can go here and see how the numbers can be interpreted about sixteen different ways to prove a variety of points.)
People were skeptical that Marvel (home of more than their share of late comics, especially since Joe Quesada became EIC) could publish Amazing Spider-Man on an almost-weekly schedule, but damn if they’re not doing it. Since the “Brand New Day” era started, the title has been utilizing a rotating team of writers (Dan Slott, Zeb Wells, Bob Gale, and Marc Guggenheim) and a deep bench of A-list artists, including Steve McNiven, Phil Jimenez, Salvador Larroca, Chris Bachalo, Barry Kitson, and Marcos Martin. Some of these artists have been associated with delayed books in the past, but to the best of my knowledge, Amazing has yet to miss a ship date.
So just how are they doing this?
Obviously, the rotating creators are a major factor in this schedule, but the other big piece of the puzzle is the length of the story arcs. So far, three-issue arcs by a writer/artist team have been the norm, although they are leading up to a longer arc, “New Ways To Die”, in a few months with the prolific John Romita Jr. handling the artwork. Shorter arcs have no doubt helped in the successful scheduling, as even a reliable workhorse like Larroca would be hard-pressed to do six straight issues in a two-month window. But three straight issues are apparently very possible, especially with plenty of lead time. We have to assume that there’s plenty of lead time in Spidey’s editorial office, as Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort recently mentioned on his blog that he and Slott were recently going over the story for ASM #600…that’s about 40 issues and well over a year of lead time!
Both Marvel and DC are in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t situation with late work, especially when it comes to high-profile projects. If they delay a book (as Marvel did with Civil War), they get hammered by the fans. If they use fill-in artists (as DC did with Infinite Crisis, and just announced they are doing again as Carlos Pacheco joins J.G. Jones on Final Crisis), they get hammered. They simply can’t win, which is why it’s in their best interests to get the scheduling nightmares under control. I find it fascinating that Marvel can publish Amazing Spider-Man three times a month now, when they couldn’t publish it once a month last year. But if there’s one thing the book’s new editor, Steve Wacker, seems to know, it’s how to make the trains run on time. He came to Marvel after launching the highly successful 52 at DC, a weekly series that used a team of superstar writers, a pool of artists, was received well by fans, sold like hotcakes, and hit its ship date every single week. (It should be noted, of course, that Wacker left DC about halfway through that book’s run, so other people managed to keep the train on the tracks.) Whatever his secret is, Wacker seems to know how to schedule books appropriately and manage talent in a way that leads to success. There can be no doubt that he's using the lessons he learned while working on 52 now that he's a part of the Marvel Bullpen.
Rotating creative teams aren’t the answer for every single book, of course. I understand that creator-owned properties are going to come out on their creator’s schedule, whatever that may be. I’m fine with that. I’m also OK with special miniseries being completed by one team (although, for the love of Kirby, in those cases don’t solicit the first issue until the series is almost done!) as those tend to be more “labor of love”. But seeing what Marvel is accomplishing with Amazing gets me wondering if that model can’t be utilized on other company-owned series, like the much-delayed Astonishing X-Men. I don’t know if the delays on that book were the fault of writer Joss Whedon or artist John Cassaday, or a combination of the two (or, to be fair, completely out of their control). But for the sake of argument, let’s say that it was the artist that was late. I do understand that Cassaday was a big part of the book’s draw, but would it have hurt the book that much to be scheduled with Cassaday doing the first six issue arc, followed by, let’s say, Steve McNiven on issues 7-12, and then back to Cassaday? So long as an individual arc was consistent artistically, and didn’t have single issue rush jobs by fill-in artists, I believe fans would have been happier. And I don’t mean to pick on Cassaday, as I’m a big fan of his artwork; it’s just that this particular title is a very good example of a book that could have benefited by using two alternating A-list artists instead of suffering long delays. (The current volume of Captain America has been using Mike Perkins as a fill-in for Steve Epting, to great effect.) Again, if the problems had nothing to do with Cassaday, then we’ll have to dig deeper for solutions. Two of Marvel’s biggest scheduling disasters (Spider-Man/Black Cat and Ultimate Wolverine vs.Hulk) had nothing to do with late artists.
Delays can be deadly to a reader’s interest in a book. I know that I was certainly losing interest in Astonishing as the months went by with no new issues in sight. It didn’t help that I was finding the story itself to be a little on the thin side with each issue, which leads me to that other great threat to comics….
Now, I don’t think decompression is a bad thing, if used properly. The problem is, too many comics aren’t using it properly. At three bucks a pop, we fans want to get our money’s worth. We also don’t want to wait several months to get to the end of a storyline. Again, interest will start to wane; it’s only natural. Going back to the Astonishing example, a six-part story that feels padded isn’t very satisfying. It’s even worse when delays happen during the course of that story, and now the reader is being asked to give nine or ten months (or even more) to a storyline that isn’t wowing them. I felt that the last two pre-BND arcs in Amazing Spider-Man (“Back In Black”, which was six parts, and “One More Day”, which was four parts) suffered greatly from this combination; stories that were taking more issues than needed to tell the story, compounded by serious delays. By the time “Back In Black” was over, I was fed up and pissed off at having spent several months and $18 on what could have been done in just two or three issues.
Six issues is plenty of time to decide that you don’t like a book and drop it. I dropped Gail Simone’s All-New Atom after slogging through the first six issues, which I didn’t enjoy at all. Several months later, I picked up an issue on a whim and enjoyed it enough to put the book back on my pull list. Now, had those first six issues been just three issues, I probably would have been willing to give the next storyline a chance, and DC might have kept me as a reader; but by the time issue six came out my mind was made up. Marvel just relaunched Cable and I could tell by the end of issue two that I was done with this book. Not that it was bad, but it was so glacially paced that I felt I was wasting my money; no way was I going to buy through issue five to see how things turned out. I might have been tempted to buy through issue three, had that been the end of the first arc; but that would have required much more economical storytelling on the part of the creators.
This brings us, again, back to the “Brand New Day” era. The three-issue arcs make for a nice, quick, well-paced read. There seems to be a conscious effort to pick up the pace. Part of that is no doubt due to the scheduling of talent; shorter arcs mean a better chance of having one artist doing the whole story. But it’s also made for crisper storytelling which is more satisfying to me, the consumer. The stories don’t feel “compressed”; the pacing feels just right, not too rushed and not too slow. Every story is different, and the trend towards forcing everything into arcs of five or six issues defeats the whole point of decompression, which was to allow stories to find their natural length and rhythm, instead of being shoved into one or two issues. In allowing writers and artists more freedom in their storytelling, Marvel and DC went too far in the other direction; now, hopefully, the pendulum will swing back the other way, and a happy balance can be found.
There’s definitely a lesson to be learned from the way Marvel is handling Amazing Spider-Man, and it’s a lesson that can, and should, be applied to titles at both companies. Build in plenty of lead time. Tighten up story arcs. Schedule artists (and writers) in such a way that deadlines don’t become constantly moving targets. Monthly titles like Amazing Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Action Comics, Mighty Avengers…these books shouldn’t be allowed to get months behind schedule. Because if Marvel can publish Spider-Man three times a month using top-notch artists, then there’s really no reason for any monthly title to get behind to the point that storylines have to be wrapped up several months later in a “special” issue or annual (yeah, I’m looking at you now, DC Comics).
Love it or hate it, Amazing Spider-Man just might be the way of the future.
by Doug Smith