Thursday, November 17, 2011

152. Put the Book Back on the Shelf

April 2005: Overlooked over the course of the last several blog posts has been the fascinating story of Rebellion's short-lived deal with the American publisher DC Comics - a Time/Warner company, lest we forget - to finally give the world some proper collected editions for fans' bookshelves. Certainly, there had been reprints before, most of which were welcome, several of which were flawed in some fashion, and none of which were either under the publisher's control or comprehensive.

Finally, a few months after the last, staccato run of Titan's second term as reprint publisher stuttered to a halt, Rebellion announced a line of American comic-sized reprints. Solicitations for this line, which was due to be called 2000 AD Presents and lead off with a repackaging of the recent serial 13, appeared in the spring of 2004 in Diamond Distributors catalog Previews, but the comics were abruptly canceled. A few weeks later, we learned the very happy reason why: Rebellion had teamed with DC Comics for new books! This was going to be a very good thing. As I had been at the forefront of the "Team Comics" cheerleaders urging Rebellion to take control over reprints and put something on shelves, rah rah rah, I was all set to back this venture, even though it brought so much disappointment.

Honestly, this was a line that got quite a lot wrong, and failed as often as it triumphed. But it was so much better, and so much more comprehensive, than what came before, that we could not help but embrace it. And to be sure, there were at least elements of greatness in both the selection and the design of the books. This came to be termed the "Rainbow Spine" series, to differentiate it from Rebellion's existing, European-minded line of skinny hardcovers with black spines. These, instead, put a whole palette on bookshelves: red for all the Dredd-universe titles, blue for Rogue Trooper, mustard for Sinister Dexter, bright purple for Nikolai Dante and so on. I really, really liked the design and the colors. When Rebellion enhanced and improved them later on down the line, there was much grumbling over a superior product. A little more on that in a bit.

About a month before the release of the first book, DC printed a "free" comic for retailers to pass to customers. This 32-page comic adapted Brian Bolland's already-classic cover for Prog 2000, bafflingly blacking out the mountain of older British comics that the 2000 AD characters had conquered, and reprinted three one-off adventures: Judge Dredd: "Finger of Suspicion" by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, Rogue Trooper: "Weapons of War" by Gordon Rennie and Dylan Teague, and Sinister Dexter: "Bullet Time" by Dan Abnett and Andy Clarke. Notably, none of these episodes would be subsequently reprinted in any of the books that DC would distribute. These strips were accompanied by lots of details, background trivia and character profiles of many of the series planned for reprint.

Unfortunately, this comic was not distributed quite as well as anybody would prefer. DC Comics had made similar "free" samplers for two other lines of the period, CMX, which reprinted comics from Japan, and Humanoids, the mainly European comics probably best known to readers as "all that Heavy Metal stuff." Probably the first sign that something wasn't going to go very smoothly with any of these lines - although CMX did the best with its six-year run - was that retailers did not seem to order very many of the latest sampler. In my opinion, this was because, while they were meant to be given away for free, retailers still had to pay the freight on having them added to their weekly order and, at least in stores around Atlanta, they were stuck with stacks of Humanoids comics that nobody wanted, even for free. Even shops that did order a few of the 2000 AD books passed on the freebie, not wanting any extra stuff on their limited counter space.

So in July and August of '04, DC followed up the announcement by engaging in a small publicity blitz to such then-popular comic news sites as Newsarama and Comic Book Resources. (Actually, they might still be popular, but I'm not a cheerleader for "Team Comics" anymore; I'm a grumpy old cuss who wants my weekly thrillpower and to be left alone.) Rebellion's series editor, Jamie Boardman, was interviewed, along with several of the creators behind the soon-to-be-reprinted series, telling American fans what they could expect from forthcoming titles. The plan was to release two books a month for the first four months, followed by three books a month throughout 2005. This was a similar strategy employed by the team kicking out Humanoids books faster than anybody could buy them. Oh yeah, and not promoting them, either.

September saw the release of the first two books. DC, sensing some apprehension on the part of the superhero-based internet funnybook culture to get behind these titles, embarked on a remarkable strategy of not talking about them anymore. Without intentional irony, I often said that I was doing more to promote these books than DC was. My "Weekly Comics Hype," started on LiveJournal to tell everybody that I could about these books - and other good titles on those Wednesdays where one wasn't released - had an audience, there and on a message board of a local comic shop, of maybe two hundred, and my readers knew more about them than anybody DC reached. Seriously, there was no more promotion after the summer interviews and the freebie comic. No house ads in the pages of Wonder Woman, no special cardboard shelving for retailers, no signing tour, nothing. 2000 AD had house ads for the books, DC Comics did not.

Then again, the whole culture of hyping comics that have to be preordered is stunningly flawed. Sinister Dexter sounds like the easiest sell in the universe, done right. Look. you like Quentin Tarantino? Buy this. But the hype comes two months before the book is available, geared towards getting an internet reader to go to their comic shop to ask "Do you have that Sinister thing I read about at CBR," and hoping that, at best, the retailer will know what the hell the customer is talking about, so that they can reply, "Yes, that comes out in two months. If you would like to pre-order it, we can do that for you." BAH.

So anyway, the line launched with two potentially great titles: The Batman/Judge Dredd Files and the first collection of Sinister Dexter. Fumbling out of the starting gate, the first book compiled three of the four crossovers between the two signature characters, omitting story two, the far-and-away-finest one, the Cam Kennedy-drawn Vendetta in Gotham, apparently on the grounds that the art was not painted like the other three stories. The Sinister Dexter book reprinted ten of the first fourteen stories of that series, skipping all of the episodes drawn by Tom Carney.

Mistakes and omissions piled up as the line continued. October's Red Razors book, which certainly could have easily completed the short series in a single volume, was lacking two one-off episodes by Millar and Yeowell from 1992. The first ABC Warriors collection was missing the prologue and epilogue pages by Mills and O'Neill from the Titan edition. These, happily, were restored in subsequent Rebellion collections. The Dredd Vs. Death book was nothing more than the umpteenth identical collection of the same episodes Titan had lazily regurgitated several times. Two pages in the second Robo-Hunter book were reversed, a wearisome problem that really was cropping up a lot with DC's imprints. One of them, Piranha or Paradox or something, made the same dingbat error in their collection of The Bogie Man. Part of a print run of a Slaine book was released with printing on the interior pages that was faded down almost to white. Most infamously, some drip used early production pages for the second Devlin Waugh book that were missing something like thirty word balloons across the last twenty-odd pages.

These were books that we wanted so badly to love, but, man alive, they were going out of their way to make it impossible for us to do so.

Nevertheless, most of the titles were well-selected, and despite the aggravating production problems, many of them were readable and nicely-priced, and, yes, the design - and the spines - were attractive. It was a line that everybody wanted to see improve and grow. Keeping up the enthusiasm, I had got in the habit of cut-and-pasting a little announcement for my maybe-two-hundred LiveJournal and message board readers toward the end of each month when preorder solicits were announced, in addition to the three-Wednesdays-a-month Hype, letting my readers know what DC had planned.

That last week of March, there were no 2000 AD or Humanoids books in the solicit. Fans of both lines spent a few days wondering whether a rough draft was leaked, or whether the publisher might be taking a month off to let readers and their wallets recover from the torrent of books, or... oh. On April 12, DC finally confirmed that the two lines had been axed. CMX, despite constant criticism over censorship to its most celebrated title, Tenjho Tenge, had sales enough to continue, at least until the manga bubble ran out of air in early 2010.

The day after the announcement, blogger Tom Spurgeon, in a brutally harsh, but fair summing-up of the silly business that you all should read, questioned what on earth DC was thinking in the first place. With hindsight, we could see a lot wrong with every part of their plan, even before the production and collation issues. There was just way too much material released in far too short a time, without requisite promotion, to an environment apathetic to new things outside their comfort zone. These didn't target bookstores, like the comparatively far more sensible modern line of Simon & Schuster books, these were flooded into trademark-protection superhero funnybook shops. Or at least they would have flooded, had retailers been willing to order them in the numbers DC seemed to expect with three danged twenty-buck collections every month. If you've ever heard Michael Palin tell the anecdote about Joey Bishop introducing Terry Jones and him on their first American TV appearance on The Tonight Show with a dismissive "I dunno who they are, you dunno who they are, here they are," you probably know what I mean.

There were other eulogies, some sympathetic - I cannot find the page anymore, but two popular bloggers went back-and-forth with a lot of praise for 13, which was lovely - some baffled that anybody tried, but what few admitted was that with a focus as wild and expansive as 2000 AD, every single book in the line needed an independent sales strategy. Existing fans might conceivably love the first volumes of The ABC Warriors and Devlin Waugh about equally, but are the target audiences for these strips, as new readers, really that much alike?

Rebellion was quick to assure us that the line would continue. "Good," we said. "Just don't change the design. Especially the spines. We like how those look on our shelves."

Ah, but that's another story. We'll come back to that at some point.

Next time, concluding the long-running series with an impossibly high note, the final ever episode of Slaine. Well, it should have been, anyway. See you in seven!


David page said...

As the smithiverse fan you know I am..."the complete" indigo prime made me sad...

complete my white scottish ass

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

It certainly occurred to me to add, "The Complete Indigo Prime wasn't complete," but it felt like kicking while the poor thing was down at that point.

At least it was well-intentioned.