Phonogram and the tragic state of comics

I've mentioned before that "Phonogram: The Singles Club" is probably the best comic series I've read in years -- years I tell you -- and I desperately want there to be more, but apparently there will never be, because it's impossible to make a weird little black-and-white comic that does not contain underwear perverts, and also eat:

Kieron Gillen on the End of 'Phonogram'

There's a difference between making only a little money and starving. We're very much in the latter. Jamie's lucky to get a couple of hundred dollars from an issue. [...] As in, every time Jamie ran out of money, he had to stop and do something else. A couple of hundred dollars doesn't cover rent or pay for his fashionable haircuts. And doing this bitty work f--ks up the production anyway, because you can't concentrate or plan. You just spend your entire life in low-level money panic.

Frankly, Jamie is just shy of thirty and one of the most talented illustrators of his generation. Even I'm not a big a bastard enough to want him to spend another year in "Phonogram"'s brand of hell. He deserves a paycheck. [...]

We've been doing "Phonogram" for over 4 years, not including the years before the first series came out. Imagine if we could have just done the comic and not had to deal with any of the shit we've had to. We'd have been up to issue 44 now. Instead, we have 13 issues.

I feel frustrated. Enormously lucky, sure, but frustrated. We've done this wonderful thing we're crazy-proud about. But if the whole economic system was just a couple of degrees to the left, everything would have been different. I mean, just to give you an idea about narrow the margins are between what we are and what we could be, if we were selling 6K instead of 4K, we could have done those 44 issues. The difference between breaking even and actually being able to do it in comics is insane. It's like being kept under ice, clawing. I feel like a bonsai plant.

And that's a god damned shame.

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32 Responses:

  1. strspn says:

    This is just another symptom of consolidation fatigue, the subject of the current Washington Monthly cover story. In music, it's the Ticketmaster/LiveNation/Clearchannel abomination, which sucks a lot. In print there are now just a handful of major publishers and bookstores which means more copies of fewer books down closer to the societal common denominator.

    Recommendations: (1) take an active role in trying to promote independent arts; (2) read that Washington Monthly article so you know how pervasive the consolidation problem is, and where to look for signs and symptoms; (3) complain with sternly-worded emails early and often.

    • It's just another example of not enough people willing to pay for something to make it commercially viable.

      As the internet becomes the whole show, the viability of a career in entertaining people has gone from unlikely to extremely fucking unlikely since so many people are out there willing to do it for free, like this here jwz livejournal. It's entertainment, you're not paying for it. How much of the stuff you look at every day on the internet do you pay for -- that is, the actual content, not the distribution channel? Not a whole lot, probably.

      It has nothing to do with antitrust anything.

      • lionsphil says:

        At the same time, you have people like Howard Taylor making a living from comics (as in, no other job, supports family with children), which probably wouldn't have been possible without the Internet to bootstrap from.

        Not that I'm saying that a comedic daily fairly-hard-sci-fi space opera is exactly the same as...whatever Phonogram was, but played right the Internet kicks off niche, small-scale entertainment as much as it undercuts it. You can get 99% of Howard's output for the cost of seeing a banner ad.

      • strspn says:

        There have been pervasive free entertainment options since radio, and even earlier if you count the ad-supported press. Those things used to increase the diversity of their secondary markets, but not anymore. You can't tell me that industrialized communities having 50% more copies of 80% fewer titles/albums/tickets doesn't have a real affect on the long tail away from the dumbed-down common denominator. I'm sure the very few beneficiaries of consolidation, such as Rupert Murdoch, are pleased that you blame the internet and not their greed and lust for power, as that serves their purposes very nicely by reducing the number of people with the acumen and willingness to fight anticompetitive behaviors.

        • Please define greed in the context of the business world.

          • strspn says:

            Sure, basic competitive greed has its place in the free market, and I've never denied that. I prefer this definition from the Sherman Antitrust Act:

            suppressing competition with anticompetitive conduct -- even if that conduct is not intentional -- or contracts, combinations, and conspiracies that unreasonably restrain interstate and foreign trade, including agreements among competitors to fix prices, rig bids, and allocate customers

            I'll add a common opinion that I hold very strongly, but which was not shared by the Bush Justice department -- and we don't really know yet regarding the present Administration: unintentional collusion which limits customer choice that would otherwise be available under viable regimes involving less consolidation. It's important that ordinary citizens complain about that sort of thing if they want the authorities to take it seriously.

        • Also, you just can't compare radio to the internet, and to do so is completely ludicrous. A small band of content that is on radio because people need to sell ads vs several million lifetime's worth of information available to anyone who might ever want it.

          I believed what you believed until maybe 5 years ago. Think back to the olden days, when there would be a movie about a scrappy band of upstarts who create a pirate radio station, and wow, as it turns out, everybody really likes that way better than the mainstream crap they're putting on already. All along, the problem was that these evil idiots had control over the distribution channel, but all you have to do is create a different one, or commandeer one yourself, and that problem is solved! Suddenly, everybody appreciates the freedom and becomes a unique snowflake, just like you! You're playing Swans, and grandma likes it! She's groovin'!

          Wait, that didn't happen.

          • jwz says:

            Please don't kill the dream of Happy Harry Hard-On.

          • strspn says:

            Granted, but still that small band of radio content now carries a vastly smaller playlist than it did prior to the consolidation which for radio mostly occured in the 1970s and '80s, much earlier than the advent of the consumer internet, Napster, or the MP3 format.

  2. amberley says:

    Agreed, on both how good Phonogram is and how sad it will be to have no 3rd series (which sounded very interesting). The Phonogram: Singles Club collection should be out around the end of March, but won't include the B-side stories from the back of the single issues. Single issues are still orderable from decent comic stores.

    I enjoyed it a lot even though I don't know much about the British music scene, but I've bought a number of the albums mentioned in it and liked those, too.

  3. jered says:

    That sucks. Although, there's also a distribution issue.

    For example, where did you get your copies? I finally gave up and ordered the first series B&W trade paperback on Amazon when they had it in stock. They don't anymore. They don't have the second series in stock, or better yet the individual issues.

    Creating cool stuff is fucked, but the comic book industry is supremely fucked. I know TJIC has tried to fix this some with HeavyInk, but I gave up on getting Phonogram from him too... he was also out of stock of important things like, oh, the first issue, and there's no way to backorder... presumably again because the distribution arrangement is fucked.

    For the numbers they're talking, they could probably have done this as a fucking webcomic and actually make a living to support themselves. I actually don't see a downside... maybe they should do that.

    I'd love to read the second series. But really, I'm just fucked.

    • lindseykuper says:

      For the numbers they're talking, they could probably have done this as a fucking webcomic and actually make a living to support themselves. I actually don't see a downside... maybe they should do that.

      My first thought was "They should sell shirts!", which is probably how everybody who is making money from webcomics is making money. People who've never even heard of the comic would snap up the shirts, I think. Of course, then the trouble is that you're spending eight hours a day selling shirts instead of making comics.

      • shack_a_nerd says:

        Or, just seek money from your fans directly. There are definitely comics, musicians, video games, etc. that I'd kick a few hundred USD to in order to encourage their creative output.


    • alana_ash says:

      For the numbers they're talking, they could probably have done this as a fucking webcomic and actually make a living to support themselves. I actually don't see a downside... maybe they should do that.

      I'm not trying to be a snarky internet bitch here, but who's doing long form web comics without backing and making a living?

      • jered says:

        It's not my thing, but I think that Megatokyo is the canonical example.

        • alana_ash says:

          Yeah, that's awesome for the Megatokyo guy, but I'm not sure "spend 5 years for the slim chance you build up an audience that'll pay for merchandise" solves the problem any better.

      • blowtar says:

        Something Positive, Questionable Content, Penny Arcade, PvP, Girls with Slingshots... They all make a living solely through their webcomics. There are dozens more, but these are just the ones off the top of my head.

        • alana_ash says:

          Key words there were long form.

          • lionsphil says:

            The aformentioned Shlock Mercenary potentially counts, as it has actual plots, and the compiled-in-book-form of it is basically a sci-fi graphic novel. As noted, the cartoonist supports his family-with-children off of this.

        • jarodrussell says:

          Shortpacked and Least I Could Do, I think, may fall under long least in the same way Canterbury Tales falls under novel.

    • jwz says:

      Yeah, I got it from HeavyInk, because I gave up on brick-and-mortar comic stores years ago. But you're right that trying to start reading any new series via HeavyInk is an utterly failing proposition. Unless you get your order in ~3 months before issue #1 is out -- and before there's any word-of-mouth at all, since your friends haven't read it yet -- you're fucked.

      On a few occasions, HeavyInk has only been willing to start my subscription at #4 or something, but Amazon has had the earlier singles. Which just seems fantastically backwards, but there it is.

      • amonkeyboy says:

        I went to Comic Con in 2008. I went by their booth and the guy started explaining Singles Club to me. He seemed very surprised when I told him I had the previous series and really enjoyed it. Not a good sign.

        I'm still found of my brick and mortar comic store. We have a good one locally. Phonogram is one of many books I enjoyed because something looked interesting, and I made an impulse buy.

    • amberley says:

      The Phonogram: Singles Club collection should be available 3/31, although Amazon hasn't posted that yet. There are supposed to be copies this weekend at Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, where writer Kieron Gillen is attending.

      Comicopolis in Santa Cruz was able to track down back issues for me recently, even #1, but maybe I got lucky.

      Distribution does seem to be spotty, it's true. Only about half the comic book stores I checked had any copies of any of the issues.

  4. jgcr says:

    Phonogram is excellent. I hope for more.

  5. roninspoon says:

    The more time I spend with comic book creators, and the more time I spend trying to get involved in the field, the more depressing it view of the industry becomes. I know a number of really talented illustrators who are barely making ends meet. Most live in shitty apartments pay check to pay check. Some still live with their parents. Many have to take second jobs. One of the only ways to really make good money is to get your own creations published at a national circulation level. That's hard to do when there's only a single distributor. Even if you can get a foot in with one of the major publishers, they tend to screw you for every calculated business decision they can. Not, I think, out of cold malice, but due to the terrible state of the industry. Despite all that depression and cynicism, it's hard not to feel sad when another book folds or artist gives up.

  6. movingfinger says:

    The Foglios hit that same wall and went to their web plus printed-book-collection hybrid in 2005. It appears to have been a success for them; there are enough people who want to buy the books, pay to download extras, and stuff, that it's at least sustaining itself (in terms of paying off the time they put into it).

  7. ultranurd says:

    I wonder if some part of the model needs to be covered by a return to a Renaissance-style commissions system. Rich guys paying people's basic needs, materials, etc. to create high-quality content.

    • discogravy says:

      several "niche" musicians/bands have been doing something similar to this for years already -- einsturzende neubaten and current 93 being two who come to mind.

    • Open Design does this with RPG materials:

      I actually would think that this system could work for comics too, since the money is paid up front and the project only launches if it reaches it's goal of "pre-orders". If I had to pre-pay $30 to ensure a new volume of "Phonogram" got produced, I'd do it, even if it took a year for me to see it. I think the hard part would be just spinning up the basic ordering and fulfillment system.

      • jarodrussell says:

        Shoot, yeah. I pay $30+ for commissions of individual pictures. I'd happily pay $30+ for a niche comic.

        The artist behind the Paula Peril comic kind of did this a while back. I forget the exact numbers, but for (say) $100 you could commission an eight page story that would go in an anthology and $200 for a private story. You write the script, he draws the B&W pages. Then a few months later, he released the anthology as an ebook for $3.00 a pop.

        If someone created a proper patronage system, so artists just had to log in, create projects, and collect lists of people paying, this could easily work. It doesn't presume the material won't be pirated, but it ensures the artist gets paid right away anyway.

      • andyluke says:

        I would do the same. There ought to be a patronage system for comics.

    • jarodrussell says:

      Isn't that part of the purpose behind DeviantArt?