Friday, February 16, 2007

The return of the fill-in issue

Once upon a time, when a comic was due to go to press but the story wasn't actually ready, the editor reached for a fill-in issue. By hook or by crook, an issue went out - sometimes complete with a rushed framing sequence explaining why, in the middle of a totally unrelated story, the characters suddenly felt the urge to have a flashback to whatever 22 pages of inconsequential fluff the previous editor had shoved to the back of his drawer.

For a number of good reasons, fill-in issues have been in decline for some time. Editors became more willing to use second-rate fill-in artists who would draw, in a terrible rush, the original writer's story. And fill-in issues cost money. They didn't sell as well, and since they didn't match the solicitations, all those unsold copies were returnable. Much cheaper just to hold on for a few weeks and sell the original story. Uncanny X-Men hasn't run an obvious fill-in story since the 1970s.

More recently, a tendency has developed to just allow the big name creators to take as long as they want to produce a comic, even if it bears no relationship whatsoever to the advertised schedule, and even if the finished project is basically just a trashy action story. This fits with the industry's self-mythology: if comics are an artform, then dammit, that means your story about Captain America fighting a Nazi cyborg is art, and the delicate creative process must be allowed to take its course.

Besides, it'll all be fine in the trade paperback. So well-entrenched is the notion that the trade paperback is the only format that counts, that this argument is wheeled out even for comics whose serial editions sell over 100,000 copies in the direct market alone, as though this was somehow going to be a trivially small proportion of the eventual readership.

But most of all, comics fans tend to be very forgiving of extreme delays - perhaps because the mythology of comics as Proper Art is something that's reassuring to them as well. (Those fans who express impatience with books running the better part of a year behind schedule tend to be greeted by professionals with a sort of hurt incredulity that anyone could be so reluctant to join the industry's mutual masturbation circle, and so ungrateful for their belated, self-important efforts.)

And if the fans continue to tolerate it then there's no economic argument for change - save to the extent that if you're only shipping four issues of Ultimates a year instead of twelve, then you're throwing away eight months of income. To be fair, since Marvel supposedly have creators already working on Ultimates volume 4 - which isn't due out until 2009 - the lesson about planning ahead may have finally sunk in.

It'll be very interesting to see whether Marvel can make their Dark Tower adaptation, clearly a high-prestige project in their eyes, ship on time. If they can, it'll be about the only major Marvel project in the last five years to do so. But the new readers that a project like this is supposed to be attracting may not be so forgiving about delays. They have no emotional investment in the medium. They have been dragged here, and it's up to the comics publishers to make them want to stay.

Over at DC, however, things seem to be changing. Batman and Action Comics have resorted to fill-ins in the middle of runs by high-profile creators, and now the high-profile Wonder Woman launch has gone off the rails as well. Issue #5 should have been the concluding part of Allan Heinberg and Terry Dodson's storyline "Who is Wonder Woman" but, er, it isn't ready yet. So they're running a fill-in issue instead. And then, from the look of it, they're into the scheduled Jodi Picault storyline starting with issue #6, and the conclusion of the current arc will be out... eh, whenever.

Conventional wisdom from the last few years says: don't bother. The issue will sell badly, the fans won't get the original story any faster, and nobody cares about monthly shipping in the brave new world of trade paperbacks. So why is DC bothering?

Perhaps they figure that the fill-in issues will still sell in decent amounts, and it's better than having a hole in the schedule. Perhaps Infinite Crisis and the emphasis on the monthly has had a cultural shift - for DC, clearly, it's the Minx and CMX imprints that are supposed to reach the bookstores, not the superhero books. Perhaps the idea of a fill-in issue has become more appealing now that retailers can adjust their orders until relatively late in the day, reducing the number of unsold copies. Perhaps the enormous success of the weekly book 52 has convinced them that reliable scheduling sells.

The sales figures will be interesting to watch here. How well do the generic fill-in issues sell, if the core title is doing well? How many of them can you ship before the title loses its lustre? How much of the audience comes back when the regular creators return? And how long before DC, the hell with this, and just gets another creative team to finish Heinberg's story?

When it happens with three major books, it's a trend. DC is toying with a new publishing tactic, and doing it with high-profile comics. The notion that an issue simply has to get out sits uneasily with the comics industry's favoured narrative of comics as art - but perhaps that no longer reflects DC's attitude to its superhero books, and frankly, given the self-indulgence we've seen in recent years, perhaps that's for the best.