Onerous possessions

200903270343 Onerous possessions
A tweet yesterday about “packing up my office” prompted some concerned private messages, and I am always touched by concern, but I am just moving office, not leaving office. However, I’ve been packing up all the stuff piled in my cubicle and it’s just insane. My packrat nature has rarely been such a burden. Plus, I’m recovering from a sprained ankle and putting extra weight on it (like say lifting a giant box of books) results in an unpleasant bulgy feeling.

Plus what to do with all these p-p-…comic books. Tons and tons of comic books that I think I will someday get around to reading, just like someday I will get around to climbing Annapurna.

I took heat from one poster yesterday for saying I called comic books periodicals instead of pamphlets, heat which was somewhat justified. In my fatigued state, I should have added the word “now.” I certainly have written about floppies and pamphlets many times, often derisively, but in their current, endangered state that seems kind of below the belt. While editing articles for PW Comics Week, I sometimes find our writers using the word “pamphlet” in a business sense — pamphlet publishers, pamphlet industry. The word “periodical” seems more dignified, perhaps.

The origin of the phrase “32 page pamphlet” as a negative term for periodical comic books is usually attributed to either myself, Kurt Busiek or Marv Wolfman. Specifically it goes back to PROcon, a gathering for comics professionals, back in the early ’90s, that was sort of an industry issue conference. Attendees listened to panels of other pros, and spirited hand raising debates often began. And everyone wore togas.


They didn’t, but that would have been cool.

Anyway, the way I remember it, many writers and artists were chafing against the straitjacket of the monolithic format and subject matter of the era — graphic novels and collections were not as ubiquitous as they are now, and traditional superhero comics made up even more of industry output than they do now. I do recall Marv Wolfman standing up at one point and asking something along the lines of “Why should we be held to these…these 32 page…PAMPHLETS!” and everyone kind of jumped on the bandwagon and called them 32 page pamphlets for the rest of the conference.

Since that time, “32-page pamphlet” has been code among a certain crowd for a reactionary reliance on superhero periodicals, at the expense of a diverse array of material which appeals to a wider audience.

When I said periodicals were endangered, I meant it in the way that Social Security is “endangered” — there are always people who want to do away with it, but it’s not exactly a priority. Comic book periodicals are endangered the way books, CDs, and DVDs are endangered, but I suspect they will be here in some form in five years.

I used to worry — and many of my friends worried — that comic books were like radio drama and pulp magazines — something that was REALLY endangered and would eventually disappear entirely except as the province of old timey nerds who like to collect obscure old things. Looking back, I wonder why we were all so insecure. The superhero periodical is evolving as we speak, but in a world where electronic media are stealing all the resources, comics are adapting just fine. They spring up unbidden in the cracks of the sidewalk. Comics are a medium, not a genre.

One thing the comic book/pamphlet/periodical no longer is, though, is cutting edge. It is the main economic vehicle for most people who want to make a living doing comics, and it’s a social networking hobby that lots of people enjoy (the “Wednesday crowd.”) But I’d argue that the cutting edge stuff that moves the needle is on the Web or in collected form. (I’m sure many folks will disagree with this idea.)

And yet I still have an office full of periodicals which seem completely disposable and temporary. At least to me. Trying to understand why this is remains a daily struggle.

ANYWAY, to wrap up this ramble, when I want to be dismissive or ironic, I will use the term pamphlet. But in a journalistic sense, I think “periodical” works best for right now.

Comments

  1. It is evident drama and the pulps didn’t die with old time radio’s demise. The need for Story is a virus that hops from host to host. What we’re witnessing is a series of challenges to established Story delivery systems which cause a dissonant sense of disruption to what we consider the norm. It’s really only the people who have a financial stake in periodical publishing who are at risk (granted, that includes many who read this PW blog). It seems to me that if I was a shaver starting out today, I would probably seriously consider foregoing comic book publishing entirely and just serialize a comic online– it’s just easier and quicker. And certainly cheaper. A whole generation of cartoonists might be coming up who conceivably never publish–and never consider publishing– their Stories in a “comic book” per se. For better or for worse.

    I never did like that term “pamphlet” myself.

  2. I find that Periodical is a better word. It’s what a comic book is. a Pamphlet, is a 1 pager folded in and given away for free to warn us of dangers of drugs, or it’s trying to sell you something.

  3. I’ll be interested to hear on what you finally decide to do with your periodical pile. I had about thirteen boxes worth, and I ended up donating them to a local book fair because 1) no store would buy them and 2) I didn’t want all the hassle associated with private selling/eBay.

    I hope someone got some prized possessions out of it.

  4. “ANYWAY, to wrap up this ramble, when I want to be dismissive or ironic, I will use the term pamphlet. But in a journalistic sense, I think “periodical” works best for right now.”

    Then you’ll just confuse things, because periodicity is not what most of us are discussing when we invoke “pamphlet”. There are plenty of comics that are periodical that are not the traditional North American comics format (Heavy Metal or Betty & Veronica Double Digest, for example) and things that are in that format that are not periodicals (“one-shots” like Welcome To Heaven, Dr. Franklin.)

    If you want something dismissive, how about call the comics you don’t like “bad comics” and say it in a snooty tone?

  5. “I used to worry — and many of my friends worried — that comic books were like radio drama and pulp magazines — something that was REALLY endangered and would eventually disappear entirely except as the province of old timey nerds who like to collect obscure old things.”

    Or the province of people who like to collect things that they find more interesting than comics.

  6. lol: “firefox just somehow took a post i was making to a totally different website and swapped it with text i was inputting here.”

    Right — It was Mr. Hyde who made that post. But now your good side is back in control ;)

  7. Thanks for the mention, Heidi.

    When I used the term pamphlet it was meant to be derisive. In my mind and the mind of many other creators, comics have been held back by staying in that short format; it doesn’t allow for better paced stories, a wider variety of material, or – most importantly in terms of selling it – a more expensive price tag so (non-comic shop) retailers could make money on it.

    Remember, it was coined in the very early 90s when comics were still sold on the newsstands and the price back then was so much lower than any of the other magazines the retailer sold. Back then, if you’re a store and had X-feet of shelf space you can fit X number of .75 cent comics on it or X number of $1.50 magazines on it, which would you prefer to sell?

    A larger comic would have made the stores more money which would give them more incentive to display the books. As for the readers, they could have gotten a lot more pages which might have actually worked out to be a better deal financially as well. But back then we were trapped into the 32-page format which was bad creatively and bad for sales.

    I have always felt it was a (necessary) mistake to put all our sales eggs into the direct market basket. We may not have had a choice, but for the most part comic shops are only frequented by people who are looking for comics. That doesn’t help grow the market. The newsstand, at least, had people coming to buy newspapers, candy, magazines and more and they might have noticed an intriguing comic cover and bought it. Comics had been an impulse item for many. In the shops it’s the destination.

    Comic shops are vital, don’t get me wrong; they’re the best place to buy comics for those of us who are already addicted to the medium, but unless it’s a TV-publicized event, it rarely brings in the outsider who is simply caught by the visual of a great cover. Also, since comic shops are not in every city and readily available to one and all, it should not be the only way to buy them. For good or bad the newsstand, candy store or whatever you called it, was everywhere.

    Sadly, those days are gone and they won’t come back. Newspapers, magazines and such are also dying and are being replaced by the ‘net. I know a lot of professionals simply don’t want comics to be net only, but it is very possible those days are coming. May take a decade or so, but it is inevitable. My generation and the several that followed me are book oriented, but the kids who were born in the last decade are net driven. Comics is one of the best mediums ever; it’s story and art working together, and ultimately it doesn’t matter how it’s delivered. If we embrace the tech instead of fearing it, we can grow. And the beauty of the net is stories can be the size they need to be rather than the size of a predetermined pamphlet.
    -Marv Wolfman

  8. I’ve been toying with calling them “pamps” consistently, but I just can’t bring myself to do so.

  9. Amen, Marv!

    Amen!

  10. Re: that office cleaning tweet

    I figured out it wasn’t an employment ending office clean pretty quick. What I did get concerned about was the implication you were throwing away everything but the Humanoids/DC books. DONATE! :p There are plenty of places (especially in NYC) that will take the comic books (be they pamphlets or collections).

  11. What Marv says here is the best POV on the issue, I think. A positive embrace of new formats. There is an interesting, analogous discussion happening in the music industry– Blixa Bargeld (a German musician) is old enough–ad successful enough– to be able to outright dismiss digital formats, but choses to embrace them. Blixa makes an interesting point, relates in someway here– in the old days, recording artists could control the track listing on an album, but were limited by built in rules of the album format (a long playing LP side could be– maybe– 24 minutes, a barrier broken by the CD, only to introduce new/other restrictions, as well as offer the listener the option to alter track listing). With digital downloading/listening formats, the concept of song ordering–or for that matter, the long playing album– is gone, that is now entirely in the hands of the listener. The trade off is that the recording artist is now freed from all limitation on track length. That online comics can be as long as the artist demands, and not conform to the old 22 pgs. plus ads– or the xeroxed mini with staples– is a benefit to the medium.

    That being said, I still agree with Eisner’s assertion that there is something special in the tactile quality of the reading experience which benefits and suits comics in the printed format, and that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

  12. The Beat says:

    Well, I have thrown out the comics of many, many defunct companies, such as…Virgin….Crossgen…but have kept a lot of comics from some companies that I suspect will go under. Now why is that?

  13. This week, I attempted to donate about a dozen recent Comic Journal issues to the local library. They have a budding GN collection.
    Well, their donation appraiser calls them “magazines” and will not accept them, even in mint condition.
    They WILL deign to sell them and use the harvested coins to purchase more worthy and appropriate materials.
    So in the future I will donate books to a less worthy but more accepting cause: a local organization that holds an annual book fair to fund educational scholarships for young women.

  14. Hey Paul, (and others),

    Just because you’re not 20-25 anymore doesn’t mean you can’t bring your comics to the World Wide Web. I’m 51 and I’m into it big time. Yes, it’s new and uncertain and therefore scary, and it’s true right now that the vast majority of web-comickers can’t make a living at it.

    But I think part of the reason for that is the low entry barrier; the very best web-cartoonists ARE making a living at it, and not just the gag strip guys. Talk to Phil Foglio or Scott Sava or or Spike Trotman or Meredith Gran.

    Also, there are developments coming in e-book readers and phones/pdas that may prove a bonanza for comics creators who can get in on the ground floor.

  15. Comic shops are vital, don’t get me wrong; they’re the best place to buy comics for those of us who are already addicted to the medium, but unless it’s a TV-publicized event, it rarely brings in the outsider who is simply caught by the visual of a great cover.

    At the risk of looking like a fool for arguing with someone who has been in comics a hell of a lot longer than me:

    As someone who owns a comic shop, I’m not sure this is true. We do a *lot* of business in families and kids, twenty- and thirty-somethings alike. And while, yes, we do sort of live or die on our regulars, we see casual and new fans every day. Everyone says “new readers don’t generally come into comic shops” like it’s true, but I think it’s a cliche that isn’t really accurate.

    Fifteen years ago, when I was just getting onto the Internet and the comics-related portion thereof, many folks were making the point that young readers weren’t getting into comics, and as the current readers died off or moved on, there wasn’t going to be any younger crowd to replace them. At the time, I thought this was a pretty compelling argument.

    Now, though? I see a lot of people coming in who were 6-8 years old during that time, who weren’t reading comics because there wasn’t anything for them, and they’re starting in their twenties instead. It’s not that new readers aren’t coming in… it’s that the starting age for comics has moved up. And some of those new twenty-something readers are looking for art comics, alternative comics, etc. but a lot of them, despite not having followed Marvel/DC for ten years prior, want the superhero universe stuff.

    I think that the characters and the medium have an innate appeal that many of us long-timers underestimate, because we’ve been in it for so long and we may have gotten a little jaded about the wonder of the first time we stopped into a comics store or grabbed something off a spinner rack at the 7-11.

    Also, since comic shops are not in every city and readily available to one and all, it should not be the only way to buy them. For good or bad the newsstand, candy store or whatever you called it, was everywhere.

    This, however, I can’t argue with. I think the direct market gets unfairly bashed on the Internet more often than not, but even the most diehard “go comic shops!” guys will admit that we’d be better off with a healthy newsstand comics market as well. I know I was excited to see Boom! Studios’ new kids line getting newsstand distribution.

    And more directly on the topic at hand, I’m not wild about the “pamphlet” term either. Nat’s argument that periodical isn’t accurate is true enough, but pamphlet isn’t strictly accurate either, and it’s taken on negative connotations, usually intentionally when folks use it, so that if you use it you’re bringing those negative connotations with you.

    I’ve generally liked the term “singles” which I believe Warren Ellis coined way back when for his pop comics. Of course, given the transition of the music market in the past few years, I’m not sure that’s a term that’s relevant anymore either.

  16. The Beat:
    [i]Well, I have thrown out the comics of many, many defunct companies, such as…Virgin….Crossgen…but have kept a lot of comics from some companies that I suspect will go under. Now why is that? [/i]

    Grant Morrison might suggest it has something to do with sympathetic magic. By not throwing out the comics you hope to keep the company that published them from going under.

    Or maybe he’d suggest something else entirely.

  17. Kurt Busiek says:

    Wilson — what you’re describing is a leaflet. It’s a kind of pamphlet, but not the only kind by any means. The traditional American comic book format fits the definition of a pamphlet — it’s a short, loosely-bound set of pages without a book-style binding.

    Pamphlets go way back — Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” is a pretty famous pamphlet, and it had more pages than your average comic book.

    I’ll continue to use the term “pamphlet” when I want to make a distinction between that format and other formats. But I wouldn’t use “periodical” to describe, say, the ASTRO CITY: SAMARITAN one-shot, because it wasn’t a periodical.

    kdb

  18. Steve Taylor says:

    Certain entities hold wonder. We keep them with us to retain their wonder. Sometimes it is merely the promise of wonder.
    It is hubris to believe that something belongs to one generation merely because they grew up with it.

  19. Kurt Busiek says:

    >> Nat’s argument that periodical isn’t accurate is true enough, but pamphlet isn’t strictly accurate either, and it’s taken on negative connotations, usually intentionally when folks use it, so that if you use it you’re bringing those negative connotations with you.>>

    Ah, but if you eliminate it, the people who want to deride the format will deride it using whatever term remains. The issue there isn’t that “pamphlet” is inherently derisive, but that there are people who want to deride the format, and that won’t change.

    I say let people who want to deride the format do so — better they use a term the average person doesn’t recognize than a term they do.

    >> I’ve generally liked the term “singles” which I believe Warren Ellis coined way back when for his pop comics. Of course, given the transition of the music market in the past few years, I’m not sure that’s a term that’s relevant anymore either.>>

    Plus, of course, is an issue of MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS, with 4 stories in it, a “single”?

    If you simply want to describe the format, it’s a magazine.* But if you want to distinguish between different magazine formats — digests, regular-size magazines, standard-American-comic-sized magazines, tabloids, minis and more, it’s useful to have a term that isn’t as much of a mouthful as “standard-American-comics-sized magazine.”

    kdb

    *well, technically, to be a magazine it needs to have multiple features, which some comics do and some don’t. There doesn’t seem to be a term for the standard physical magazine format, content aside, aside from pamphlet and booklet.

  20. I tend to use the term “floppies” since nobody remembers when that applied to disks.

  21. Kurt Busiek says:

    Interestingly, “floppies” was coined as a term for that format on the Warren Ellis Forum — specifically as an insulting term, to conjure up the idea of a limp dick.

    “Singles,” as mentioned above, was the non-insulting term they coined at the same time.

    kdb

  22. Steven R. Stahl says:

    The Wikipedia entry on comics vocabulary lists the following terms for the classic comic book: Pamphlet, Periodical, Monthly, Floppy, Single, and Issue. I prefer the term “floppy,” despite its questionable origin. “Floppy” is specific without being unnecessarily restrictive, and distinguishes the classic comic book from comics published using other media.

    SRS

  23. I’m surprised the list of terms excludes the distinctions a printer would use, stitched versus perfect bound.

  24. Kurt Busiek says:

    Those are distinctions you can use when talking about formats, Stephanie, but they don’t distinguish comics from other things — there are comics that are stitched, comics that are perfect-bound, but there are books and magazines that are as well. But when people are distinguishing among bindings, they come up.

    kdb

  25. Calvin Reid says:

    Did I miss something? When did periodical–which is the term I prefer to use for traditional U.S. comic books–become a negative? Or is this a reaction to the current publishing scene. I suppose they can be called pamphlets but that term seems inaccurate to me for publications published on a monthly or monthly-related or even weekly or annual schedule. And as for floppy–isn’t that an obselete format for digital storage?

  26. Kurt Busiek says:

    “Periodical” isn’t a negative, but not all comics in that format are periodicals. And there are periodical comics not in that format. So it doesn’t really seem to function as a format term — it’s a frequency term.

    kdb

  27. Steve Taylor says:

    However,…the term “comic book” seems really appropriate.

  28. Kurt Busiek says:

    They’re all comic books.

    As a term to distinguish one format from another, it’s not so great.

    As a term that includes them all, it’s excellent.

    kdb

  29. The Beat says:

    Very, very hesitantly daring to disagree with Busiek the Wise, certain to be proven wrong but…

    While I agree with your standard definition of “periodical,” I think it connotes the idea of something that comes out on some kind of repeating basis, and its repeating nature is part of the appeal. In other words,
    “periodical” captures some of the appeal to the “Wednesday Crowd.” For that reason, although it isn’t strictly accurate, it is a more positive word with positive implications.

    How this applies to ULTIMATE WOLVERINE VS HULK I have no idea.

  30. Kurt Busiek says:

    >> How this applies to ULTIMATE WOLVERINE VS HULK I have no idea.>>

    That, at least, was intended to be a periodical.

    I don’t have a problem using the term “periodical,” I just don’t think it maps well to “standard-format US comic-book package.” SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN was a periodical, but we call that “magazine format.” DC UNIVERSE: HALLOWEEN SPECIAL and DC UNIVERSE: LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT are not periodicals (they’re even billed as “one shot” on the covers), but they are in SFUSCBP format.

    If you’re using it to refer to the mass of comics that come out every Wednesday, whether the individual components of that mass are periodicals or not, then it would encompass trades, hardcovers and anything else that comes in that regular weekly shipment. But then, books come out of Tuesdays, as do a number of other forms of popular entertainment…

    In the end, of course, if the term works well for you, there’s no reason not to use it. I find it useful enough in its standard definition to use it for that — distinguishing between periodicals and non-periodicals is a good thing to have a word for, so I wouldn’t want to muddy the term by using it to mean a format, too, so it applies to two large overlapping sets of things at once.

    But language is defined by usage — if that’s the word people take to, its definitions will adapt…

    kdb

Trackbacks

  1. […] Heidi MacDonald should clean her office out more often, as it resulted in an interesting blogpost and an interesting discussion over at The Beat. First, Heidi explains where the term “pamphlet” came from in terms of describing comic books: […]

  2. […] Wolfman offers his thoughts in the comments field, saying he meant for the term to be “derisive,” then shares several interesting thoughts about telling stories in longer formats and on the web, where stories “can be the size they need to be.” Paul Pope weighs in as well. Go check it out. […]

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