The Transmogrification of The Indie Comic-Book into The Indie Graphic Novel (Series)

Jason Lutes' "Berlin" has been coming out since 1996 in a slim 30-page saddle-stitched format (that's just fancy talk for: it's a comic-book). But things have changed since 1996. Are "Berlin" and Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve" the last of the great indie comic-books?

Chris Ware's "Acme Novelty Library" became a hardcover graphic novel series when Ware began self-publishing the title at issue #16. Los Bros Hernandez' "Love and Rockets" became an annual paperback graphic novel with restarted numbering under the title "New Stories" in 2oo8. Finally, Seth's "Palookaville" jumped ship this year: with "Palookaville" issue #20, the series is now 'hardcover graphic novel volume' #20.

"Acme Novelty Library" changed formats like most people change their clothes but "Palookaville" now exists as nineteen comic-books and one graphic novel-ish thing. Seth is to be congratulated in at least one way: "Palookaville" Vol. 20 is a pretty gorgeous book object but doubts linger in the forefront of my mind.
"The expansion into hardcover from pamphlet is a parallel that illustrates Seth's growth ... into a book designer, hobbyist, editor, essayist, and installation artist."
~ "Palookaville" #20 (marketing writing on the book-band)
A slightly different tune from Seth himself (a slog of text yes, but worth it):

"It's not like I wasn't aware that the comic book format was coming to an end. A shift had occurred (this last decade) in the sales of comic books and people simply weren't buying 'alternative' comic books any longer-- they were waiting for the book collections instead. Books were the current 'healthy business model.' ... I was torn. I have a deep and abiding love of the old pamphlet form of comics. I grew up with them, and it is the most simple, austere and unpretentious format you could invent. ...

all the great alternative comics were gone ... Hate, Yummy Fur, Eightball, Yahoo, Dirty Plotte, Peepshow, Jim/Frank... they'd all vanished. Even Love and Rockets had turned into a large squarebound book. Only Optic Nerve seemed to be strongly carrying on. I hadn't truly realized how much of a dying breed we were. Was I leaving now too? It seemed a minor betrayal of something to quit the format. ...

It's difficult to do a long story all at once and putting it out a bit at a time was a method that worked for me. There was an era when the comics reader was more willing to go along with this approach ... Then they'd buy the book collection as well. I appreciated that too. I guess that day is done. ...

In fact, the less constrained page count would actually allow me to present larger chunks of the long story as well. ... I suspect that this format change itself will influence how my next long story is told. ... So, goodbye, comic book format. It was good to know you. I leave you with no regrets."
~ Seth from "Palookaville" #20: Introduction

So where does the 'comic-book' end and the 'graphic novel' begin? Well, somewhere in the middle of the 'graphic novella' I guess? At over 100 pages? Other than that I'll be damned if I know anymore.

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's "Lost Girls" was an indie comic-book slowly released over several years. The series was canceled and eventually finished when published as a bound book set and then a single volume "graphic novel". If the only way to get the entire story is to buy the trade, does that lend credence to the concept of a serialized graphic novel?

"I suspect that this format change itself will influence how my next long story is told." Of course it will. If I gave anyone alive one page a day to write something, the writing would be different than if I gave them 100 pages at once. Artists, like all humans, are adaptable. They expand or truncate to fit the space they're given. This affects the way these stories are told and if ALL indie creators switch over like this I fear we will begin to see an English-language paper-marketplace with very similar comics. I am working on a review of "Berlin" #17. Will my review of "Berlin" #18 (in 2o13 or whenever) be of a hardcover book? In which case, webcomics-in-print may become the new go-to source for a variety for voices who wish to do something in short formats without a superhero in it (not that there's anything wrong if there is) at a comics shop or box chain bookstore. Truth is: webcomics already rival the indie comics in that regard. Turn on your computer, type "recommended webcomics" into Google and you may be amazed at what you find.

But should not the talented creators of limited financial means be also given credit for surmountting the problem Seth clearly stated: "It's difficult to do a long story all at once"? As a creator of limited financial means (who believes himself to be talented) I myself know that to be true. Time, food, money. These are troubling obstacles to sitting at a computer/typewriter/drawing board/lightbox all day long. I believe those who do so, indie or otherwise, without immediate recompense and publish their hard-fought work all at once, are creators who deserve the term graphic novel.

In the end, I have little doubt that just as digital comics will take off, people will find a use for paper comics; so too, as the ongoing graphic novel series becomes more common, people will find a use (most likely an entirely original and unexpected one) for the comic-book.

Here's looking forward to whatever that may be.



  1. I'm not sure I'm with you on this one, Jon: a graphic novel is just a comic that's longer than a comic book. This comes pretty close to the specious distinction drawn between comics and graphic novels at last year's symposium. Are you really going to tell Shane Davis that Superman Earth One isn't a graphic novel because he knew DC was going to pay him?

  2. It's not always about IF payment is coming but WHEN payment is coming. I don't know for sure, but I'd bet that Shane Davis didn't see much money until very near the end of his nine months working on "Superman: Earth One" or possibly even until it was printed. All that time was time he could have been doing shorter comic-book projects and getting smaller but successive paychecks. He took a temporary financial hit for the bigger financial and career goals.

    That is my assumption, as someone who has no access to DC's payment schedules or structures and only knows Shane Davis as far as one interview goes...