How to Save Comics – 2003 Edition

GLYPH – A Brief History (and Ramble)

In the small corner of the internet comic book universe that I frequent I often read essays on How To Save Comics. A variety of ideas generally come up – focus on graphic novels, publish magazine rack anthologies, do webcomics, create more kid friendly material, create more “mainstream” (non-superhero) material, manage better stores and such and so forth. Good ideas, bad ideas, wishful thinking and ideas whose time has come. One idea that I’ve yet to see suggested is the free comic newspaper. That strikes me as odd, both from a historical perspective and from a practical one. And also, I’ve been part of the staff of one so it no doubt seems more obvious to me.

I love comics, the whole sequential storytelling aspect. I prefer reading the action/adventure/weird fiction genre but that’s the genre I like for my entertainment in all media, be it film, television or prose. I’m more likely to read an out-of-genre comic than I am to read an out-of-genre novel. I doubt if I’d have gotten past the first page of Berlin or Stuck Rubber Baby or Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself if they had been prose works. When I think of telling stories I think of telling comic style stories. Even if I first envision a story as prose or as a movie sooner or later I’ll think, “Hell, this would work better as a comic!” and I’ll start revising my mental construction.

I drew my first minicomic back in ’89 and printed up 50 copies of it at the local Kinkos. This was back when Kinkos specialty was 24 hour copies and faxes. I got inspired to do minicomics after an artist sent me an envelope full of his own photocopied publications in response to a flyer I’d put up advertising myself as an illustrator. Seeing his minis was an “Aha™” moment. I’d never thought of creating minicomics, I’d never heard of them but they were obviously something I could do. My mini (Cheap Thrills #1) was twelve pages (an eight page story and a cover). The art was crude, the story a cliché but it was finished product. It was also my second finished comic. The first one I had drawn on the kitchen wall of a friend’s apartment (with their permission and encouragement). That one was a little hard to share. (Mojo Nixon later autographed their ceiling.) The minicomic I could sell or trade or give away. And I did. Over the next couple of years I did almost twenty minis (some written by Lovesettlement) on my own and contributed to minis put together by like minded folks across the country. We found each other by mail and by reviews in Factsheet Five.

This led me eventually to Brave New Words publishing and in 1991 they published five issues of Misspent Youths. Each issue was thirty-two pages in black and white with a color cover. The art was still crude and stories were rude and bizarre. I’m proud to say that Misspent Youths was BNW’s longest running series. Matt Howarth (who provided the cover for #5) did draw more comics for the company but those were one shots and miniseries and, dammit, Howarth draws faster than Jack Kirby on speed. The sales never really matched the printing costs and after the fifth issue we mutually cancelled the series. I didn’t mind the lack of pay for the work I was putting in but after the fourth issues I’d really started to notice my short comings as an artist. I took some figure drawing classes and continued working with BNW’s publisher on other projects, most of which didn’t see print (or completion).

In ’94 Nizzibet and I hooked up to work on a series. That lead to a partnership and the partnership led to the first version of the Labor of Love Cooperative. I’d been getting ready to self-publish a new version of Misspent Youths. She was wanting to create a cooperative business and working with different folks she knew from the comic book industry. We pooled our talents, found some other similarly minded folks and Glyph, version one, was the result. Glyph was an 80 page black and white anthology magazine with a color cover. I had sixteen pages of Bonecage Graffiti (the new version of Misspent Youths) in each issue. The story was weird but the art was pretty good. I’d draw it differently if I did it today but it’s nothing I wouldn’t show around. The rest of the magazine ran from really good and professional to crude but interesting. And sales never justified printing costs. The comic book industry was collapsing. Anthologies don’t sell. Whatever. We put out three issues in ’96 and ’97 then turned our attention to trying to make some money as a design studio.

The trouble is, that version of Labor of Love was composed of comic geeks. Eventually we had to do comics again. Nizzibet suggested what should have been an obvious idea – revive Glyph as GLYPH, a free, advertising supported, newsprint tabloid.

Most cities of any size in the US have at least one free weekly newspaper. Most of them are tabloids (the size of a daily newspaper folded over). Seattle had two main ones – The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly. Both of them ran a few comics but comics were hardly a focus. The majority of them were gag strips of the artsy/hip/ironic favor.

We dived in and published four issues of GLYPH in the last six months of 1998. The first three issues were twenty pages, the fourth was thirty-two and they were all black and white printed on tabloid sized newsprint. Between creating the material for each issue, selling advertising and running a design studio with office overhead we burned up and out. Number four was the last issue of GLYPH and that version of the Labor of Love Cooperative mostly disbanded soon after.

And this has to do with my original point, how?

Out of all the comics projects I’ve been involved with, the one that was most economical and reached the widest audience was the tabloid GLYPH. The minicomics were a bit of mostly private fun and never had more than 200 copies published of any one issue. Misspent Youths had a first issue printing of 2000 copies and then dropped to 1200 for each issue after that. The Glyph magazine had less than 2000 copies printed per issue. The free GLYPH? – 10,000 copies of the first three issues and 8000 of the fourth (we printed less because it was a larger issue). The cost for those 10,000 copies was pretty much the same as the cost of printing less than 2000 (I’ve forgotten the exact numbers) of the magazine. Yes, the tabloid had less pages. Yes, the tabloid was printed on cheaper paper.

The biggest difference between the tabloid GLYPH and all the other comics publishing I’ve been involved with was the market. Misspent Youths and Glyph were printed to match the orders from the direct market (basically – comic book stores). Even then there was a minimum amount that we had to print in order for a printer to take a job. The only income they generated was from sales of copies. If you wanted to buy a copy of either publication you had to go into a comic store.

GLYPH was printed to cover a market (a dozen or so neighborhoods in Seattle) and distributed to and through book and music stores, coffee shops and any other places with a spot for free publications. You didn’t have to look hard for a copy, you could find copies in businesses on every other block in most neighborhoods. And you didn’t have to think about whether you wanted to pay for an issue – it was free. If it looked like something you were interested in, you took it. Simple.

Any profit made from GLYPH would have been from the sale of advertising. Sadly, we weren’t around long enough to establish any sort of advertising base.

Our biggest mistake was not having capital to pay for a year’s worth of printing and at least a basic salary for one advertising salesperson before we went to press for our first issue. That would have allowed us to be able to reassure potential advertisers of our stability.

Our second biggest mistake was not having six months of material ready before printing that first issue. That would have allowed us to stay on schedule.

Other mistakes? That’s harder for me to gage. We probably should have started with 12 page issues instead of 20 and fewer copies distributed to fewer neighborhoods and built up the market slowly. I know selling advertising was a bitch. That’s not surprising. I’ve seen quite a few other free publications mushroom in and out of existence here in Seattle. If I were a business person I wouldn’t have a lot of confidence in the longevity of a publication until I’d seen a few issues. That we were publishing comics was probably less of an objection than most potential advertisers said. Someone who says no today might say yes in six months if they think they see an opportunity. If someone is seeing an ad and responding to it the advertiser doesn’t care so much where the customer saw the ad.

These sorts of things are obvious now. At the time, well, we were trying to make things happen any way we could. Damn the torpedoes and all. Most of what we learned we learned by doing, trial and error. We were all self taught at our jobs. In the process I learned that I’m not the sort of person who should do design for a living. I’m a much better office manager than I ever was a designer or account manager. Nizzibet and Jaydogg are well suited for the current version of Labor of Love.

There’s a lot of potential in doing a free comic tabloid. The pages are bigger than a regular comic allowing for more story on the page. If distributed along with other free publications it can reach an audience that would never think of going into a comic store (or looking for comics on the internet or hunting down graphic novels in the bookstore). And since it’s printed in black and white and distributed with music magazines and hipster media you’re more likely to be able to do comics for “mature” audiences. You would want to avoid hardcore violence and pornography (legally a good idea anyway) but the folks who are likely to pick up your publication are also likely to be at least teenagers if not adults.

For the first year, at least, you’d want to keep the stories short (probably no more than four pages) and self contained. After that, when you can afford to print larger issues you can print longer stories. If you can afford to publish biweekly or weekly then you can think about running continued stories.

Does this mean that a free comics tabloid would be a financial success? I don’t know. But they would reach an audience that isn’t currently reading comics. A comics tabloid would stand out from the free traders, singles come-ons and snarky hipster papers that generally fill the free racks. And as far as I know, no one is attempting to publish one. If I were in a position to do it again, avoiding the mistakes of the first round, I’d cheerfully do it again. Since I’m not I felt a need to at least write this down. You never know who might read it and have an “Aha™” moment of their own.