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Drama Queens Bickering
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for March 30, 2007
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)

 

"A glass case being drawn into a single location won't change anything substantial in the medium, will it? It's not a solution; only a reminder that there was a problem."
- Kevin Church,
questioning the defining reason for
Girl-Wonder.org's continued existence

 

Panel detail from 300, ©1998, 1999 Frank Miller, Inc.

 

Earlier this week, I'd noticed that Dark Horse had declared Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's 300 to be "the #1 best selling graphic novel in the nation," looked around for evidence, found none and questioned whether they were simply ignoring what was otherwise being hailed as "the #1 best selling graphic novel in the nation," the thirteenth volume of Masashi Kishimoto's insanely popular fight comic, Naruto. I noted at the time that it was entirely possible that BookScan was telling a different story than the other principal source for such information, USA Today, and indeed this turned out to be the case: In the comments section of The Beat, Del Rey Manga associate publisher Dallas Middaugh notes:

For the week ending 3/18/07, 300 was in fact the number one graphic novel on the Bookscan bestseller list. For the week ending 3/25, it has slipped to number two behind Naruto 13.

Now, this was an entirely plausible refutation of what I'd said; certainly moreso than the gobbledygook offered by Heidi MacDonald in the entry in question...

300 has landed at #12 on this week's Hardcover Bestsellers list at Publishers Weekly. While it's not the only listing for a graphic novel on a nationally recognized bestseller list (SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS charted a few years and ago and there have been others including, we believe, the ALIEN movie adaptation back in the day) it's certainly a strong showing for the Dark Horse books.

We're assuming Dirk hadn't seen this when he castigates Dark Horse for their PR: [...]

...since it actually provides a firm point of sales comparison between 300 and Naruto. I therefore noted the next day that Middaugh had found evidence of 300 topping Naruto on a week's set of sales charts to which I hadn't seen, offered the necessary mea culpa, wondered aloud how Heidi expected someone to infer from a hardcover sales chart how a book on said chart compared with sales for a paperback, and got on with the business of the day.

One would think this would be the end of it, no? Alas, I'd too quickly dismissed the rest of MacDonald's initial post on the matter, where she seems to have thought that she was making some sort of point:

We'd hate to think that Dirk is so in love with his manga that he ignores any evidence that goes against the worldview that he is hellbent on promoting each and every day. While we agree with him that it's silly to ignore the huge success of manga, it's equally silly to ignore the success of things that AREN'T manga... cuz it CAN happen y'know.

I ignored this at the time, mainly because it made no sense. I had no BookScan numbers, so there wasn't any "available evidence" to ignore: The folks at Nielsen charge big, big money for access to BookScan numbers, and so I have no choice but to work from charts that did not, in fact, corroborate Dark Horse's claim. Moreover, Heidi seems to be under the impression that I believe it impossible for any Western graphic novel anywhere to outsell the topselling manga volume of the moment, a claim that I've never made, since it's an unbelievably stupid notion.

Before we go any further, let's take a moment and talk about that last bit. I believe that Western comics are generally ill-equipped to make the same appeal to the larger buying public as can Japanese comics. For evidence of this, I invite you to head out to your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, and count the number of shelves devoted to each variety of comics. It'll likely fall anywhere between a 1/8 and 1/20 ratio between the two — as math goes, it's a pretty simple figure to calculate. I offered my best guesses as to why this was so in an essay I wrote for The Comics Journal #269, "She's Got Her Own Thing Now."

So how did 300 succeed where so many other American-created comics fail? Simply put, it followed the manga path rather than the Marvel/DC path. As I wrote in the above-mentioned essay:

To emphasize the point, compare two media phenomena that attempted to drive sales towards graphic novels: Naruto and X-Men. The fact that Naruto has become popular in both print and animated forms should surprise no one; given that it's the story of a young boy who's secretly a nine-tailed demon, who spends his days going to ninja school and getting into constant trouble, you could safely call this series a license to print money from the moment its creator wrote that concept down in his notebook. If the Naruto anime left you interested enough in the story to go to a bookstore and check out the manga, you'd find more of the same: The anime stays as close as possible to manga-ka Masashi Kishimoto's original concepts, and Kishimoto is in turn the consistent driving force behind the creation of the comics version, regardless of who spotted the blacks or drew a particular forest background. So long as you first bought the Naruto volume with the big "1" on the spine, liked it and followed it with the one labeled "2," you're pretty much guaranteed to be satisfied by the results.

If the X-Men films convinced you to pick up your first X-Men graphic novel, however, you'd be in for an entirely different experience. Your first exposure would depend upon which author's version of the series you pulled out of the stack, be it Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar or Chuck Austen, and the artwork would likely change from one artist to another within the book's pages. If you remained interested enough by what you read to buy a second one, that second volume would be as much of a crapshoot as the first, unless you very carefully observed which names were on the spine each time you invested your hard-earned dollars on a new book. The replaceable nature of the writers and artists, as dictated by the work-for-hire business practices upon which Marvel depends, actively discourages casual readers exactly to the extent that casual readers can never be sure what they get when they open an X-Men book.

Miller and Varley's book and Zack Snyder's subsequent adaptation share a dynamic that allows the latter to sell the former in a way that the X-Men movies can't match. The book is the work of a single creator's vision, which the film does its best to translate to the big screen. Viewers who liked the film and go on to buy the book will find it to be more of the same. They won't have to pick and choose among competing versions written and drawn by different creators, or containing different characters and storylines. As with most manga and their subsequent anime adaptations, therefore, the film works as effective advertising for the book, and will continue to do so long after the initial theatrical release and subsequent DVD sales. (This isn't new. There are other films based upon comics that have enjoyed this effect: Sin City, Ghost World, V for Vendetta and American Splendor come immediately to mind.)

My apologies for going on at such length over all this, but I wanted to be sure that terms were properly defined and my record on the subject was clear. My argument on manga vs. Western graphic novels isn't simply "manga rules, Spider-Man drools." I believe that there are concrete, identifiable reasons why the former succeeds where the latter fails; that it's entirely possible for Western comics to beat manga volumes at their own game, but that in order to do so, Western publishers and marketers are going to have to first learn said reasons in order to duplicate such successes in the domestic market — and that comics treated as product and produced by replaceable work-for-hire drones are always going to be at a disadvantage when compared to works produced by single creators or a single set of creators. I say all of this because it was the direction in which Heidi's argument had first started out — as we'll see, she implies an agenda over the subject on my part — and I wanted to nail that portion of it down before moving on.

All clear? Good. We now come at last to the reason behind all the bloviation: Heidi MacDonald's latest salvo, which aside from catching me on a misquote involving 300's place on that hardcover chart (mea culpa, blah blah blah), mounts an argument around that essential component of this apparently-it's-a-debate: the purity of BookScan numbers!

The New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists were, until the advent of Bookscan, considered the bible of book sales. Both use different methods to arrive at their goals, and both are assumed to be a mix of magical juju and actual sales reporting. Are they as accurate? Not really. But they do represent publishing industry thinking, and any graphic novel landing on either of them is something to be noted and analyzed.

Both have different charts for hardcover and paperback sales. Now why is this? I suppose it's because mass market paperbacks are generally racked separately. When trade paperbacks came along, they got their own sales charts. I'm sure much of the reason is so more publishers could have more bestsellers, but it's also to differentiate them by price point, retail outlets and so on.

The fuck...?

So near as I can tell, you can boil this latest screed from Heidi MacDonald down to, "But you argued with Brian Hibbs about BookScan once, and different sources of sales numbers have different charts for different things." It's as though I erroneously questioned the sum of 2+2, MacDonald walked up and said "The answer is applesauce," Dallas Middaugh then stepped in and offered evidence for "four" as an answer and I said "Oh, I guess you're right," only to provoke MacDonald into stomping her feet and exclaiming, "Four jars of applesauce! And I know how much you hate applesauce!" How on Earth is one supposed to respond to this?

Even in her introduction of my debate with Brian Hibbs over BookScan into the current argument, Heidi misses the point by a good country mile. As you'll recall, Hibbs presented a chart containing the top-selling 750 graphic novels and comics collections for 2006 according to BookScan, and announced that it demonstrated that "art-comics" weren't selling any better in bookstores than in comics shops. In the very part of my response that Heidi quotes(!), I found this to be a hollow argument because the list that Hibbs was using — not "BookScan numbers" in general, the specific list Hibbs was presenting — cut off at 4784 copies. Here's the following part, the one she didn't quote:

Consider a hypothetical example: Artcomix Press releases the latest magnum opus by indy-comics all-star Joe Worrymope, Real Life is Stinky and I Can't Get Laid for Shit. The Direct Market buys 2000 copies, AP's bookstore distributor manages to move 4000 copies, and the library arena orders an additional 1000 copies. Ignoring the books that went to librarians, the bookstore market would still have taken twice the number of copies sold to comic-book stores, and Worrymope's book would nonetheless never have made it onto that list Hibbs is waving around.

If Hibbs is arguing that literary graphic novels not in possession of Persepolis-style promotional pushes will never sell in the same range as Naruto, that's one thing, albeit one to which I can only respond, "Well, duh." Please point me to someone who has ever made such a claim in public, and I'll email him and let him know how solidly he's just been rebuked. As in television, film, literature and music, self-styled "high art" works will always sell at a fraction of what more populist works rake in. But that's not what Hibbs is arguing: He's arguing that books like the one produced by our hypothetical cartoonist sell equally poorly in both markets, and he simply doesn't have anything approaching the evidence required to make such a claim.

MacDonald edits this out, of course, in order to claim that "The facts go against Dirk's Bold Stance, so they must be wrong!" But they didn't, and I wasn't. The only way that she can claim otherwise is to paper over the very "bold stance" that she tries to hold up as evidence of my "agenda." And speaking of agendas...

All of which is to say that Dark Horse was perfectly justified LAST WEEK in crowing over the fact that they had a bestselller. And Viz and Dark Horse should both go out there and talk about their bestselling books to book buyers and bookstore owners, librarians and even readers. I'm all for a critical reading of press releases (and we do it here on a regular basis) but you'd better get your facts straight or else it's an agenda.

As for the last part of Dirk's riposte, we're always smiling on the outside and crying on the inside here at SBM. I *wish* all I got was frowns.

Likewise, if you're going to get riled up when someone has the temerity to throw your cheap shots right back at you, you shouldn't let it piss you off to the point where you lose track of the argument you'd been trying to make. Mind you, I have no problem with cheap shots, per se — it'd certainly be hypocritical of me to claim otherwise — but it's only because I long ago learned to expect to get what I give. You might want to consider cultivating a similar attitude, Heidi, if you're going to start dishing it out. Otherwise, you're going to wind up writing more screeds like this one.

 

Note: This argument continued for several days — my second go-round can be found here.

 

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