The ‘Genius’ of weekly comics
Although U.S. publishers occasionally experiment with weekly series — DC Comics, for examples, will soon have three on its plate, with Batman Eternal, New 52: Futures End and Earth 2: Worlds End — comic books in North America traditionally have been released on a monthly schedule. It’s been that way for decades.
However, today sees the conclusion of weekly miniseries that not only make you reconsider that tradition, but also leads you to wonder whether the story’s impact would have been lessened by monthly release.
Created by writers Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and artist Afua Richardson, the five-issue Genius was published weekly throughout August by Top Cow Productions (the final two installments went on sale this morning). This break from the tradition allowed the story to build a momentum that would have been missed had it unfolded over the course of five months.
The comic feels so relevant, so immediate in no small part due to the coincidental timing of its release even as events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, highlighting divides between races and classes, and between a town’s people and its police. (The A.V. Club’s headline for its review of Issue 2 read, “Top Cow’s Genius is a chilling reflection of this week’s Ferguson turmoil: This weekly series is the most relevant comic on stands.”) Genius tells the story of a young military mastermind whose followers aren’t a nation’s soldiers but rather an oppressed black community in South Central Los Angeles pushing back against an oppressive police force.
Part of the power of stories, and any creative expression, is how they interact with us in the present. If Genius were released monthly, the second issue wouldn’t arrive for another week or two, likely as Ferguson began receiving less and less attention on the 24-hour news channels. It’s an extreme and unexpected example, of course; not every weekly comic is going to spontaneously relate to a national story. However, it highlights how a weekly schedule can affect how the reader relates to a story.
Comic books and television dramas have long paralleled each other in their approach to episodic storytelling. But with the recent rise of Netflix and other streaming services, the way viewers experience some TV series is changing, as the traditional weekly frequency gives way to binge-watching. And comics haven’t been oblivious to television’s influences, with more and more creators (Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma of Morning Glories, for instance) opting for “seasons” rather than story arcs, with breaks in between. The two mediums probably have never been more entwined as far as influences in pacing and dialogue.
As I noted, Genius certainly isn’t the first weekly comic: 2000AD has published weekly in the United Kingdom since 1976, and DC first dipped its foot in the pool in 1989 with Action Comics Weekly (although it didn’t test those waters again until 2006’s year-long 52, which was followed by Trinity, the shorter-run Wednesday Comics, and the publisher’s current slate). Marvel too entered the fray in 2008, when it began shipping The Amazing Spider-Man three times a month for some hundred issues.
However, American publishers have never been able to make the weekly comic work on a longer-term basis, in part because of entrenched business models and reader habits. But as entertainment consumption — and the industry — evolves, it may be possible for more comics to move away from the monthly tradition.
The challenge is production: There aren’t too many people who can crank out 20 pages — from script to lettered and colored art — at a speed that can sustain a weekly release. For its weekly efforts, DC employees rotating teams of creators to share the burden, but there is another solution for those with leaner rosters.
Borrowing from Genius and Morning Glories, a creator or creative team could produce a six- or 12-issue story as Season 1. Instead of producing each issue a couple of months ahead of release, the entire story could be completed in advance, similar to how production for scripted TV shows occurs on the front-end instead of between each episode. During the season of release, creators could benefit from more focused promotion. For example, Genius writers Bernardin and Freeman have been doing store signings at Collector’s Paradise every week this month; fans who have gone to every signing will receive an exclusive print today. Trade paperback and hardcover releases could serve as additional income and promotional bumps between seasons while in production mode.
Obviously those are pretty broad strokes, and it wouldn’t work for every comic. But it would be interesting to see some creators run with that kind of strategy. The financial burden on the front end would be greater, but if the story is served by that kind of release schedule, I think it could really pay off. Like The Sopranos, Lost and Breaking Bad, comics can tap into the weekly, addictive storytelling experience.