Posted by on October 24th, 2010 at 11:03 AM

Charles Burns, X’ed Out (Pantheon, 2010). $19.95, hardcover; Seth, Palookaville #20 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010). $19.95, hardcover.

Reading the first installment of Charles Burns’ new serial narrative presented a strange contrast to my experience earlier in the week of digging through my shelves for the earlier installments of Seth’s ongoing serial narrative Clyde Fans, which began its serialization in Palookaville #10 thirteen years ago. In the case of Burns’ X’ed out I was at the beginning of a story of indeterminate length and one whose contours are already so dizzying that it was easy to sit back and enjoy the visual spectacle and the play of images on the page. In the case of Clyde Fans, however, we are now in part four of a story that has been spread across so many years—and interrupted by several book-length projects Seth has produced in recent years, including Wimbledon Green and George Sprott. And where X’ed Out already has us spinning from the post-punk Pacific Northwest to a post-apocalyptic wasteland and back again, Clyde Fans is thoroughly bound up in the most quotidian of worlds, detailing the epic story of the collapse of a fan company unable to adapt to the coming of airconditioning and the tragic life of a collector of novelty postcards.

And yet for all the profound differences between these stories and their narrative and visual style, there are similarities. Both Burns and Seth are spending a lot of time in these stories in a world of dreams, hallucinations, and quite-probably-unreliably memories. And both focus our attention on visual patterns and rhythms that emerge and open new portals for those who are accustomed to inhabiting more than one reality, more than one world–whether it is Burns’ Doug or Seth’s Simon. And of course, with their volumes published this month, they also share one more feature in common: they are both now the authors of 20 dollar comic books.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not here to stand on a soapbox and mourn the death of the floppy, the serial comic book, nor do I think there is anything wrong with Burns and Seth publishing 50-odd page and 30-odd page installment of an ongoing serial narrative in hardcovers for a hardcover price. In truth, these two volumes are two of the highlights of my fall and I in no way regret the monies spent. I have read X’ed Out four times already and have no doubt that I will be reading it several times again as successive volumes in the story are released down the road. I have been waiting so long for the next installment of Clyde Fans since Palookaville #19 (well over three years ago) that I half expected to be disappointed: after all, Seth’s work had taken a turn for the lighter side with both Wimbledon Green and George Sprott such that it was getting hard for me to imagine a return to the grim meditation on progress, business, collecting and family that was Clyde Fans. But here Seth turns back to Abraham Matchcard, brother to Simon and the one who ended up having to shoulder the business that was dumped in the siblings’ laps when the founding father absconded. The year is now 1975, and longtime readers know that the business is close to is final chapter; and indeed we watch as Abraham signs the paperwork to effectively shut down the manufacturing arm of the business once and for all, a move to which he was driven (or at least so he comforts himself) by the workers striking outside.

No, I have no regrets. But I do have fears for the future of works like these. I have been following Burns and Seth for going on twenty years now, reading their work serially in floppies and revisiting them in trade volumes often many years later. I will be there to plunk down my Jeffersons for whatever they produce for the foreseeable future. But in moving to this format, are Burns and Seth—and Pantheon and Drawn & Quarterly—confronting and adapting to “a new era” in which, as Seth puts it in the preface to Palookaville #20 the traditional comic book is obsolete or are they cashing out their credit with their middle-aging readers and getting out why the getting is good?

That sounds far more uncharitable than it is. I know all too well how unprofitable the serial comic book is for creators whose work is challenging, irregular, painstaking and often hard to find. The trade paperback is king for the moment and digital formats are waiting in the wings to replace them. But we also know how much creators like Tomine and Shanower have benefitted from the interaction with their readers over the long stretches of time and space required to make their books. Comics are the slowest, least efficient mode of storytelling, and for those determined to tell complex, long narratives seriality is the only respite from what would otherwise be years of silence. But is, as Seth clearly hopes, the “hardcover periodical” the solution to the much-anticipated demise of the alternative comics floppy? With enough devoted readers of a certain age and income, it may well be enough. But I imagine myself two decades, three decades ago walking into a comic book store and seeing Ware’s  Acme Novelty Library or Palookaville or Burns’ just-launched serial sitting in beautiful hardbound volumes and I wonder where the money would have come from to take a chance.

And if I did take the chance, would I have felt my hard-earned money was well-spent if I was just joining Clyde Fans in media res? A man signs away his company, feels sorry for himself, feels the weight of his personal failure, says goodbye to his factory and drives home amidst the angry and worried faces of the strikers who have no idea how poor the hand is they’ve just been dealt in Abraham’s office. Who is Abraham? What is this company? To find out requires digging back in a serial history for lost issues of Palookaville that are not to be found in any comic book shop or even at the D&Q website. True Palookaville #20 offers other bonus features—pages from Seth’s sketchbooks, photographs of his remarkable models of his fictional city, Dominion, and even a short autobiographical story about a visit to a book show which echoes productively with the portrait in Palookaville #13 of Simon Matchcard’s ill-fated attempt to try and remake himself as a salesman for the company. But of course such echoes take us back to 1999, back when a young reader circa 2010 looking for something beyond the mainstream floppies would have never thought to buy a comic that didn’t have X-Men in the title. And would such a reader care about Seth’s meticulous architectural models for an imaginary Canadian town or about his sketches? This is the stuff for the frontmatter of career-spanning reprint editions such as those Seth has been designing for Peanuts, not for a glorified 20 dollar comic book.

OK. Maybe I am being as uncharitable as I sound after all, but only because I love this work so much. I want my students, my kids to seek this stuff out and find it on their own–and they won’t. How do you convince a 20-year old that 30 pages of Seth is worth six or more volumes of whatever superhero-goes-rogue-and-fights-zombies title is glistening on the wall racks, especially when you have to also say that to understand it you need to be prepared to pay a premium for out of print issues, a hardcover volume collecting parts 1 and 2, and then, after perhaps a 1-3 year wait, two more 20 dollar volumes still to come? I can’t even imaging trying, to be honest, because if I’m wrong about the reader I’m trying to convince, the poor twenty-something is out well over a hundred bucks for a story about a Canadian fan company that shut down once and for all in the early 1980s.

In truth, I feel a bit like I’m watching Clyde Fans itself with some of the business decisions comic companies have been making of late–companies increasingly trading on nostalgia, on loyalty, on fellow-feeling in the hopes of keeping the doors open just one more year. This work deserves  the kind of audience that is being shut out with this new “hardcover periodical” model. The solution to the death of the floppy alternative comic book can’t be the rise of the hard cover serial—of essentially turning comic books into volumes of the old American Heritage or Time-Life volumes that lined, unread, my childhood bookshelves. If it is, we would do well to follow Abraham’s example.

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  1. patford says:

    It looks like there is a very real chance of the current comic book marketplace orientated around traditional monthly mainstream comic books will collapse.
    My feeling is it will be the majority of comic book shops which will go first.
    Things like Archie comics, will still be around in drug stores, but I’m not sure what DC and Marvel will do if large numbers of small shops begin closing down.
    I honestly think Fantagraphics, and Drawn & Quarterly can be as successful as Pantheon, and Abrams Comic Arts, without comic book shops.
    I also think more and more people will take advantage of ordering books at an online discount.

  2. Michael Grabowski says:

    The irony is that these are only $20 serial comics if you buy them at a comics shop or independent bookseller. You can get both of these at the same time from Amazon for $26, and it wouldn’t take too much work to parley some Borders or B&N discounts into a $12 retail price for either one of these if your local branch has it in stock.
    Still, I agree with the thought that this is analogous to the $3.99 pricing on recent Marvel & DC comics in that it’s not doing the comics retailer market any favors. Unfortunately, they’re also probably hurting what’s left of the independent bookstore market as well that might otherwise be a great source of readers and buyers. At full SRP, both books are out of my price range for the level of pay-off I expect from either of them. I probably will pick up Palookaville at an Amazon-like discount, but not immediately, and for X’ed Out I’ll probably “wait for the trade.”

    These are surely nice looking books, on a par with the recent & comparable ACME volumes but there’s only so many fancy expensive Giant Size Continuing Comics that I can afford, and I imagine there’s a low limit to what the market can support too.

  3. angus77 says:

    I don’t think any of this applies to X’ed Out. There’s a Burns interview somewhere where he says X’ed out will be published as a two-part Tintin-style book. Meaning that the volume out now is already in its final form, and not just the first installment of a serialization that will eventually be collected.

  4. Jason Overby says:

    I rarely buy comics anymore. I haven’t bothered picking up Palookaville in many years, but I love this “issue.” It’s one of the only comics outside of small press stuff that I’ve been excited about in a while. It’s a great single creator anthology, running the gamut from the Clyde Fans serial to the rough, sketchbook autobio stuff with tons of formal exploration throughout. It’s like a deluxe old-school Eightball. What I miss about 90s alternative comics is something this (and, incidentally, Crickets) has in spades – the creator as narrator of his own creative output. That era’s Eightball, Dirty Plotte, Yummy Fur, et. al. weren’t just containers for single stories destined for graphic-novel-dom, they were snapshots of where their respective cartoonists were at the time, showcases for all their disparate cartoonic pursuits. Similar to King Cat, you got a sense of the artist’s movement through time. The periodical, time-bound nature of those things is what made them “comic books” – not that they were floppy instead of hardcover. So, yeah, it’s great – it seems like Seth had a good time making it.

  5. patford says:

    That’s a good point about the old Eightball, and how Clowes used the format to try many different things.
    Gilbert Hernandez is still doing that; probably more so than any cartoonist I can think of.
    Gilbert is amazing, he just does everything, and he does iot all very well. It’s odd the guy is flat out kicking ass, and you don’t hear much about him anymore.
    Looking back to Weirdo, it was great when Crumb was fooling around with the fumetti strips.

  6. Jason Overby says:

    Love Fear of Comics era Gilbert

  7. patford says:

    Gilbert just does it all. He’s done long and short form.
    He does great surrealism. Even within the surreal he’s explored a lot of ground. He’s done several short surreal stories with Johnny Ryan level violence being inflicted by odd humorous looking characters.
    His recent strip with the “Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis” doppelgangers was remarkable, incredibly imaginative, who else comes up with stuff like that?
    And everything he does no matter if it’s straight up drama, Russ Meyers style fantasy, or porn, has a depth to it that goes way beyond the surface.
    Love and Rockets New Stories #1 was a Gilbert tour de force.
    You know what I want is the Yeah! comic book he did with Bagge collected in a trade, because my 11 year old daughter has read those things ragged.