With Further Ado #025: Who put the words into my comics?

Just a few years after Marvel re-licensed the rights to publish a science fiction property – Star Wars – there’s been another minor hullabaloo about Marvel re-licensing another old property – Conan the Barbarian. I decided to jump into it all and enjoyed the first issue.

I really didn’t care for the new logo, but everything else about Marvel’s new Conan the Barbarian #1 was fine. To be fair, the bar for this comic has been set so high by so many stellar past creators: Thomas, Windsor-Smith, Buscema, Jusko, Waid, Kane, Adams, Truman, Dixon, Alcatena, Nord…the list is long.  In fact, one of my guilty pleasures is picking up old issues of Savage Sword of Conan with stories featuring Rudy Nebres or Alfredo Alcala inks over John Buscema pencils. Those are spectacular.

One very pleasant surprise in the new Conan comic was the prose story excerpt. It’s an adventure called Black Starlight by John C. Hocking, and will be serialized over the next 12 issues. It seems to be part of integrated promotion with publisher Perilous Worlds.

For a bookworm like me, there’s something special about reading prose in a comic.  It extends the experience and allows one to enjoy the comic longer. There’s also that element of it making it seem like a better value. 

New publisher-on-the block AHOY Comics has been adding prose to their comics too.  AHOY has been a ‘surprise’ success and seems to defy the traditional sales trajectory.  Retailers are ordering more copies of later issues than they did of debut issues. They currently publish four ongoing series (The Wrong Earth, High Heaven, Captain Ginger and Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror) and each issue includes one or two very short stories. It’s a like sipping a high-end “after dinner drink” after you’ve enjoyed the main course.

“We don’t usually try to tie our text pieces into the subjects of our comics,” said Tom Peyer, Editor-in-Chief of AHOY Comics.  “We think our readers have wide interests and might like to be surprised by a poem, a story, a humor piece with its own theme. And I’ve never much liked supplementary reading attached to a comic the way it is in, say, Watchmen. It feels too much like homework.”

Other folks offer great prose with their comics. 

*Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips collaborate on series after series for Image (Criminal, The FadeOut, Fatale, Kill or Be Killed and more) and each one is more fun than the last. To promote the purchase of traditional comics, and discourage “trade waiting”, they include short prose pieces in each one. Subjects range from books to TV shows to films. 

*Invisible Republic, by the brilliant collaborators Gabriel Hardman and Corrina Bechko offers thoughtful essays on science fiction-y themes.

*Greg Rucka holds court with one of the most interesting letter columns in each issue of Lazarus, and often provides links for extra reading. It might be too much like homework for Tom Peyer, now that I think about it.

*Bitch Planet’s Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro throws away all the traditional letter column rules and offers sort of a mini-comic-con for several pages every issue.  I always feel like I’m crashing the party but simultaneously being welcomed and encouraged to participate. (That’s not always the reaction I usually get when I crash parties.)

Historically, there was a precedent for text in comics. In the old days, if publishers included at least two pages of text they could quality as a periodical. That enabled them to be mailed in bulk at a second-class rate. I understand that was kind of like the old-fashioned version of today’s media mail.

I’m fascinated by this as I realize we all read differently now. For example: I was recently knocked back on my heels with the flu. It was the first time I was sick for a while. My first reaction was “Oh, I should binge on Netflix Shows, because that’s what everyone does when they are sick.”  For whatever reason, I got sick of watching TV pretty quickly and crawled into reading mode. 

One book handy was a collection of Robert Silverberg shorts called Time and Time Again: Sixteen Stories of Time Travel.  The first story I read, Jennifer’s Lover, was just fantastic. The astounding thing about the story, however, was Silverberg’s intro to the story. He talked about how he was selling a lot of stories to Playboy and Omni. Once they over-inventoried on his stories, he turned to competitive magazine Penthouse to see if they wanted to buy some. The editor said yes and he wrote this story for Penthouse.

From the standpoint of 2019 all I could think was – people really read Penthouse for science fiction short stories? It boggles the mind. That contradicts just about every one of today’s reading norms, doesn’t it?

But prose mixed with comics, or even pornography, seems like it’s always been a thing.

As a marketing guy, I can’t help but think about those old Reese’s Peanut Butter commercials. Two guys, one munching on a chocolate bar and one eating from a peanut butter jar, who bump into one another. “You got peanut butter on my chocolate!”, one snacker indignantly declared.  The other would answer, “Well, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!”  They stopped short of calling each other rotten names and never came to blows, instead they realized that the combination tasted pretty good, 

(Although who really wants a chunk of some stranger’s candy bar in their peanut butter jar?)

I think it’s like that. That’s may be why a little prose in my comics is such a treat.