Monday, September 17, 2007

The Highwaymen: An Autopsy

Writer Marc Bernardin muses why his Wildstorm series "The Highwaymen" was cancelled.

His possible reasons:

1) Not enough press

2) "...we've been told, in pitching other books, that black characters just don't sell."

Johanna Draper Carlson offers this explanation:

"There is no reason to buy a miniseries any more."

My own take?

Haven't read the series.

But. Here is some anecdotal stuff.

When I was working at DC, we got free comps every week of every book they put out.

The most unwanted comps, outside of Johnny DC (just known as "the kids' books" in those days) and Elfquest, seemed to be the Wildstorm miniseries.

They were just sort of dismissed.

Why? Ostensibly, many of those minis had good creative teams -- and most were in slick, well-colored packages.

But there was very little interest to try these series out.

They weren't even good enough to keep for our own individual swollen collections. THEY WEREN'T DC CANON!

So you would have Wildstorm miniseries comps littering the tops of file cabinets in the halls, tossed in corners, tossed in recycling bins. Even the Gen 13 stuff.

Vertigos that were not "core character" related (Hellblazer, Sandman, etc.), were treated similarly, but still the "Vertigo" brand was sometimes enough to convince one keep the issue -- the brand seemed to promise some sort of intellectual comic book reading experience that if "you liked Preacher & Transmet," you'd like "Outlaw Nation." Like that.

What might have been the problem with "Wildstorm?"


What IS Wildstorm?

A wing of DC?

A publisher of "Old Imagey" type comics like "Gen 13," etc?

The edgy publishers of "The Authority?"

Purveyors of fine Alan Moore products?

A prestige artist's studio?

Vertigo II?

Publisher of licensed product like "World of Warcraft?"

What is Wildstorm?

What does the Wildstorm brand promise me so that I would run into "The Highwaymen" in the store and take a chance on it?

And the whole Wildstorm thing aside --

I don't buy miniseries unless I start with issue #1, because I always figure I can buy the trade.

This goes back to Johanna's point.

Of course, because I wait for the trade and don't buy the issue, the series does poor numbers and is prematurely ended.

So there's a neat little loop.

Anyway, because of Wildstorm ending "The Highwaymen," and Bernardin writing the post, I now have both Bernardin and his book currently on my radar. Which is what happens sometimes. I mean, the book even has its own "Occasional Superheroine" tag.


  1. better late than never...


  2. This is the problem many indies have, too. People see #x of y and they just think, "I'll get the trade."

    That's assuming there will BE a trade.

    So they sell poorly, get canceled, and the trade never happens.

    I understand the desire to wait for the trade. Just remember that it's never a guarantee.

  3. It was Johanna's post about DC's unusual return strategy that prompted me to pick it up in the first place. And I have to say, I liked it a heck of a lot..

    As for waiting for the trade not being a guarantee -- it's not like someone comes around and burns up all the published issues once it's over. If I wait for a mini to be a trade, and that trade is never published, then I either pick it up on ebay (probably for cheap) or I've forgotten about it (which, considering the number of comics I buy, isn't the worst thing that could happen).

  4. Yeah, but Rob - if it never makes it to a trade, it means it's dead. We creators are TRYING to make a living, here. :) YOU can buy it on ebay, but we get left out of business.

  5. I think "canceled" is the wrong word to describe what happened to The Highwaymen. From what I can tell, the first miniseries will be completed, but there won't be a sequel.

  6. I recognize that it's a problem, Larime. But -- and there's no way to say this without sounding harsh -- it's not MY problem.

    I'm in touch with enough of the comics news/ apparatus to have a pretty good sense of what books of the ones I'm interested in are on the edge, and if I get that sense, I'll pick up the singles if its important enough to me that it succeed. (Highwaymen was one of those books.) But I can't do this for every book, or even every book I think I'll like. And I console myself that, even if a book I might have liked gets canceled, that doesn't mean I'll never see it.

    But you're right that people DO see "#X of Y" and decide to wait for the trade. It's a definite problem. Is it even worth it to put things out as singles any more, with the plan of eventually collecting them. Particularly when retailers won't order the singles, and then when the trade comes out, they already have the sales figures of its previous incarnation at hand, and order accordingly? It could be that familiarizing retailers with your work in a context that almost guarantees failure is the wrong way to go about it, and that releasing a full trade to begin with is the way to go.

    One has to weigh the benefits of name recognition and previous word-of-mouth with the merits of something new, fresh and complete (though untried).

    Good luck to you, and whatever you're working on.

  7. Rob,

    I understand, and no, it's not your job or obligation to save a book from extinction. I agree completely. I was just suggesting doing what it seems you already do - help out where you can. Good on you for that.

    As for why these things come out in singles, it's because singles are in some ways considered advertising. Just as many movies nowadays know they won't make a profit at the box office, they know DVD sales will put them firmly in the black. But without a theatrical release, the DVD sales won't be nearly as good.

    Many publishers put out a series (or mini) because each issue gives them a chance to build a buzz and word of mouth grows the readership, and then when (if) the trade hits, it'll sell better. If a title no one has heard of comes out straight-to-trade, so to speak, more stores will pass on it than would pass on the singles. Everything is paid in advance in comic shops, and they'd rather get two singles of NewBook #1 than one trade of NewBook, because it has zero built-in audience. Switching to trade-only might work for already-known titles, but not for unknown titles.

    It's kind of a 'screwed either way' situation.

  8. Creating buzz is certainly a good thing -- but releasing single issues to do so seems prohibitively expensive for the amount of return -- especially since the buzz among retailers could be negative ("It sold 8,000 copies, tops -- why should the trade do any better? I'll order one copy and hope it sells.")

    I've got no solution to this; I'm just spitballing. But it seems like the benefits of buzz don't materialize until a book shows some staying power (such as around issue 8 or 9 of Walking Dead), and miniseries by their nature don't have that month-to-month staying power. In the case of a mini, it may not be worth the expense of publishing singles. It might be better to just finish it, publish it, and move on. But that really depends on the subject matter and the high concept, since with a OGN, you've only got one chance to sell it instead of five or six (diminishing) chances to an audience that might prefer it in another format. Either way is frustrating, but publishing singles really seems like a meat-grinder to me.

    I'm not at all tuned in to web publishing, but I know Order of the Stick has published some nice collections of its online comic (to a different fanbase than most comics, though). Girl Genius and Finder seem also to be doing well, but they already had buzz, so they don't count.

    I agree there has to be some manner of "priming the pump" for readers to purchase an OGN -- there's just too much product competing for fan dollars to do otherwise. But I hope that eventually publishers will be able to get the word out more efficiently, building excitement and interest for a new story through some other mechanism than losing money on a singles release before they can recoup it as a trade.

    It's not a world we live in yet, though.