Thursday, October 2, 2008

Where to go after Watchmen?

This is perhaps the most important question facing comic retailers now (besides, you know, "will there be an economy tomorrow?"). Anyone in the business can tell you that since the release of Dark Knight sales on this classic Alan Moore graphic novel have gone fucking crazy. This article says it all: Watchmen sold nine times more copies in the month after Dark Knight debuted than they did in all of 2007. Holy shit, that's amazing (further amazingness: someone who comments on that article does the math to figure that roughly 3% of the people who saw Dark Knight went out and bought a copy. All things considered, that's pretty phenomenal).

I personally have sold probably about 10 copies of the book to friends since that trailer came out (and PS: thanks, guys, for making me your comic hook up!). The best example of this I can think of is at my buddy Kevin's wedding, two weeks after the launch of Dark Knight, where no less than three people told me within the span of an hour that, based on the trailer, they wanted to pick up the book from me (great wedding, Kevin & Amanda... love you guys!).

So here we are a few months later, and my friends have finished the book, to positive reviews (it is rare, I've found, to meet someone who doesn't like Watchmen.) And now several of them are saying this: "I would really like to get into more comics. What do you recommend?"

Of course this is awesome to hear, but it is also a dangerous precipice. I feel like Watchmen, for the past two months, has been acting as comic-land's ambassador to the normal world, touching the hearts and brains of people who either had no opinion about the medium due to lack of exposure, or who simply thought that comics were ZIP! BANG! POW! just like Adam West's Batman. And now, it is so, so important that we don't shuffle these potential converts off on the latest issue of, say, Trinity or Wolverine Origins (not that there is anything inherently wrong with these books... but we must aim higher).

No, this takes a lot of thought. To answer the question of where to go next, I took a look at our store's graphic novel rack (aiming to stock the essentials and partially succeeding!) and I thought, "what would someone who enjoys the emotional and intellectual depth of Watchmen really be impressed by?" Because the thing is, and I almost hate to say it, comics hardly get better than Watchmen. It has its peers, but I'm not really sure that anything in the medium tops it. But you can't use that mindset to tell people who read it "sorry, there's no other comics worth reading," because it's not good sense from a business or an artistic standpoint (and it's totally false!). Instead, you have to try to find something that will be just as engaging and interesting as Watchmen to a non-comics reader. So it is that I came up with three answers, all famous runs of comics now collected in trade paperbacks:

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. This has the immediate benefit of being by Watchmen's author. I think people who've read that big yellow smiley-faced book will come at this series with a positive bias, which may have already gotten them over the biggest hump that prevents people from reading it (which, in my experience, is that it's ostensibly a whole comic series about a swamp monster... for some reason, some find this unappealing). It's full of that character depth that Watchmen packs in, and I feel like it kind of does to the tropes of horror what Watchmen does to those of superheroes... it makes them serious, gives them weight and gravitas. Few are the people I find who end up disliking Swamp Thing once they've checked it out, but, as I said, for me it's sometimes been a challenge to convince people to read it at all.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman. This one is kind of obvious... it's probably the most welcome comic in literary discussion (except perhaps Maus), but it's obviousness shouldn't hurt its contention here, in my opinion. Sandman was the first of the "serious" graphic novels I ever read (followed by Swamp Thing, and then a whole world of wonderful populated by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Art Spiegelman, Mike Carey and more), and it's hard to deny that it's a wonderful read. The scope of the story may be a little daunting for a recently Watchmenized reader to want to commit to (10 books, some quite lenghty), but I think it's a series that someone sympathetic to the medium will not want to stop reading once they start. Sandman also has the excellent ability to be a gateway to even more comics, most notably Lucifer, which I believe only me and a few friends consider worthy of being in the same pantheon, but whatever.

Brian K Vaughn's Y the Last Man. Until Dark Knight, I would have considered this to be the best way to sway people over to reading comics. I saw it work myself at a Thanksgiving party I had a few years ago... the first few volumes of this swept around my living room on the recommendation of a friend, and I'm pretty sure no fewer than five or six people started reading the excellent story of Yorick Brown that night... a few were compelled to keep going after the party! I think there's something about the way this book is set up that is just so gripping... the plot just grabs you and doesn't want to let go. Brian K Vaughn is a master of pacing, something that has served him well in netting a sweet TV writing gig or two... and I'd go so far as to say that pretty much anything of his (except maybe his super-early Marvel and DC work) is incredibly new-reader friendly, but Y: The Last Man has got to be the king of that. It also has the benefit of having no elements of traditional superheroics or fantasy (well, maybe just a little fantasy), in case these new readers are still a little wary of capes in their literature.

There are tons of great comics series out there... I myself had quite a few "honorable mentions" that in the end I just didn't feel would make as strong a choice as the ones above, but some of those are Runaways, Walking Dead, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Animal Man. Does anyone else have input they want to share here?

Bear in mind, the ultimate goal (for me) is readership retention. And it's not just motivated by business (of course that helps)... no, my main driving force is really artistically based. I truly believe that there is a humongous world of fantastic literature out there that people have ignored for decades because of the stigma of "picture-books"... and thanks to Dark Knight and Watchmen and maybe series like I named above, we are at a point where we can change that.

How's that for good news?


Anonymous said...

What about a little known graphic novel that deals with an issue that is socially relevant even now... THE MARCH: CROSSING BRIDGES IN AMERICA !!!!

Eric Garneau said...

Dude, clearly The March comes once they're in waters too deep to wade out. You don't give them the holy grail til they've worked for it, right? :)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you mentioned Y: the last man, I think thats an excellent story and very accessible for those who don't usually read comics. I might also mention some graphic novels that have well known characters but isn't to heavy a read like Batman: Year One or Kingdom Come.

Eric Garneau said...

Hey, thanks for the comment; good call about Batman especially... after people getting their appetites whetted for comics from Dark Knight, it does make sense that they may be sympathetic to some Batman stories. I can definitely attest to the fact that Batman trades have sold very well (probably second to Watchmen, in fact) since the latest movie, and I myself recommend that people in the Bat-boat look at Year One, the Killing Joke or Long Halloween if they enjoyed the movies (even though I LOVE Grant Morrison, I tend not to recommend Arkham Asylum to new folks... it's kind of... imposing?)

Kingdom Come is also a great read... however I'm not sure if I would pass that off to someone totally unfamiliar with the medium because outside of Superman there is quite a bit of stuff to know about the DCU in that book (most notably the Spectre and Billy Batson/Shazam) but I think that some Superman books may be good, too, as he is almost as recognizable as the Bat... stuff in that department could be Red Son (our best-selling Superman book BY FAR) or Superman For All Seasons.

Matt Heckler said...

I think my favorite of your three choices has to be "Y: The Last Man." I enjoy the other two quite a bit (what I have read of them, anyway), but feel like "Y" is easily the most accessible of those. Its pretty light but still interesting and fun. And I don't think I've read anything that has better cliff hangers.

As far as giving them other things to choose from that would keep them around for a while, I have to say that its important to stay away from anything incredibly heavy, dense, or political (funny coming from me). Something that pops to mind is the first TPB of Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men." It's pretty recent, it's engaging, hella funny, and one of the better X-Men stories.. well, ever. Perhaps since Claremont's original run (though you can argue for Morrison's X-Men).

Eric Garneau said...

Thanks for the comment, Matt! I totally agree we want to avoid anything dense (so anything with "Crisis" in the title... except maybe preceded by the word "Identity"... no thanks), and Whedon's X-Men is an awesome choice to catch new readers, ESPECIALLY those familiar with the Buffy TV show. It's generally low on continuity, high on action, and, like you said, "hella funny."

That said, I DO think the Claremont/Byrne run on X-Men is THE definitive X-reading... but I think the language, concepts and continuity in those old books would not be a great introduction to the medium (it might, perhaps, bring a lapsed reader back to the fold via nostalgia, though). And I really like Morrison's X-Men, but I wouldn't hand it out to anyone as their first comic unless the new reader in question happened to be a hipster... I have thought long and hard about trying to sell "Riot at Xavier's" to all my indie friends who are otherwise too cool for comics.