I spent some time today reading through one of my all time favourite comics, St Swithin's Day by Grant Morrison and Paul Grist. It's an odd comic, one that I love but can't quite put my finger on why. That's not important for my purposes, however. What's important is that it was originally printed in four parts in the UK comic Trident and reprinted as a one shot by Oni Press in 1998. That was the last time that this comic saw print, and thinking about you can see why. It's not that it's bad, or that there's not a market for it, it's simply that it's too short to be continually reprinted. Like most one-shot comics, it won't get a reprint unless it's part of a themed volume.
This seems to be the problem in the modern industry. Everything is geared towards collection, so projects tend to be at least three issues long or linked, like Warren Ellis' Apparat line so that the shelf life can be extended. Even at the big companies one-shot comics are thematically linked to the big events or another storyline so that can be used as much as possible. The art of the genuine one-shot comic, produced simply because it's a good comic seem to be long gone. There is a big 'but' coming, and it involves me beating one of my favourite drums, digital comics. Digitally Distributed Comics. Comics that no longer have shelf lives. The old problems of taking up valuable shelf space if it doesn't sell and the issue of print runs have no meaning in this new world. Digital shelves are infinitely long, and printers have gone the way of the steam engine. A comic like St Swithin's Day could live forever in this brave new world.
Digital retailers don't have to worry about backlogs of stock. They don't have to order huge numbers on the off chance that it might be the Next Big Thing. They can simply keep in the store and wait to see what happens. Along with the infinite shelf space, DDC can have infinite shelf lives. This opens up a whole world of possibilities. From a small press point of view, it's viable to make money from one-shots and to keep them in print, which has always been the tricky part. If a creator makes it big, all of their works will be available in digital form, easily searchable and readily available. Comics fans love nothing better than finding new creators then finding everything that they've ever done. This will make life easier for those obsessive fans, and help to keep the creators making money rather than the secondary market.
There's an implication for the Big 2 as well. Both Marvel and DC have huge libraries of characters, many of which are going unused. A digital one shot would be a simple and effective way of reintroducing characters and concepts to to readers. The risk of commissioning an entire limited-series or even on going series can be mitigated drastically. Put out a short introduction to the character as a DDC. See what the reaction is. If it's positive, maybe try something longer. If it's not, there's been less of a loss than there would have been in print form, and it will stay in print. Maybe, somewhere down the line, the character or creative team will gain a spike in popularity. Well look here, here's a comic that we made earlier, readily available...
I realise that all of this runs as almost counter intuitive to the last decade of comics. Comics aren't short any more. They're composed of long story lines that are, as I've already pointed out, designed for collection. Collecting comics for the book shop market was a great move for the comics industry, but it has led to problems. Stories can often seemed stretched to fit the page count, and short stories have to be worked around the longer ones, often in story-arcs comprised of individual stories. This has been a great model for the past decade, and it's worked well. Things are changing though. Digital content is taking off in a big way, and that brings new possibilities with it.
Comics can now be about telling a good story, now matter how long it is. The market has already moved away from comics being throwaway items that only collectors had access to, and is ready to make the next great leap. Comics can now be available to anyone who wants them, at any time they want simply by clicking a button. There will no longer be an excuse for allowing short works to go out of print, or for not taking a risk on them in case they flop. The short term outlook that has held back the creation of short gems like St Swithin's Day over the past decade will soon be replaced by the creation of a long term market. Just as MP3s have made available entire back catalogues by musicians, B Sides included, comics will soon have an availability unparalleled in the history of the medium.
Comics can now go back to being produced simply because they're good, not to feed a production and business model. Whether this will lead to better comics is anyone's guess, but it will at least make comics more interesting. Comics for comics sake, that no longer have to worry about going about of print. Now that could make for an interesting change in the market.
Lawrence Rider is a contributing writer at Champion City Comics and is currently developing a steampunk story titled Gaslight.