Is graphic novel still a dirty word?

So I don’t really care, arguing about whether graphic novel is still a novel is pointless mental masturbation. Call it a first world problem. Call it anything but an argument.

If you bemoan the idea of someone trying to dignify a really long comic book with a word like graphic novel it kind of ignores the impact that medium has had.

And that’s really what I enjoy – the medium of comics. I lost my taste for mainstream comics and even many less than mainstream comics a long time ago. But I always appreciate seeing something being done with the medium that in the mainstream that shows appreciation for the craft and medium.

I had a long talk a few nights ago with a friend who used to work in comics retail about how mainstream comics and fans have struggled lately – in my opinion they have always struggled. Struggled to be taken seriously, to be accepted, to reach new readers without losing old ones. It’s a publishing dynamic that hasn’t changed since the first time someone held out a floppy issue and said “Hey, wanna buy this?”

My friend and I then started to argue about something that IS actually important. Knowing your audience is something that is key to making anything get off the ground in business and publishing. I always hate listening to other comics creators muse about making something, then “Not caring about whether or not anyone likes it.”

That’s almost suicidal. You’re going to need to care about how much people like something eventually, because that often determines what you do NEXT. If they hate it, do you quit? If they love it do you make more? Pretty simple right? But so many creators miss a beat – everyone knows what they want to make. What most people miss is whether or not an audience exists for that thing you want to make.

My friend Vince argued that if I was making something, that I could assume there were other people out there like me who would be interested in it. With that, I agree, but what eludes many comics creators is reaching those people in enough numbers to make something financially worthwhile.

A long time ago, I concocted a model of making comics that has near zero costs until they actually get printed. Open source software, no material costs, only the sweat equity and meager cost of (more often than not) someone else’s electrical bill (thank you Starbucks – that’s not a plug, but a fact).

Time, of course, has enormous costs, and approaching convention time I rack up some bills – adding everything to a nice spreadsheet, looking at profits and losses – and weighed against the more intangible and sometimes more important metric of emotional success.

But I always weigh the results of small shows appropriately – when you have a small following you have to weigh things properly. I never took statistics, but I know that to weigh the results of something too heavily can spell really just make you spin your wheels. But at the level of a mainstream title, you can really (as a British friend puts it) “cock” things up.

All that said, I grit my teeth when someone talks about their followers and likes – especially when I see that they don’t have particularly large numbers. That constant social media drug that creators listen and get lost in is too often am irrelevant blip that creators mistake for the arrow on a map.

The only thing that moves me to action when the sample is so small is unanimity – to total lack of deviation, the uniformity of the signal. I’ve only seen that once in any of my work and to my regret it was for something I did not own. A piece of fan art, which I will not link to, has become the most popular thing I have ever created.

A lot of people would say I should chase that IP theft train, because why not? Everyone else is doing it – it gets you noticed and blah blah blah. I can’t help but feel it’s a dishonest way to make things – and while some companies consider it flattery until the courtship (translation: do fan art until you get noticed), I want to spend my time making MY work. I don’t care about making Disney shareholders richer.

I have made fan art mostly as an exercise in media studies – I have sold some of it. Enough to keep my website fees paid for a few months here and there, but I table at conventions where people who have never worked for a mainstream publisher in any capacity sell nothing but other people’s intellectual property.

I had a nickname for it – Popularity piggyback, but that’s too un-meme worthy for the general public these days. And even as legal counsel for Deviantart once pointed out, even if you did a mash up or self styled version of a property, the phrasing of copyright’s gives the original owners a wide range of tools to come after that work. Mash ups – another word for “expose me to more than one lawsuit.”

And yeah, go ahead and lecture me about fair use. When you’re broke all the time, doing mostly but fan art, aren’t very talented to begin with, yes – of course you’ll make a fair use argument. I’ll give you a more accurate term – small use. As in your work is too insignificant to merit the attention of an intellectual property holder.

Before I descend into nothing but ranting – too late – when I DO go to shows where this stuff happens (i.e. ALL of them), well, I just kind of shake my head. People make a lot of money at shows doing their IP dance, I make enough to get through the show with my own work.

So, I just keep working. On my graphic novel.

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