BOOKS: John Reviews “Comic Books: How the Industry Works” by Shirrel Rhoades

While the rest of the world may wrinkle its nose at the very mention of comic books, calling them “infantile” or “low-brow” or things too offensive to repeat, those who embrace the medium know that this signature brand of sequential art storytelling offers a type of entertainment that simply cannot be found anywhere else (even in other sequential art media such as movies and animation.)  Yet, at the end of the day, a comic is a consumer product like any other.  It is this examination of the blurred line between business and art that makes Shirrel Rhoades’s latest tome, Comic Books: How the Industry Works so incredibly fascinating.  (Then again, I have worked in the comics industry and have experienced much of what Rhoades writes about firsthand, which might make it a bit more interesting for me than for the average reader. )  Acting as a textbook of sorts, Comic Books covers anything and everything that has to do with comic books from multiple perspectives.

As a former publisher of Marvel Comics who has dabbled in academia, magazine publishing and movie production, Rhoades is able to approach the subject of comics from several different perspectives.  He offers a history not only of the medium itself (all the while making reference to Scott McCloud’s similar work in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art)  but of the industries that feed into and out of comics as well.  He explains the nuts and bolts of the comics industry and its connections to the industries related to it, from book publishing to newsstand distribution to motion pictures to licensing consumer products.  He explores the “Manga invasion” and the advent of digital distribution, as well as Hollywood’s mad rush to capitalize on all things comic-related.  Most importantly, though, he breaks down the job environment in the comics industry and spells out exactly what readers should do if they wish to make a career out of their passion.

There is no question that Comic Books: How the Industry Works is a textbook (why else would it be priced at $99.95 for the hardcover?)  yet it is written in a highly relatable, conversational style that would feel right at home in a column on ComicBookResources or Newsarama.  The traditional textbook presentation of factual information is frequently livened by notes in the margins, which either provide relevant popular culture information or amusing anecdotes from Rhoades’s days at Marvel.  Some of these anecdotes are incredibly valuable, providing insight not only into the day-to-day world of comics production but into the personalities of the movers and shakers who make the industry run.  Rhoades includes scores of quotes and interviews from all the biggest names in the industry, from DC’s Paul Levitz and Marvel’s Joe Quesada to multimedia legend Stan Lee and business mogul Avi Arad.  Tons of lesser-known (yet just as important) industry experts share their advice as well, and sometimes the most insightful information comes from these fame-dodging, hard-working individuals.  If you plan to interview for a job with one of the major industry powerhouses, this book may provide an excellent primer for you.  Heck, you might even be interviewing with someone who was quoted!

Rhoades manages to cover the entire creative process, from editorial and creative (managing, writing and drawing) to the pre-press “bullpen” (where teams finish and clean up artwork) to manufacturing and printing, to distribution, to retailing, to (finally) buying the finished product.  He analyzes the differences between the different markets, and explains the relative merits of selling comics through newsstands versus comic shops versus bookstores (and even direct to the Web.)  Diamond Comics Distributors, one of the biggest powerhouses of the industry that is still below most customers’ radar, is explained and discussed in detail here.  His advice extends to both aspiring writers/artists and aspiring entrepreneurs, and he provides valuable insight on the advantages and disadvantages of opening a comic shop.  References to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and his pearls of wisdom are copious, as well they should be.

Sadly, even for a book released in 2008 Comic Books is already showing its age.  Mentions are made of DC and Marvel’s film successes and failures, but almost no attention is paid to the (at time of publication still upcoming) Iron Man and there was no mention at all of The Dark Knight or Watchmen. Several of the companies and lines mentioned as being highly successful or up-and-coming (Tokyopop, DC’s MiNX) have suffered serious setbacks and have either shut down entirely or drastically reduced their output.  It is a testament to the lightning-fast pace of the industry that even if the book were to be released now, it would be obsolete in several months’ time.  The comic book industry is in a period of flux and upheval, and who knows what will happen over the next few years as technology makes print media increasingly more obsolete.  Yet the lessons remain invaluable, as history lessons often do.  His discussion of work-for-hire assignments versus creator-owned assignments is oddly prophetic, actually, given that it predates Image Comics partner Robert Kirkman’s now-infamous videoblog manifesto on the subject.

Put simply, this book broadly explains in just over 300 pages what thousands of articles in Publishers’ Weekly, Wizard Magazine, Comic Book Resources, ICv2, Newsarama and a host of other comic-related media all examine constantly with microscopic precision.  It’s not a complete replacement for everything you would learn if you spent years obsessively following every bit of industry or insider information to make its way to the Web, but it provides a solid foundation of knowledge about the industry as a whole.  More than that, it serves to inform those who would only pay attention to one aspect (e.g., “How can I get Marvel to offer me an exclusive contract?”) of a much wider scope of information, which will better prepare them for work in any given aspect of the business.  After all, someone who knows how every department in a company works may have a better chance of getting a job than someone who only knows their own department.

I would recommend Comic Books: How the Industry Works to anyone who reads comics and wants to know more about how (and more importantly, why) they are made.  I would especially recommend it to anyone who is even remotely thinking of pursuing a career in the industry.  Rhoades’s explanations are wonderfully insightful and injected with enough humor and references to real-world events to keep readers interested throughout.  It might make more fiscal sense to pick up the paperback version (only $35 to the hardcover’s nearly $100), and those who are interested in further exploring the history of the comic book as a medium should check out Rhoades’s companion book: A Complete History of American Comic Books. If you’re looking for a comics retailer near you, you can call 1-888-COMIC-BOOK or visit the Comic Shop Locator Service’s website.

In the vein of those big websites (you know the ones,) I’ll include the following list of recommended related titles.  “If you liked this, you might also like …”

A Complete History of American Comic Books, also by Shirrel Rhoades.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Reinventing Comics: how Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form, also by Scott McCloud.

Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner.

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones.

Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society by Danny Fingeroth.

Comic Book Comics, a monthly comic series chronicling the history of the comics medium, written by Fred Van Lente and illustrated by Ryan Dunlavey.  Published by Evil Twin Comics.

Weekly columns by industry veterans Brian Hibbs (“Tilting @ Windmills“), Rich Johnston (“Lying in the Gutters“), Steven Grant (“Permanent Damage“), Joe Quesada (“My Cup O’ Joe“), and DC Comics President Paul Levitz, among many others.

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