Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Anthology Dilemma

Anthologies were once a staple of the comic book world, but are now mostly extinct or dying a slow painful death. How did this once powerful tool in comic publishing go the way of the dodo, and, more importantly, why? Both Marvel and DC have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to bring them back, but should they keep trying? What about for smaller publishing companies? And in the international market? Hit the jump for a closer look at the purpose of anthologies of the past, present, and future.

What Is An Anthology?

Simply put, an anthology is a collection of stories.  In relation to comic books, it refers to ongoing titles that have a rotating or partially rotating cast that each star in their own story. This is not to be confused with a team up book, which usually follows the story of a certain character (such as Batman or Spider-Man) on their adventures as they team up with a different character each issue. Examples of anthology comic books would be titles like Strange Adventures, Marvel Fanfare, or Dark Horse Presents.

One of the most common types of anthologies are titles where different characters get whole spotlight issues dedicated to them while the next issue features a completely different character. If the character proves to be popular, it may come back for additional showings, or even get it's own title (as it happened to a certain character called Spider-Man in the anthology title Amazing Fantasy, maybe you've heard of him?). The other type of anthology is made up of several short stories that may or may not continue in the next issue, or a combination thereof. For example in the first issue of Anthology Comics, character A, B, and C get a short story, in the second issue of Anthology Comics, the story of character B and C continues, but character A has been replace by character D.

What Is The Purpose Of An Anthology?

The purpose of most anthologies is simple: to showcase and present new things, whether it be talent or characters, to new readers.

I don't know if you noticed, but the examples I listed above are all pretty old, at least 20 or more years old. Back in the yesteryear of comic book publishing companies, there was only a limited amount of books they could publish, usually for economic reasons. Even at their height before the comic boom of the 90's) Marvel and DC only published a dozen or so ongoing titles, while smaller companies were lucky to have one or two titles (often, the flagship title would be an anthology title, as it was the case with Dark Horse). Instead of creating new titles for new or smaller characters, they would be showcased in anthologies.

The same basic principle holds for creators new to the world of comics. No publishing company was going to give an untested creator an ongoing series without seeing how he or she would work first. Giving them short stories in anthologies titles was the perfect way to let them spread their wings for the first time. Once they had learned to fly, they could move on to bigger and better things. It is interesting to note that despite the fall in popularity of anthologies (I'm getting there, don't worry), they are still used in the same way they were years ago.

This worked for fans too, who wanted to see the characters get the spotlight or witness the birth of new talent right under their eyes. And so, ever since the early days of comics, anthologies thrived for many years.

The Fall Of Anthologies

There's several reasons why anthologies are not as popular as they once were, especially among the big two publishing companies.


First of all, there is the growth of the publishing companies in general. Marvel and DC, as businesses, have grown by leaps and bounds. That means they can run small but risky ventures without suffering a big loss if it doesn't turn out as expected. When they want to test the waters for a new character, instead of publishing an ongoing anthology tale, which requires multiple writers, artists, and editors, they can just release a one-shot or mini-series instead. Additionally, in the collector bubble of the late 80's and early 90's, and still to this very day, a brand new #1 issue sold infinitely more than any anthology issue.

This also keeps fans content, because the smaller characters are still being published, and the companies get to shelve the character after the mini or one-shot is over without fear of it getting stale or launching a doomed ongoing series. It goes along with the direct-market system that we are all accustomed to as well. Instead of trying to cater an anthology to a wider audience (which can lead to mixed results), companies can instead just publish something that will surely be bought by a smaller base of fans.


Secondly, the rise of the Internet means that today's comic book fans have a more in-depth knowledge of just about everything. You can learn all there is to know about a character with a quick click of your mouse, read reviews of issues days before it hits the shops, and see all of a creator's previous work in a matter of seconds. That last item is going to become increasingly more important, as more and more creators upload their material online and develop an established fan base before any of their work is published in a physical format.

In other words, creators now often make a name for themselves before they are hired by companies such as Marvel and DC, and so it is not as big of a deal to showcase them to readers through anthologies because the companies already know that this particular creator already has a built-in fanbase. The rise of webcomics also lets creators develop their skills before they stand in front of a larger audience.

What does that mean? It means that companies no longer need anthologies to showcase their talent, and minor characters no longer appear in anthologies because they get their own limited series or one-shot. All this brings us to the final nail in anthologies' coffin...


The stories within anthologies don't matter to the collector and event driven mentalities. It's a harsh truth, but as long as we are talking about Marvel and DC (and I'll get to the rest in a second), we need to face it. Nothing important is going to happen in an anthology, especially when and if the character has their own ongoing title, because, if it is an important story, it will happen in the ongoing.

I know what you are thinking, "But, Matt, good stories are good stories regardless of where they are published!", and you are absolutely right. Sadly, fans (and I am including myself in this one, because I do it too) want stories that matter, stories that have repercussions and importance, and they are least likely to buy anything they believe will be forgotten and ignored by other people. I'm not even talking about the pitfalls of line-wide continuity here, but more along the lines of whether or not the character that I am interested in will be affected by the story I am reading or if it will be reflected 'in-continuity'. If a story is good, but forgettable, fans will be hesitant to purchase it, because it will not matter in the grand scheme of things.

For example, in the past couple of years Marvel has released two anthology titles that have failed to become commercially successful and were canceled within a year: Marvel Comic Presents (v2) and Astonishing Tales (v2). Both titles had some stories about heavy hitter characters, such as Wolverine, Deadpool, Punisher, Captain America and others, but very few people bought the series. Why? I believe it is for the reasons I have outlined above.

I don't think this is a new development, but just one that became more apparent as the internet and companies grew in popularity. For example, many people know of the Barry Windsor-Smith "Weapon X" storyline that ran through Marvel Comics Presents in the early 90's, which reinvigorated and further explained Wolverine's origin. It is a fondly remembered story by many, but what is often left out the annals of history is what the other stories in the title were. I dug out one of my copies, Marvel Comics Presents #76 to be precise, just to see what else there was in the comic. The other three stories were about Shanna The She-Devil, Death's Head, and Woodgod. All completely forgettable tales, with the Wolverine one being the exception to the rule.

But I think anthologies CAN and DID work, just not for the big two.

The Magazine Model

This model is not exclusive to the European market, as Japan uses similar formats for manga offerings, but I am most familiar with the European method and the magazine format still thrives here today and was and is quite successful.

The big two have tried to publish magazine style anthologies in the past, which would usually feature a mixture of new and reprint material, as well as prose sections. These magazine titles, which thrived in the 70's and 80's, were normally marketed to an older audience and sometimes aimed at the international market. The Marvel UK imprint was one such example, which produced magazines that featured reprints of older and hard to find Marvel Comics, as well as new material by up-and-coming British authors (such as a young Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, among many others).

To this day, there are plenty of European titles that are anthologies, with a revolving door of creators and characters, and they fare much better than the American anthologies. The most well-known example to the American public for this is probably the British weekly title 2000 AD (home of Judge Dredd), which started in 1977 and is still going strong with around 1600's under its belt (take that, Action Comics!). Other popular magazine comics in the UK are The Beano, which has been out (mostly) weekly since 1938 and The Dandy, since 1937, both with more than 3500 issues, although they are aimed at younger readers.

Other countries have different anthology titles with definite staying power, such as El Jueves in Spain (since 1977, more than 1500 weekly issues), and L'Écho des Savanes in France (since 1972, more than 260 monthly issues) among many others. And that is without mentioning older anthology titles such as Le Petit Vingtième, the Belgian comic that gave birth to the popular character, Tintin, or Pilote, the original home of Asterix. The closest thing that the United States has is MAD magazine, but, nowadays, they concentrate more on satire and parodies of pop culture tropes, with very few original comics and even less in terms of ongoing story lines.

Why do anthologies work better in Europe than they do in the United States? Aside from the cultural difference between European and American readers (that's a whole other post to itself) the characters in the anthologies appear ONLY there, giving the titles more resonance and importance. Popular stories and characters usually get their own collection of their formerly serialized tales, much like the trade paperbacks that populate the market.

Of course, this is not the only model used in Europe, and, like I mentioned above, it is also used in the United States, as seen with Dark Horse Presents, which originally had Sin City and Hellboy stories in it before they moved to their own titles. I should also note that in the last couple of years, these comic magazines (just like newspapers) have been struggling to maintain an audience in these harsh economic times,as more readers move towards reading content online (which is usually free).

The Future

Do anthologies still have a place in the future of comics? It's hard to say, to be honest. The rise of digital comics and webcomics means that companies (even the smaller ones) can cheaply and effectively showcase both their talent and their characters to a far wider audience than an anthology comic ever would. The popularity and relatively low price of trade collections sees plenty of people sticking to that format instead, meaning that companies can have the strip online and publish a collection once there is enough quantity to warrant it.

If we are to believe the recent sales in anthologies titles from the big two, less and less people buy them every day (even Wednesday Comics, with all it's star power and publicity push, did not sell as many units as people expected). From smaller companies, it's even harder to gauge because there is not that many of them that make it into the Diamond sales chart (since it only includes the top 300 titles), and I have yet to see the numbers that European anthology titles move. As I mentioned above, I don't think either Marvel or DC need to publish anthologies anymore, outside of vanity or experimental projects like Wednesday Comics or the latest volume of Strange Tales.  In fact, Marvel and DC typically only roll out anthologies in order to gauge interest in older characters or to refresh copyrights/trademarks on older titles, which usually corresponds with these relaunches of older anthologies.

What do you think? Are anthologies an important tradition that should be upheld, or is it time to put them to rest? Do you buy anthology books?  What was your favourite anthology?  Do characters or creators attract you to an anthology title?  Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

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brandon said...

This is a great article.

I wouldnt continue anthologies simply because of the tradition aspect. I found them to be useless because of their inconsistency. Nowadays, when published, they get a higher cover price, which isn't the way to go. Odd stories, with new creators, that may or may not be in continuity at a higher price point is a waste of time.

Personally, I would like to see the variety of stories as seen an 80 page giant or something like Spider-Man #600. Where you get a lot of original material for $5. It could be character specific but doesnt have to be.

This format probably doesnt need to be monthly either.

But the scattershot, $4 approach of Marvel Comics Presents from a year or two ago was a complete waste of time.

These types of books could also house characters currently not in the spotlight (or that had series cancelled).

smkedtky said...

Anthology books can't survive in the current collector's market without:

1) (AND MOST IMPORTANTLY...)Printing stories relevant to current continuity - The original MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS, featured stories that had impact on the characters and the Marvel U as a whole. The main feature, originally starring Wolverine was mired in current continuity. Examples include the WEAPON X story you mentioned, the introduction of Madripoor in its premiere story which was basically WOLVERINE #0...written by Claremont, the introduction of Cyber, Banshee getting his powers back in a CYCLOPS story drawn by Ron Lim and others). Even the backup stories were relevant including a, something like, 25 part BLACK PANTHER story which had him searching for his mother. My deciding factor in dropping WEDNESDAY COMICS was that after all was said and done, the stories had no real impact on the characters that I read about every month.

2) Printing original content. Where the current version of MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS failed to be relevant, ASTONISHING TALES was all material reprinted from Marvel's web comics. Unfortunately, the original material produced for Marvel's web comics has been poorer quality than I am prepared to spend money on.

3) A Lower price point. Again, something like WEDNESDAY COMICS though pretty to look at was way too expensive for something that had no impact on the DC Universe. Marvel's ASTONISHING TALES wanted $3.99 for material that was available on-line. Even the new MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS was $3.99 with very little to grab my attention past a bad ALPHA FLIGHT/OMEGA FLIGHT spin-off that has already been ignored. Plus, even with one good story/character in an issue, the average reader is still paying $3.99 to read basically 8 pages of story. The whole thing would have to be outstanding to last in an ongoing format.

In today's market, all three of those points would need to be acknowledged in order for an ongoing anthology to be successful. Even then, it probably wouldn't be a success unless it stars Wolverine or Deadpool. Comics are too expensive to waste $3-4 on what amounts to experimental content.

Zdenko said...

I've never liked anthologyes.

In ex-Yugoslavia there was the magazine Stripoteka, which published many, many, many comics, for example; Conan, Thor, Blueberry, Jogurta, The Warriors of Akbar, Torpedo, Corto Maltese, Lucky Luke, Asterix, Gaston, Umpah-Pah, XIII, Thorgal, Alex Moonshine, Abraham Stone, Jeremiah, pretty much everything by Goschinny & Uderzo, Alfonso Font, Hermann... I must've forgotten at least a 100 or more comic-books...It's a monthly title, and it's around issue 1050 today, I believe.

Anyway, in the 70es, 80es and so, they usually published two or three stories in various parts, but today they publish one full story and a back-up one. I think people don't like the basics of a anthology title, anymore, I've personally never warmed up to reading 10 or more issues of Stripoteka just so I would find out how one story ends and for the other 2 or 3 ones I just didn't care. Let anthologyes rest in peace, as far as I'm concerned.

Flip The Page said...

i like anthologies a helluva lot (amadeus cho and blackjack were both thrown into the world of marvel in anthologies, though the latter has only appeared since in mighty avengers) and would love to see the return of an anthology that introduced various new characters in short bursts... but then I'm a very alternative person and represent a teensy minority so... not gonna happen

Klep said...

I think Marvel is very unlikely to ever offer new anthologies in the future thanks to the digital comics program. They've already used it to produce a number of short-story style comics (War of Kings: Warriors being the most notable), and there is nothing stopping them from using the same forum to fill the same purposes anthologies once filled. Publishing a short story on the digital comics program provides relatively little risk compared to an anthology, but all of the same benefits as the subscribers can provide a sufficient test bed to evaluate how well a character or creator is doing and whether Marvel should invest more in them.

Space Jawa said...

While I did enjoy the recent Marvel Presents series, and was disappointed when it was cancelled, I haven't been able to get interested in the Strange Tales series. I think it's just a little too strange in the wrong direction for my tastes (it doesn't help that I'm not a fan of its art style).

As for MP, I initially jumped in for interest in the one-part Multiverse Spider-Man story, but I think the best thing to come out of it was the Hellcat story and the Snowball effect mini that followed.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

It's all about price, really. Paying money for something that has some content that you don't want to read. It's a shame, because a good anthology can showcase different genres and characters and artists, but most people are pigeon holed in what they like; only spandex fights, only sci-fi, only Bendis. I bought all of Wednesday Comics, and am into Strange Tales and I love them both because I appreciate the change in tone of my reading experience. I like to be thrown around a little bit, have something new in front of me. I also don't mind paying for the experience, it beats buying some other titles out of habit.

Overall, anthologies won't ever come back as strong, people's tastes are too specific per individual now, but they'll pop up every now and then, we just can't expect them to top the best seller list, be happy that they are there and that they stay.

Marc said...

I like anthologies, personally. I really enjoyed the latest version of Marvel Comics Presents, especially the Hellcat stories, and was sad to see it go.

It seems the anthology tradition does live on, though, with DC's newly reintroduced co-features and books like Spider-Man Family. I think Spider-Man Family actually does a pretty good job of presenting the kind of story-telling variety that we used to get from books like Marvel Comics Presents and Marvel Fanfare, even if all of its stories are centered on a single character.

David Not David said...

I like anthologies. I picked up Wednesday Comics, loved Gemstone's Walt Disney Comics and Stories and find Strange Tales the best book on the stands right now.

I know these articles are very American Comics oriented but I do feel that Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat should be mentioned. Sure they're manga but they are in bookstores everywhere and many grocery stores. They work the anthology format perfectly, hundreds of pages on cheap paper for $5 or $6 - great deal! I followed Shonen for quite a while and really enjoyed it only leaving when Hikaru No Go left its pages. I'd love to see Marvel or DC manage to do something similar. Personally I feel it could be a good seller if handled correctly.

Kirk Warren said...

Matt mentions the manga format briefly in the 'magazine model' section. It's very similar to the European model,w hich is where Matt is from, so would be mostly repeating the same information with Japanese magazine names. Personally, I buy the tankoubon versions (little trades), so don't have much experience with the Jumps either, but know how successful they are in Japan. Wasn't sure how well they faired in North America, so didn't make any suggestions for it to Matt in that regard.

Regarding Wednesday Comics and Strange Tales

I don't know if I consider these true Anthologies in the sense of a Marvel Comics Presents or what have you. They seem more like creator showcases than character/story focused. Don't get me wrong, I love me my Strange Tales, but there's no monthly narrative or continuations (outside that one Hulk comic). It's just 'here's a bunch of indie creators doing crazy, offbeat stuff youve never seen before' instead of 'heres some characters in different adventures' that the typical anthology employs.

Sadly this creator driven approach did nothing for the sales of Wednesday Comics (mid-60s range on Diamond charts, though DC claims that was above expectations), meaning people just don't like anthologies, even with all star creative teams.

Doomvox said...

I actually haven't bought an antholgy because I've not had money I'm willing to spend on them. They intrigue me, but money's a bit tight and something's gotta give.

That being said I DO think they can work in todays market. The Wednesday Comics approach could really take off, I think. Get well known creators and well known characters and tell out-of-continuity stories. The kind of cheesy, over the top stuff that is a throwback to golden and silver age stories.

I will recommend an anthology called "Unleashed" produced by Chalkline Studios, though. I know one of the creators and he does fantastic work. Unknown characters and creators from an unknown studio. Never know what you might find!

smkedtky said...

Ironically, I picked up WEB OF SPIDER-MAN yesterday which, despite being Spider-Family centric was definitely an anthology. Too bad it wasn't the greatest example of one.

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