Are comic book release delays inevitable?
With a steady flow of delay announcements in the industry in recent months, especially from the Big Two, it certainly can feel that way. Over at Marvel, in addition to the frequent problem of the concluding issues of its event series coming out late, several high profile ongoings have experienced delays, some more than once. Titles such as Iron Man, Captain America, Ms. Marvel, Black Panther and Fantastic Four have all fallen victim recently.
Over at DC, a few much-publicized series launches had to be pushed back at least a couple months, including Justice League Odyssey, Batman and the Outsiders and Shazam. The first two were due to editorial issues that mandated scrapping already produced material and starting over, while Shazam has already seen multiple additional issue release delays in its short lifespan. An even bigger problem for DC are delays for its limited and event series. The capper to Dark Nights: Metal was pushed back several weeks and Heroes in Crisis saw one issue be a couple weeks tardy (though quickly got back on track), while the concluding issue of the much-discussed Batman: Damned is facing setbacks that keep piling up.
And then there’s Doomsday Clock. The 12-part series, part Watchmen homage/sequel and part capper to the mega-story begun with Rebirth, has become the poster child for release delays. Launching in November 2017, it was supposed to roll out over the course of 14 months, with two scheduled “skip” months, before concluding in December 2018. But only a couple of issues in, the creative team was already falling behind and DC announced the book would release on a revised bi-monthly schedule. Except that even that proved unworkable. Nine issues have made it out to date, with the tenth notoriously pushed back multiple times. Previously slated to hit stores in March 2019, per the revised bi-monthly release plan, issue #10 is now tentatively penciled in for early July, with the 11th issue (once expected in May 2019), now solicited for the end of August, with the series capper not on the calendar at the moment. DC has announced two collections for the book. Volume 1, covering the first six issues, should hit its October 2019 release date. As for the January 2020 date for Volume 2? That very much depends on issue #12 seeing the light of day before year’s end, a scenario that’s by no means guaranteed.
Release delays seem to be a vicious circle for the industry, especially for the big two. There will be a phase, like now, where delays seem to run rampant, causing unrest for fans and retailers that risks alienating them. So eventually the companies will crack down and commit to getting their books out on time. Often that requires the use of substitute or supplemental creators to produce pages that allow an issue to make deadline. But if that happens often enough, while a book may release on time, fans then grow restless that anticipated creative teams aren’t around for an entire arc. And then publishers over-correct back the other way, starting the whole cycle again.
Ask fans if they’d rather have issues come out late but with the preferred creative team or come out on time, but with additional/different writers and/or artists and you’d probably get a different answer every time. But do delays have to happen at all? Can’t companies remedy the issue?
To an extent they can. Look at Image. After its splashy early ’90s debut, the company became ground zero for egregious release delays, especially outside the books published by the founding partners. Image would strike a deal with whomever the hot talent of the moment was and make a big announcement about their creator-owned project. But as happened frequently, those series were lucky to produce an issue or two before lengthy delays set in. Many never produced more installments.
Whereas Image had previously prided itself on not being like a traditional comic book company, within a decade, the publisher put more structure in place to help mitigate many of the issues that had plagued it. Especially when it came to books not produced by one of the owner/partner studios, Image would expect a certain percentage of a series or arc to be completed before announcing it and soliciting orders.
In part, that desire to announce projects from high profile creators is a big part of the eventual delay problem. Publishers want the headlines that come from trumpeting that a blue chip creative team is doing a project for them, but often those announcements are unworkably premature, as sometimes not a single page has actually been produced. That’s a big risk, especially with creators who are either heavily scheduled or not known for their speed.
Both of those issues seem to be part of DC’s recent problems. Geoff Johns, writer of both Doomsday Clock and Shazam, has a lot of demands on his time, especially given his involvement with various movie and television productions. Both series also feature fan-favorite artists who are particular “go to” collaborators for Johns (Gary Frank for Clock, Dale Eaglesham for Shazam), but who aren’t noted for their speed. For a series like Doomsday Clock, which is packed with characters and also uses a throwback nine-panel grid outline for most of its pages (as part of the Watchmen homage), that can further bog down the process.
The question then is, can DC really find allowing a series to come in nearly a year late to be preferable to tagging in additional help to finish it sooner? After all, Doomsday Clock is expected to have a significant impact on DC’s entire line. The longer the finale is delayed, the further DC has to punt that down the line, affecting any number of other books in the process.
The dirty little secret of the industry these days is that no matter how often senior execs talk about the importance of the monthly periodical business, that segment has become a low priority for most companies. Collected editions have become a bigger driver of profits, especially in the age of multimedia content deals. DC would rather Gary Frank draw the entirety of Doomsday Clock, however long it takes, because they have every reason to expect the collected edition to be a perennial strong seller. The kind of series that remains in print, in one format or another, indefinitely and moves units reliably each year. Whatever short term losses the company may experience from disaffected fans drifting away from the release of individual issues they expect to make up with long-term trade sales. And long-term trade sales benefit from having a single, superstar artist on the book.
Publishers can and should do more to address delays. Whether that’s being realistic about whether star talent can deliver on the schedule they hope or holding back on announcing/soliciting projects until they’re done, or nearly so, or dealing with the disappointment of a certain fan favorite creator not working on the entirety of an arc, there are options. But for series or arcs that a publisher expects to be long-term players in the collected edition arena, don’t be shocked if delays remain an unavoidable part of the industry.