Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart - Part I

My long-running (and seemingly never-ending) rundown of Ait/Planet Lar’s publishing output has motivated me to examine at length the concept of the “New Mainstream” as it applies to comics. Market attrition and the manga invasion have forced a vocal minority of discerning fans, retailers, creators and publishers to the realization that the American comics market has for all intents and purposes abdicated the middle ground of the cultural mainstream, where most every popular genre makes the majority of its money and sells the majority of its product.

I have repeatedly praised Larry Young for his dogged determination in having built a career out of exploiting of this very obvious market shortcoming. In a recent essay on Ait/Planet Lar, I made the following statement:

"At the end of the day it comes down to this:
if you want to find the New Mainstream in comic
book publishing, look to wherever Larry Young
is. He publishes a lot of crap but he also
publishes some real gems, with an entire spectrum
of quality in between. He publishes something for
everyone, and that’s is something I cannot say for
anyone else in our entire industry."

I stand by this quote. I believe that regardless of the fact that Young publishes any number of books that aren’t very good, or which may appeal to a very small cross-section of the populace, his company’s output - when considered in its entirety - reflects a variety of genre and a multiplicity of purpose not often found in comic book publishing.

The thing I did not count on was the fact that I was very wrong in at least part of my thesis. Young publishes a large variety of books, but he’s not the only one. It was brought to my attention recently that there’s another company that seems to have slid under my radar entirely: Oni Press.

This is one instance where I am very happy to be proven wrong, and I sincerely doubt in this instance that Larry Young would mind the company. I can’t really account for my studied ignorance of Oni’s output over the last few years, except to say that I probably mistook a few high-profile books for the sum total of their output. I bought the first few Clerks tie-ins they produced, because regardless of what I think of Kevin Smith’s subsequent material, Clerks was and is a very funny movie. I found the comic book exploits of the Clerks characters to be similarly amusing (the less said, however, on the subject of their short-lived animated series, the better).

Much as was the case with AiT/Planet Lar, I had overlooked the growth of the company for the simple fact that I, like most comics fans, don’t have unlimited funds. The majority of my comic money usually goes to companies like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Top Shelf, along with the few mainstream titles I follow on a monthly basis. (You don’t have to point out the fact that these kind of dichotomous buying habits are startlingly schizoid, I’m already aware of that fact, thanks.) In comics, I seem to be drawn either towards the cutting edge of serious artistic expression, or Captain America. For the longest time it didn’t really occur to me to seek out a middle-ground here, because for the longest time there wasn’t a middle ground. The comics world was locked in a manichean death-struggle, but there didn’t seem to be anyone doing anything about it.

Well, maybe five years ago there weren’t, but the comics industry has undergone some very striking changes in the ensuing years. I think perhaps the only thing keeping a company like Oni from becoming one of the top 5 comics publishers in the country is the fact that they are still, essentially, a small company. They have an impressive backlist with some very attractive titles, but the majority of shelf-space in the mainstream bookstores is filled with manga, and the remainder is usually mainstream junk with a smattering of Fantagraphics titles thrown in. There are exceptions, but the bottom line is that the kind of initiative required to broaden their customer base costs money, the kind of money that neither Larry Young or Oni press or even Image or Dark Horse seem to have lying around. Crossgen had the money, at least for a little while, but there’s an old saying that the fastest way to fail in business is to provide great marketing for a horrible product. Perhaps if all those attractive endcap displays in Barnes & Noble had been filled with Blue Monday or Astronauts in Trouble trades, instead of Sigil, the world of comics would look somewhat different . . .

But, the economics of scale notwithstanding, it seems as if companies like Oni have nowhere to go but up. As a critic, I will say that I don’t put expectations on companies like these to consistently press the envelope of creative innovation. I think its only appropriate to judge a company’s output based on their intentions, and I think Oni produce books with the intention of providing dedicated creators an opportunity to create honest entertainment that will appeal to audiences beyond the normal spectrum of disaffected comics fans. They’ve got some interesting looking books and I look forward to exploring the depth of their catalog in the coming weeks and months.

Tomorrow we’ll have a look at a sneak preview of their newest title, Sam Keith’s Ojo. Keith’s always been one of the more endearingly odd mainstream creators out there, and I am interested in seeing what his latest project looks like.

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