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Eric: This has nothing to do with the essay, but next year I want someone to videotape Josh Lesnick and Howard Tayler dancing in the aisles at ComiCon. Because that would be the most awesome thing ever.

So, I actually have to wonder -- do the production values of a printed compilation constitute an artistic choice about that printed compilation? Once upon a time I would have said no, but now I'm leaning towards yes. And as evidence, I submit two different printed compilations I have sitting on my desk, right now.

The first is Schlock Mercenary: Under New Management, by Howard Tayler.

The second is Girly: Volume One, by Josh Lesnick.

A necessary side note -- I've actually linked to the Amazon link to the second, as Lesnick currently is out in his own store. You might want to check the Girly website before buying, since I imagine Lesnick gets more sweet sweet cash from a direct sale. Or you may not, since hey -- cash is cash, right?

Both of these compilations are printed on paper. Both are perfect bound. Both contain comic strips that originally appeared on their respective websites. Both are really, really good.

And that's essentially where the similarity ends.

Schlock Mercenary: Under New Management is a slick affair -- the logical extension of Tayler's science fiction opus. It's printed in full color on glossy pages, and most pages have 'value added' in some form or the other. Notes. Sketches. Blueprints of the Serial Peacemaker, bonus stories. The headers and footers are in blue, orange and white with gradients. The cost of this thing in 1988 would have been astronomical, given the nature of non computerized four color printing -- if he wasn't printing in huge volume, he'd have had to charge fifty bucks a book, instead of the fifteen bucks he prints now.

Girly: Volume One (which might also be called Girly: Part 1 -- The Sidekick. I'm really not sure), on the other hand, is in black and white, printed on newsprint. The ink feels like it would smear on your hands (though it doesn't). It's got 104 pages to Schlock Mercenary: Under New Management's 80 (though Schlock Mercenary is taller and wider -- there's roughly the same amount of art in both books), but it's easily twice as thick, as the paper is much rougher. It does its effects through hatching and halftones. In 1988, this book would probably have cost less than it does today (it lists for about twelve dollars, Amazon has it for just over nine).

Crass consumers would assume that the Schlock compilation wins. Higher production values. Shiny paper. Sweet, sweet color. Purists and old school comics fans would assume Girly wins -- a harkening back to the glory days of black and white, when it wasn't about paper, it was about storytelling. Eastman and Laird didn't make a fortune with color turtles, you know! God damned kids today....

Both would be missing the point. For my money, Schlock is exactly what it should be, and Girly is exactly what it should be.

Tayler has written a tightly plotted, measured and controlled storyline, which has pulled off a remarkable trick: it's a hard SF comedy. Really, Schlock Mercenary and Freefall are the two strips that have consistently pulled off that trick that I know about, though others have tried. (Those two strips also manage to do their tricks with opposite levels of scale. Schlock Mercenary deals with galactic war and destruction, and Freefall manages to get months of strips out of a single mission launching the ship to do satellite maintenance in orbit, then land and service the ship. But, I digress.) The color and the production values add to the overall sense of the story -- this is futuristic and controlled. Orderly, in one sense. Aesthetically, this feels appropriate. It adds to the balance, and if the compilation was in black and white or on other stock, there would be a certain sense of regret clinging to it that would subconsciously distract from Tayler's intent. This book pulls out all the production value stops because it really needed to, to do it "right."

Lesnick's book, on the other hand, covers the first chapter of the joyously anarchic Girly -- a strip that works like jazz music. He sets down a basic melody, then works in variations all along the chord changes. Similarly, he layers mood. Otra's depression carries through the early strips, her self examination filling them out, but around her elephants eat couches and she's forced by circumstance to launch people into space. It's the world she lives in, and the absurdity carries humor with it. Sometimes, emotions layer like strata, one on top of the other. A surface joke covers over a sad undercurrent, which itself rests on an absurd foundation. And down and down and down. In this book, the black and white art -- often done as duotones or tritones on the actual web version of the strip, though I think that came later than these strips -- sets the mood. There is such an explosion of color implicit in Lesnick's work that actually coloring it would just limit the options of the reader. As it is, our brains are free to go hog wild, and I'm pretty sure that's what Lesnick wants them to do. In the end, the rough paper, the black borders out to the edges of the paper... it all creates a part of the experience which honestly glossy paper and color and gradients and the like would just detract from -- it might be a great book and a lot of fun, but somehow, it wouldn't be Girly. This book's composition, intentionally or not, is just as "right" as Schlock Mercenary's, and drastic changes would heavily change the overall feel of this thing.

Even the relative paperweights make a difference. Schlock Mercenary has fewer pages, but feels more solid, more set in stone. Girly feels as ephemeral as Lesnick's backgrounds (Josh Lesnick does some of the best backgrounds in the business). The choices the two artists made have contributed to the overall experience of reading their works on pulp.

And in the end, isn't that why we buy printed compilations in the first place?

Posted by Eric Burns-White at July 31, 2006 11:34 AM


Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 12:14 PM

I never really thought about the aesthetics involved in making a printed compilation before, but it makes sense.

Comment from: Mi_Stabbi [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 12:40 PM

Damnit Burns, you must write a book.

Also, please set up a paypal thingy at the end of your posts so the value you're providing (me and others) can be reciprocated if so desired.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 12:45 PM

Tip jar's on the main page. Though it's hardly necessary. ;)

Comment from: Lilamrta [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 1:10 PM

Damn you, Burns. Now I must go buy the Girly compliation. (Already have Schlock, sketch edition (I got Kevyn!).)

Man, that ending punctuation combination is interesting looking, isn't it. Some sort of deranged emoticon. Winking person with a double chin and a mole?

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 1:13 PM

My sketch edition book has Schlock threatening me with his plasgun.

My Girly book has Otra and Winter riding a giant snarkasaurus that is saying "rarr."

There aren't many perks to this job, but the sketch art you get is one of the monumental ones.

Comment from: larksilver [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 1:32 PM

It's funny that you should be writing about this today. My sister and I were just looking at my two newest acquisitions (Schlock volume one and Digger volume one) and discussing just this subject.

Both approaches were just.. well, right for the the books. I love it that creators are now able to have more control, even over the paper used in their books.

Comment from: Aerin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 5:06 PM

One of the main benefits I've found in buying print collections is the ease with which I can introduce my friends to my favorite comics. Sending out links to various amusing strips is one thing, but giving someone a book and saying "Here, read this" is something else, especially if the friends in question don't normally read webcomics. I've gotten many a friend addicted to OotS that way.

Comment from: Ford Dent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 5:41 PM

Buying webcomic collections is something I don't do very often, mostly becuase I'm poor and I have to keep my finances in order.

But damn if it isn't the hardest thing in the world to resist, especially the draw of buying something like Platinum Grit or the Narbonic collections. To say nothing of Starslip Crises, Schlock, Penny Arcade, etc.

Aerin hits the nail on the head--it's far easier to get someone into a comic by handing them a book rather than giving them a link and saying "read this." Some people just don't have the patience to sit and click through an archive.

Comment from: kirabug [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 5:54 PM

I read this while preparing a PDF just to get a single print out the door and for sale on the site. All I can say is that any author who manages to lay out more than one page of anything and still make it look professional (as all these books have so far) has my respect. Good heavens, this is complicated.

Comment from: Steve Troop [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at July 31, 2006 9:45 PM

In-between filming puppet podcasts and thinking about drawing webcomics, I lay out books for fellow cartoonists such as Howard Tayler for a small fee... just an FYI, if anyone is interested.

Comment from: Howard Tayler [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 1, 2006 10:56 AM

For the record, credit for the layout of Schlock Mercenary: Under New Management goes in part to Steve Jackson, who suggested the 8.5"x11" size for reasons which, in retrospect anyway, are obvious: Only at that size could we get a four-row Sunday AND its footnote on a single page. Steve's suggestion created gobs of white space, however, and suddenly I had gobs of space in which to make the book a little more content-rich.

The other part of the credit goes to Steve Troop, who is currently working on the layout for Schlock Mercenary: The Blackness Between. He did all the heavy lifting after I decided to self-publish rather than having Steve Jackson Games publish (a painful decision that allowed me to stay in business... I needed a much larger piece of the pie). Steve Troop took the basic layout concepts from Steve Jackson's team (with permission), and put enough spit and polish on it that we had to ask the printer to use really, really smelly glue in order to mask the tell-tale smell of friction-burned saliva.

Thanks for the review, Eric. If you're interested in writing an introduction for one of the upcoming books, gimme a shout.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 1, 2006 2:37 PM

Personally, I love the way Michael Poe did the second Errant Story collection. The first was passable, but was in the same style that all other Keenspot collections I've seen are in, and it felt a bit neutered. I liked the paper choice and the entire design aesthetic done with the second one, though, and I really look forward to buying further ones.

Also, when I got the collection, I was bribed with a button that says "Every time you introduce hard science into a discussion about a fantasy world, God kills a catgirl." It might not be the most entertaining freebie I've ever gotten, but hot damn is it up there.

Comment from: quiller [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 1, 2006 5:08 PM

I guess with all this discussion I would be remiss if I didn't mention that no collection has blown me away like Girl Genius: Volume 3. I was taking it around to friends and going look at this color, look how it doesn't have border, look at the titles on the books in Gil's library, look at this two page spread with the mechanical orchestra!

Now they are just getting to the Volume 3 pages in Girl Genius 101 lately, so perhaps Volume 4 would be a better webcomic example. It is just as high in quality and detail, but the combination of the lack of a show stopper like that 2 page spread and the fact that my mind has gotten a chance to adjust to the fact that people can put out books of that level of quality means it doesn't have quite the same place for me. I'd really wondered why there was such a price jump between the first couple of volumes and the 3rd volume, but after seeing it I stopped wondering.

Comment from: M_Northstar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 2, 2006 2:58 PM

Very interesting article. And during the first part, when you seemed to be disparaging the Girly collection, I was going to myself: "But those are two different comics. Girly's *supposed* to be like that." :-)

So, changing to a comic that is closer to my heart (not that Schlock and Girly aren't, mind you), how do these principles apply to the El Goonish Shive collections?

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 3, 2006 6:20 PM

I thought we bought comic collections for their portability and because they exist when internet servers go crashing down? (I'm mean it's the same reason we buy books even if they come in a PDF format, right?)

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