Building a Better Mousetrap

I mentioned Alison Bechdel's memoir graphic novel Fun Home during my BEA recap a couple of weeks ago and having now read it, I'm even more convinced that this is going to be a huge hit (Tom Spurgeon beat me to the punch on that assessment this morning). Comparisons to Persepolis are already being made, and in that both are memoir graphic novels by women featuring not dissimilar art styles, I can see the comparison. But what I found intriguing in Fun Home is its narrative structure, specifically Bechdel's decision to build the narrative around a thematic examination of her relationship with her father rather than following a linear plot. The most obvious approach would be to build up to her father's suicide as the climactic event of the story, but Bechdel instead chooses to use that event as an axis around which to spin her narrative, building layer upon layer until the reader is left with a nearly perfect picture of her family. My favorite section is Chapter 3, in which Bechdel repeatedly compares her family and their lives with literary figures (both fictional and historical), creating one more layer of subtext. Yet, the chapter also functions as something like foreshadowing, as we later learn that it was through the language of books that Bechdel was able to connect with and to some degree decipher her father.

As compelling a read as this book is, its success will be predicated primarily upon Houghton Mifflin's ability to get it into the hands of readers. Thus far I'm confident that they'll be successful, with a starred review from Publisher's Weekly and Booklist, articles in Entertainment Weekly, USA Today and Salon as well as an aggressive marketing campaign that includes both general bookstores and the direct market. The book had a significant presence at BookExpo America, including advance copies for booksellers, a fantastic "Making of" DVD that I'll talk about more in the next week or so, and an appearance by Bechdel on the "Pictures of a Life: Comics and the Memoir" panel as well as an autograph session. Meanwhile, Houghton Mifflin was good enough to send us an advance copy as well as a few of the "Making of" DVDs that we're using to promote the book. Thus far it seems to be working, as Fun Home currently ranks at 144 in Books at and buzz only seems to be building.

You'd think that other comic publishers might take note of the kind of success such an approach can have, but it seems Marvel is oblivious. Entertainment Weekly called them out recently about their refusal to provide advance review copies of anything. What possible reason could there be not to provide advance copies? Oh wait, there are three possible reasons: #1, the material is awful and sales on it are vulnerable enough to abysmal advance reviews that it needs to be protected (as movie studios do with bad movies that are not screened for critics). #2, Marvel sees sales on their titles as closely linked to plot surprises -- which makes sense when considering the way Marvel solicits titles, but less so when one considers the way they try to leak spoilers shortly before a book hit shelves. #3, it'd cost too much, which is completely ludicrous since increasing a print run by the number of copies we're talking about is less than peanuts (we're talking something like a quarter a copy from what I understand). It would seem that a the free advertising that comes with a review of said comic in a general interest magazine like Entertainment Weekly would tend to offset those minor costs. And it's not like Marvel isn't set up to send out advance copies of some books anyway since they provide Sneak Peak packs to retailers (for a price of course) with copies of select titles being released the following week. This inability to change their approach to how things are done (a problem that goes far beyond Marvel), an unwillingness to learn from the experience of similar industries is as big a factor as any in limiting the growth of comics.

Meanwhile, Top Cow is taking suggestions on how to improve themselves over at The Engine. Quite a few good ideas there that just about any publisher could and should implement. Most impressive, though, is simply Rob Levin's willingness to take suggestions and (hopefully) implement change.


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