Freeland Friday: Quality, Speed and Readership

Lately I’ve been thinking about quality. Or rather, quality as it sits in relation to speed, production realities, and reader perception.
I’m thinking about it now in particular for a few reasons.

Firstly, I’m currently working on the early issues of my first indie monthly comic, with all the attendant scheduling and process adjustments, and financial concerns, that entails.

Secondly, while in this frame of mind, I’ve been reading a few indie monthlies that have been huge successes. Titles that are amazing, popular, and which I have great respect for, so I hope this doesn’t read as sour grapes or anything. But as I’ve been reading, I’ve found myself caught up frequently on art niggles. Small things, but things I can’t help but notice – backgrounds or limbs that look sloppy rather than sketchy, copy-pasted panels where it’s clearly for time rather than a humorous or uncanny repetitive effect. So on and so forth. Part of me feels it’s snotty of me to let them bother me. But they do take me out of the story, and more importantly they relate to all the things about quality and schedules and readers that I’m thinking about right now. Because these are huge hits. Readers are obviously not as bothered by these things as I am. And given that, do they matter?

The third thing that I’ve been mulling over is Naoki Urasawa’s manga documentaries that most of us have probably watched (in my case multiple times) by now, in particular the episode with Akiko Higashimura.¬† Even within the seemingly brutally-paced manga industry her speed and output seems unusually high. And with about 10 assistants to help her meet her deadlines, assistants making what I would consider large creative contributions to the end effect, there are all the interesting questions about authorship and credit and assistance and system differences between countries which are another discussion in themselves.

But one thing I particularly thought interesting was the sort of first pass she does on her pages. She says she’s getting them to a level where they can go to print as-is, if need be, and then further develops them in the time that’s left. This obviously seems wise, but also, it posits a difference between ‘publishable’ and ‘what the artist wants it to look like’, and I’m coming to see how those definitely are different things.

Towards the end of the day, she does spend time whiting out and re-doing expressions, making value judgements on what things are the most important to her to get right.

There’s discussion on backgrounds (and their general sparseness in manga), and I think there’s some interesting stuff about how necessity can become style preference. But that necessity does mean that a lot of the work is just *done*, not redrafted, reconsidered, carefully crafted.

And wonders can be created when things are crafted. Many of my favourite comics have had years spent on them. They have become weighty and lasting things.

But not every comic is the same kind of thing, and this, as someone who wants to consider, who wants to carefully craft, is a difficult thing to really truly accept.

I think perhaps readers read with an intrinsic sense of context, and adjust expectations accordingly, taking a thing as what it is. The art ‘problems’ I perceived in some big indie hits are not problems I see in books from the big two, and I’m sure this has to do with budgets and the need to take or not take other work while drawing a monthly title. Yet these comics are ones readers have taken to their hearts, and while that’s a lot to do with a comic being a whole, and me niggling more because I’m looking at it with work eyes on, part of it I think is that one can trust an audience to take a comic as the kind of thing it is.

‘Done is better than perfect’ is certainly a mantra I repeat to myself a lot. But I also sometimes look wistfully over at the prose books world, where books are written and re-written and edited with agents and then edited again with editors until they’re their shiniest selves. Now the drive to just get it done and out there is ¬†probably more necessary in comics, where there is just SO MUCH TIME-CONSUMING WORK to get it done that you kind of have to just plow through or it’ll never be finished. But I also know that I have two personal project books to draw that have been through multiple outline and thumbnail drafts, and are much stronger for it. I do wish every book I make could be some sort of lovingly crafted watercolour masterpiece or something (skills notwithstanding!), but am slowly coming to terms with the following:

-Each different project is a different thing, with different limitations that must be accepted

-Some comics are comics where sacrifices need to be made to speed, and sometimes there’s just no getting around this. You have the time that you have.

-But that doesn’t mean audiences won’t get what the book wanted to get across, and they’re probably a lot more forgiving of the ‘imperfections’ than we are.

End note: After watching the Akiko Higashimura episode, I watched one featuring Kazumi Yamashita (the second half of this one)¬† Despite her presumably tight schedule, she ends up taking pretty much a full day drawing and redrawing a single important page to get it right. It was a nice counterpoint. We’re all grappling with this, all the time.