8.01.2013

Why Backmatter Matters



So, let’s define our terms. When I say “backmatter,” even to weekly comic book junkies down at the LCS, I still usually get quite a few blank stares and quizzical looks. This dilemma of recognition even comes down to how you spell the very word(s) “backmatter.” Is it “back matter” (two words), or “back-matter” (hyphenated) or “backmatter” (new compound word) or even “BackMatter” (if you’re nasty) as some stylish hybrid? I’ve seen it every which way, though I think “backmatter” is sort of settling into being the default standard. When backmatter is usually discussed, I think most people’s knee jerk reaction is to assume and envision what I’d now like to call “traditional bonus material,” to distinguish the two different approaches. Bonus material has, for a long while, been comprised of items such as preliminary design sketches, raw script pages, or un-inked and un-colored pencils, which you’d typically find in collected editions, or even the occasional “director’s cut” style reprint of a single issue. I’m not just talking about the resurgence of the lettercol either. Though, there’s certainly nothing wrong with any of that. For the purpose of this discussion, backmatter is a different animal. In the examples I’m going to use, I’m going to define backmatter as leaning more toward being story-driven, not process-driven. Modern backmatter, then, is “in-story” or “in-world” or “in-continuity” content designed to enhance the world-building effort going on in the particular universe the creators have developed. Let that sink in for a minute while I go off on a tangent.

I wanted to detour a paragraph for a quick history lesson. The first time I remember hearing the term “backmatter” was with three distinct books: Local, Casanova, and Fell. Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly created a timeless book in Local, 12 issues following 12 years in the life of Megan McKeenan, as she travels to different cities and through different phases of her life. One of the great things about the book was the inclusion of thematically appropriate artist and writer soundtracks at the end of every issue, along with reader submitted pictures of their own “locals,” serving as snapshots of the resident culture of their cities or neighborhoods. It was an interactive bit of content, in a very analog fashion (yes, it was very Brian Wood). It wasn’t really in-story, but again, I’m citing it merely as one of the first times I heard the term. The other two books were part of something Image Comics called, at the time, their “slimline” format (another compound term, with limited traction it turns out), which was at a cheaper price point for a book stripped of ads, sort of unplugged comics that were quick and dirty and delightful. Casanova enjoyed a life well beyond those origins, catapulting the whole gang, Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon, to fame. If I recall correctly, Warren Ellis’ backmatter in Fell was more process-driven, correspondence between himself and artist Ben Templesmith, along with some real-world articles that may have served as inspiration for some of the largely self-contained stories. Fell was a great book, while we’re on it, though it basically stalled out at issue 9. In Casanova, well, the backmatter was something of a confessional for Matt Fraction. Sure, there was some process stuff in there and his thoughts on music or movies or the industry, but the thing that sticks with me the most viscerally years later was him being in the back seat during some road trip and coming to terms with a gut-wrenching miscarriage with brutal emotional honesty. I’d certainly never seen anything like THAT startling, forthcoming, revelatory material in a comic. Bringing things more contemporary, we have what Joe Casey is currently doing in his Image Comics book Sex. It’s basically a continuation of what occurred in his other books, Godland, or Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker, the guise of accessibility, open dialogue with the audience, part letter column and part rambling manifesto about creator-owned vs. company-owned, and the current industry landscape. As pointed and entertainingly egotistical as Casey can be in that forum, it still Leans toward more traditional bonus content and not in-story backmatter. For this discussion, I also wouldn’t necessarily include things like the trademark Jonathan Hickman infographics he began in his Image Comics work (which have since seeped into his Marvel work) or the infographics used to depict the “previously in” section of Joshua Dysart’s recent Harbinger Wars affair over at Valiant. Don’t get me wrong, these things are stylish as hell, and I totally dig them. I point them out not to denigrate their existence, only to say that they’re not really backmatter. For the most part, they’re not in-story matter, nor are they in the back, to be painfully obvious and literal.

There’s been a resurgence in the kind of backmatter I want to talk about. It’s evolved to the point of being almost exclusively story-driven. Let’s discuss a few of the varied examples I’m currently enjoying; let’s talk about what they are, what they do, and why they’re important. I’m sure there are others currently out there, but these are top-of-mind for me based on what I’m currently consuming on a regular basis.

Sheltered by Ed Brisson & Johnnie Christmas (Image Comics): Now, at the time of this writing, there’s only one issue of Sheltered out, but it was a doozy. It goes without saying that all of these books are great, so buy them if you’re not, thus endeth the plug. The backmatter in this series, written by a credited Ryan K. Lindsay, takes the form of a rudimentary sort of Web 1.0 “PrepNet Newsletter.” It’s something of a how-to guide for the prepper community. You might now ask, “what’s the prepper community?” And that’s exactly the point. This isn’t something terribly well explored in comics. “Preppers” can be small or large, often militia-like, groups preparing for The End, be it man made, natural disaster, war, famine, political strife, the depletion of resources, or something more biblically apocalyptic. Most readers are not intimately familiar with this subculture, so it’s a nice way to get into the mindset that fuels one of the major philosophical tenets of this pre-apocalyptic tale. It’s a way to explain how the people we’re meeting live, how things work functionally, and why they do some of the things they do. It’s a way to avoid blatant exposition that would otherwise have to be shoehorned in for one or more of the characters to spout, and would likely temporarily derail the main focus on the heated interpersonal dynamics of the book. The creators made a smart decision to include this, and I look forward to more of it from this great new series.

Lazarus by Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (Image Comics): We’re two issues in at the time of this writing, and we’ve already seen a mix of more traditional bonus content (stories about how the series came to be, the seemingly very healthy collaboration between artist and writer, a few sketches and pieces of concept art thrown in for good measure) and the type of innovative backmatter we’re talking about. Lazarus follows Forever Carlyle, the Carlyle Family Lazarus, basically it’s emotionally conflicted bio-enhanced enforcer, through her growing disillusionment with how the family business is being run, and an impending war with a rival family. In the second issue, the team provided a timeline that ran vertically down the sides of the extra pages, establishing the significant events and back-story of how this world crumbled financially, socially, and geographically, how food as a limited resource became the only meaningful commodity, how the business/crime families rose to power, and how this very universe came to be. It was a very smart piece of world-building that catches the reader up on useful and deeply interesting information that would have otherwise taken several expositional moments spread across several issues to do. It saved time, functioned as sequential art shorthand, and was pretty damn cool aesthetically.

The Massive by Brian Wood & Garry Brown (Dark Horse): The Massive backmatter was probably the most daring in what it tried to accomplish. I might be biased, but I’d argue it was the best backmatter effort, and one of the first to lead the way in this new progressive wave, because it was the most bold and the most diverse, a mix of all the other types of backmatter I’m going to discuss in these examples. The Massive follows the crew of the Ninth Wave Marine Conservationist Direct Action Force command ship, The Kapital, as it searches for its lost sister ship, The Massive, after a cataclysmic series of global environmental disasters. The backmatter was firmly in-world, story-driven content that alternately took the form of: ship schematics, navigational charts, CNN style interviews of the characters, prose journal entries, timelines, previous campaign details, federal government dossiers on members of the crew, faux documents, DHS memos, pictures, maps, the list goes on and on. It was a dizzying array of creative generosity. From a story perspective, perhaps the boldest moment, and uhh, I guess spoiler alert(?), but it’s been out for months, so it’s fair game, Brian Wood basically gave the lead character what appears to be terminal cancer(!), but he did it in the backmatter(!!), and it wasn’t even followed up on or revealed in the “regular” part of the book for another two or three issues(!!!). It’s an aside, but this led fellow critic Keith Silva and I to start screaming “The Backmatter Matters!” You may have noticed, I keep saying “was.” It’s interesting to note that The Massive backmatter lasted only six issues, basically the first arc, and was then scrapped. There’s a related form of it that’s continued on Tumblr, heck, there’s even a mostly dormant Callum Israel/Ninth Wave Twitter account, but this online iteration is mostly process-driven reference  pictures, sketches, penciled art, and maps visually representing the story arcs (see above image), etc., and not the type of in-story backmatter The Massive once excelled at. For the most part, the print version appears to be dead for the time being. “Why?” is an important question to ask, but we’ll get to that later.

Think Tank by Matt Hawkins & Rahsan Ekedal (Image/Top Cow): Think Tank is a terrific series that essentially takes advanced research and development, applies those applied sciences to the real world, and then examines the mostly devastating moral implications. Think Tank backmatter is a bit of an anomaly on this list, because it leans toward being more traditional bonus content and not story-driven backmatter, but a) I just really like the book and wanted to include it, so deal, and b) there’s so much of it included in every issue, and it’s so rich and dense that I think it’s worth discussing in tandem. Think Tank backmatter runs a full spectrum, being articles and technologies that Hawkins found from places like NASA, The RAND Corporation, DHS, CDC, DARPA, etc., an inspirational knowledge base for the creation of the series, additional avenues he discovered while doing that exploratory research and couldn’t fit into the series, but also real world links that can then be followed up on by curious readers to investigate on their own. It stands as a resource before and after the reading process, for use by the creators, as well as the readers. It’s unique in that regard. I had the chance to talk to Matt Hawkins for a few minutes at SDCC this year. In addition to discovering he’s just genuinely a nice guy, I brought up my appreciation for the backmatter specifically. He had an interesting pragmatism about it. He essentially said that it’s a passion component of the project for him, something he’s really interested in personally, and that a third of the readers will probably ignore it completely, a third may read it as part of the experience and take it at face value, while another third might actually go do more research on their own. Matt Hawkins seemed to be at peace with that.

Wasteland by Antony Johnston, Christopher Mitten, Justin Greenwood, et al (Oni Press): Wasteland represents yet another divergence in burgeoning backmatter capability. While the journal entries of Ankya Ofsteen are set firmly in-world, they’re also like 95% prose, with just some spot illustrations on the beautifully designed letterhead. Like many of the stories I’m drawn to, Wasteland is set in a long-running post-apocalyptic world where (we think) man-made cumulative effects on the planet catalyzed an environmental event known as “The Big Wet.” 100 years later, the result is a toxic arid landscape, with different tribes of people banding together while language (d)evolves, scavengers run the ruins, and familiar themes of sex, power, politics, religion, corruption, and betrayal continue to plague the last vestiges of humanity. Wasteland backmatter basically offers a “free” additional story track, with a mysterious additional character, off on additional adventures, which may only tangentially ever brush up against the main proceedings, for eagle-eyed readers anyway. It’s a concurrent experience, as ruin runner Ankya Ofsteen documents her travels in her journal (because she was taught her letters, don't you know) as she traverses the titular wasteland. In many ways, Johnston has created the simplest, most elegant way to world-build. He just literally writes you another story. It’s another entire set of characters, places, and experiences, beyond what you’re ostensibly getting in the main crux of the narrative. When I review the book, I always seem to say that The Big Wet Universe extends well beyond the panel borders, and it’s because this form of backmatter is one of the primary virtues of the series. It might be important to also note that an online soundtrack continues to develop for the series, and there’s additional character profiles and duplicate journal entries being dispersed to the web, but I’m primarily concerned with what’s being done in print, at least for this discussion.

Deathmatch by Paul Jenkins & Carlos Magno (Boom! Studios): For those not familiar with this engaging series, the entire premise of the book is predicated on a huge group of heroes and villains being conscripted by their unknown captors to unwittingly fight to the death in an NCAA-style bracketing system. It’s quickly proven to be a deep and rich world that offers a delicious post-modern deconstruction of the superhero paradigm and its most familiar archetypes. You can find a female Batman, the corresponding Joker figure as villain, a version of Rorschach, Captain America, Iron Man, and all manner of character templates, both past and present, being manipulated for maximum enjoyment. The backmatter in Deathmatch is critical to the experience. It contains full character profiles (complete with their faux first appearances in fictitious Silver Age books), it tracks in real time the winners and losers of each excruciating match-up, and then tops it off with an aesthetic presentation of the actual brackets as it inevitably races toward a bloody conclusion. It’s a fierce bit of world-building in a meta fashion. It blurs the line between what could be in-world reporting of people and events with what could just as easily be fourth-wall breaking discussions between creators and readers. Most importantly, the backmatter visually embodies the very mechanism the series operates on, like a down-and-dirty Cliff’s Notes cheat sheet of what the series so gleefully expands upon in greater detail.

The True Lives of The Fabulous Killjoys by Gerard Way, Shaun Simon, Becky Cloonan (Dark Horse): Well, if you’re not reading Fabulous Killjoys, you first need to go out and correct that. It’ll certainly be listed as one of the best books of the year. It continues to track with, in multimedia fashion, the world created by Way and his former band-mates in My Chemical Romance, a post-apocalyptic Southern California desert wasteland controlled by a domineering regime deadset on homogenization as control. The Killjoys are our beloved freedom fighters rallying demoralized individualists against corporate backed baddies roaming the countryside. With only two issues out (as well as an FCBD prequel short), we’re starting to get a sense of the type of backmatter that I hope continues in this refreshing new series. To date, we’ve basically seen Better Life Industries (BLI) info pamphlets, and a map of the decimated LA basin. The BLI documents are an important set of artifacts because it’s quite necessary for the creators to establish the type of humongous bureaucracy that Battery City represents. That’s fundamentally “the thing” that the Killjoys are revolting against, so firmly planting in the mind of the readers how oppressive the regime is helps expedite our loyalty to the Killjoy crew. In the last issue, there was also a map included, which offered a visual sense of the post-apocalyptic world the story takes place in. If you followed MCR’s music videos, you probably have been well-entrenched in visuals (starring Grant Morrison as a wicked protagonist), but for strictly comic book readers, these in-story additions to the backmatter give us a nice thematic push.

So, there are 7 examples of story-driven, in-continuity backmatter being produced today. In terms of macro-analysis, I have a tendency (blame the day job) to attempt to quantify things with metrics to see what that particular numerical story can tell us that qualitative words may not. What I can glean from these minimal numbers is that backmatter as a practice remains a largely untapped segment of the medium. Out of all the approximately 30 books I regularly support, there were only these 7 performing this type of backmatter, putting on this type of show for the readers. That’s equates to about 23% of what I read, which I guess is a substantial number of the little chunk of stuff I pay attention to, though we really have nothing to compare it against as a benchmark. It basically means close to 1 in 4 books I read has some type of non-process driven backmatter. However, compare that to the roughly 60 new books a week that my retailer receives, or 240 a month, and you suddenly drop to only 3% of titles currently offering some type of story-driven backmatter. That seems low.

The good news is that this doesn’t appear to be the domain of a single publisher, nor is it really endemic to Marvel and DC, but it seems to be only tied to creator whim. On my little personal list, we have Dark Horse, Boom! Studios, Oni Press, and Image Comics represented. I guess my point here is that backmatter as a practice is still creatively wide open for interpretation. You can do anything with it. I doubt we’ve yet to find the optimal kind of content and “best” or most innovative delivery method. While these are certainly some diverse examples from some diverse publishers, I doubt we’ve explored all of the possibilities to try and tap reader engagement, and give a single issue more punch at the $3 to $4 price point. I think the basic logic is that if you offer something different and special, it will pique reader curiosity, and somehow translate to a sustainable bump in the revenue stream. It’s very difficult to correlate direct cause and effect though, especially when there are so many different factors causing consumer X to support book Y, and I don't think the inclusion or ommission of backmatter would even rank in the top 5 occupied by, say, one's predilection toward a particular company, character(s), story focus, art style, or creator loyalty.

On the down side, I don’t think backmatter is conceptually understood or embraced by the audience at a level that’s reached any sort of critical mass, which I guess I can partially back-up anecdotally with my experiences talking to customers in the LCS, as well as the attention I’ve paid to one title in particular. Full Disclosure: I had the chance to contribute to the backmatter on a couple issues of The Massive. When I shared this news with customers or even peers, the reactions ranged from “that’s great, congratulations!” to “oh, I don’t even read that stuff” to “what’s that?” As I paid more attention to this, I noted that here you have an A-list creator with his hot new creator-owned book, maybe “the” creator-owned book of his career to date, from an established and well-respected publisher, and the audience just wasn’t responding in a holistic or meaningful way. I mean, even people who were Brian Wood fans and were already buying the book admitted to glossing right over the backmatter because they didn’t really know what to make of it. “Why do they do that?” “Is it part of the comic?” “Do I have to read it?” Fucking stupefying, man. On top of that, when I tracked down all of the reviews I could find of the series, there were only a paltry three critics who even bothered to comment on the backmatter, and that’s counting myself, along with my friend Keith Silva. As I mentioned above, The Massive backmatter only lasted 6 issues. From the POV of the publisher (hey, I’m a business person, I get it, I hate it, but I get it…), if I have the choice between doing 2 to 3 pages of revenue generating ads, 2 to 3 pages of additional “regular” comic that’s easily recognizable and digestible, or 2 to 3 pages of a labor intense (trust me from experience on this) “writing experiment,” with effects you can’t correlate cleanly to see if it moved the sales needle, and it’s something the audience doesn’t grok or isn’t even ready to embrace, well, you see where I’m going. It’s a shame.

I wanted to discuss backmatter and now I don’t know how to end this post. I love books with backmatter. I love feeling that I’m getting something extra during my typical reading experience. I love the creative tinkering and curiosity behind it all. I want creators to experiment with more backmatter. I want to see where it can go. I want publishers to be willing to experiment, to temporarily value art over commerce in the age old intersection of competing paradigms. I want to help develop connoisseurship in the audience. I want the readership as a whole to be able to understand and embrace backmatter, then actually develop a palpable appetite for it, instead of being resistant to change and “the new.” Despite a few intrepid creators who’ve been paving the way, backmatter is a largely untapped creative endeavor in the industry. The limits of this need further exploration. Everyone seems hung up on the digital divide, a new model to jump into, which is fine and necessary. But, for those of us who think that print is an endemic part of the reading experience, being able to physically hold the tangible object in our hands, we’d do well to consider further altering and experimentation with print, to create material more appealing and more innovative in terms of content and design. So, continue to support books with backmatter if you’re already doing so. If you’re not, try a book that has backmatter, whether it’s one that I mentioned or something else you find. The creators are rewarding you with something different, so reward their experimentation with support. Exploration often yields unexpected and satisfying results, both for the creator and the consumer.

2 Comments:

At 11:35 PM, OpenID joeblogscomics.com said...

Thanks for the amazing post Justin. I too am a big fan of backmatter and appreciate the depth of what it can add to a story.

I'm also either a reader of most of those books or will be once the first trade comes out.

But it's as a trade reader that I miss out, as backmatter rarely gets collected. I've read that Warren Ellis was trying to encourage people to pick up the monthly pamphlet by adding extra content and making the floppy a unique artifact. While that might have been more necessary 10 years ago (before a viable digital market developed)now it seems much less relevant.

I hate knowing that there are parts to the story that aren't collected on my shelves just not enough to get over my distaste for floppies.

 
At 9:02 AM, Blogger Justin Giampaoli said...

Thanks for the feedback.

I understand your frustration with the backmatter not always being collected. Ultimately, I think trade-waiting or supporting floppies comes down to a variety of factors, including personal format preference, financial feasibility, collector vs. reader mindset, and principle, which are totally valid concerns.

That said, I do think engineering creative ways to incentivize sales for singles is still a relevant concern. Often times, success of a series in single issues is a prime indicator of whether or not the series will be collected, or even continue in the first place, rather than be cancelled prematurely, rendering a potentially strong trade audience waiting in the wings somewhat moot.

With the retailer being the true customer in the direct market, for a long time I've been a strong advocate of supporting single issue sales for creators or books I'm loyal to, filling out the Previews Order form, going through that whole tedious process on principle, voting with my wallet in that manner, and ensuring that my "vote" counts where it truly matters.

Still doesn't remove the "sting" of missing out on backmatter not being collected though. I've had experiences where I've supported singles w/ backmatter, then upgraded to the trade because it gives good shelf, but as someone who has now bought the series twice, I then get "penalized" with a collected edition lacking the backmatter. Instead of being able to sell off or pass on the back issues to either recoup some of the loss or hook new readers potentially, I now have to hold on to both sets, or else I miss the extra content. It's a conundrum.

Thanks for reading.

 

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