A long essay explaining what Panelgraph is all about.
Hi, I'm JF Koh. I have been organizing the annual 24-Hour Comics Day in Singapore since 2010. It's an international challenge in which artists and writers challenge themselves to each create 24 pages of comics within 24 hours. The event is a lot of fun, and the creative energy is inspiring.
In 2014, the event attracted close to 180 challengers, and I've become good friends with many of the veterans who return year after year. After our Singapore challenge in October 2014, I felt that the time was right for a publication to feature the awesome comics that I've seen created at the event.
I'm a noob at publishing, and I've spent many weeks thinking about the whole idea. Let me share with you my thoughts, and how I think I might be able to make it work.
The idea to do a digital publication was suggested to me by a chat I had with Bill Teoh, a.k.a. Uncle Bill, the owner of Comics World in Park Lane Shopping Mall, the oldest comics bookstore in Singapore. Uncle Bill told me that when digital comics first come out in the 1990s, he was worried that they would hurt the sales of his print comics.
But the exact opposite has turned out to be true — the comics collectors buy and read the digital comics, and then they come to his store and ask for the print editions. So in fact, digital comics have helped Uncle Bill to sell more print comics. Counter-intuitive, but that's the reality.
I remember reading about the early days when radio had just been invented, and they started playing music on radio stations. The musicians were outraged, because they thought who would want to buy their music albums, when anyone could just listen to the radio for free. But today, any record label will say that you need radio airplay if you're going to sell any songs.
Who hasn't heard of Free Comic Book Day? The logic is that if you want to increase the number of comic book buyers, you need to introduce non-readers to the culture of reading comics. On the first Saturday of May every year, the American comic book industry brings new readers into bookstores by giving away free comic books.
So I thought, why not publish a 24-Hour Comics anthology as free digital PDFs? The cost would be next to zero. The digital edition would help promote the print edition. The print edition would be inevitable because the creators are going to ask for print copies.
But there's a problem.
The thing about 24-hour comics is that because they are created within such a short time, they tend to be raw and unpolished. Relatively few readers would spend money on such novelty books. Yes, the creators will want to see their own works in print, and they might pay money for a copy, but that doesn't add up to enough buyers to make proper publishing a viable option.
I was aware that Nat Gertler, who started the event in the US in 2004, had published many anthologies of 24-hour comics, and the books were not selling well. In fact, I got in touch with him for advice, and he said he stopped publishing the books mainly because he was losing too much money (among other reasons). He didn't discourage me from doing it, but he said do it with eyes wide open, and manage reader expectations. He said print-on-demand would be a good way to not lose money.
Of course, I could go print-on-demand, so that I don't end up with 950 unsold books gathering dust under my bed. But still, is it worth the trouble to sell your baby in the low hundreds, optimistically speaking? Realistically, it could maybe even sell only a few dozen copies. Is that really what I want?
In Singapore, there are too many indie comics publications that are not doing well commercially. Many of them need public funding from the government to keep them going. I have too many artist and writer friends who do one or two books out of love and passion, and then they have to stop because it's just not sustainable. Or they release a book every few years as a hobby, and the books may be just about breaking even, but they have to keep their day jobs in order to survive.
I didn't want to walk down that path, so I looked for more advice. I chatted with Sonny Liew, who had published 3 volumes of the Liquid City anthology on Image Comics. His advice was to go to a bookstore, see which books are selling well, and then pitch a proposal that comes close to something that already has a niche. Example — he pitched Liquid City to Image Comics as a South-East Asian version of the successful Flight anthology.
I chatted with Tang Ho Wan of Gallant Printing, who had dabbled in publishing comics magazines back in the day. His advice was to go the opposite direction — instead of publishing something raw, go for high quality. He pulled out a few books from his shelves and laid them on the table for me.
I saw these two titles, and immediately I knew what he meant. The Robot volumes from Japan by Range Murata, and the APPLE ("A Place for People who Love Entertainment") volumes by the Koreans are both comics anthologies that are doing well. Both feature beautiful art with high production quality, and a lot of collectors I know have bought them.
I found my answer. As long as the quality is there, collectors will buy the book. It will be commericially viable. The works created at 24-Hour Comics Day are just a start. My contributors will have to be willing to polish up their works, and even come up with new creations outside of 24-Hour Comics.
Over the next few days, I brainstormed a name for the book, and settled on Panelgraph — meaning the authoring of stories using comic-book panels.
I spoke to several friends to get their thoughts. Many responded positively to the Panelgraph idea. There are too many to mention here, so please forgive me for mentioning only Kelvin Chan.
Kelvin's idea was to create a periodical similar to 2000AD in the UK, which became known for catapulting many big names into the comics industry, such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Simon Bisley, Cam Kennedy, Dermot Power and Carlos Ezquerra.
I gave Kelvin's idea some thought, and remembered Scott McCloud's Making Comics, which talks about the 4 tribes of comics creators. (If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it.) To me, 2000AD is clearly a collaboration between 2 of the 4 tribes.
Briefly, these are the 4 tribes:
Not everyone falls squarely into one of the tribes. Most creators will visit different tribes at different points of their lives, but there's usually one tribe to which a creator will come home at the end of the day.
In the last few years, I have been happy to see a number of formalists and iconoclasts in Singapore successfully publishing small print runs, with help from the National Arts Council and independent publishers such as Epigram. You can usually identify the quiet personal stories which are heartfelt and honest, typically set in the HDB heartland or coffeeshop. These are what I call "non-genre" books. My 24-Hour Comics Day co-organizer Lim Cheng Tju describes this phenomenon in his article, "Current Trends in Singapore Comics: When Autobiography is Mainstream".
In contrast, classicists and animists tend to be biased towards the more popular genres such as horror, comedy, fantasy, science fiction, crime, mystery, romance, thriller, etc. Superhero comics from the US and manga from Japan have flourished in these genres. Not many of such genre comic books have been published in Singapore, apart from Johnny Lau's Mr Kiasu and Wee Tian Beng's Celestial Zone.
Why have we seen more formalists and iconoclasts getting published in recent years, but not so many classicists and animists? I believe the reason is that classicists and animists are devoted to craft, and craft can take years to master.
I believe that for our comics industry to mature and become commercially viable, we need to cultivate the classicists and animists. These two tribes need the space to hone their craft, and a way to reach international audiences, beyond our small local market.
Kelvin and I want Panelgraph to play a role in this. Creators can use it as a platform to master their craft and gain exposure.
We are starting a digital comics anthology book series called Panelgraph Showcase. In a way, it fills the gap between 24-Hour Comics Day and Liquid City.
It will go out once every quarter. (And hopefully become more frequent as we gain momentum.) The emphasis will be on eye candy artworks and genre stories. Each issue will contain 50 to 100 pages of:
The digital issues of Panelgraph Showcase will be free. It will be published on Issuu, and PDFs will be available for download. It is not intended to make money, but will serve these purposes:
After a few issues of Panelgraph Showcase, the best works will then go into a print publication — Panelgraph Volume 1 — similar to Robot, APPLE, Liquid City and Flight. We intend to sell it on Amazon so that it can reach a wide audience. We aim to reach a stage where we can pay our contributors for their works.