‘Fresh Romance’ and ‘Island’ Signal a Revival of the Anthology Periodical

The popularity and prevalence of periodical comics anthologies, or magazines, has waxed and waned in the United States. At one time, anthologies were the predominant form of comics publishing. Today, comics anthologies are more likely to be one-time or less frequently published trade paperbacks or hardcover books than periodicals. The Best American Comics annual (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the Flight series (Image/Ballantine Books) are both good examples of contemporary anthologies.

In periodical form, Heavy Metal is the primary, continuously published comics anthology in the US. According to sales numbers collected on the Heavy Metal Magazine Fan Page, the high point for the periodical is a circulation of more than 234,000 in 1981-1982. Two years later, sales dropped to below 200,000 and by the ’90s had fallen to double digits. In 2011-2012, the last year for which there are statistics provided, circulation was just over 19,000 (see, “Heavy Metal Magazine Sales History“).

Yet the format continues to have an appeal. Anthologies are favored by many publishers for Free Comic Book Day. Dark Horse Comics revived their flagship “Dark Horse Presents” anthology as an ongoing title in 2011. The publisher had previously rebooted the title for online publishing in partnership with MySpace in 2007 following a break in the original run from 1986 to 2000. This year, there have been two signifiant launches of new magazines: Fresh Romance (Rosy Press) and Island (Image).

Fresh Romance is a project of editor, writer, and publisher Janelle Asselin, and as indicated by the title, is a romance comics anthology. The first issue was released in May. The magazine is currently on issue #3.

Island is the product of writer-artists Emma Rios and Brandon Graham. The content of the magazine is intended to be diverse and wide-ranging. Rios has referred to the magazine as a “playground” for contributors to “have all the freedom possible to write, draw, design, make prose, whatever” (see, Casey Gilly, “Brandon Graham and Emma Rios Expand on Their Ambitious ‘Island’,” Comic Book Resources, 21 January 2015). The first issue was released in July.

The comment from Rios emphasizes one of the virtues of the anthology format: creative diversity and experimentation. In the case of Fresh Romance, part of the stated purpose for the anthology is a diversity of readers, stories, and characters (see About Rosy Press). The opening set of stories features a queered high school romance, “School Spirit”, by Kate Leth, Arielle Jovellanos, Amanda Scurti, and Taylor Esposito, a Regency story, “Ruined”, by Sarah Vaughn, Sarah Winifred Searle, and Ryan Ferrier, and a low fantasy story, “The Ruby Equation”, by Sarah Kuhn, Sally Jane Thompson, Savanna Ganucheau, and Steven Wands.

Romance is a genre that has historically functioned to normalize heterosexual coupling and is also associated with fiction for women. Fresh Romance is intended as a vehicle to push those bounds, but at the same time the range of stories and characters afforded by the magazine format makes for a comic that can hold appeal for someone looking for traditional storytelling while also containing offerings that may expand that same reader’s understanding of “romance”, or that will appeal to readers who may not think of themselves as fans of the genre. Providing that diversity to readers also allows creators a space to make comics that might be difficult to find outlets, or distribution, for otherwise.

All of the stories in the first issue of Island could fairly be described as falling somewhere in the overlapping realms of speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, but thematically, and stylistically, there is little else tying the pieces together. The comics, by Emma Rios, Brandon Graham, and Ludroe, work in different drawing styles, color palettes, and narrative sensibilities. There’s no reason why these stories would appeal to all readers equally.

Anthologies also allow for creator experimentation with, particularly, shorter, or more flexible, narrative forms. A typical comics issue in an ongoing series is 22 pages of story. While publishers may offer creators some latitude to lengthen their storytelling, usually for a “special issue”, the history and structure of comics publishing puts creators in a position of either working in 22-page installments or doing longer form work, i.e., “graphic novels”. While many writers and artists produce and self-publish their own mini-comics, the reach and audience for such works tends to be limited to convention attendees and diehard fans. An anthology magazine opens up regular distribution for stories that are either shorter than the norm or that are told in shorter installments than is typically possible in monthly comics issues.

The comics that constitute the first issue of the Island, with exception of the introductory piece, each fall, roughly, within a more conventional page range for a single issue in an ongoing series, but there’s no standardization across the chapters, and Brandon Graham’s introduction makes clear that creators will be given freedom to write and draw within a generous, and flexible, page range. That kind of flexibility gives creators room to tell stories with a different kind of pacing, or that might only fill a few pages in one issue of a magazine.

The idea of a “magazine” also opens up possibilities for juxtaposing not only different kinds of comics, but comics and different forms of writing and art. Fresh Romance regularly features advice columns and includes fashion reporting, as well as more typical supplements for a monthly comic focused on “behind-the-scenes” production notes. The first issue of Island includes non-narrative art by Marian Churchland and a personal reflection on writer Maggie Estep by Kelly Sue DeConnick with illustrations by Emma Rios. These contributions, which are visually, thematically, and creatively distinct from the comics in the issue, demonstrate Rios’ commitment to letting creators, essentially, do what they want with their contributions.

If Island and Fresh Romance are part of a re-establishing of the comics magazine, I think that one enabling factor is the mainstreaming of digital publishing and distribution and related social media.

Fresh Romance is only available digitally, via the Rosy Press website and comiXology. Island is available digitally and in print. However, in either case, digital publication and distribution means less risk for publishers in terms of print runs and paper inventory. The economics of digital commodities allows for titles that are artistically riskier than do the economics of print.

Both of these books are the kinds of titles that need to connect with the right readers to succeed. Maybe some of those readers have a local comics shop or a nearby convention to attend. Many won’t have either of those opportunities to find and buy comics. Digital distribution makes it possible to reach a wider pool of readers and digital networking means that publishers and creators can reach potential readers without face-to-face interaction or having to provide print copies of a book. Notably, the fully digital and independently-published Fresh Romance was seeded through a Kickstarter campaign. Digital allows for more specialized, niche and small audience work to be published and distributed in ways comparable to more popular or mainstream work.

Digital platforms for publishing and reading comics also lend themselves to different and experimental work in a more formal sense, one consistent with the already-existing possibilities opened up by the anthology format.

In print, the page is a fundamental to comics. In digital, the page becomes optional, if not fully vestigial. Digital comics are often experienced by readers, not in terms of pages, but as streams of panels or as ordered fragments of words and images. In this context, the page not only becomes less significant as a unit of meaning, but pages become less meaningful as measures of value. Delivering a certain number of pages every month doesn’t mean in digital what it does in print. Digital publication and distribution should allow anthologies to develop in ways that are even more flexible and creatively experimental than what is possible in paper.

Starting next year, Grant Morrison will be the new editor-in-chief of Heavy Metal. This move represents a significant investment in, at the very least, the visibility of the magazine. Whether Heavy Metal undergoes a renaissance under Morrison or not, the current availability of monthly anthologies like Island and Fresh Romance is good for anyone interested in seeing American comics continue to grow and diversify.