05 September 2009

The Danger of Blank Pages in Comics

So in The Dream Hunters Neil Gaiman wrote a fictional tale of japanoiserie, and then a secondary fictional tale of finding the first in a book of Japanese folklore, only to find that people accepted the second tale as true and the first, thus, as authentic.

So what lessons can we take from that story behind the story-behind-the-story of The Dream Hunters? Aside from the general gullibility of crowds (myself included at first).

Gaiman himself saw the size of the afterword’s typeface and other design elements as critical to how it was interpreted:

...the afterword was printed in small official-looking type.

Which somehow made it no longer part of the story, and nobody ever doubted that I was telling the truth about this being an old Japanese folktale...
It’s true that the afterword is set at an eye-strainingly small size. But would readers have reacted differently if the same text had appeared on a double-page spread with, say, a photo of Gaiman in his study, examining some unidentified antique volume? Would that really have seemed like part of the story rather than part of the publishing apparatus (acknowledgments, credits, and so on)?

What I find more interesting is the reason Gaiman wrote that afterword at all:
I got a worried call from [editor] Jenny Lee, saying that the book was going to run short and could I do anything to fill a few pages at the end.
Most book publishers don’t get worried about “a few pages at the end” with nothing on them. Novels and other prose books usually have a couple of blanks at the front and back, and sometimes more in between. Indeed, starting every chapter on a right-hand page (recto), thus leaving some of the facing left-hand pages (versos) blank, is one way to pad out a short manuscript.

Of course book publishers don’t want to pay for more paper than they have to, nor to run so many blank pages together that readers notice. There are tricks to avoid those problems:
  • optional pages, such as half-titles (which display the book’s title, but not the author’s name or publisher’s colophon).
  • moving the author’s dedication to the copyright page, or giving it a page on its own with a blank following.
  • including an author bio inside the book, or leaving it out.
  • a section title page and blank before the notes, index, or other backmatter.
  • the ever-popular note on typography!
If, after all available tricks, a book over 100 pages long still has two or three blanks at the front or back, a traditional prose publisher doesn’t sweat it.

Comics publishing must be different. The Dream Hunters came in at 128 pages, every spread illustrated in full color on glossy paper. But apparently readers would have felt cheated if the volume had contained only 125 pages with content. Comics readers seem to expect every page of a volume to hold words or art.

And indeed, I’ve seen complaints about collected editions that include a black page inserted between chapters to ensure two-page spreads fall appropriately. Some readers prefer images reprinted from elsewhere in the book to any sort of blank. Which is how we, and Gaiman, got into this mess.

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