Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

In Defense of
Trade Paperbacks

by Brian MacDonald

I have a confession to make: I don't buy comics anymore. At least, I don't buy them in the traditional way anymore. I only buy trade paperbacks. It seemed a logical conclusion at the time. When I was in college, in the early '90s, I used to buy a few comics every week, until I realized that "a few" had become "a small stack" because of all the crossovers and guest appearances I needed to keep up with. I decided to quit altogether before my small stack became a big stack, and I couldn't pay the rent.

A couple of years ago, however, I realized that as a responsible adult with a job and all that good stuff, I could probably afford to buy a few comics again. I dropped by the comic shop in the mall one day, and discovered that the comics that used to cost a dollar, ten years ago, now cost $2.25 or $2.50. I'm no economist, but I don't think inflation accounts for a 150% increase in ten years. Sure, the paper seemed to be better, but I couldn't determine any other differences. I couldn't see myself spending that much on 32 pages of entertainment, so I left the shop.

It could have ended there, but the next time I placed an order at Amazon.com, I decided to add to my order The Dark Knight Returns, which I've always wanted to own. After that, I found myself saying, "Oh, I'll just pick up this TPB too," whenever I placed an order at Amazon. At first, I didn't think that I had really gotten back into comics, but once my TPBs needed their own shelf in my bookcase, I realized that I was in fact a comic geek once again.

Once I admitted that I was part of the comic crowd, I considered switching to monthly issues, but I realized that I liked my new method. It's not for everyone, and it may not even be "real" comic buying in some peoples' minds, but it works for me. It took me a while to come around to the idea of not getting my comics in their traditional form, but the reasons were compelling.

TPBs are cost-effective. I've been collecting the Grant Morrison run on JLA lately, so I'll use that as an example. If you bought #1-4 when they came out, they'd cost you $2.25 apiece, for a total of $9.00. The New World Order TPB costs $5.95, so I get the same art, the same story, for a savings of 33%. I admit that many TPBs cost more than the cover price of their original issues. For example, the TPB for Kingdom Come costs $14.95 for four issues. Those issues probably didn't cost $3.75 when they came out, but I challenge you to find an issue of Kingdom Come today for that price, so I still save.

TPBs hold up better. I mentioned that I keep my TPBs on my bookshelf. They're almost all nicely bound, on glossy paper, with strong covers, so they stand up well. I don't need bags, boards, or longboxes to store my collection, so I save money there too. If I want to re-read JLA: The Nail, which is a story that deserves to be read more than once, I simply pull it off the shelf and re-read it. I don't have to worry about devaluing the issue by getting my fingerprints on it.

TPBs give you the whole story at once. With a TPB, you don't have to wait a month (or more, if the book is late) to find out how Batman gets out of this one - just turn the page. When you read the end of the book, you read the end of the story. Back in the days of single-issue stories, that didn't matter as much, but with story arcs now running three, four, or six issues, it's great to be able to read the whole story in one place, which is probably the way the writer thought it up. Yes, there are TPBs that break story arcs in the middle, but they're not the majority, and the editors who put those together should be ashamed of themselves.

This benefit is most noticeable in collections of limited-run series, like Kingdom Come or Watchmen, or just about any Elseworlds series you can think of. The story is contained entirely within itself; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end all within one volume. You don't need to know 50 years of continuity (although it sometimes helps); you just need to know about these characters, and what they're doing here, now. It's a graphic novel in the original sense of the term.

TPBs let you be choosier. When you're a faithful reader of a monthly comic, you usually buy it every month, no matter who the creative team is, because you're loyal to the character, and that's what loyal readers do. You usually don't read reviews in advance, so if the issue stinks, you're stuck with it. If the writer stinks for a year, you either quit that title, or you're stuck with a year's worth of lousy stories. If you buy TPBs, you can find out in advance if the story is any good. You know that John Smith's run on SuperDude was terrible, but Jim Jones' run was excellent, so you can only buy the good ones. Even better, you can find out if a story started strong, but fell apart at the end of the fourth issue, ruining the entire thing. If you buy monthly, you'll have bought at least three issues before being disappointed by the fourth.

TPBs are more widely available. We all love comics, but let's face it: Comic shops have a negative stigma associated with them. The major publishers know this too, and that's why they've aggressively pushed TPBs at more traditional booksellers. Your average Borders or Barnes & Noble probably has several shelves full of TPBs. Even the smaller mall bookstores generally have a shelf or two. You can pick up some Dickens, some Hemmingway, and some Mark Waid all in the same place, and prove just how well-rounded you are. If you're really shy about your comic-buying habit, you can pretend the TPB is for your nephew, and you really came in to get some Proust.

Of course, bookstore TPB shelves are often badly organized, and bookstore buyers don't follow the comic industry, so you're more likely to find ten copies of The Death of Superman than one copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths. But if you know what you want, and you don't need to see it before you buy it, that's what online shopping was created for. You can get almost any TPB that's still in print from Amazon, BN.com, or any other online bookstore. So if you can't stand to have the cashier see you buying a copy of Zero Hour (believe me, most of them don't care), you can buy it from Amazon, and nobody needs to see you read it. You usually save a little money buying online, too.

There are lots of counter-arguments to buying only TPBs, but I think that most of them don't apply. Some TPBs, especially hardbound ones, are very expensive, and the stories and art aren't worth the cover price. The publishers realize that some people are fond enough of Superman to pay $50 for an embossed, hardcover collection of stories that you can't find anywhere else, and some people have the money to buy such a thing. But they also realize that most people aren't willing to pay that much, and the trend in recent years has been toward the lower-cost TPBs that I mentioned. I think that DC has done a better job of this than Marvel; most of DC's collections are reasonably priced for the amount of story you get. Marvel's Essentials collection is a notable exception, but those are printed in black-and-white on what amounts to newsprint, and the quality ranges from fair to awful.

Another drawback is that only a few titles have their entire run available as a series of TPBs. Although the past few years of the most popular titles, like Superman, Batman, and JLA, are available in their entirety, many other titles are not, and collections of older issues don't feature all the issues in order. I think this situation will change over time, as more series get the TPB treatment more regularly. Also, I think electronic publishing will eventually make lots of back issues available that otherwise wouldn't warrant reprinting, but that's just speculation for now.

Also, when you're collecting issues of an ongoing series, crossovers still cause problems, just like they would for monthly readers. In the JLA: Rock of Ages TPB, Wonder Woman appears on the cover, and in the roll call that appears before the first issue, but she was dead for that entire story arc, so she doesn't appear in the book at all. Even reading the previous collection doesn't help, because she didn't die in the pages of JLA. Fortunately, Kyle complains about her absence early on, so there's at least some explanation. The JLA: American Dreams collection that Nicolas Juzda reviewed in last month's Fanzing is obviously a collection of shorter stories stuck together in one cover because they fell between New World Order and Rock of Ages, and it shows. Fortunately, this doesn't apply to limited series TPBs, and if you're not feeling completist, you can just skip American Dreams and be none the worse for it.

Finally, it's true that TPBs have little or no collector value compared to the original issues. This argument wanders dangerously close to a debate about the purpose of comics. To my mind, if you're going to buy an issue, put it in a bag with tweezers, and never open it, you're not actually reading comics. On the other hand, if you want to read a compelling story with great characters, and see some good art, it shouldn't matter if you're reading a monthly issue or a TPB.

Throughout this discussion, I've carefully stayed away from the issue of whether increased demand for TPBs will help or hurt the comic book industry. The fate of the industry has been argued in these pages by wiser folk than me, and in great detail. As far as I can tell, more people reading comics is a good thing, no matter what form they're reading them in.

The bottom line: If you're reading the title to get some good stores and good art to go with it, or if you're just trying to find out what your favorite character was doing sometime in the past before you started reading their book, TPBs are the most convenient and cost-effective way to go, provided the issues you want are available. Next time you find yourself hunting through back-issue bins trying to find an rare issue you just have to have, check to see if it's in a TPB somewhere; you might be glad you did.

 
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