You can listen to the audio version of this post below:
I really hate comic books. No, not comics. I love comics. I hate comic books.
One of my favorite activities is to curl up on the couch with "a good book". As far as I'm concerned, "a good book" can be anything from a prose murder mystery to a trade paperback or a graphic novel. The point is, I like to read. Pictures are optional. What I don't like is having to stop every twenty pages (not including advertisements), stick the comic back into its plastic sleeve, find the next comic, carefully undo the tape, carefully slide the comic out of its sleeve, and carefully, carefully open the book to read it.
This is not an immersive experience.
It's like having every episode of your favorite TV show on a separate DVD in an unlabeled paper sleeve. With commercials. Possibly with a few critical episodes missing.
I don't much like reading comics month-to-month as they come out, either. I have a tendency to let comics I buy pile up and then read three or four issues from a series at once because I find single comics so unsatisfying. I've never been much good with cliffhangers, and most modern superhero comics are written to be part of a larger arc – "written for the trade", as some people say.
Slightly preferable to reading comic books is reading comics on the computer. At least I can eat a sandwich or an apple as I'm reading and not worry about ruining an "investment". Still, there's something missing. It's nice to be able to zoom in on the page, but I just don't get drawn in as much as I do when reading an actual book. Perhaps it's partly the nature of computers and the world we live in; I start reading, but pretty soon I find that I'm switching over to check my Twitter or my Tumblr or my email or someone sends me an instant message, and on and on. I have much the same problem reading regular books on the computer – they just don't engage me to the same degree.
As someone who loves comics and loves books, but does not love comic books, I find it endlessly frustrating that trade paperback versions of my favorite comics are so hard to find and/or buy.
The first comics I got into, as I've mentioned before, were the DC Animated Universe comics Batman Adventures, Batman and Robin Adventures, and Gotham Adventures, as well as the mini-series Lost Years and the one-shot Batgirl Adventures. I initially found scans of these comics by accident online, but after I'd read them illegally I went straight to Amazon and started searching for bound versions. I wanted paper copies and I was ready to pay for them.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of those comics were never collected into trade paperback format. There are a few trades, but they only cover a fraction of the series. Plus, some of them, like Gotham Adventures and Lost Years, are very expensive.
It was too pricey to buy all of the out of print trades, especially because they didn't cover the full series, but I wanted paper copies enough to buy a reasonably-priced collection of the original comic books from someone on ebay. There they sit, on my shelf, untouched and unread because they are too much of a pain in the ass.
(I know, I could have them professionally bound. Maybe someday I'll shell out the cash and take the time to do so.)
The other day I found an online comic shop selling the four most recent trade paperback volumes of Gail Simone's Secret Six for ten dollars each. I looked for the first few volumes to complete the set. At the time of this writing, each of the first two volumes are selling for somewhere between 50 dollars (used) and 60 dollars (new). Secret Six just ended, but already the first two volumes are out of print? It's just weird!
I can't help but compare it to another recent experience. Not long ago I started reading the Dresden Files series thanks to a friend's recommendation. At the time I started reading, 13 books had been released. However, like most people, I didn't want to start from book 13, I wanted to start from book number one. You can buy a hardcover copy of the first book directly on Amazon for about fifteen bucks. You can buy the paperback version even cheaper; though the first paperback edition is going out of print, the publisher is re-printing it later this year. Sure, you can pay through the nose for a first edition hardcover version of the book if you like, or you can get a used copy really cheaply from a local or online used bookstore, but the point is that the book is still available from the publisher. Imagine if someone recommended a series to you, but the only way to get the first two volumes of it was to pay over $100 for them? Would you be likely to pick it up? If the only way I could have gotten my hands on the first volume of the Dresden Files was to pay an exorbitant amount of money for it, I simply wouldn't have read it…or any of the other books in the series.
Yes, there are other avenues. I could borrow the book, either from a friend or a library. I don't really like to borrow books, though, since I worry about messing them up. I prefer to read things at my own pace and not have to worry about giving them back at a set time. Besides, I often go back and re-read books I like. If I can get them for a reasonable price, I prefer to buy and own them. I'm also a completist; whenever possible I like to own the full series of something. Owning, say, the fourth to sixth books in a series would drive me crazy!
And then there's question of whether the publisher and author can make any money from a title. Those comics I bought on ebay? None of the money's going back to DC for those, just like none of it would go back to Gail Simone if I spent fifty bucks to buy the first trade paperback of Secret Six. I'm not saying one shouldn't buy used, I like used books. But if a publisher wants to make money on a title, that title actually needs to be in print and available to the consumer. I often choose to spend a few
extra dollars to buy new when I have the option.
With the wide availability of "print on demand" services and sites around today, I find it hard to believe that it's that hard to keep a book in print. I find it particularly strange that comic companies can't seem to keep the earliest volumes of a series in print, especially a series that's just finished or is very popular. Heck, in a lot of cases, they don't bother to print trades at all. When the TV show Young Justice came out, I eagerly awaited the announcement of a new trade paperback set of the original Young Justice comic. Instead, I got the first few issues combined in flimsy 100-page comic book "spectaculars", and nothing else. I bought them anyway, but what I really want is the original Young Justice released in a convenient, readable, at least somewhat durable format in its entirety for a fair price. The TV show is a huge opportunity to introduce new fans to the DC universe with a great transitional comic, but good luck finding said comic!
Why is this so difficult? Plenty of people watch a show when it comes out on TV. But plenty of people also buy the boxed set of a show when it's released. Many people don't even discover a series until long after it's gone off the air. Case in point: I didn't see Firefly until the DVD boxed set came out. Heck, I'm just now watching the original British version of Life on Mars, and that came out in 2005. Even old and obscure series like Danger Man or Wonderfalls are available on DVD. Is it that much easier to keep DVDs in print than trade paperbacks?
Seriously, why don't comic companies offer "boxed sets", especially of older series? I would love to get my hands on the full run of the Cassandra Cain version of Batgirl, but I can't find the earlier volumes at a price that doesn't require organ donation. When I started reading Robin, I looked for trades collecting the earlier issues, but unfortunately the vast majority of them, the first 119 issues, in fact, were never collected in trade format. Or if they were, I haven't been able to find them anywhere. Give me a full run of Robin, of Young Justice, of Cassandra Cain's Batgirl, and I will give you my money!
I'm not saying that I can never find the series I want in a bound format; I've got a shelf full of trades that says otherwise. But over half the time when I set out to look for a trade version of a particular comic, either no trade exists, or it's out of print and more than twice the price of the original volume, or later volumes are available for a reasonable price, but earlier volumes are not, which deters me from buying any of them. That's a lot of my money comic companies are losing out on.
Oh well, I suppose it could be worse. At least I'm not a Marvel fan.
The Final Squeak
Of course, all this avoids the much more sensitive question of when and whether one should use the term "comic book" versus the term "graphic novel"… (the portion relavent to our interests begins at 1:18).
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go curl up and re-read my trades of Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl.