I've been collecting comics since sometime after The Death of Superman. In fact, the comic that got me collecting again wasn't even a comic book; it was a trade paperback: the collected edition of The Death of Superman. Following that, I bought the Funeral and then began buying the issues month-by-month for the Reign of the Superman. However, I later sold those issues to buy the collected Return of Superman. I'm explaining this to give a brief introduction in what I'd like to talk about:
Trades. Collected editions. Deluxe editions. Omnibuses. Absolutes. There seems to be a glut of business in the way that comics are collected together. There are times I feel like I need a flow chart to follow the practices of it.
Admittedly, I'm a more casual comic book buyer than the average fan. I don't rush to the comic store every Wednesday to grab what's on my pull list. I used to, though many times, I had ordered trades or omnibuses and less than half a dozen monthly issues. These days, I tend to go weeks, sometimes a month or two before buying something. But my spending is still pretty high, since I buy the latest Kirby Omnibus as it comes out, just bought the fourth and final Sandman Absolute and buy many series in trade form, including Ex Machina, Buffy, Fables, Green Lantern, Iron Fist, Criminal, etc.
Given the amount of volumes I buy, though, I find that there are some business practices that I don't understand. Let me put this behind a cut and go into greater detail. Here's a list of topics I want to cover:
1) Why I Buy Trades
2) Multiple Volumes
3) Absolutes & Omnibuses
4) Premiere Hardcovers
5) Doing It Right
6) A Minor Pet Peeve and Closing Remarks (including summing up everything)
1) Why I Buy Trades
As I said in my introduction, I've become a more casual buyer of comics. I find that buying a single, 22 page floppy monthly does not satisfy me, especially in light of the price tag of many of them rising to $3.99 (U.S.). To me, buying a monthly is the equivalent of buying a novel, but receiving it chapter-by-chapter. To me, buying a trade is like choosing not to wait week-by-week for a television to air, wait for the DVD release and watch it all at your own pace, watching the story, as a whole, unfold. Admittedly, most comic series do not tell the entire story in volume, planting seeds for later events. However, many stories these days are written with collected editions in mind, many times stretching a story out to six issues for that very purpose.
Buying a trade isn't just about the story, though. It looks great on the shelf (especially as the series progresses and more volumes come out and the trade dress/design stylistically similar) and there's less worry about taking care of them instead of floppies. I still have longboxes of monthlies at home, though I no longer have any in bags and boards. To me, the best thing about trades is that they serve as a great introduction to a series for a new reader. I've lent out hundreds of trades to different friends who wound up becoming new comic book fans, as a result.
In fact, isn't that what trade paperbacks are for? An easy, affordable way for a casual fan or someone in a bookstore to catch up on a series? Are they, then, expected to buy the floppy monthlies? This would be understandable, but many times, both companies release, say, a complete, self-contained 12-issue storyline in two volumes. This brings up my next point.
2) Multiple Volumes
One of my biggest pet peeves, especially at DC, is the business practice of putting out a full story in separate volumes. This includes storylines such as Batman: Hush, Superman: For Tomorrow, Superman: Camelot Falls, Darwyn Cooke's run on The Spirit, Green Lantern: Sinestro War and All Star Superman. Admittedly, All Star Superman had several delays and I believe the series wasn't even completed when the first volume was re-released in trade form.
Now, I'll get to "premier hardcovers" in my next point, but look at it this way. Suppose the casual buyer, one that doesn't even follow comics, wants to buy Batman: Hush. Now, assume they can't afford the Absolute and discover that the storyline is collected in two separate volumes. They'll probably buy it, but what if they ask to get it Christmas from someone who doesn't know there are two volumes? They might open it up on Christmas day and only get half of the story. Why didn't DC just wait and put the entirety of the series out in one, complete volume where the story can be read from cover to cover, like they did with Long Halloween and Dark Victory (admittedly, they were released in hardcover first, but I hope you get my point)? Would it not bring a bit more success on the casual and bookstore market?
It's certainly not impossible to pull this off. There have been several large stories that have been collected in a single volume, from Superman: Birthright, Batman: Long Halloween, Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Return of Superman, JLA: Year One, etc. A few years ago, Marvel collected their 90s epic storyline, The Age of Apocalypse, in four giant softcover volumes.
What bothers me most is Justice: a 12 issue series collected into three volumes (four issues each). First, it was collected into premiere hardcovers, the softcover of the final volume only just recently released and an Absolute on the way. Personally, I'm buying the Absolute because I love those bad boys (I'll explain that later) but again, suppose the casual fan had heard about the series and was told they had to wait for each volume to be released before being able to read the self contained, 12-issue series in its entirety? For the casual reader or someone who just happens eye the Justice volumes in the bookstore, I wonder if that might be frustrating or confusing. The argument could be made that someone in a bookstore is used to this practice with a series of novels, such as Harry Potter. However, one of those books is still relatively self-contained and everything is wrapped up at the end. Justice, however, does not have that same style of storytelling in each volume. It's meant to be read and completed from issue one through to twelve.
Another example is the Sinestro War. Suppose you've been talking on and on about this great storyline to a friend online who sounds interested but doesn't buy comics. They go into the comic store or bookstore and ask to buy the book (trade). What do they get? Volume one. They're told that volume two comes out later (it's out now, but you get my point) and a third volume collecting just the one-shots will follow it. What if they just want to buy The Sinestro War from beginning to end to see how great it is? Sorry buddy, but the company wants to release their books into the casual and bookstore market the same way they release their monthly comics.
Ask fans of Battlestar Galactica how frustrated they are that the DVD releases of the last few seasons have been released half and half. Many of them will tell you that it's a ridiculous business practice (though maybe not so frakkin' eloquently). Again, suppose a casual fan hears how great Battlestar Galactica is. They go to buy the second season and find out that to get 12 episodes, it costs them the same as what it might cost to get a full 22-episode series of another show. To me, there's no difference.
I think about the casual or bookstore buyer more and more when it comes to collected editions. For example, the original plan for DC's Final Crisis hardcover collection was to simply collect issues #1-7. But if the casual buyer, who had only heard about the story and was curious, was to buy it, they would be endlessly confused. Not because of Morrison's writing, but because in the final issue, an entirely new villain suddenly shows up who had not even been mentioned before. To understand where he came from, you had to read Superman Beyond #1-2. Now, Final Crisis is thankfully being remodelled to include Superman Beyond and a couple of other relevant issues and now it's a volume I'm interested in buying, one that I could lend to a friend without (hopefully) little back story explanation.
The same could be said of Marvel's World War Hulk. When reading about it, it seems like not only is the mini-series itself important, but the related issues of Incredible Hulk are, as well. However, both are released in two separate volumes. Would they read better collected together? I don't know, but I'm still waiting for Marvel to do so.
Of course, if DC released a Sinestro War Omnibus, collecting the entire story with tons of extras? I'd personally be on that faster than you can say Kilowog. Which brings me to my next point.
3) Absolutes & Omnibuses
When I can afford them, I love getting an Omnibus or an Absolute. For one, they look absolutely gorgeous on the shelf (the Sandman Absolutes look like a series of giant magical tomes). I've happily bought up the Jack Kirby Omnibuses as they've been coming out, not only to have a complete series such as The Demon or OMAC, but also for Mark Evanier's fantastic insights into The King, himself. Heck, I used to have James Robinson's Starman in trade form and sold them when I heard of the series of Omnibuses were being released.
For me, the nice thing about an Omnibus or an Absolute is that you get more than just a handful of issues (unlike the insulting Justice collections). The Fourth World Omnibuses collect a whopping 16 issues a piece, which is more than satisfying until the next volume. I also loved Marvel's Captain America Omnibus that collected the first 25 issues of Ed Brubaker's run (and hope they do the same with the next 25 issues!). In most cases, I'll get the full story (such as OMAC or The Demon) or at the very least, have a very large, satisfying chunk of the story.
But I also love the amount of extras that come in an Absolute. Kingdom Come was only a four-issue series (each each double sized). The Absolute, though, also has the equivalent of a trade paperback worth in extras and background material. The same with Watchmen and Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier. Then, there are great series retrospectives, such as James Robinson's retrospective writing on the Starman series. All of it worth every penny, in my opinion. I'd previously debated with myself buying the Sandman Absolutes, especially given that I used to have the trades (and sold them to have money for the Absolutes), but as soon as I cracked it open and saw how gorgeous they were, I said to myself "Totally worth it!"
I wish I could say the same for "Premiere" hardcovers, which is my next point.
4) Premiere Hardcovers
Let me put this into a good perspective: everyone who buys monthlies is excited for the build up in Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps for the upcoming epic storyline, Blackest Night. I can't wait to buy the trade and read the story as a whole. However, I've yet to buy the Sinestro War because I'm waiting for them to come out in trade, not hardcover. The last softcover edition of Green Lantern, thus far, was Wanted: Hal Jordan, which collects the series up to just before the Sinestro War. As of this writing, the first VOLUME of Sinestro War is finally being put out in softcover in a few months. I've already made my point about volumes before.
However, unlike an Absolute or an Omnibus, a premiere hardcover ("premiere" being Marvel;s term, but it fits) collects the issues into a not-as-affordable hardcover. For example, I honestly couldn't wait any longer to finish reading All Star Superman and bought the hardcover, which looks silly on the shelf alongside its softcover cousin, gouging out further than the rest of the softcovers surrounding it. The price difference? $22.9 US for the hardcover, $14.99 for the softcover. Again, I believe the original idea behind a trade paperback was to give fans, especially casual fans, a chance to catch up on their favourite series in a quick, affordable manner.
To me, it feels redundant to release the exact same book in hardcover and then wait six months (or longer!) for a softcover edition. Why not just release a softcover, first, and then perhaps a 12-issue deluxe hardcover later on? For fans that just want to stay relatively up to date and talk about the series with friends, they can buy the softcovers. For fans that want something a little more collectable with lots of extras that looks nice on the shelf, release a 12-issue deluxe hardcover later on. This is a business practice that Marvel used to use, especially back during the early days of the Ultimate Universe. In fact, I happily waited a year to get 12 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man in the deluxe hardcover. Ditto for The Ultimates 1 and Ultimates 2. In the latter case, I got the chance to read each of the 13-issue maxi-series in one go; it was very entertaining and well worth the wait.
Now, the argument could be made "Doesn't that go against what you said before about collecting the whole story?" My argument in this is for a regular series, where the story is ongoing. Again, most comic book stories today are written with a collected edition in mind. The first three volumes of Green Lantern that I own are relatively self contained, collecting about six issues a piece. But I'm still waiting for the second softcover volume of Superman: Camelot Falls, for example. Similar to buying monthlies, for me and given the price, there isn't enough content to warrant buying a premiere hardcover.
There are, however, some business practices out there that I wholeheartedly believe to be good. That's my next point.
5) Doing it Right
The absolute (no pun intended) best example of the trade market is both Wildstorm and most especially, Vertigo. Very soon after a storyarc in a series, Vertigo releases its trade paperback volume. In fact, this business practice has allowed many series to remain ongoing to their completion because of how well the trades sell. 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, Fables, Northlanders, Preacher and many more have been happily bought up by me because they are affordable, are released frequently alongside the series itself and look great.
Wildstorm is similar, I believe, with at least Ex Machina.
However, in the last few years, a new business practice has cropped up: deluxe editions. Personally, I'm heavily considering selling off my Preacher trades and buying the deluxe hardcovers. Again, there's more bang for my buck (12 issues) and will have some extras in them at a pretty affordable price. The Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina hardcovers look so beautiful that I'm considering the same.
It seems odd to me that this great practice is done by the same company that releases premiere hardcovers. The Vertigo market practice is one that many casual comic book fans have begun collecting because of the great word of mouth or reviews of a popular Vertigo series. And because of the frequency in which the trades were released, it was viable for them to do so.
Marvel used to follow a great practice, as I mentioned, especially with the Ultimate titles. For example, two softcover volumes of Ultimate Fantastic Four would be released, followed soon after with a one-volume hardcover. Sure, it took longer to catch up on the series and I would read year-old stories, but it was no different than waiting for a movie to come out on DVD (which takes up to six months or longer) or a TV series to be released on DVD. Now, admittedly, there are some premiere hardcovers that I agree with, such as Kraven's Last Hunt. I've yet to buy it, but I believe it has a lot extras and retrospective notes from the creators. I think if more hardcovers were like this, I would buy them. It's all about getting more bang for your buck.
6) A Minor Pet Peeve and Closing Remarks
If you've made it this far, I thank you for reading. One minor pet peeve that I have when it comes to trades is a practice that DC does on some occasions: a cover gallery at the back. Now, as I've said, I look at trades as a complete book, something that if you read it in one sitting, you get just about a full, self-contained story. And a book is usually divided into chapters with some sort of indication of such. But with a cover gallery at the back, the jump from issue to issue (or chapter to chapter) is jarring, most especially if the story is done by multiple artists or writers. I believe that a trade's chapters should be divided by their covers and the first page of the comic starts as it did in the floppy form: on the right page. Perfect examples of this are All Star Superman or most Vertigo titles. It's a break between issues, which might help, with, say, a cliffhanger or knowing a good spot to stop and place your bookmark before going to bed. But it's a very minor pet peeve, at best and usually won't stop me from buying the trade.
So, to sum up:
-Ideally, trades are well put together, affordable, consistently released editions for the casual and bookstore market.
-They should, unless it's a regular series with an long reaching (over over a year) storyarc, be collected into one volume so that said casual buyer can read it all in one fell swoop.
-Hardcovers should be limited to deluxe or special editions, like a collector's edition, with extras and retrospectives. I'd love to see many of these trades include something like Wizard magazine's commentary with the creators (the commentary for Green Lantern: Rebirth was awesome, such as being pointed out that Guy's ring slips on his middle finger; it's a damn shame it wasn't included in the collected edition).
-The most ideal way to release a series would be in (roughly, depending on the storyarcs) 6-issue editions and then later put out a deluxe edition for fans that want more than just the story.
I know that some comic book buyers and even some working in the comic book business don't like the idea of the dreaded "I'll wait for the trade" buyers. However, as I've said, Vertigo certainly makes good business by embracing the idea of the trade paperback. And as I've said, many of Vertigo's titles continue because of the success of trade paperbacks. There have been some series that have been saved or resurrected because of the success of collected editions (Runaways being a great example of this, with Marvel's super-affordable digests).
The comic book business has changed over the past 15-20 years. Previously, comic books were relegated to magazine counters or in grocery stores. Many old series could only be found in back issue bins. Now, collected volumes have their own growing section in bookstores and has become a very viable market. But trade paperbacks need to be treated more like a book series where you can buy one volume and enjoy it in its entirety. They need to be affordable to the casual market and then have something a little more pricey (but still worth the cost) for collectors.
When I started buying comics, my first impression of them was The Death of Superman trade paperback, which not only gave me the coveted issue where he actually dies, but the full story of the brutal battle with Doomsday. If the Reign of the Superman was collected today using DC's current business practice, there would be three separate hardcovers: one for the debut issues of each character that kicked off the arc, then, the middle volume where they interact and finish with the battle in Coast City. Admittedly, to fully enjoy the Death and Return of Superman, there are either three separate volumes (which I recommend) but they're still self-contained on their own. There's also the recently released Death & Return of Superman Omnibus, which is nice, but it omits a lot of the Funeral trade (making for a bit of a confusing read for those portions), so despite the great amount of extras, I have a difficult time recommending it.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy criticism of today's business practice in collected editions. Given that I've been collecting them nearly exclusively for fifteen years, now, it's something I've given a lot of thought to.