I own a lot of trade paperbacks. There are a number of reasons I buy trades rather than collect single-issues – space, price, knowing everything’s (probably) in order, bonus features – but there is a major drawback of this format that is completely unnecessary. That drawback is, of course, the dreaded rare book.
With the advent of the internet there are very few things you can’t find, so I’m not talking about this as a matter of treasure hunting or calling every store in your state – although I have done that to find a few books – or about limited editions specifically (I have no love for these, they punish fans who weren’t in to the series when they came out, and lead to the exact problem this article is about) What I mean by rare book is one where a volume containing 5-8 issues goes for $40 to $80 when the cover price is $20, or the third volume of an otherwise inexpensive series going for $150 to $300. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons, but the one we’re talking about today leads to one of my biggest pet peeves in comics: this is not new reader friendly.
A perfect example of this problem in action is the saga of Starman. Starman was a series with a single writer, a unique creative vision, a clear beginning and end, and serves as a great example of what mainstream comics could be. It ran from 1994-2001 over the course of 82 issues and various specials, annuals and miniseries that totaled material from 102 issues. Though previously collected (mostly) in (disastrously out of order) softcover trades, the six volume Starman Omnibus series collected the entire series and its tie-ins in their intended reading order. Most volumes were on the Hardcover Graphic Fiction NYT Best Sellers lists, and the series overall had two Eisner nominations and one win.
While all volumes sold at $50 retail, the third volume goes for $170 to $300 today. And as an aside, whenever a series is out of print it’s consistently some book in the middle that costs the most. I don’t know why, but it’s true.
Starman references two out of print series: the Golden Age Starman and James Robinson’s JSA: The Golden Age. Neither are required reading (and if they were I would have written a very different column about continuity, though I’m sure that day will come), but it’s still frustrating if you find yourself curious about some of these books. Killing curiosity is one of the most dangerous things any genre or medium can do to itself, and barriers to entry do exactly that. “This might be interesting… if it was a hundred dollars cheaper” is an actual phrase I’ve uttered more than once. I know I’m going to pick up another comic. Many other people very well may not. Only the paperback versions of the 1st and 2nd omnibuses, the semi-prequel JSA: The Golden Age and the semi-sequel The Shade remain in print. To buy these online in presentable condition you can expect to pay:
- (OOP) The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1 – $30
- (OOP) The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 2 – $40
- JSA: The Golden Age – $20
- The Starman Omnibus Volume 1 – $25
- The Starman Omnibus Volume 2 – $25
- (OOP) The Starman Omnibus Volume 3 – $170
- (OOP) The Starman Omnibus Volume 4 – $35
- (OOP) The Starman Omnibus Volume 5 – $100
- (OOP) The Starman Omnibus Volume 6 – $40
- The Shade – $10-20
Now, only the six omnibuses are required reading. I don’t actually own the Starman Archives and never once felt lost in the series proper. They’re on my ever-growing wish list of comics, and have been for about six years. Why? This has to do, in part, with why collecting online is so difficult. Buying online is always a risk in terms condition, or even getting the right version of the book. If you’re not willing to pay 3-5 times the retail price, you might (like me) wait four years before you can buy a copy of the book you can be reasonably assured is in good condition – no tears in the dust jacket, no pages missing, no writing on the interior, and binding that hasn’t fallen off (that last, very real one, is why I don’t have a copy of Stewart the Rat).
The only one who benefits from all of this is the secondhand seller: not the collector, not the retailer, not the publisher, not the creators, and certainly not the new reader who read a ‘Top Ten DC Comics’ list and wanted to check out this Starman thing. The collector is buying less new material, the retailer isn’t getting people in the store, the publisher isn’t seeing a dime, and the new reader is throwing up his hands in frustration from the whole stupid enterprise.
Another example: Deadpool’s first ongoing series began with an incredible run by Joe Kelly, and he recently wrote the character again with Spider-Man/Deadpool (pairing with his original artistic collaborator Ed McGuinness). The 2016 movie made over $750 million without being presented in Chinese markets. The 40-issue omnibus by Kelly is out of print and goes for $175 to $225 online. What casual fan who dug the movie is going to go on eBay for the chance to get a hold of that sight unseen? Deadpool’s not crazy, that is.
I’m using the words ‘new’ and ‘casual’ deliberately in this article. While scarcity annoys me as a reader and collector, I’ll wait the four years it takes to find the book I want at a price I’m willing to pay. I’ll grumble about it, but I will wait. Here’s the frustration that makes me grumble about it out loud: every piece of this limits how new readership can interact with comics. For comparison, can you imagine going to a bookstore and being told that Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein, or the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, or the collected Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle are permanently unavailable? The mere concept is ridiculous.
So collectors are affected, yes, but they’re not the ones I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who are browsing at a bookstore, are trying to buy something for their Superman-obsessed kid, or heard that all those CW shows are based off of something. If your friend likes romance, you can buy them Jane Eyre, and if your friend wants to read an award winning comics series, you should be able to buy them the first volume of Starman without giving them an incredibly expensive homework assignment. These potential new fans are being actively pushed away, not just from the esoteric but the mainstream material that is the industry’s bread and butter.
While digital comics are great for of accessibility, they aren’t always the best or most intuitive solution. Going back to Starman, the series ran from #0-81 (let’s not get in to why #0s are confusing right now, or how Issue #81 that came out nine years later), but the omnibuses include an additional 20 issues of tie-ins, annuals and one-shots. Even if all of these were available on Comixology (and they aren’t) I don’t know how someone could determine the intended reading order. So you can absolutely enjoy this story digitally… 4/5ths of it, anyway. Until Comixology and other distribution venues get their houses in order by providing digital versions of trade paperbacks (as some publishers do), including tie-ins, and making the reading order clear to the reader, they will inevitably fail to hold up compared to physical copies.
I used Starman and Deadpool as examples, but there are numerous others. JLA‘s Deluxe Editions, the post-Crisis relaunch of Superman, Fantastic Four by John Byrne, The Question by Dennis O’Neil, David Micheline and Bob Layton’s first run on Iron Man, certain volumes of Will Eisner’s The Spirit… mainstream books that are going for as high as six times the cover price, because that’s what people are willing to pay. Some of these are simply due for another printing, and if they were, I know exactly who I’d recommend each title to. More pressingly, we’re past due on re-examining how comics are collected and distributed. Because for anyone who isn’t selling on the secondhand market, these books have no value at all.