Comics As Art?: Part 1: Judging a Book By Its (Hard) Cover

Marvel has recently started publishing affordable hardcover collections of current successful comics runs, including Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil, Waid and Weiringo’s Fantastic Four and Millar and Hitch’s Ultimates. These editions offer a slightly oversized, nicely printed, thick chunk of comics that usually cover material alternatively available in two paperbacks, at a price less than said two paperbacks. Needless to say, the offer is extremely tempting and one wonders who would still buy the paperbacks (one also wonders why similar hardcovers of classic material such as DC’s Archives and Marvel’s Masterworks still cost twice as much as these newer editions, but that’s another story). Still, one has to admit that even if it cost slightly more to get a good work in hardcover, it would still be worth it. After all it looks better, and appearance is everything in a comic book.

I remember an article in the much-missed Borderline that made the following point: comics don’t offer good value for the money, because the amount of story you get in a $15 graphic novel is only a fraction of what you would get for the same sum in a book of prose. To me, that missed the point entirely: comics are a visual medium, and visual media are by default more expensive to own. Think of how much it costs to buy even a low grade reproduction of a famous painting, or a good book that contains several of them. Not only is the color and print quality fundamental, but you would automatically opt for a more lavish packaging if the works included are of any interest to you. Reducing comics to the value of story alone removes their essential differentiating trait.

It is interesting to consider the differences in general perception of comics in Europe and the United States, and ponder whether it is due in part to the quality of their packaging. The French for instance grow up reading comics and proudly display them on their bookshelves well into their adulthood. This includes the general public, not just the stereotypical “comic geek”. These comics nearly always respect the same format: oversized (by American standards) hardcovers of 48 to 64 pages, neatly packaged with excellent colors and stock, carrying price tags starting around ten Euros. In terms of story for your money, that is definitely not a good deal (although it should be said that European comics tend to favor tighter, more densely packed panel grids which means they can fit more story on any page). But they look gorgeous. You would have a hard time convincing their target audience to shell out money for 22-page stories in floppy format, on lower quality paper and at about half the size! And when this audience discusses their comics, they do so with the same respect they do films or prose novels. There is also respect in the name they use for their books, “albums”, which is definitely prettier than the rather demeaning “trade paperback”.

But carton covers alone do not a good book make, and content quality is ultimately the deciding factor on the artistic merit of comics. Yet, marketing is usually more about perception than actual product value, and the throwaway format of individual comics and most collections is enough to turn off many an art lover who otherwise might consider giving it a try. Marvel’s new hardcovers are a step in the right direction, for sure, although once the non-comics reader has been lured by the packaging, he/she might still have a hard time getting into the superhero stuff inside. In that case, perhaps what you need is one of the two recent brilliant deals from Fantagraphics, Palomar and Locas, collecting the Love and Rockets works of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez respectively in a neat package that should convert many a non-believer. Perhaps one of the beautiful hardcover collections of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Quimby the Mouse would do the trick. While I am at it, may I suggest you invest in the hardcover versions David Lapham’s Stray Bullets which are excellent value for the money? There are more and more comics being produced in valorizing packages at reasonable prices, “reasonable” being a relative term of course depending on their content. If more of these are produced, might we witness the day when the hardcover is the preferable format for comics collections, closing a gap between American and European comics, and possibly finally earning the former a bit more respect?

Does that mean one should disdain cheaper collections of comics? Absolutely not. Even bargain editions like Marvel’s Essentials and almost all manga collections have their own merits. In fact, Marvel’s Essentials are a fantastic way to catch up on legendary old runs or revisit nostalgic series without looking in back-issue bins or shelling out for slowly published more handsome editions. Yet these collections are strictly aimed at a certain category of fanboy, and would definitely not contribute to improving the general public’s appreciation of graphic storytelling. They are different marketing strategies with different agendas and should continue to coexist.

The new initiatives in hardcover publishing should be encouraged, especially if they collect high quality material. I doubt if a collection of Liefeld’s embarrassingly bad X-Force is warranted. If Marvel has found an economic model that allows it to produce this format, other publishers should pick it up. Already, however, worrying signs are appearing, with a recent announcement that the remaining uncollected part of Alias would not be released in the same format. It would be a pity if this new publishing policy, with all it promises for the medium, were to be abandoned so early.