It was barely five years ago that the argument about single issues versus trades really swung into gear. It was being touted as the death of comic book retail, and for many stores it was just that. But those who adapted have survived – some have even thrived – and we now face a new argument over single issues versus their digital counterparts. Things will probably turn out much the same way, as retailers once again adapt and refocus to address this latest threat to their livelihood. It’s certainly not the end (as naysayers will always predict), but it does raise questions about the place of the humble comic book in today’s society.
For me I’ve wavered in my feelings over the years. I was all on board with trade paperbacks for their appearance and ease of storage. They look good on my bookshelf and seem to take up far less room than the single issues bagged and boarded often do. Some creators even went so far as to put special features in the trade which weren’t available anywhere else. I was sold. And then I started to think about it for a while …
The fact is, single issues are the lifeblood of this industry we all know and love. While there will always be original graphic novels, most trades are comprised of the building blocks of single issues. If a book doesn’t sell well enough or gets cancelled midway, then your hopes for a trade are gone. It’s those single issues, and the people who buy them, that ensure the eventual collection will come out. Similarly, it’s those single issues which keep the comic stores you know and love in business. Trades are great and wonderful, but with so much competition, it’s hard for any retailer to measure up. They rely on your good custom and personal support to see them through where pricing can’t.
But single issues are different, and comic stores generally have the monopoly on them. It’s where you can read the stories first, before anywhere else, even digitally in a lot of cases. More importantly it’s where you can connect and get recommendations for what else is good. In an age where we sit online, meet via Facebook and share chit-chat via Twitter, the comic store is more important than ever before. It gets us to unplug, move about, and interact face-to-face for a few moments. We walk away with something tangible that can be enjoyed while lying in bed, on the toilet, on the train, out in the park or anywhere else your heart desires. But I digress, the issue for today is the comics not the stores themselves.
So, where does that leave the monthly comic book? In recent times I’ve noticed a grassroots movement to bring single issues back to the fore. It’s come from unlikely sources such as DC Comics who relaunched their New 52 and have been doggedly ‘holding the line at $2.99′, but it’s also come through various Image and indie creators who have found ways to add value to their monthly books (and often hold the line at $2.99 while they’re at it). This doesn’t mean there’s been a complete backflip on single issues versus trades, but it shows that creators (and fans) recognise the importance of the monthly book. If readers can be offered an incentive to consume their books monthly then they might just go for it.
Even Robert Kirkman, whose trades sell in quantities other creators can only dream about, recognises the value of the single issue. That’s why his books, such as The Walking Dead, continue to feature their popular letters pages with pithy responses from Kirkman and his editor Sina Grace. There’s a value in both the inclusion and interaction which lifts the comic above being standard fare, and this is something trade readers have been missing out on. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but comics have always been such an interactive medium in one way or another. How else would you explain the popularity of Internet message boards or things like the Merry Marvel Marching Society way back when? People like to feel engaged and be involved – they want to be a part of it.
I’ve been especially heartened by those who have gone out of their way to spell things out to their readers. In the first issue of Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT from Dark Horse Comics, he explains that he too is a lapsed monthly reader, so he’s deliberately crafting the kind of book he would read monthly. Each issue includes a bonus story, letters page, and eventually a hidden message will be revealed when the back covers of the first six issues are placed side by side. This isn’t entirely new, but it’s part of the current zeitgeist bringing monthly comics back to a place of importance within the industry. For a long time single issues have been denigrated by the use of the term ‘floppy’. It offends me, yet I’ve been just as guilty of using it myself. And all it does is to reinforce the idea that single issues don’t matter – they’re just throwaway objects that don’t count in the long run – and nothing could be further from the truth. Kindt gets it, and I’m hoping you start to as well.
Of course, we’re not the only ones. A number of other people also get it, and they know their books will never make it without that basic single issue support. In the back of recent Image Comics books there’s been a two page ad encouraging people to read the monthlies. It features books such as Fatale and Saga, whose creators have gone out of their way to push the single issue agenda and boost regular monthly sales. This week saw the release of Brubaker and Phillips’ first Fatale trade paperback, collecting issues 1 to 5 of the new series. For those who missed the boat early on (and shame on you if you did!) the whole story is here to be caught up on … but it features none of the wonderful bonus material featured in those original single issues. Fortunately, you can pick up issue 6 (also on sale this week) and start enjoying the book as it’s meant to be read – monthly. If you do that, then all the wonderful extra features are there at your disposal.
I could list more creators and more books which do this so well. One of my catchphrases on The Orbiting Pod podcast is ‘back matter matters’ and it’s no more true than it is right now in the fight to protect monthly comic books. So when you’re out there making your next choices at the comic store, remember what I said. Not only do monthly books support the creators, retailers and publishers, but (more often than not) there’s something in there for you too. I guess it comes down to the fact that single issues encourage interactivity, whether it be through an article, a letters page or right there in-store. The future is yours. The future is comics. Why not grab some today?