The Format’s the Thing
A KC Column by KC Carlson
In my latest column over at the Westfield Blog, I discussed the new hardcover collection of All-New X-Men Volume 3. Part of my reason for discussing this particular book is that it’s one of the most current books published in what has become, at least for me, my favorite format for collected books. It doesn’t (as yet) have a zippy marketing-friendly name like “Prestige” or “Omnibus”; for now, it’s just referred to as “oversize” in product descriptions.
The “oversize” format is usually a hardcover that’s roughly 7.5 inches wide by slightly over 11 inches high. The depth of the book is, of course, determined by its page count. Current Omnibi have the same basic width and height dimensions as the “oversize”, but the depth is usually several hundreds of pages thicker than the average “oversize” book. For comparison sake, a current “floppy” comic book is roughly 6 5/8″ x 10 1/4″. This isn’t a huge difference, but the larger hardcovers feel to me like they’re one step closer to reading the original art.
I used to be a big fan of the Omnibus format until recent technological developments (specifically thinner but durable and non-see-through paper) plus better binding techniques have allowed publishers the option to create even larger (page-count-wise) books. While this increases options for publishers to get more of “event” storylines to completely fit in these volumes, the downside is something I call “lap fatigue”. The weight and massive number of pages in these volumes mean that it’s often a chore to physically hold them for extended periods of time. And if you’re lying on a sofa or in bed, accidentally falling asleep while reading these monsters could be fatal if the book falls forward onto your face. (Which has happened to me. Well… not the dying part. Sore nose, though!)
It seems a shame that you practically have to sit at a table or desk to read many of these Omnibi (especially the ones over a thousand pages). However, I still admire these large books for other aesthetic reasons: completeness, inclusion of sometimes rare and/or forgotten stories, and value, especially compared with other, smaller collections. For older Marvel collections, an Omnibus is cheaper than three average hardcover Masterworks. The Masterworks program does all the R&D work of preparing the original publications for pristine reproduction — and once done, this work doesn’t have to be re-done (just re-sized) for subsequent Omnibus printings.
But I do prefer the smaller page-count volumes of the “oversize” format, even “knowing” that these current oversize All-New X-Men volumes will most likely become an Omnibus at some point down the road. There’s at least a year until that happens, though. When you consider that the first issues of All-New X-Men were published in 2012, and that its ultimate publication (as an Omnibus) won’t happen until (likely) 2017, that’s a pretty long time from floppy comic to oversized Omnibus. One might wonder if comic book audiences are being taken advantage of by a system that, on the surface, seemingly makes fans wait for years for the format they really want. That’s kind of backwards compared to traditional publishing, where many books start as hardcovers, and the value-priced softcovers usually arrive within a year of that.
What About DC?
DC seems better than Marvel on doing more upscale collections first, frequently collecting events/stunts like the New 52 and more recently, Convergence, as oversized hardcovers shortly after the event has concluded. Popular series like Batman also “instantly” get collected in oversize hardcovers or even “Omnibussed” right after the conclusion of storylines. The softcover generally goes on sale on the same day that the next hardcover hits the shelves.
An industry insider codified to me the real difference in how collections are conceived and sold: “DC Comics understands the Book Market. Marvel does not.” Marvel treats their collected editions as they do their periodicals, printing to sell out. Not always keeping books in print, particularly when dealing with serialized stories, is a fatal flaw. Unlike DC, with their hardcover, then softcover, strategy, Marvel rushes out trade paperback collections as soon as the last floppy issue included in the collection is published. They seem to be waiting to see if the title proves to be popular enough to actually merit a hardcover.
While Marvel’s methodology seems skewed at first glance, they’re playing to their fan base, who wants to pay as little as possible for collections and also don’t want to wait forever to get them. This makes the subsequent upscale packages somewhat redundant, although they also tease fans (who can afford them) into repurchasing the same material over and over again, promising minor upgrades (physically larger formats, better binding, etc.) to an ever-shrinking base of customers willing to wait longer and pay more.
The Omnibus is actually a format aimed at this “gotta have ’em all” collector mentality. As I said, they’re uncomfortable to read, but they promise ALL of a storyline or event under one set of covers. I’m curious as to how many owners actually read their Omnibi, since it’s unlikely someone would pay that much for a series without having already read it. How many of these books sit on shelves, still sealed?
Marvel is also profiting from consumer confusion in the marketplace with so many different and varying formats. Also annoying: having no way of knowing if storylines or series will be completed in the same format in which they began. While Marvel probably gets some traction playing to their various fan-bases with specific formats, one has to wonder if DC’s plan of less-confusing options isn’t ultimately more profitable for them than Marvel’s oft-seeming scattershot methods of collecting their comics.