Readers of serialized comics can pursue their passion in one of two ways.
We can visit our local comics shop regularly to snatch up the latest issue of a title soon after it hits the streets.
Or, if we're content to wait several months to a year, we can bide our time until publishers collect several issues together into a story-arc and release it in trade paperback format.
This decision — month-by-month, or wait-for-the-trade — is simply the comic-book iteration of a question that gets posed every day in households across the country, but which is generally framed thusly, in mine:
"Should we DVR [much-discussed television show], or just Sopranos it?"
In the above example, "to Sopranos" means "to spend several years listening to friends yammering on about how wonderful a given show is until we finally relent and borrow the box sets and proceed to spend a blearily indolent weekend burning through episode after episode without so much as lifting our heads from the pillow except to order Chinese food or scream at Meadow, and return to work on Monday feeling doughy and out-of-sorts, harboring a peculiar mixture of elation and abiding shame which, this time at least, cannot be attributed solely to the Crab Rangoons."
After the jump: The comics industry's single-issue vs. trades Catch-22, and the new book that provides an illustrative example.
Whether to read a book month-to-month or to wait for the trades is a personal decision, of course, and likely has as much to do with the state of one's personal finances than anything else, but make no mistake: It's a decision of vital interest to the future of the comics industry.
Because a core contradiction lurks just beneath the glossy, four-color surface of comics retail: You can't buy most single-issue comics anywhere except for a comics shop, but trade collections are sold everywhere. What's more, trades are more convenient to read and store, and they're generally a cheaper proposition than buying individual issues.
But if enough readers skip a new series in issues to wait for the trade, those single issues won't sell in sufficient numbers to keep the title alive long enough to get collected at all. (A crucial difference between short-lived comics and short-lived television shows: There's a DVD set of Andy Barker, PI. Yet in 20 years' time, no one's collected 'Mazing Man, or the ridiculous, completely incoherent, fascinatingly failed narrative experiment known as the DC Challenge!) Welcome to the pushmi-pullyu world of comics.
Now, your local comics shop would love it if you got hooked on a monthly comic habit, because that's the experience they're really selling: A place to gather and discuss the latest developments in ongoing storylines as they happen, with fellow readers and proprietors who know your tastes and can make recommendations you trust. Oh, they sell the trades, too, but they can't offer the kind of discounts that mega-stores and online bookstores can, so they're betting you'll value the human contact more. (Plus, have you seen the graphic novel section of your local Barnes and Noble? Those poor books look as if they've been set upon by hordes of steroidal ocelots.)
But there's something else that is not lost on comic shop owners: The clock on single issues is ticking. Every year, the population of those of us still tromping into comics shops for our Wednesday fix skews a wee bit older, doughier, and increasingly arteriosclerotic (see above, in re: the Crab Rangoons). Meanwhile, the young folk are following the trade winds, picking up manga, superhero digests and other trade formats at the mega-bookstores by the metric ton, or downloading them onto their Hi-Fi boom box whatchamacallits.
But as long as this uneasy truce between single issues and trade collections persists, a single question arises with every new series that appears: To DVR, or to Sopranos?
The Case for Single Issues
Me, I prefer to read superhero stories in single issues, because a good superhero book knows how to make optimal dramatic use of its serialized nature. We turn the the last page to see the mysterious villain finally revealed, or the spandex-clad cavalry arrive at last, or a beloved character (seemingly) perish - that's quintessential comics, right there, that delirious stomach-drop that accompanies the sudden ratcheting up of narrative tension, and an appearance by the most-loved/most-hated phrase in all of comics, "TO BE CONTINUED!"
And the comics community is, after all, a community: Those of us who're reading our books month-to-month can wring our hands over the leaden pacing or the predictable nature of a given universe-spanning crossover event because ... well, we're reading it month-to-month in the first place. For good or ill, that ability to participate in real-time bellyaching is as much a part of the single-issue experience today as the comics themselves.
The Case for Trades
The books I've saved to read as trades over the years - titles like Fables, The Walking Dead, DMZ, Ex Machina, 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, Age of Bronze, and others - are all densely plotted books with huge casts of characters. But that's not why I wait for their trades.
All of those titles are limited series - they have a beginning, middle and end. Some may run to 70 or even 100+ issues before they end, but end they will. And that's why, even though it means I don't get the full effect of Ex Machina author's Brian K. Vaughn's mastery of the last-page gut-punch, I choose to read that book in trade form.
Consider: A book like Spider-Man or Batman is a river that flows past us; we can jump in and paddle around a bit, but when we get out the book, and the character, will just keep flowing on. We've discussed before what the open-ended structure of the perpetual narrative does to characters, over time, which is why I prefer to read ongoing superhero titles month-to-month - immersing myself briefly in the endless stream of plot points and character beats before coming up for air.
But each issue of a book like DMZ is a discrete chapter in a finite narrative; characters will be fundamentally, irrevocably changed by what happens to them, and eventually, their story will end. When that happens, we can return to the opening chapters to read how the author planted the seeds for the book's ending, we can follow the characters' disparate arcs and admire how the book's structure parcels out clues to the book's central mystery, ensuring that the eventual payoff pays off.
The Case In Point: The Unwritten
Last year, the mature-readers DC imprint Vertigo — which publishes many of the above-mentioned limited series — began publishing a monthly comic called The Unwritten, written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Peter Gross.
I'm a big fan of both creators — Gross did memorable work on a book called Books of Magic back in the 90s, and his collaboration with Carey on a book called Lucifer was one of my favorite comics reading experiences of the last decade.
(The dialogue Carey wrote for that book's main character - the Devil — was so good you wanted to stop people on the street and read it out loud to them — funny, arrogant, and more than a little bitchy.)
It didn't take long for friends and colleagues, including several commenters here, to start telling me how good the book was, but I held off. One look at this book told me it was likely trade-worthy. The first trade collection, The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, was released last week.
The Unwritten is a story about the stories that shape us; as you might imagine, things get awfully meta awfully quick. Tom Taylor is the grown son of mysterious writer behind a hugely successful series of novels about a young wizard named .... Tommy Taylor. This has made the adult Tom a literary celebrity and the subject of furious conjecture by his father's rabid super-fans at conventions and on the web.
Before the first issue is done, the walls between the world of Tommy, Fictional Boy Wizard and that of Tom, Non-Fictional Adult Layabout have crumbled, and Tom sets off on a quest to uncover his missing father's secrets.
Carey's writing, in these first few issues, is engaging as expected, but I began to grow worried right around the time Tom visits ... a writing workshop.
I grew more worried as Carey proceeded to have his characters sit around mouthing various highly mannered theories about What Horror Fiction is For. Because: Oof.
Had I been reading in single issues, and held less faith in Carey's gifts, that's the point I might have crossed The Unwritten off my pull list.
But then, in the collection's concluding chapter, "How the Whale Became," Carey offered us the first real glimpse of the story behind the story (heh) that he was really telling in those first few issues. This issue, which jumps back in time to chronicle, of all things, young Rudyard Kipling's sinister dealings with a secret organization, has a lot to say about how the stories our culture tells itself get shaped - and exploited.
It's smart, beautifully rendered, hugely ambitious and hints at the work that The Unwritten will do as Carey proceeds to unspool the tale he wants to tell. It's so good, in fact, that it's almost convinced me to start picking up the book in single issues.