Seduced by old trade paperbacks

What effect does having so many comic books from the past easily available in trade paperback have on what we choose to read? Or on the industry?

I’ve been thinking about this topic off and on — in relation to pop culture in general, not just comics — since a 2012 Vanity Fair article arguing that pop culture has become more stable and less novel in this century.

The author, Kurt Andersen, says (correctly I think) that if you look at any twenty-year period in the 20th century, the culture shows sharp breaks in fashion, fiction, movies, music. 1940s music to 1960s for instance. 1920s scientifiction to John Campbell’s science fiction magazines in the 1940s. 1950s comics compared to the Bronze Age. 1992 to 2012? Not so much.

Andersen suggested three possible reasons. Corporations have become more risk averse, so they prefer sticking with what’s already popular (I think the endless series of 1980s reboots and revivals is part of that). With technology constantly transforming the world, possibly people want culture to stay stable and familiar. And the ready availability of older movies, books, music exposes new generations to enough old stuff that there’s less desire for a cultural break.

Music critic Simon Reynolds’ RETROMANIA: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past tackles the same idea in relation to music. Reynolds argues the 21st century music industry hasn’t seen any stylistic breaks with the past comparable to rock, punk or hip-hop, nor the generational rejection of past styles as hokey old crap your parents listen to. His conclusion is, in part, that the easy availability of so much music from the past acts as a brake on new trends.

In addition, Reynolds says, new music has to compete with old, and it’s often going to lose. If I want to collect the greatest music of the past two decades, it’s not hard to do. Assuming the rate of greatness stays constant, only five percent of what I buy would be this year’s music.

In comics, I don’t know if all the material from the past is a drag on new styles — there seems to be no shortage of unconventional indie books coming out — but I know it affects how much new stuff I buy. My most recent trade paperback purchases, as usual, were overwhelmingly old stuff:

Airboy Archives, Vol. 5. I had to drop Airboy about two years before the series ended, due to my starving-writer budget. When I discovered the Archives series of trade paperbacks I was able to complete the run at last.

Nexus God Con dunk tank Steve Rude

Nexus Archives Vol. 8. I dropped Nexus for the same reasons, and once again turned to archive editions (which are hardbacks, but it’s the same principle). Plus getting the early issues from before I started the series. The image is from Nexus: God-Con, which comes a couple of volumes later than #8.

Spider-Girl cover
Spider-Girl: Duty Calls. I didn’t start Spider-Girl until #58, due to an even more starving-writer budget in the 1990s. I’m almost caught up to where I came in.


Paper Girls, Vol. 1. The only new one in the lot.

Obviously old comics were available before trade paperbacks. And with the Internet, it’s easier to pick them up than ever before — no need to browse through back issue bins and hope what you want is there, just do an eBay search. I’ll probably look for Airboy vs. the Prowler soon, as I still don’t have that one, plus I recently bought all five issues of Eclipse’s big crossover event, Total Eclipse.

TPBs, however, make it so much simpler and easier to collect stuff. Cheaper, too — without Superman: The Golden Age, I could hardly afford to pick up the first couple of years of Superman’s adventures. And while I don’t like Man-Thing enough to work on collecting his Bronze Age run, buying a used copy of Essential Man-Thing makes it easy.

Another factor is that being able to buy current TPBs remove the pressure to Buy Now. I’m two volumes behind on Greg Rucka’s Lazarus, two on Girl Genius, but no sweat — I can pick them up as easily next year as I can now. Or the year after. Or the year after that.

I know I’m not the only one who places a high priority on picking up older material. I’m glad it’s so easily available, but like I said, I wonder what effect it has.

(#SFWApro)

23 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I wonder too, sometimes. I don’t have much access to older comics (until recently… duh duhn dahhh!), but those are the ones that make me really love the medium.

    I’ve been wanting to check out the Spider-Girl comic… if there are trades now, yay!

      1. Andrew Collins

        I just noticed the other day that Marvel is going to start collecting Spider-Girl in what looks like some new trades next year. The first trade comes out in August and collects:

        “COLLECTING: WHAT IF? (1989) 105, SPIDER-GIRL (1998) 1/2, 1-15, ANNUAL ’99 ”

        I might have to try it out, it’s one of those series I always heard good things about but never got around to reading. And honestly, I’m like you in that older comics seem to be much more my interest these days than pretty much any of the new stuff. Especially modern DC and Marvel hold 0 interest for me.

        1. Le Messor

          The first trade comes out in August and collects:

          “COLLECTING: WHAT IF? (1989) 105, SPIDER-GIRL (1998) 1/2, 1-15, ANNUAL ’99 ”

          That’s what I’m talking about!

          There are a couple of things from modern DC and Marvel, but some of that is just me collecting for the sake of keeping up.

        2. Andrew, they’re definitely worth getting. Light, fun, a good parent-child relationship and some creative use of old Marvel characters (the assumption being everyone’s about sixteen years older in this Earth). Since I don’t usually like Tom DeFalco’s work on anything else, I’m surprised how fond I am of them.
          My lack of interest in DC/Marvel superheroes after 57,000 reboots and big events is why I no longer buy single issues of anything. And not even trades unless I stumble upon one cheap (the library here puts out some surprisingly nice stuff at times).

          1. Le Messor

            My lack of interest in DC/Marvel superheroes after 57,000 reboots and big events is why I no longer buy single issues of anything.
            (Don’t you mean 52,000 reboots?)

            For me, it’s mostly events. I always know that even if I find something I’m really loving – even if X-Men is going through one of its good patches – I’m going to spend more time either catching up on everybody else’s issues (because that’s where most of the story is happening) or skipping issues because of crossovers.

          2. When I reread Johns’ run on Green Lantern, I realized that for the year Blackest Night and Brightest Day ran on, half the GL action was happening outside the series (I’d flip through the crossover event on the stands when it came out, so it didn’t really register with me). That was appalling.
            More generally I find reading most events or affiliated comics age poorly (as far as writing for the ages goes). Just a few years later when it’s obvious the Epic Events That Change Everything didn’t amount to a hill of beans, whatever appeal they might have had is lost.

          3. Le Messor

            When I reread Johns’ run on Green Lantern, I realized that for the year Blackest Night and Brightest Day ran on, half the GL action was happening outside the series
            That bad, huh?

            For me, the realisation first hit when I figured out I had (these numbers are examples only, I don’t know the actual series or runs) something like X-Factor 36-37 and 39-40, because they were crossovers; I felt sorry for the actual reader and writer, because that meant they only had #38 in which to tell their story.

          4. Spider-Girl was such a breath of fresh air when it came out. It was very much a throwback to early Spider-Man, but in a good way, moving the story forward while maintaining the breezy tone of the silver age with a modern sensibility.

            Possibly the most important part of that was the determined optimism of the thing. May often had doubts about what she was doing and whether she’d live through it, but her general approach was more positive than her dad’s. For Peter, “with great power…” was a burden. He learned the hard way that if he didn’t act, people died. May’s first superhero adventure had her saving lives, so her approach is the more proactive one, when she DOES act, people get to live. It was so nice to have a hero who is heroic because it’s the right thing to do, rather than being wracked by guilt or driven by revenge. She’s a hero because she knows she can be.

          5. And she and Peter would occasionally lock horns over whether that was reason enough.
            I also enjoyed the series’ take on some of the Bronze/Silver Age heroes, like Nova becoming an old fart who wishes these super-kids would get off his lawn (I really like Nova, but it was still funny).

          6. Le Messor

            Especially at the time it came out, when all the heroes were ‘kewl’ and EXTREME!!!!!!! That was what I kept hearing about it – that it was such a breath of fresh air.

            Come to think of it, it would still be fresh air today.

  2. Peter

    Man, I agree that the increasing availability of older pop culture is definitely having an impact on the pop culture of today, but I’d say it’s much harder to quantify than it seems at first. In my eyes, the bigger (related) factor is that virtually all pop culture today is created with the expectation that it will be preserved for all time, so authors and musicians are probably more conservative than in the past. In the 50s and 60s, comics were expected to be discarded rather than collected into slick paperbacks and reprinted ever couple of years. Singles that you heard on the radio may never appear on any album, and even then, the album could go out of print in a few years. Today, I’m sure that there is some impulse in the back of a creator’s mind that they should be concerned with how their work will “hold up,” and it’s easier to use a work that has already held up through a few decades as a template than it is to throw caution to the wind and make something that will stand out in its era but which may fail the test of time (this is probably the fate of a lot of those nu-metal bands of the late 90s/early noughts – they do sound different than bands which preceded them, but I hope that future historians don’t judge our culture based on the fleeting popularity of Limp Bizkit).

    As an aside, those Man-Thing comics by Gerber are great. A lot of Steve Gerber’s best work has been weirdly forgotten. If you haven’t read his Defenders run yet, I’d probably recommend that ahead of most current comics.

    1. Le Messor

      In my eyes, the bigger (related) factor is that virtually all pop culture today is created with the expectation that it will be preserved for all time, so authors and musicians are probably more conservative than in the past.
      (Fraser:)
      An angle I hadn’t thought of, but I definitely think there’s truth to it.

      Oh, it’s well-documented. The comics creators – like Stan Lee – have said as much.
      I think… one of those things I swear I remember reading, but could probably never dig up again.

      1. And yet, paradoxically, there seems to be a lot more willingness to “break the toys,” sacrificing future viability of the character for an immediate exciting moment (or a moment of self-indulgence by the author.) Practically every big “event” that promises “nothing will ever be the same” is an idea that Julius Schwartz or Stan Lee previously said no to, knowing that it would disrupt the status quo pointlessly and harm future sales.

        1. I see that a lot, I think, with post-Silver and post-Bronze Age characters. They aren’t the “iconic” ones, so once their series fades, somebody has them killed in a futile fight (it will take an Iconic Hero to stop this evil!) or turns them evil (e.g. Damage Control in Civil War). The idea of occasional guest-star roles or simply letting them fade until someone thinks of a good idea for them doesn’t seem to exist any more.

          1. Le Messor

            I see that a lot, I think, with post-Silver and post-Bronze Age characters. They aren’t the “iconic” ones, so once their series fades, somebody has them killed in a futile fight

            Alpha Flight fan here!

            The idea of occasional guest-star roles or simply letting them fade until someone thinks of a good idea for them doesn’t seem to exist any more.

            One theory is that the companies have to keep printing one-shots, mini-serieses, or serieses to hang on to their trademarks.
            Why those can’t also be good, I don’t know.

          2. One theory is that the companies have to keep printing one-shots, mini-serieses, or serieses to hang on to their trademarks.

            Not just a theory. If a trademark is inactive for a specified period of time, it is considered abandoned, and another company can pick it up. (See “Captain Marvel.”) As a matter of fact, Marvel publicly admitted that the Monica Rambeau version of Captain Marvel was created solely to keep the trademark active. You know DC was just sitting there hoping it would slip through the cracks and they could grab it again.

            The Kamala Khan version of Ms. Marvel exists for the same reason. The original Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman were both created as preemptive strikes to block other companies from using the names; Filmation’s Saturday morning cartoon about a woman with spider powers had to be renamed Web Woman after Marvel rushed a comic into print and beat them to the trademark office.

            Trademark law is weird. I used to do freelance work for a company whose entire business model was snapping up inactive trademarks from defunct companies and recreating their products.

          3. Le Messor

            You’re right about that, and I think I noticed while posting, but hijacked your post to make my own point anyway.

            And, yeah, that’s a horrible thing to do to such a fun, light-hearted series (Damage Control example). I have the originals, and am now glad I never got around to picking up their appearances in Civil War. A title which appealed to me back then just didn’t now… and this kind of thing is why.

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