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 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: 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.