Format over function

by Alex Hern

The Complete Absolute Sandman + Absolute Death
I’ve got a problem. Well, I have several problems, but we’ll not get into those. The pertinent one for today is that I have a tendency to fetishise comics as objects as well as literature. It stems, largely, from the astonishing cost of being an active participant in this culture, especially while living in the UK. I am by no means a frenzied buyer of comics, but a monthly bill of over $100 is not unusual, and that is only on periodicals. Add in trade paperbacks and the like, and the cost for even a casual reader overtakes that for pretty much any other medium, except possibly a hardcore gamer.

The cost issues are something I’d like to touch on in a later post, but for now we’ll focus on my stupidity. Because the response I’ve had to how much I spend isn’t to do something sensible, like start taking books out from the library, or buy a second-hand digest edition. It’s instead been to buy books that are nice enough objects that the cost per page is irrelevant. That’s right; those absolute editions that DC comes out with? The Marvel Omnibus’? Pretty much the entirety of Fantagraphics’ back catalogue? It’s me: I’m the one who buys those things.

Over Christmastime, I managed to convince my not-entirely-approving (and really quite large) family to give me three Absolute editions, a Hellboy Library, and two oversized hardcovers. I could probably have got the contents of those books – the functionally identical contents, save about 50-odd pages of sketches in total – for less than a quarter of the cost if I’d just got them in paperback. But if I’d got them in paperback, then the minute I finished the book I’d put it aside and never look at it again. The thing about nice editions is that they encourage me to take them out just to feel them.

So what’s the problem? Why do I feel the need to bring this up? Well. I feel if I’m going to approach these funnybooks as the literature that I believe they are, it’s rather unbecoming to focus on the format of them. No one criticises the choice of binding on Wolf Hall, or considers talking about the stickiness of the floor in the cinema when they’re reviewing The Hurt Locker, so why should I mention that I’m reading Promethea in it’s Absolute edition?

To a certain extent, it comes down to the fact that comics are a visual experience. Blowing up JHW3’s art by 50% fundamentally changes, and hopefully improves, the book as a whole. It’s equivalent, in it’s own way, to buying a film on Blu-ray over DVD – something which has its own connotations, to be sure, but not quite so negative as the view of many about the ‘waste of money’ that deluxe editions represent. The big disconnect between the two is probably their relation to the original packaging. Whereas a film is designed for cinema – for surround sound, a massive screen, and group viewings – comics are, hopefully, written for a pamphlet. 11″ by 9″, folding flat, ads and letters pages. So buying a blu-ray over a DVD is getting closer to the original experience, but buying an Absolute over a paperback is spending more to move further away.

I’m sure there’s more to be said on these thoughts in the future, but one thing is clear for now. Fetishising the object for it’s own sake isn’t the best thing to do. It demeans the actual work of art contained within, and frankly? Hurts my wallet in ways that an unpaid intern really can’t afford.

Image is not, sadly, my Absolute Sandman collection, but rather that of flickr user Steel Wool