Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The incoherent book

I can trace the joy I get from reading comics in trade paperbacks to one point in time: The moment I reached page 175 in the first Sandman collection I ever read.

I had read trade paperbacks before, collections like Marvels charming Bring on the Bad guys and Origin books of the seventies, right up to the recent (at that time) collection of the Death of Superman story. But I had never read anything like The Doll’s House. Gaiman’s story was so complex and rich and funny and open, but it was also a fantastically dense read. Three quarters of the way through, I realised there was still a shitload of story to go and it felt so fucking good.

So much material, so much to read. And even though each Sandman book was certainly part of an ongoing and sprawling narrative, they also had a definite beginning, middle and end. They were a complete story.

Nearly two decades later, and trade paperbacks have exploded all over the pants of mainstream comics. Once upon a time, only the comics with the highest profiles and most respected of creators would be collected, but now any old piece of rubbish is slapped between cardboard covers and shipped out to bookstores.

There is certainly a lot of appeal in trade paperbacks, from the sheer volume of material in a single package to the ability to read an entire story in one go. And it is fucking fantastic to be able to read many comics in this format. Unfortunately, there is also an unfortunate tendency to take the idea of telling a complete tale in one package right out of the equation.

When you have an entire book, you want the entire story, you don't want to be sent off in some other direction to find out what you missed. Collecting ongoing comics set in a multi-titled universe is fraught with problems and can often leave the trade-reader left stranded with half a story and no resolution.

One of the worst examples of this was the snazzy collected version of Jodi Picoult's Wonder Woman run, which ended with a cliffhanger that was resolved in a completely different story.

What was the point of this? Any fans of her work see a story that has holes, holes that have been specifically designed to generate more income from another project, but that doesn't mean they're going to give a shit about filling those holes. They're far more likely to end up dissatisfied with the whole way these things are produced, and make a renewed effort to stay well away from the funny books. And who can blame them?

Trying to make sense of a trade that reprints a section of a long-running ongoing comic is hard enough sometimes, but it becomes almost impossible to do so when they tie into the mega-crossovers. Read a Teen Titans or Outsiders book that is set in the same time period as Infinite Crisis and it barely qualifies as a story, with events that have been built up in the title petering out and going nowhere, while chunks of the main mini series are sometimes inserted, jarring against the tale.

And Marvel isn't much better, with Civil War and Secret Invasion hijacking natural narratives and bending them into the shape of the supersaga. While the packaging of the trades makes them easy to find and connected, the stories often contradict each other, or stop entirely and skip forward in time, leaving the reader stranded.

It becomes necessary to read more than one to find out exactly what is going on, and then there is so much repetition that you end up rereading about the same incident five different times, when it was barely interesting enough the first time.

It happened before TPBs became utterly ubiquitous, but the one example that still rankles me years later is Jim Starlin's Infinity Crusade. After falling madly in love with Starlin's work with the Infinity Gauntlet, he lost me pretty quickly with the Crusade, especially when entire cliffhangers were resolved in other titles I didn't want to buy, and couldn't even find at that time anyway.)

Even in non-crossover work, the lack of a complete story is a little frustrating. Reading one book in a series like the badly-thought out Wolverine Origins title is almost pointless, as it often sets up events and revelations without actually getting to anything close to a point, while relying on various tiny pieces of arcana to carry the story forward.

It's all part of the neverending saga that give fanboys such a painful chubby, but it is also a major turnoff. Trade paperbacks are expensive items, (especially in New Zealand where you are unlikely to find one for less than $30 these days and are forced to pay closer to $50 for a basic six-issue softcover collection.) For that amount of money, it can¹t be asking for too much to expect something a bit more complete.

I still get that thrill of cracking open a new book and knowing I've got hundreds of pages of dense storytelling to float through, but it just gets depressing to start reading something that is woefully incomplete.

This is surely an idea that is long due. Fortunately, there are some books that offer a complete story with a real beginning, middle and end, books that are all the more satisfying for it, but it really is time for this to become the norm, instead of a rare exception.

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