From the Marvel press release posted The_New_52.jpgFebruary 1st of this year: 

“Wolverine is the best there is at what he does, and this June find out why in the MASSIVE, Wolverine: Adamantium Collection HC!  This all-new Mighty Marvel Format (the self-proclaimed, Adamantium Sized), presented at over one foot tall, packed with 720 pages, and weighing in at 16 pounds, chronicles the best moments from Wolverine’s long and storied past by the greatest creators in Wolverine history!”

Accompanying this press release were photos of staff members proudly (though barely) holding up this behemoth of a book.  1 foot tall!  720 pages! 16 pounds!  And most impressive of all, it clocks in at the retail price point of $200!  On its face the prospect of such a humongous book seems excessive to the point of being unreadable, but the response has been nearly entirely positive.  Message boards lit up immediately with excited chatter.  One reader joked “I’m throwing money at the screen, but nothing’s happening!” while another squealed “This is ridiculously awesome, I’ve been waiting for this a long time!” 

As extreme as this book may appear to be, it is certainly not unique to the industry.  Type in “Omnibus” into an Amazon search engine wolverine-book.jpgand you will pull up page after page of oversized collections, ranging in price from $30 on up into the thousands for the rarer volumes.  It seems like a paradox though, that an industry can churn out phone-book sized bricks in an age where nearly every other branch of media seems to be going digital. 

This isn’t to say that digital comics aren’t thriving. 

Quite the reverse.  2012 was chock full of comic industry successes, but the most meteoric rise belongs to the digital comic book app comiXology, which grew from a small-niche start up to the #3 grossing iPad app on the market, responsible for over 500 million digital downloads.  Based on its success, both Marvel and DC, who once offered digital versions exclusively on their own websites, have begun expanding their own programs to encompass the iBookstore, Kindle, and Nook.  In 2011, digital sales stood at about 25 million (a mere 3% of total comic book sales), but that figure has more than tripled in 2012. 

The common wisdom is that as digital rises, physical sales plummet.  We saw this in the music industry as MP3s replaced CDs, and record stores across the country closed their doors.  Movie download and streaming services like Netflix have demolished Blockbuster, the Encyclopedia Britannica is out of print, and Kodak is bankrupt.  When it comes to comics, however, there is something altogether different happening. 

Rather than one format undercutting the other, BOTH digital sales and printed comic book sales have been steadily increasing.  Physical brick and mortar comic book stores are not dying out, as some predicted a few years back, but are genuinely thriving.  Who have been the strongest performers?  Hardcover collections, with sales increasing 54% in 2012. 

The answer to this unusual metric lies in the fact that comic book readers, unlike general readers, are collectors at heart, who yearn to possess physical copies of the material they love. 

shelf-porn.jpgEvery Saturday, Robot 6, a comic book resource website, solicits photo submissions of comic book collections.  These photos, colloquially known as ‘shelf-porn, depict nothing more than filled bookshelves.  Yet, there is something almost magical in the clean aesthetic of an organized comic book shelf, in the lines of identical spines, with numbered trades progressing in a neat ordered sequence without gaps.  It is obvious these collections have been curated with great care and displayed with an incredible amount of pride. 

And here is where digital comics fall short.  When a reader purchases an issue from comiXology, (or from any digital retailer), they are downloading a proprietary file that can only be viewed through the app.  There is no way for them to touch, move or manipulate that download in any way.  Essentially, what they are purchasing is the ‘right-to-view’ the comic for as long as comiXology remains in business.  One could hardly call that ownership. 

In contrast, books, like Marvel’s “The Adamantium Collection”, are designed to appeal to a reader’s need-to-own.  Omnibus and Absolute editions have offered recolored interiors, faux-leather covers replete with foil stamping, heavy matte art content paper, slipcases, ribbon markers, signed and numbered editions, and countless bonus features like individual issue covers and annotated scripts.  Their deluxe treatment consciously mirrors the respect and love a fan feels for the material.  These books are destined to be shelf-porn starlets and collection centerpieces.  They are trophies, and with market demand showing no signs of slackening off, we will only continue to see more of these loaded mega volumes. 

WRITTEN BY:

Tammy Simms, Imago California

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