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Trade Paperbacks:

TPB Or Not TPB? That Is The Question!

What is the future of the standard American comic book? Does the stapled pamphlet even have a future?

There’s no denying that their sales are in steep decline, if not terminal free fall. Back in 1970, Superman could shift over half a million copies a month from newsstands and drugstores, while Spider-Man sold over 370,000. Those were real mass-market purchases, not the later blips hyped up by ‘Number Ones’, ‘Death’ issues, multiple covers of other gimmicks. Now that only a handful of titles manage to top 100,000 orders, bought mainly by collectors, it seems unlikely we’ll ever see figures like those of the past again.

There may be trouble ahead, but the 32-page comic book has been around for some 50 plus years now and it’s a stubborn survivor. Publisher after publisher has tried to replace it with a bigger, pricier package, but with limited success. Remember Tower Comics’ failed line of 68-page giants? Or DC’s championing of ‘Bigger and Better’ 52-page issues, 100-page Spectaculars and the disastrous 44-pagers that led to the 1978 implosion?

About the only alternative that ever caught on was the more adult black and white, pioneered by Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD, which is now almost the last of its kind left. But now we’ve the trade paperback or TPB. When comic books began in the Thirties, they were 68 pages thick, ‘all in colour for a dime’, a meaty read with the majority of stories complete each issue. What changed, especially once the number of story pages dropped, was the arrival of the serialised soap opera, a formula devised by Stan Lee and company at Marvel that quickly spread.

I understand why buying these serials still appeals. Once you’re hooked, there’s the anticipation of reading the next installment, the weekly ritual of the latest shipments, the relatively modest price for each thin, shiny issue with it’s striking cover. And who wants to wait until the whole story is eventually finished and complied into a book before reading it?

Actually, I believe that there are a great many more people who do want to read complete stories, or at least story arcs with some sense of a conclusion. The broader public, most ‘civilians’, don’t have time to seek out back issues, come into a store on a weekly basis, wait months for a standing order - or get landed with a series that is left unfinished. They want the whole story and they want it now.

Hence the inexorable rise of the trade paperback, the term for a softcover collection often of previously serialised comic books. Today it’s almost inevitable that a mini-series, story arc or serial will get collected into a book, frequently almost as soon as it’s completed, sometimes in hardback at first but a TPB will follow eventually.

That’s because publishers can make big money selling them to comic stores, bookshops and libraries. Unlike dusty back issues, TPB’s are perennial sellers. True, you do lose something when you opt for the TPB. For example certain collections, like those of two recently concluded black and white epics Cerebus and Bone, don’t include their glossy colour covers from each issue. Nearly all TPB’s omit editorials or letter columns too.

But there are bonuses: sketchbook pages, scripts, a celebrity introduction, that annoying extra unpublished story, or a new front cover. You also get a convenient, all-in-one package that looks good on your bookshelf. And when you do the maths, buying the collection can work out cheaper than buying the individual issues.

Another plus, to my mind, is that you don’t get any adverts. Growing up I never used to mind the ads in comics; in fact the allure of nuclear subs and sea monkeys and promos for the latest Saturday morning cartoons were part of the experience. These days I repeatedly find the adverts disrupt my reading pleasure.

Mainstream comic books have pretty much always had some advertising in them, but over the last few years, as the slick styles and visual impact of comics and advertising seem to grow more and more alike, those commercial messages can become distracting and downright intrusive.

For instance, for me Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man lost most of it’s manic flow because of the sheer number of ads, sometimes as often as every other page. It felt like trying to watch a classic Tex Avery or Simpsons cartoon with a loud commercial break between every joke. I’ll wait for the TPB.

It’s got to the point that some of the ads are so visual and in-your-face, they seem part of the story. For example, one part of the Azzarello/Corben Hulk mini-series, Banner, opened with him in a devastated landscape. Then as you turned the page, a double-page spread for a computer game advert showed a huge slick image of a wasteland, which looked like it was part of the story. I’ll confess: on occasions, such as Walt Simonson’s Orion - uncollected so far - I have taken to tearing out as many of the ads as I can, so that I can read the story with fewer interruptions.

Fortunately some publishers, notably the ABC line, have the sensitivity to shunt all the ads down to the back of the comic. Much as I covert the book compilations of the ABC series, I’m sticking with the comic books because of this and because they seem so perfectly conceived as comic books.

So TPB or not TPB? For the time being the choice is ours. But, amid current sliding sales of comic books and the rise of graphic novels, more and more of which are being published directly in book form, I can’t help wondering for how much longer?

Posted: September 25, 2005

This article first appeared in 2004 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.


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