Printings & Pressings: A Look at Formats

Adam Sherif, staff member at Orbital Comics, co-host of the Orbiting Pod, and member of th’sheridans examines the commonalities, differences, and nature of the mediums music & comics have taken on.

Looking at music and what some term ‘graphic narrative’ in the same glance, it might be simple enough to equate comic book singles, or single issues, with, say, CD singles or 7″ records, but there could be argument for a more in-depth, exploratory schematic. Some prolonged rumination, along with permanent exposure to both artforms has offered up a framework which, though by no means steadfast, does tie into the endlessly fascinating discussions on the various ways of consuming art and also the mentality (mentalités?) of ‘the collector’. At their best, such discussions ought to be dynamic in some sense, to reflect change over time, so this presentation should be prefaced as being very much anchored in the present, taking account of the much-hyped resurgence of vinyl, the rise of the digital comic book and so on. 2K15, everybody.

The comic book single issue, then, is to be held alongside the vinyl edition of a given piece of music. Whether an album or single, vinyl is currently the most eminently collectible format for music today. The vinyl record is prized, a source of not inconsiderable pride for the finder, whether she might be a serious collector or simply one of the ostentatious ultra-hip. To have a first pressing of In Utero is to have a first print of…Batman #492, both from the illustrious year of 1993.

The possession, or acquisition, of such items does invariably function as something of a status symbol in 2015. To the greater, or less superficial points, however, circulation and browsing are crucial and co-relative. Because single issues and records are produced finitely in some sense, they are destined for trade and resale, for better or worse. Because these items circulate in a number of ways, and crucially because they are curious physical artifacts, they solicit action from the collector. They can be sought, browsed, bought, even borrowed, and these formats, in conjunction with those outlets which determine resolutely to stock them, allow for a unique experience. While one can find a new single issue, a new record, in a number of spots across town, finding an older issue is a different game entirely and a trip to a supermarket which carries the Top 40 is totally unlike a jaunt to Sister Ray or Rough Trade. With the brand new, there is not really much room to browse new produce: typically a new release is in stock or not. When a comic book has passed into the realm of back issues, however, when its publication month has passed and the issue is no longer in production, there is space to hunt, an invitation even. The same stands for vinyl, vinyl back issues.

Despite their continued circulation as back issues, then, part of the prestige of the single issue or original vinyl has to do with that the collection of these items is knowingly and deliberately anachronistic. There are ‘easier’ ways to consume both music and comics, after all. As a potentially questionable pursuit then, this kind of collecting does naturally come in for dismissal as trendy/hip/pretentious [delete as appropriate], but nevertheless there is a notable and important purity. Collecting a piece of art in the format of its original presentation to the world is something special. Hearing the original sequence of tracks on Side A before having to intervene in the listening experience and flip the record is an immersive experience. No other format can re-create the locked groove, for example. Similarly, reading comics with their original page and chapter breaks, adverts too, is a unique means of consuming stories and furthermore a way to connect with the past. The single issue presents to the reader a greater sense of the original context of publication than reading a trade paperback re-print collection which has undergone subsequent editing, for example.

In terms of collectability, single issues and vinyl records both engender specialist and oftentimes bizarre equations with regard to pricing and value. In both cases, condition and grading are paramount, but more than this, the notion of specific significance [USP, if you must] can be a determining factor. That live album where David Byrne sings alternate lyrics in the second verse to Psycho Killer is pretty neat, but is it as momentous as that ‘fine +’ copy of Fantastic Four #48? Different fruits in a beautiful hand-woven basket. These formats also allow for weird and wonderful anomalies, like mini series with terribly low print runs, or albums whose cover artwork was later censored. Single issues and records are collectible from any number of perspectives, and because these media are marked by genres and eras, they offer multiple entry points. Not to be biased or anything but walk twenty paces into Orbital Comics and spend a minute scanning the walls, or head down to the basement of Sister Ray and look in whichever genre appeals. Ask questions too, talk, because often enough this sort of collecting is marked by passion.

At the other end of the spectrum, thoroughly un-collectable and divisively immediate, lies the digital product. Digital comics and mp3s have obviously changed the game irrevocably, but it all seems to sit in relative harmony at this point. The digital iterations of the new Best Coast or the latest issue of Saga grant consumers instant gratification. Download on your lunch break, read/listen on your way home. It works, undoubtedly. Pricing in this futuristic, non-physical realm is still not quite right, but the digital has nevertheless brought people in, for both music and comics. The crowd that discovered the resonant and remarkably important Young Avengers through tumblr might never have found it by other means. It works. Furthermore, the digital as gateway to the physical medium is a relatively consistent phenomenon for some. Even initiatives as radical as Marvel Unlimited, a digital back issue library, have not necessarily damaged the circulation and trade of print back issues, they have simply enabled wider access. Glad tidings. Nothing is quite so dire as work going un-appreciated because it simply cannot be found.

Lastly then, and somewhere awkwardly in the middle, linger the curious counterparts of the compact disc and trade paperback. While they differ in certain ways, they share that they are intended to be both accessible and affordable, precursors to the digital product in a sense. That Talking Heads record might take awhile to unearth, but Amazon could probably deliver the CD version tomorrow. Similarly, that FF #48 will cost a small fortune and the grade will have to be scrutinised, but it should be easy enough to read the first Silver Surfer/Galactus story in a re-print collection. Right? Mostly, but sadly, not always. Trades and CDs alike, regrettably, go out-of-print. They are made and marketed for a longer span than single issues or vinyl pressings, sure, but their production might abruptly cease. It could owe to licensing issues or label/publisher disinterest in the product, but a strange consequence of this unpredictable element is that compact discs and trades can become their own kind of ‘collectable’. The colours just looked infinitely better on the first trade collections of Batman: Year One, as Richmond Lewis would probably agree. Most worryingly, for those starting out exploring these magical media, taste can be shaped by which works are in-print in these particular formats. Silent and incidental curation is at work. So yes, it is easy enough for everyone to read Miller/Mazzucchelli right now, despite the colouring, but dammit, somebody get that boy a dose of Typhoid Mary..!

There is further scope to compare and contrast music and comics, without a doubt. Themes, periods, the relative importance of technological innovation and much more. Formats and collecting comprise just one aspect and even here there is room still for further discussion and certainly more nuance. This is just one framework which seems to work reasonably well in the first half of 2015. When Ms. Swift and Mr. West launch Swift Sequentials later in the year, we might just see two industries scramble to keep up and collectors riot as they trample their own mothers, clamouring for 9×9” holo-vinyl comics.

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