Absolute Editions, 3D Movies, and the Silent War on Democratic Art

Last summer I decided to re-read the entirety of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  Even though I’m a big fan, it had been years since I sat down and systematically went through the whole ten-volume series, so I wanted to make sure the reading experience was extra special.  That could only mean one thing:  “Absolute Editions.”

You’ve seen them.  Perhaps you even own some of them—DC’s line of oversized, lavish, hardback editions of their most beloved stories, chock full of bonus content.  In the case of Sandman, this includes improved coloring, new introductions, archival production materials, and (for me) the Holy Grail—previously unpublished Gaiman scripts in each volume.

What’s not to love?  If you really want the full Sandman experience, then the Absolute Editions are the only way to go.   And the books are wonderful—undeniably wonderful.  It was an amazing experience all around.

If only I didn’t have the nagging sense that the Absolute Editions are a little … evil.

You see, despite all their perks, Absolute Editions still pose one small problem.  Or maybe I should say 500 small problems, because at $100 a pop, the five-volume collection costs enough to give even the Corinthian nightmares.

In my case, I was fortunate to have access to a good interlibrary loan service, so I was able to have my cake and read it too.  But there’s still something about the whole concept of these luxury editions that seems fundamentally wrong to me.  And I’m not trying to pick on DC Comics—I like the fact that they honor their best stories—and I’m certainly not trying to pick on Gaiman, who remains one of the most ethically-minded writers in the entire industry.

But the Absolute Editions are a small symptom of a much larger and troubling trend in our culture—the silent war being waged against democratic art.  And not only are all of us being dragged into this war, but I’m also beginning to fear that many of us, myself included, are fighting on the wrong side.

There’ve always been some things in our culture that divide us almost entirely by economic class.   We all learn fairly quickly that some restaurants and hotels are “out of our price range,” and most of us know that the fancy box seats at the Metropolitan Opera are probably not in our future.  But as a result of mass production, we now have a number of art forms that are specifically designed to be equally available for all.

These are the “democratic arts.”  Because they are mass-produced, they are essentially the same product and offer the same experience for everyone.  Traditionally treated as disposable trash or dismissed as merely pop culture, things like movies, TV shows, recorded music, and comic books were mostly “kept in their place.”  But a funny thing happened on the way to the cultural ghetto.  As most of these art forms—including comics—have begun to acquire some cultural cachet, it hasn’t taken long for them to become infected by economic, class-based stratification.

Consider the movies.  For virtually every big Hollywood film today, moviegoers face the same dilemma—should we pay the upcharge for 3D or not?  I’ve seen lots of people complain about the rise of 3D, but they mostly complain about the aesthetics—they either don’t like the washed out color or they resent cheap, sloppy up-conversions like Clash of the Titans.

But what troubles me about 3D today isn’t aesthetics.  I’m happy to see a 3D movie if it’s exclusively a 3D movie.  What is troubling, however, is the choice between the two formats, because once films are offered in significantly different versions in theaters, especially versions that come with different price tags, then the choice becomes a way of dividing moviegoers on the basis of economic class.  Suddenly we’re looking at two different movie experiences available at two different price points.

For example, last year I saw Man of Steel in IMAX 3D.  In fact, our local IMAX theater even offers reserved seating for popular shows, so I pre-ordered my ticket and picked my seat—just like Ticketmaster.  It was a wonderful experience … a wonderful, twenty-dollar experience, not including concessions.  And when you consider that another major theater chain is now offering what it calls “upscale” dining experiences with recliners, it’s pretty clear where things are heading.

So why care?  Isn’t the 3D and IMAX option just a way of making a trip to the movies more special than staying at home?  Well I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that.  Putting aside aesthetics for a moment, one of the most beautiful features of the motion picture was that even though it mirrored performance art like theater and music, the movies themselves were a constant.  Granted individual theaters might vary in quality, but Casablanca was still Casablanca, whether it played in New York or North Dakota.

Even twenty years ago, if Bill Gates went to see Jurassic Park he would’ve seen the same movie as everyone else.  And if he wanted a good seat, he would’ve had to get there early because the kids were already lining up.  In fact, unless he rented out the theater privately during off hours, there was really no way for someone like him to “buy” his way into a superior movie experience.  But when I paid twice what most people shelled out for Man of Steel, I actually saw a different film—much larger, clearer, and louder, with a significantly different visual texture than I would’ve seen in a conventional theater.  That’s a fundamental change in the way we think about the movies.

The music industry is doing similar things too, with deluxe editions of recordings featuring bonus tracks—some only available if purchased through certain retailers.  But the magic of recorded music was that it was the great equalizer (no pun intended).  A 12-year-old kid in Detroit might buy a copy of Kind of Blue and it would be the exact same album Warren Buffet would buy.  And unlike a concert, once they played the album, the Detroit kid had just as good a seat as the billionaire.  But a quick check on Amazon reveals that now you have a choice.  You can settle for the seven-dollar version of Kind of Blue and hear what defined jazz for a generation, or for three times the price you can special order an import CD that includes bonus tracks, an alternate take, and a 20-page booklet.  I’m surprised they don’t call it the Kind of (Better) Blue.

Sometimes it seems like, as a culture, we’re simply unwilling to accept the idea that we’re not getting something better than someone else.  Take the Disney World “disabled guide” scandal.  Even though Disney World is an expensive vacation spot, the actual park experience was designed on a democratic principle.  Once you paid to enter the park, everyone was the same—everyone had to stand in line.  But over time, this egalitarian concept has been eroded.  Resort guests now receive special perks like bonus hours and faster moving lines, while other visitors can purchase special VIP passes.

But even these changes weren’t exclusive enough for some guests.  About a year ago there were reports of a ring of wealthy people who were arranging to hire the disabled as park guides.  Why?  So they could use their “guide” to skip to the front of all the lines.  It was one of those ghastly news stories that outraged almost everyone, but it symbolizes this larger problem that keeps cropping up—a desire to circumvent what was originally designed as a democratic entertainment experience.   Wealth, it seems, often breeds this sense of entitlement—the notion that you can always “buy your way” into a better experience, even when that experience is designed to be egalitarian.

And few things have more egalitarian roots than comic books.  Mass-produced and “all in color for a dime,” comic books, at their inception, were another great social equalizer.  They were cheap, but even more fundamental than that, they were the same for everyone.  This is one of the reasons the speculator boom of the early ‘90s with all those variant covers was so distasteful.

But again, why should anyone really care?  We like this stuff so we go for the best version we can afford, right?  If everything were about aesthetics, I would agree, but I think this trend connects to many larger problems—far larger than whether or not Clash of the Titans was a rip-off.  Many of us already live in a society where essential human rights like health care, education, safety, and equal protection under the law are treated like consumable products—differing grades, all for sale to the highest bidder.  But democratic art offers a direct challenge to this type of class-driven culture.  That’s always been a part of its whole “outlaw” mystique.

Democratic art, by its very existence, offers a subversive challenge to economic inequality.  That’s why it’s important, ultimately, to preserve art forms that don’t cater to such class divisions.  If the Koch Brothers suddenly decide they’re interested in Batman, that’s great.  They can shell out four bucks for the latest Snyder and Capullo issue and read the same story as everyone else.  And so long as we all know there isn’t an opportunity for them to “buy their way” into a better version of the same story, it makes it easier to ask other questions too.  If they can’t buy a better comic book, then why are they able to buy better health care?  Why should their kids get to go to better schools?

But even if you don’t care about the social or political dynamics, think about what these types of class divisions do to us as consumers.  I’ll always remember the first computer I ever bought.  It was from one of those companies where you custom order exactly what you want.  However, with each step of what seemed like an endless barrage of technical options, I was confronted with a multi-tiered choice on things like memory, speed, and graphics.  Even though it was one of the most expensive purchases I had ever made, by the time I was through it felt tainted.  I was keenly aware, not of all the wonderful things the new computer could do, but rather of all the compromises I had felt forced to make.  I never did much like that computer.

Do we really want to live in a world where every time we pull out our copy of Watchmen we’re second guessing whether there might be a better Watchmen reading experience out there for just a few dollars more?  That creates a perpetual feeling of dissatisfaction, and I don’t like feeling dissatisfied.  Especially not about the stuff I love.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. But it’s not new. Teenagers were not buying LPs 50 years ago, at least not regularly. LPs were pretty much a “deluxe collection” of singles, with some new material in it. The same goes to annuals, giant-sizes or early tpbs. I had to ask my father some extra money to buy the collected Dark Knight Returns, because it was a lot more expensive than my Batman comics. I also remember the transition from LP to CD, when we were told that CD had a much “purer” sound. And, of course, CDs cost twice as much as LPs (and used LPs were usually half the price of new LPs!)

    Then, of course, there are differences between tvs and stereos. You don’t mention books, but clearly there are differences between pocket books and hardcovers.

    About movies… Yes, Casablanca would still be Casablanca, but depending on where you lived (even in New York) and the money you had, you would have to wait many months to see it. And, 30 years ago, if you had a VCR you could rent Taxi Driver and watch it properly. If you didn’t have a VCR, you would watch it cut on TV.

    Basically, as long as they’re selling it, there has been better ways to enjoy it.

    • Hi Mario. Thanks for the comment and the ideas. You raise several points many of which I, too, considered when writing the piece. The topic is large and nuanced, so to spend the necessary space to delineate all the different “rules” for categories would take a book-length manuscript that I fear no one would particularly care to read. :)

      But to address a few of your points, the LP was indeed an outgrowth of the “single,” but by the mid-’50s, several artists like Sinatra were treating it like an art form itself. So something like In the Wee Small Hours is a different art form, not a deluxe version of a more commonly accessible work. By the mid-’60s, most artists like Dylan and the Beatles had followed suit. It’s like the difference between a short story and a novel.

      And there will always be advancements in technology where we phase from one format to another, from vinyl to 8-Track to cassette to CD to digital. Those are technology-based format changes, not repackaged versions of the same material designed to appeal to the wealthy.

      Likewise, you mention Annuals, Giant-Sized comics, etc, but again, those were not more expensive versions of the same story. As I mentioned when I was talking about 3D, I like 3D fine and I also like IMAX. What I’m trying to address is offering what should be the same “item” in differing and more expensive versions simultaneously.

      And where film is concerned, again I’m talking about the movies in the purest sense–when we watch a film on TV or with a DVR, Blu-Ray, or streaming device, we’re watching a version of it that has been adapted to a different form for convenience and accessibility–if anything, an attempt to make them more available to more people. But when we’re talking about whether we want to see the new Spider-Man movie in a conventional theater, in 3D, in IMAX, or in IMAX 3D, all with different price points, then we’re talking about deliberately creating altered, more expensive, more exclusive versions of what would have been the same movie.

      It may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s the key difference here. While you’re correct in that there have always been better ways of enjoying things, this current trend of pushing superior versions of mass market items that are available to fewer people rather than more … that’s the key difference and the thing that I’d like to see all us become a little more aware of.

      • Good points, Greg, and thanks for taking the time.

        The thing about Sinatra (or Julie London, or Miles) is that he went for na older (and, so, with more money) audience. So it’s not that economy plays no role here; it does. By the mid-sixties, LPs were considerably cheaper already. But really, I understand your point.

        I also understand what you say about technology, and you’re right, except that we’ve all been told to replace our LPs with CDs (or VHS with DVD or DVD with Blu-Ray). And, at least at first, they were expensive versions of the same material.

        But I see your point. And I don’t disagree that accessibility is very important. This stuff should be affordable. On the other hand, we all want the best product possible.

        And that’s probably our take of the sense of entitlement. We want the best reproductions, the best colors, we want the pros to get a lot of money from it and we want it cheap.

        That said, I’ve got pissed off by “special editions” way too many times. So thanks, Greg.

  2. ...David Whittaker says:

    As always my thanks for an enjoyable article Greg . If anything it made me quite thankful for my local semi independent cinema and the various second hand and independent sellers on Amazon. Though small my local cinema offers alternate 2d and 3d showings, with 3D prestige seating still about a third of the price of the hellish multiplex only a town away.

    Amazon marketplace often provides these Absolute Editions at a reduced price. Or has a sufficient back catalogue to enable one to publish the individual trades that make up some of these quite weighty collections.

    Though I own the DC Villain month omnibus I’ve yet to really read it as the sheer size and weight intimidates me. You don’t get that with individual issues and trades.


    • Yeah, I reviewed volume 1 of the Annotated Sandman for PopMatters. It’s a wonderful book but it’s a bit like trying to read one of those giant medieval tomes. You have to make sure you’re sitting in a pretty wide chair. :)

  3. Great article. I have a couple random thoughts.

    There’s a principle in economics that you want to provide multiple options in order to eke out extra dollars people are willing to pay. So if someone’s willing to spend $5 for a cup of coffee, and someone else is unwilling to pay more than $1, you offer differentiated products so that you still capture that $1 order, but you also provide a “fancy” experience for the $5 customer, which actually has a lot higher profit margin (the syrups added are cheap, and the nice design in the foam take a few seconds to do, but is valued very highly by the customer).

    This is an old idea, but it’s become increasingly common. And I see it everywhere now. So for $15, you can get the “basic” book, maybe even in a manga-sized edition; that’s the remnants of the democratized experience, designed to get the price down as much as possible. But for $30, you can get it in a hardcover, with some extras that don’t cost much but mean a lot to fans. And for $100, you can get the oversized hardcover. Reading those larger pages, it’s actually a different book. Then you can get the limited editions with signed plates, if you want.

    I personally like those pretty oversized hardcovers (I’m part of the problem too, as you point out), but I hate all the variant covers and extra tiers in between. Two different levels of experience — one as cheap as possible, for everyone, and another for those who want the nice paper and oversized pages and are willing to pay for it — is about as much as I can understand. In some cases, I get lost in all the editions, and it makes me feel like the art itself has been compromised — not ethically compromised, necessarily, but made unnecessarily complex in its presentation. (I can’t help but think of my call for simplified comics Kickstarters, although I think my idea hasn’t been embraced.)

    And yeah, this has been going on a long time. You could theoretically say that adding a new short story to that short story collection, to get us to buy the new edition, was a money grab. Although it did add value, and the creators were glad to do it. Heck, in theory the hardback preceding the paperback was an example of this same thing.

    Sorry to go on. I just find this a fascinating topic.

    Okay, second observation:

    When DC added pages for the collected edition of “The Wake,” the new pages were reprinted in The Dreaming. Of course, The Sandman was the first continuing series (other than Cerebus, I think) to be collected entirely in trade paperbacks. This was still kind of a new practice, and there seemed to be a desire, for those who bought the single issues, to give them these new pages.

    In part, this was out of a sense of fairness. But for me, it was also intellectually “clean”: the whole story was in the issues and in the collections, even if you had to jump around a little in the issues to read the whole story. There was a relationship between the issues and the collections at that time was more like the two existed in parallel, neither necessarily superior.

    I don’t think the pages added to the second Death mini-series — just a few months later — were reprinted in The Dreaming. In part, that was because Death was arguably a side series. But you could argue this was also the point at which the collections definitively became the final product, and the issues became what we now regard them: as a first draft, vehicles to generate and subsidize the production of pages for eventual collection.

    (Of course, there were silent modifications to earlier Sandman collections, especially to that first volume, including redrawn pages. But those didn’t get any publicity at the time and were apparently intended to fly under the radar.)

    So I guess you could say Sandman is a key series here — not only in the development of the collection edition to begin with, but in the continuing development of differentiated collections at different price points.

    Again, sorry to go on so long, Greg! But ya make me think, you know!

    • Thanks Julian. This has been the most difficult of these columns for me to write because the more you start breaking down the many variables, formats, and scenarios, the harder it gets to it gets to keep straight what you’re trying to say. There’s an old SNL skit with Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford during a Presidential debate. The questioner starts rattling off a number of economic statistics and Chase’s eyes slowly start to cross. Well, as you started breaking down the different places where you could find the extra Sandman pages in some of those stories my eyes started to cross too. There are so many different issues that are tangentially related to the topic and so many different labels and classifications … sigh.

      I do think you’re right about the oversized books actually being “a different book.” That was my experience too, which was part of what started this whole train of thought.

  4. “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”

    –Andy Warhol (The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1975)

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