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includes improved coloring, new introductions, archival production materials, and (for me) the Holy Grail—previously unpublished Gaiman scripts in each volume.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.