On the Anthology Format

Tim Callahan’s recent “When Worlds Collide” column has me thinking about anthologies.

Gangland #1

Gangland #1

We all know they don’t sell. Just consider the great anthologies that have been cancelled or just plain aren’t around anymore. Vertigo used to produce great anthology mini-series, like Gangland, that were filled with good stuff, not to mention the ongoing Flinch. Then there was DC’s Solo, a brilliant idea: let major artists just produce 56 pages or so of whatever they want, using DC characters or not. I loved it, but it wasn’t long for this world.

Comics anthologies just seem doomed from the start. Which, naturally, doesn’t help sales: people generally don’t buy a book that looks destined for extinction.

I have to confess that I’m guilty too: I don’t read that many anthologies myself.

But the anthology situation has me wondering: why is this the case, when anthologies used to be the dominant format of all comics? And when so much comics-changing stuff came out of anthologies.

Action Comics #1

Action Comics #1 -- yep, this was an anthology too.

On the historical argument, don’t forget that Action Comics and Detective Comics are so named because they were anthologies of stories in those genres. World’s Finest Comics started the same way. Virtually all comics were anthologies in those days, even ones with a particular hero in the title. Just look at one of those old Batman issues with weird comedy strips inserted into them and several stories every issue.

It was really the shortening of comics that killed off the anthology format. Comics companies wanted to keep cover prices at ten cents (yes, they were worried about the cost rising above 1/30 of what they are now), so page counts kept declining. Meanwhile, stories kept expanding as “full-length epics” and the like took off.

Comics in the 1940s were typically 64 pages or more. Stories were typically six or eight pages. Obviously, anthologies made sense. Not so in the 1960s, as comics had settled to their 32-page pamphlet format, with most containing a single story or a main story and a back-up.

But that’s only part of the historical perspective. The other part is how important anthologies are in comics history. Even ignoring the 1930s and 1940s, when most comics were anthologies, anthology comics have played a major role in comics history.

Just think of E.C.’s many anthologies and how, appearing in the 1950s, they seem so far ahead of their time. Genre stories, sure, but not just super-heroes: well-told sci-fi and horror stories, stuff like we wouldn’t see again, in any major way, until the 1980s.

Art Spiegelman's Raw

Art Spiegelman's Raw

What about Art Spiegelman’s Raw? The home of comics that pushed the medium, took up the banner of the undergrounds, and actually was a home to a whole cadre of creators who took the potential of comics seriously.

Then there’s Taboo, the brilliant anthology that included early chapters of From Hell and Lost Girls, along with work by the likes of Rick Veitch. Classic stuff.

And that’s just U.S. comics. Think about British comics, where the anthology is a lot stronger. Think about everything that came out of 2000 AD — a weekly anthology that started in the 1970s and is still going. You’re talking about the home of a lot more than Judge Dredd and other stories set in his post-apocalyptic world. This is where Alan Moore and Grant Morrison did his “Future Shocks,” where the former would later write stories like Skizz and the later would write his Zenith, a major story in the history of the super-hero.

Crisis, featuring "The New Adventures of Hitler"

Crisis, featuring "The New Adventures of Hitler"

Not to mention other British anthologies, like Crisis, an anthology aimed at more mature audiences which brought us Ennis’s True Faith and Morrison’s The New Adventures of Hitler and Smith’s New Statesmen.

Or Warrior. You know, home of both V for Vendetta and Miracleman.

Then there are Japanese and French anthologies, where many of the major works in those countries were first serialized.

The point is that anthologies used to be popular — in fact, they used to be dominant. And they’ve produced a heck of a lot of important stories in comics history. So why aren’t they more successful.

I’ve already alluded to the fact that we like to know which characters are in a comic. We like to pick and choose. In other words, we might like Grant Morrison’s Batman stories but not Paul Dini’s — so we read Batman but not Detective Comics. And we might not care for the Robin, Catwoman, or Nightwing stories — so we don’t read those titles.

Part of the problem is also length. Vertigo’s ongoing anthology, Flinch, was the usual 32-page format — with three or so stories per issue. Tomorrow Stories and Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales, from America’s Best Comics, had a similar format. In terms of the quality of their content, these were top-notch titles that deserved to be hits. But they weren’t.

Isn’t part of the problem length? Part of the appeal of the anthology format is that you get more for your money: several stories for the same cost. But, if you’re paying $3 an issue, that’s $1 per story if the stories are only seven or eight pages. What about an anthology that was 100 pages? Or 200? You’d get a per-page price reduction. Would that make a difference? Don’t graphic novels and collections sell well?

It’s hard to tell how such a format would work. CrossGen tried this before it went under: it created two monthly trade paperback anthologies to reprint its comics before they were collected under their own covers. Readers thus got a discount, and the publisher soon drove the cost down further by reducing the dimensions of these two monthly anthologies. While a brilliant experiment with format, they didn’t succeed.

But it’s not as if that was a controlled experiment. For one thing, readers of monthly comics want to get the materialfirst — after all, they can usually wait for the trade. So why wait for the anthology reprints? After all, if you only liked a few series, it made economic more sense to buy them monthly than the anthologies. You’d get less for your buck, but . Second, CrossGen also experimented with online comics — another brilliant experiment with format, but one that might also have cut into the anthology’s sales.

I’ve always hated the proliferation of monthly titles. What I’ve long wanted is for anthologies not unlike CrossGen’s. I mean, why are there like ten X-Men titles and Batman titles? I don’t see why characters like Robin and Nightwing have their own book. Those are back-ups. Why can’t we see a monthly Batman comic that ran 100-200 pages, with Batman stories up front and various back-ups? Why should I buy 10 comics when I can buy one anthology that can go on my shelf instead of being bagged and boarded and filed away into a box?

I admit, there’s a downside: you wouldn’t be able to select just the few stories you want. This would have to be balanced by saving money. If you buy only three Batman titles a month, that’s $9. A big monthly anthology book would have to cost not much more than that: say, $12. But, in exchange for those extra $3, you’d get over 100 pages: not just the contents of those three issues (roughly 66 pages) but maybe three other comics worth of stories. That’s $1 per issue. And you can put it all on your shelf.

The other problem is that it would be harder to tell which stories were the popular ones. DC wouldn’t have sales figures for each individual title any more. And that means that unpopular series might continue, annoying readers.

On the other hand, the internet provides enough information about which series are popular. A monthly vote on dccomics.com could provide more information. You could even use this as a marketing plot, announcing that one of your five or six series will come to an end at the end of one year, then use online votes to determine which one gets the axe. And, while unpopular series might continue, this could give life to allow artsy series or ones that are excellent but might not sell.

The anthology format would also allow stories to run various lengths. As a writer myself, I’ve always hated the artificial page counts of monthly comics. If you haven’t written or illustrated comics yourself, you don’t entirely understand this.

There are so many times that a story just naturally comes out to a different length. If it’s 20 pages, you have to expand some sequences or add a subplot scene to reach that magic number of 22. If the story comes to 24 pages, you have to cut, abbreviating some sequences and often cramming too much on a page. If the story comes out to 44 pages, you can divide it into two issues. If it comes out to, say, 55 pages, you’re in trouble if you’re supposed to be writing a monthly comic. Yeah, you can “decompress” it into three issues with artificial chapter breaks, but it’s not the same thing. Nine times out of ten, the story suffers. It’s like when they edit movies for TV to run two hours with advertising.

Then there’s the possibility of shorter stories. One of the reasons I love Miracleman so much is that almost every one of those early, serialized chapters is in a different style. You get about eight pages that advance the story, but Alan Moore would have almost every eight pages switch things up: jump forward or backward in time, for example, or be narrated by someone unexpected. Shorter chapters just seem to encourage this kind of experimentation: it’s harder to switch things up every single chapter when you’ve also got to produce 22 pages a month.

Not to mention that this would allow a little more focus on quality. Look towards French comics for the example here: an artist producing one 48-page album per year is considered fully productive. Artists labor over pages, redrawing until they get it right. U.S. artists frequently complain about having to turn in pages on time that they wish they could redraw. In the old days, Marvel artists were actually told to turn in sub-standard work, focusing on quantity and not quality, letting inkers fix up awkward illustrations. Works like Watchmen and The Killing Joke succeed, in part, because they took so long to produce. It took Bolland two years to illustrate The Killing Joke. A lot of great artists can’t do a monthly book anyway — because it’s 22 pages. But an 8-page monthly chapter would let people like Jim Lee, Travis Charest, Dave McKean, and maybe even Brian Bolland actually do monthly work — at the level of quality they demand. Look at “Batman R.I.P.” — a story with historic importance, but one where the artist has complained that he wishes he could take more time to redraw and get it right. This is a storyline without fill-in artists, which is admirable, but one that shouldn’t have to suffer (given its importance) from art produced too rapidly.

Let’s say that we don’t want to cancel either Batman or Detective Comics, given their pedigree. You could makeBatman an anthology with a Grant Morrison story, generally 20 pages or so but of varying length, up front. After this could run other Batman stories, like all the stuff appearing in the character’s various mini-series. Then you could have an artsy story, like the old “Black and White” back-ups. On the other hand, Detective Comics could open with a Paul Dini story, again allowed to run various lengths, followed by all the other “detectives” in Batman’s world: a Robin story, a Nightwing story, and either a Catwoman story or something else. A graphic novel could even run as a fill-in issue, a complete “novel-length” story instead of some junk designed to keep the book on a monthly schedule. Particularly with the Batman franchise, the material is already there.

I honestly can’t even keep track of all the Wolverine one-shots and mini-series. Why can’t Wolverine: Origins and all that other material just be wrapped into the monthly Wolverine? Better yet, Marvel combines this with renumbering the title to reflect the issues in the prior ongoing, and suddenly you’ve got a nice monthly anthology with a pedigree.

Why do I have to buy what feels like a dozen books a month to follow an X-Men crossover? Couldn’t that just be combined into a single monthly book?

I’d be interested to see crossover mini-series published simultaneously in big anthology books. You could have an issue of Final Crisis or Civil War or whatever in the front, followed by all of the crossover stories for that month. Instead of tracking down and buying all of the crossover issues, at $3 a pop, with stories of varying quality and connection to the main story, you could buy the anthology and get everything. Instead of ten crossover issues at $3, plus the main title at $4, you could get the anthology for maybe $23. If the publisher wanted to boost the book, it would make sure that it appeared in a logical order, containing material that had not seen print in the separate titles. Fans who want to buy everything would get a break, and the companies would see strong sales on $23 books.

Shonen Jump #1

Shonen Jump #1

That kind of promotion would be key, because big anthologies (outside of artsy productions) survive or fail by their cover prices. Know what the highest-selling monthly comic book is in the U.S.? Viz Media’s Shonen Jump, that big manga book you see even in 7-11s. It’s filled with manga, including the popular Naruto and, formerly, Dragonball Z. It sells something like 300,000 copies monthly, here in the states, and it sells to kids — you know, the audience U.S. comics are losing like crazy. And it’s got a hilariously low cover price. Of course, it’s black-and-white, but still…

Having major, appealing features is also important. I don’t buy a lot of anthologies, but I’ve bought anthologies for single stories before just like I used to buy CDs for a single track. Put an eight-page Alan Moore story in there and watch how it sells. I’d buy every chapter of Planetary even if it were stuck in a $20 WildStorm anthology.

And consider this, as we renumber titles to reflect their true histories and start to actually honor more than just #1 issues: all this shift would really mean is returning to the way comics originally were. Comics sold in the millions in the 1940s. Maybe part of the reason was that readers got so much for their money: 56-page issues with multiple stories. All I’m talking about is taking a page from the days of super-heroes’ origins — and their heyday in terms of sales.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: they won’t sell. They’re anthologies. Their very format screams “doomed.”

Fine, but I’m telling you now that this attitude won’t last. The reason is simple: it’s graphic novels and trade paperbacks that sell today. A lot of series, including almost all at Vertigo and several at Image, are almost losing money in the monthly format but are big successes in trade paperback. The monthly issues are almost a loss leader, at this point.

Not to mention that digital comics are obviously the future. I used to hate reading on the computer if I could avoid it. Now, if I buy a novel, I scan it and read it on the screen. Sure, there’s nothing like holding that comic in your sweaty little hands. It’s just cool to feel the pages of the issue you’ve been hotly anticipating. But monthly comics aren’t only threatened by book versions but also by digital comics. The monthly comic is a medium besieged on all sides.

Sure, monthly sales have picked up in recent years, and I don’t think serialized comics will ever go away. But they’re selling more and more copies to what is largely the same, aging audience. They’re insular. And they’re horribly expensive. It doesn’t take many $3 titles to add up to a big hit to the wallet. And prices are only going to rise: inflation means creators need more money to live, paper costs have risen dramatically over the years, and transportation costs are linked to gas prices. All of which ignores that comics are competing for our precious dollars with new and involving media, like video games and the internet.

The long-term truth is that the most popular and most artsy monthly comics may survive in their current forms. The top-sellers simply have little need to change, nor do those with niche audiences willing to pay higher prices for that quaint, old format. But isn’t it time to nudge the monthly comic towards those popular trade paperbacks by increasing the page count? Won’t market forces lead, in the wake of increased cover prices and greater competition for our dollars, to longer issues that cost less per page? Isn’t it time to rethink the anthology format?

Laugh all you want. Believe me, I share the same distaste for anthologies that you do. What leads me to these conclusions is the logic of the market. Eventually, I think, market forces will finally break that distaste for anthologies, and the comics anthology will be reborn with new vigor. I don’t know when this will happen: I’ve been anticipating this for years and it hasn’t happened yet, outside of a few hints in that direction.

After all, what’s Marvel done with its Spider-Man titles but combining them into a single book? It’s just that, in imitation of 52, Marvel’s chosen to publish that single title thrice monthly instead of in a single, nice, 80-page monthly book.

But whatever the detractors say, I think anthologies have a bright future — and may well again, some day in some form, be the dominant format of mainstream comics.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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3 Comments

  1. Miguel Rosa says:

    I like your suggestion: collecting several monthlies in a single volume. Panini, which distributes DC and Marvel in Brazil, already does that. Each comic book contains three issues from different series, although they’re linked by a sense of ‘family’. X-Men, for instance, collects New X-Men, Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine; New Avengers collects the title series plus Captain America and Miss Marvel, etc.

    I also think monthlies should be longer, up to 100 pages. Italian comics are like that. Dylan Dog, for instance, has a new 130-page story every month. And it’s not very expensive. But it’s in black and white.

    You’d do me a great honour if you read an article I once wrote about anthologies:

    http://comicbooksnob.com/2011/09/12/anthologies-the-definitive-retrospective/

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