(Note to the readers: my apologies for a super-long first post)
I began reading comics again when I was 19 years old. I went to a friend’s house, and we happened to be chatting in his father’s office when I was drawn to the bookshelf. It was your standard bookshelf with your basic variety of fiction and nonfiction, mostly in paperback, but there were two items that really stood out: a collection of Jack Kirby’s artwork and a volume of the Marvel Essentials Spider-Man with reprints of the classic Stan Lee/Steve Ditko stories.
I had read comics as a kid, but since my parents wouldn’t take me to the local comic book store, the few that I had were random, mostly having been passed on to me after my friends finished with them. Nevertheless, I loved superheroes and I especially loved reading, so I poured over them perhaps hundreds of times until they were dog-eared past the point of recognition. Although I never stopped loving superheroes, I did stop reading about them for almost ten years; however, seeing those comics on the bookshelf gave me a realization, “I’m an adult. I have my own money and my own car. I can buy as many comics as I want to.” With that in mind, the next day I drove to my LCBS and picked up the first volume of Marvel Masterworks: X-Men, which collected the original 1960’s X-Men stories by Lee and Kirby, and the beginning of Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne’s legendary work in Essential X-Men vol. 1. The X-Men were always my favorites (undoubtedly due in large part because of that crappy cartoon), and, having something of an obsessive personality, I was determined to start from the beginning and catch up with the five decades’ worth of continuity. No, I never reached that goal, and thanks to Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, I eventually relented and began reading the current runs, but over the next three years of college I read every X-Men-related comic from the first Uncanny X-Men #1 all the way until sometime after the Inferno crossover.
Although I expanded to more than just X-Men, I never abandoned my preference for the trade format. Being too impatient to read only on a monthly basis, trades offer a full story in one package. Further, they often take the guesswork out of reading comics, particularly in regards to crossovers, where issues from multiple titles are often collected in the correct order. History would also appear to be on the side of the trade-reader with most writers structuring their arcs with the trade in mind. That said, trade-waiting is not all roses. Every publisher is different in regards to the way in which they collect their comics. Given that Valiant has become my favorite publisher over the last year, I thought that I would look at how they have chosen to collect books as a whole. Here are my criteria:
Everything needs to be collected: This should go without saying. Many readers (myself included) don’t have access to a LCBS, but everyone should have the opportunity to read everything put out by a publisher. The rise of digital comics has helped in this regard, but those who prefer to have a physical copy should have that option.
Publishers should attempt to avoid redundancy: In terms of collecting, publishers ought to assume that each reader is reading every title. It’s perfectly acceptable if a separate trade is released which contains all the various issues in a crossover, but the volumes for the individual titles shouldn’t contain any redundant issues. If you must include some for story purposes, give it to the readers “for free” and price the trade what it would have been minus that issue.
Trades should be released as soon as possible: Trade-readers are already waiting for a long time, don’t punish them anymore. Also, there are readers will who pick up a trade and like it so much that they began reading the title on a monthly basis. Short waits allow them to catch-up that much quicker.
Price matters: Why exactly a trade-reader should have to pay more for a trade than the price of the individual issues will never make sense to me, and no, “bonus material” such as excerpts from scripts or variant covers is not enough to remedy this.
Reading in the trade format shouldn’t require a guide: Unless it’s a mini-series or a collection of old comics, every trade should have a clearly labeled volume number. Further, if a title is relaunched or renumbered, the trade should direct the reader accordingly, even if it’s as simple as saying, “Continued in ______.”
Trade dress should be attractive and standardized: This may be a personal preference on my part, but I like it when the trades on my shelf have a nice uniform appearance. Admittedly, this point isn’t a deal-breaker for me, and I will happily overlook it as long as the publisher adheres to the other criteria.
How does Valiant grade on these criteria, especially in regards to their competitors? Let’s look:
Until recently, Valiant has been great about collecting everything that they publish. I did have a few minor complaints in that the extra material from Rai #1 wasn’t included in the trade, and the final volume of Archer & Armstrong only contained part of #25, but overall the publisher has been strong; however, my feelings changed somewhat with the announcement of the upcoming Legends of the Geomancer mini-series, which will not be available in either the digital or trade format. If Valiant does follow through on that threat promise, then they are essentially cutting off a portion of their large portion of readers, some of whom may not have access to a LCBS, which is an absolutely backwards direction to go in 2015. My hope is that they realize their error and relent, but at the moment this remains a point of consternation.
In regards to redundancy, Valiant generally fares well, but there have been a few minor missteps. I really like the way that they have chosen to collect their crossovers, with relevant issues remaining confined to their ongoing titles. While this can make for an awkward reading experience, it also doesn’t force readers to read a title that they otherwise wouldn’t be reading. Sure, they may miss some of the story, but that’s their prerogative. This is a case where I am happy, because I feel like a publisher is treating me with respect and allowing me to make my own choice in regards to what I read.
Yet, three trades—Unity vol. 2, Armor Hunters: Bloodshot, and Armor Hunters: Harbinger—have consisted of three issue story arcs, so a reprint was included to bring the trades to the minimum of four issues. The upcoming Bloodshot vol. 6 also includes a reprint of Bloodshot #1, although the solicitation says that it’s the “Director’s Cut,” so presumably it will feature new material. Finally, there’s also the Valiant: Zeroes and Origins, which is made up of the various zero issues, some of which have already been collected elsewhere while others are being collected for the first time. In this instance, I am perfectly fine with redundancy since it’s a “special” trade rather than another installment in an ongoing series. Likewise, the extra material is enough to also let Bloodshot vol. 6 off the hook; however, the first three trades irk me considerably.
It’s understandable why Valiant is reluctant to release such a thin trade (the look would probably be off, and I’d also imagine that the printing costs make it harder for Valiant to make a profit on only 3 issues), but there are viable alternatives. For one, Valiant could combine a short arc with the next arc and instead release a trade with 6-7 issues (which is essentially what they did with X-O Manowar vol. 3). Another option might be to include an uncollected, if unrelated issue, of another series as a kind of “preview” for that title (Archer & Armstrong #24, Archer & Armstrong: The One-Percent #1, Punk Mambo #0, and Valiant Universe Handbook #1 are either uncollected or only collected in the Zeroes and Origins trade, which, as I already stated is its own “special” volume).
Regardless, redundancy is something that Valiant ought to strive to avoid. Both of the Big 2—Marvel and DC—are constantly including redundant issues in their trade collections thereby taking advantage of their readers and forcing them to pay for something that they probably don’t want. The smaller publishers, especially a relatively new company such as VEI, need to differentiate themselves accordingly.
One area of trade collecting in which Valiant has excelled is in publishing in a timely manner. Trade-readers rarely have to wait more than a few months (as opposed to several publishers, notably DC, who will often make their readers for more than six months) and each new installment is first released as a paperback. Later, a deluxe hardcover edition is published containing anywhere from 8-20 issues. This is important, because it’s the exact opposite approach of the Big 2, who initially publish story arcs for their most popular titles in hardcover first before making the title available in paperback. This is simply another way of exploiting their readers to pay more for something that they don’t necessarily want (retailer Brian Hibbs confirms as much when he writes that these hardcovers stop selling the moment the paperback becomes available). I appreciate that Valiant is giving its fans a form of incentive to purchase the more expensive hardcover. The approach has also been adopted by several other publishers such as Image with Saga and IDW’s TMNT, and based on sales, is clearly what the market wants. If the Big 2 truly cared about their fans, they would adjust accordingly.
While on the subject of trades and pricing, it’s worth noting that Valiant offers the first volume of each ongoing title at a reduced price ($9.99 rather than the standard $14.99), which encourages readers to try out new titles. It’s a smart strategy, because, speaking from personal experience, many readers will happily try out other titles at such a (relatively) low cost. Image has also employed the same tactic to great effect, so it’s clear that it’s a good model to follow.
Valiant also gets high marks for having their trades clearly labeled with volume numbers. Even Shadowman: End Times and Harbinger: Omegas, which were technically both mini-series, were labeled as the next volumes of Shadowman and Harbinger since they were continuation of those storylines. Additionally, the final page of a trade includes an advertisement for the next trade in the storyline, even if the storyline runs through a different title, which especially helpful given that most of the current “Valiant Next” titles have spun out of another series.
Finally, I like the uniform trade dress of the Valiant trades. Although there has been a recent change in the trade dress, it doesn’t bother me so long as they remain consistent.
Overall, Valiant is one of the top publishers in regards to trade collections. Though they have their failings, they are strong enough in other areas to offset most of their weaknesses, especially in comparison with other publishers. That’s not to say that Valiant shouldn’t strive to improve, but as a trade-reader, I can generally say that Valiant is looking out for me.