Watchmen, Print Culture, and the Mainstream

faked by Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

OK, this is going to be a lot briefer than that grandiose title suggests. And I’m just sort of musing aloud here, so feel free to beat up on me in the comments. But I’ve been thinking about this ever since seeing the solicits for Absolute All-Star Superman—a $99 omnibus edition of the 12-issue Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely mini-series, oversized and I assume with various extras and outtakes and other such goodies.

I’ll come back to All-Star Superman in a minute, but here’s where this train of thought began: I think it’s pretty uncontroversial that of any of the original graphic novels or trade paperback collections published by either Marvel or DC, the one with the highest profile—even before the movie—is Watchmen. It’s the one you’re most likely to encounter in a college classroom; it’s often referenced in academic books that aren’t necessarily about superhero comics; it made Time’s Top 100 Novels list a few years back; it’s the superhero comic that your friends who don’t read superhero comics are most likely to have read, and, along with Maus, it is probably the comic that your friends who don’t read comics are most likely to have read. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not canons are a useful concept in our perpetually postmodern moment, Watchmen is the comic that has come closest to being canonized.

And why is that? Well, there’s the fact that it’s a work of great formal and thematic sophistication. That is assuredly the first and most important reason. But I also submit that this is a critical reason:

You can get it all for $20.

Sure, there’s a hardcover and an Absolute edition and all kind of other ways to buy it, but for the last twenty or so years there has been a paperback collection of the twelve issues of Watchmen in print for $20 or less. This seems like a small point, but what it means is that your curious non-comics reading friend has only one purchase to make; it means that your college instructor who wants to adopt the book for a class has one ISBN to give his bookstore and doesn’t have to worry about asking his students to buy multiple volumes of one course text (or try to teach part of it, or worry that some students are going to buy the wrong volume no matter what). Twelve issues, twenty bucks—that’s it. You’ve got it all.

Back to where we started: Heidi MacDonald recently described All-Star Superman as “perhaps the most universally enjoyed loved superhero book of the past five years”. I think she’s probably right about that. I really love All-Star Superman, even if you can’t abbreviate the title on a family blog. It’s a very different work from Watchmen, but it has the potential, I would argue, to be a similar breakout, crossover, mainstream hit—maybe even more, given that it stars an iconic character.

One reason I like it is because its version of the superhero is clearly in dialogue with and deliberately alternative to Watchmen’s. So much so that I’ve considered including it in my classes on comics as a counterpoint to the earlier work. But I haven’t. Because here are your options for buying All-Star Superman, which is, by the way, the same number of issues as Watchmen: You can buy it in two volumes at $13 apiece, or you can buy the whole thing for $99.

I recognize the price difference is minimal—with Amazon discounts, you can get both volumes for less than twenty bucks. (Of course, you can get Watchmen for about thirteen bucks with the Amazon discount.) (Also: Just try telling your campus bookstore about Amazon discounts.) But, as anyone who has taught a comics course knows, textbook costs add up fast, and $26 is a lot to ask for what is in essence one text. And although I’m speculating here, I would bet that your non-comics reading friend is less likely to drop $26 on two books than $20 on one that’s twice as long.

I realize (well, I assume) that Marvel and DC have crunched the numbers and decided that they can make a greater profit selling a 6-issue chunk of comics for $13-$20 than they could selling twelve issues for $20. And this strategy probably makes sense if you’re appealing to a reader who just wants the last six issues of Batman or if the work being collected was written as a six issue arc in an ongoing series. It makes less sense for me in the case of self-contained works All-Star Superman or The New Frontier—books that might appeal to audiences beyond the traditional Wednesday crowd but whose appeal is dampened by an expensive and inconvenient publishing philosophy.

I didn’t really mean to turn polemical, though it does seem that I’m headed that direction; I really just wanted to suggest that some of Watchmen’s mainstream cache and longevity is due to its format. But as long as we’re considering the implications: I realize that Marvel and DC exist to make money, and that they wouldn’t be pursuing this publishing plan if they didn’t think this was the best way to do that. But I do wonder if this is another case of putting short-term over long-term gains. Watchmen’s reputation, its firm footing in the mainstream, is partly the result of its publication format. Because of that format, it continues to turn a consistent profit for DC. DC and Marvel both publish works that could eventually attain Watchmenesque status in the mainstream, but will likely remain marginal if left available in their current form, which appeals primarily to an established (and dwindling) audience.

Alternately: I could be wrong about all this. Or: Everyone knows this already.

5 Responses to “Watchmen, Print Culture, and the Mainstream”

  1. gorjus says:

    “I think you are dead right,” says the fellow who bought the two separate Champions volumes, and promptly slotted them next to the Secret Wars and Squadron Supreme trades on his shelf.

  2. gorjus says:

    (For non-nerds—those trades both contain 12 issues, just like Watchman, and are comparably priced).

  3. Yeah, it’s interesting that 12-issues-in-a-single-volume used to be pretty standard but isn’t so much anymore.

    Are those the “classic Champions” volumes? Those are like 25-30 bucks, yeah?

  4. gorjus says:

    I got them on sale! (Maybe). Yeah, they’re nuts—but they collect a few oddities, like the wrap-up the Champs stories after it was canceled in two Peter Parker issues.

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