Classic EBI #71: Good Things Come in Small Packages

DC Comics is turning Green Lantern from a character into a franchise, but this isn’t the first time that trick has been tried. This week in EBI, I look back at past attempts…

Everything But Imaginary #381: Green Lantern-The Franchise

But in this week’s classic EBI, we’re going back to July 15, 2004, when we talked about tiny comics that were big readin’…

Everything But Imaginary #71: Good Things Come in Small Packages

Good Things Come in Small Packages

Once upon a time, comics came in all shapes and sizes. Marvel and DC did the giant treasury formats, there were black-and-white magazine-sized comics, comics would get reprinted in paperback books and everywhere you looked, there was the digest. As companies these days are looking for new ways to get comics in the hands of new readers, these alternative formats are coming back in a big way.

Even when I started reading comic books in the mid-80s, digests were ubiquitous. DC had its Blue Ribbon Digest series, Marvel reprinted the best comics of its Star imprint in digest form and Gladstone had a line of digests for its Disney comics. Then, of course, there was the king of the medium, Archie. Even as the digest seemed to die out from all other publishers, Archie, Jughead and Betty and Veronica remained a staple at supermarkets and drugstores, and are still huge sellers today.

Why did Archie digests last while the others fell by the wayside? I think a lot of it has to do with the art style. Archie — and most humor comics in general — is drawn in a much simpler style, less detailed, and easier to reduce in size to fit the digest page. If you look at DC digests of the era, the action scenes look cramped and the dialogue starts to get muddied up together. You could get eyestrain trying to read that tiny print.

The other alternative with action-oriented comics was done by both Marvel and DC — cut up the panels and rearrange them so they’ll fit on a page of a standard-size paperback book. They weren’t reduced that way, but it often jumbled up the storytelling, especially with longer panels that would literally get cut in half, making you scratch your head as you read them trying to figure out what the characters were looking at. DC recently reissued some of the paperbacks in this line, including the Untold Legend of the Batman — if you see a copy in the store, it’s worth at least flipping through so you can see what I’m talking about.

So with the exception of Archie, digest comics were essentially dead. So what happened? How did they come back? People tried different things… black-and-white reprints like the failed “Backpack Marvels,” repackaging things in “manga” sized books… but things didn’t quite take off.

DC’s Paradox Press tried a smaller line of mainly crime comics, but it quickly went under. Only one title, Road to Perdition found new life, and that was primarily because it got snapped up by Dreamworks to make a pretty good (and Academy Award-nominated) movie out of it.

So how did digests go from Archie and other niche projects to becoming a viable format again?

I’m giving the credit to CrossGen.

I was an unabashed fan of CrossGen Comics. I still am. I hope against hope that somehow we’ll at least get the last few issues of Negation War. But even if that never happens, I’m going to take the chance to point out some of the cool things they did introduce to the industry. A while back, CrossGen launched their “Traveler” line (I actually did an “Everything But Imaginary” about it, back in the day — Born in a Wagon in a Traveler Show).With the advancement of computers, CrossGen proved it was now possible to shrink down artwork and text without dirtying it up or losing quality in the reduction. While the Travelers may not have caught the world of comic books on fire in a sales perspective, I do not believe it was a coincidence that Marvel, DC and everyone else started putting out smaller paperbacks, in color, not long afterwards.

Right now, the majority of these digests (like Archie) are geared towards newer readers. DC uses the format mainly for its Cartoon Network titles like Justice League, Powerpuff Girls and Scooby Doo. Gemstone comics prints one digest in addition to its regular Disney comics, Donald Duck Adventures, which takes advantage of the format to reprint some of the longer European Disney comics that wouldn’t fit into the regular titles without being chopped up and serialized.

Marvel, as is often the case, has taken the most aggressive stance in pushing its new digest line — conveniently titled Marvel Age. Taking the name from their old magazine title that filled you in on all the cool stuff Marvel had coming up (this was before magazines like Wizard), the Marvel Age line has two prongs. First, it takes classic stories of characters like Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The Hulk, re-tells the stories with a new script and artwork but keeping the basic feel, and aims them at new and younger readers. I admit, I was skeptical about this idea at first, but when I read the Marvel Age Spider-Man giveaway from Free Comic Book Day, I’ve got to admit, I was pretty impressed. I don’t know if I could read this title on a regular basis — unlike stuff like Gemstone’s Disney comics, this title was aiming directly at kids instead of telling a story that is fun for kids and adults. The dialogue felt a bit simplistic, and if I read too much of it I’d feel like I was being patronized. But for a brand-new reader trying to get into the superhero universe, I think it would be a great entry-level title. In fact, talking to the manager of my local comic shop last week, he told me that the only title to see a significant sales spike due to Spider-Man 2 is Marvel Age Spider-Man.

But back to the digests — that’s the second prong of the Marvel Age experiment. The reprints of these comics are in the smaller, digest form, with the artwork perfectly intact, and they come out lightning-quick. In fact, the first Marvel Age Spider-Man digest actually collected an issue from the regular series that hadn’t been released yet.

In addition to just reprinting the Marvel Age titles, though, Marvel is reprinting other comics that could appeal to a younger demographic in this format: Spider-Girl and the fan-favorite Sentinel, for example. After hearing for years how great a comic book Spider-Girl was, I finally picked up the first Marvel Age digest, and I really enjoyed it. So much so, in fact, that I read issue #75 of the title and wound up adding it to my monthly pull-list. Granted, I’m not the sort of “new reader” this sort of thing is necessarily geared towards, but they at least got one more monthly sale out of it.

I know a lot of purists don’t like the digests. They like their individual issues, which is fine (I do too). If they must purchase a paperback, they want one where the artwork is presented as “originally intended,” i.e., its regular publication size.

But the way I feel about it is this — I’m getting the same story with the same quality artwork, it’s taking up less storage space and it’s cheaper, usually anywhere from 25 to 50 percent less than a full-sized trade. Hell yeah, I’ll take a digest! You wouldn’t hear me complain if I never had to buy another full-sized trade paperback again!

When you get right down to it, this is another format, another choice in how you get your comics. I’m of the opinion that the more options there are available, the more people we’ll be able to get to join us on our four color adventures. And if you ask me, that’s the most important thing we could do for comics as a whole.


This choice is probably going to surprise you guys. It surprised me too. I don’t normally get this title at all, and in fact, I only picked it up this week because of the “Avengers Disassembled” stamp on the cover, but friends, Thor #82 blew me away. Asgard is in ruins. The Warriors Three are down to one. Ragnarok is finally upon the Aesir! Mythology buff that I am, I’m tickled to see how much classic mythology the writers are managing to inject into this story. Plus the art by Andrea DiVito is simply superb. It was a dark horse candidate, but Thor narrowly edged out DC Comics Presents: Batman to take the top spot last week.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast and the weekly audio fiction podcast Blake M. Petit’s Evercast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page, and check out his new experiment in serial fiction at Tales of the Curtain.


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January 2011

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