Starting a comic book collection is no small matter. With millions of comics printed throughout the medium’s lifetime and thousands and thousands of characters, it can be hard to know where to start.
One of the biggest arguments that comic readers have is if it’s better to buy single issues or “wait for the trade.” Here, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each so you can make up your own mind as to which would be better for you.
Buying single issues is precisely what it sounds like; buying each issue of a comic series as it is released. This, of course, is the traditional way to read and collect comics, and that tradition is the reason why many feel it’s the best way to do so. It also means that you’re on the ground floor for the next big story arc or character debut.
Single issues are also seen as more collectible than trades. Be it because it has the original printing of a character’s first appearance, the work of a particular artist or cool variant covers (which is a whole issue unto itself), single issues are what the vast majority of comic collectors are after. If you’re looking to buy comics as an investment, individual issues are where you’ll want to look.
However, with the cost of comic books going up buying single issues – especially for event story arcs in which several series might be involved – is becoming too expensive for some collectors. When I started seriously collecting comics in 1999, a regular, 32-page comic book would cost $2.95US. Now, most comic books cost $3.99US per issue. Times that by several series (because very few comic fans only buy one series a month) and the cost quickly escalates.
To add insult to injury, while the cost per issue has gone up, the actual page count has decreased for many publishers. The blame can’t really be laid at the feet of the publishers as the cost of printing has been on the rise for many years. This does mean fans are effectively getting less for more. This has resulted in comic fans feeling that they don’t really get a full story in an issue, or at the very least the story feels rushed as the creators try and cram everything into a smaller space.
The flip side of this, though, is that buying single issue comics is the best way to support creators you like. Publishers, and by extension creators, can directly see how many copies of an issue sells, and this dictates how many copies of the next issue will be printed. This is particularly important for indie publishers who typically only see the smallest of profits on their sales. It also shows that people really enjoy what those creators are doing, which will result in them receiving more work and thus producing more great stuff for us to read.
But then you have to store them — And this is probably the most significant negative against the single issue comic. Looking at one issue of a comic, it may not seem much. But once they start to amass… well, let’s just say you’ll run out of extra wardrobe space very quickly. Single issue comics take up a heck of a lot of room, and if you store them correctly with bags, boards, and boxes, they take up even more. And the affordable storage solutions aren’t exactly pretty. Most take the form of large white cardboard boxes. Sure, you could get inventive with your storage, but that will probably mean even more money.
By comparison, trades are no problem to store at all. “Trades,” or “trade paperbacks,” are what most comic fans call collected editions of comics; book-sized volumes that generally contain six to ten issues of a particular series. While “collected editions” is probably a better description, I’ll use the more common “trades” for this article.
It would be prudent at this point to mention that all content in trades is a reprint of previously released single issues. Generally, a trade will release six months or so after the storyline it collects has finished in the regular comic run. They should not be mistaken for graphic novels, which contain all original content and are designed and written as one book, rather than the monthly format of comic books. Sometimes people refer to trades as graphic novels, but this is a misnomer.
Due to their book-like format trades look nice on any shelf. Many fans feel that trades offer a better reading experience as they contain much more story with none of the adverts. Trades are cover-to-cover comics (although many also include bonus material such as sketch pages), unlike their single issue counterparts which have advertising dispersed throughout.
Trades also offer a much more convenient reading experience. Let’s say you wanted to read Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage in preparation for the Venom film sequel. If you were to read this in single issues you’d have to pick up issues from five different Spider-Man series, Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited, Spectacular Spider-Man, and Web of Spider-Man. However, if you read it in trade, all of that is in the one book!
As trades are basically collections of story arcs, you need only buy those that interest you. Let’s be honest, not every single story arc is a classic (Spider-Man’s Clone Saga, anyone?) so there may be some you’d rather skip. If you did this with single issues it’d result in a large hole in your collection. With trades, this is less of a problem. This brings us to another point; if you’re planning on switching from single issues to trades, you need to do your homework on where one ends and the other begins.
However, collectors don’t consider trades collectible. Because they are in essence reprints, many of the fundamental properties that make the original issues collectible – covers, the culture it was released into,
But then, trades have a much longer shelf life than single issues. Comic books are like magazines, they generally only have a lifespan of a month until the next issue comes out. This means that if you miss an issue, you’ll have to hope your comic store still has a copy or start hunting through stores and websites for back issues, something that is becoming harder and harder. However, trades remain available for years after their initial release. They released that Maximum Carnage trade in 1994, and it is still in print today.
Another aspect of trades that topples single issues is value for money. You can find trades of a story arc for cheaper than you would be able to buy the issues individually. This is especially true when it comes to older series runs where the issues can be quite expensive. For example, I paid $45AU for issue #163 of Strange Tales, Vol. 1. However, if you were to buy the Doctor Strange Epic Collection, Vol. 1, which collects Steve Ditko’s whole 35 issue run, it would cost you $50AU. Not bad for an extra fiver.
What About Digital?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention digital comics. Obviously, with digital, physical storage is not really a concern (digital space is another matter). Digital comics offer up all of the pluses of both single issues and trades. You can buy both formats from various digital storefronts. However, there are some drawbacks.
The first is that you will need a device with decent memory if you’re serious about a digital comics collection. You’ll also need a device with a good quality screen which can be expensive if you haven’t already got one. And, of course, digital comics will never grow in value — and are thus not collectible.
The biggest issue with digital, however, is one of ownership. Unlike physical media, you don’t actually own any of your digital content. Be it comics, movies, or games, you are only paying for the right to access that content. It still belongs to the company you’re paying. And just as that company giveth, they can taketh away.
There was a major incident in 2009 when a particular major online retailer who produces a certain well known eBook reader pulled George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm off of eReaders. The company discovered they didn’t actually have the rights to distribute the book digitally. Imagine waking up one morning to find your collection has evaporated.
Single Issues vs Trades: Why Do You Want A Comic Collection?
The easiest way to understand which format is best for you is to ask yourself, why you want those comics? If you want them as collectible items that may retain value, then buying single issues is the way to go. But, if you’re more into the story and the characters and don’t mind reading a story a few months after it’s appeared in single issues, then trades are for you. If you’re more casual about your comic reading habit and storage is an issue then perhaps digital is worth considering…if you’re willing to play Russian Roulette with the whole rights thing.
Whatever the reason for exploring the world of comic books, there is one main takeaway. There are so many options to access comics, that everyone should be able to find a method that will suit. Long gone are the days when comics could only be accessed from specialty stores or mail-order catalogs. And that, more than anything, means it’s a perfect time to start reading.