Size Matters

I am a train commuter. Every day, I get on the subway, and I ride to work, and every day I use that time to read. But I very rarely read comics on that trip. In fact, if comics were to have one inherent flaw about them it is that I think they’re completely unsuitable for travel. This is one practical consideration we don’t ever think about, but that might be holding comics back just a bit.

I find that historically, I’m much more likely to haul around a prose book, either mass market paperback, or even a hardcover, than I am to carry around any of the various forms of comic books. There are several reasons for this, and clearly this is a topic we’ve ignored for too long.

Or not long enough, but then, we’ve got to talk about something.

It occurred to me that I don’t like to bring comics with me out into the world. It’s not for the reason you’d most likely think: that I’m embarrassed to be seen in public reading something that many still think is childish. Nope, it’s just that comics are just not the best form of media to go.

For one thing, they’re big, but don’t always pack a lot of content into what is a somewhat large physical shape. I live in constant fear of being stuck somewhere with nothing to read, and to be honest, the average graphic novel or trade paperback, offers no guarantee that you won’t finish the thing, and be stuck with sweet F.A. to do, should you find yourself in some waiting room. To protect against that, you’d have to carry around several volumes, and that weight can add up very quickly if you find yourself carrying books around in a backpack or messenger back. A couple of trips to comic conventions, and just a few purchases have taught me the way that comics can get heavy real fast. In that way, you’re getting beat by a novel every time.

This is one reason I never bring graphic novels with me when I fly. You end up packing 20 pounds of books for 40 minutes worth of reading, and it just isn’t worth the shoulder ache.

There’s one other issue I’ve come across on trains and planes when it comes to comics. If you’re reading a prose novel, there’s very little chance someone is going to look over your shoulder and see something truly offensive. Yet lately, I’ve been reading Preacher again, and making an effort to bring it on the train with me. While the book is certainly not obscene, there are pages that, without context, come across as quite filthy. This problem also applies to watching some DVDs while in transit, and some of the more explicit material can place you in a rather awkward public situation.

I suppose one thing that can be done about this is to decrease the size, such as to the accepted manga size, or digest as it’s often known in the US. But that doesn’t really do the art much justice in a lot of cases. Since it’s a visual medium, it tends to benefit most from having nice big images to look at. But if you’re talking about travel, a smaller thicker book might be the only way to go.

The idea of digital comics doesn’t make them any more portable. I suppose you could carry around a laptop, and on that laptop, you could keep digital comics, but that doesn’t really save you any weight, and as far as my experience goes, reading digital comics still kind of sucks, and certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the paper method. Smaller devices, like e-readers, or PSPs, or even the iPhone are even worse when it comes to scaling down comic book art and lettering. In fact, if comics are going to be read on devices like these, they’ll have to change the whole premise behind the traditional comic book page, because without seeing the page in that concept, much of the craft and skill in putting a page together just doesn’t translate to a method where you digitally scan and browse different parts of the pages at different times. So that doesn’t really work.

Then there’s the idea of the comic book as precious. Now, I’m not a collector, and I don’t grade the condition of my comics, and I don’t search the new books seeking out the most pristine copy. Yet there is still something in my makeup that makes it very hard for me to allow any physical wear to affect my comics, either in issue or book form. I just baby them more than I do prose books, or magazines, or anything. Even on a nice hardcover book, I can easily overlook a bent page, or a food stain, yet with a comic book page, I just can’t let it happen. This makes it hard to read comics during, say, your lunch hour. Maybe it’s the presence of art on the pages, or something, but I have a hard time when they get a bit sullied. It’s possible that this is some lingering comics OCD (a condition I champion the abolition of), but it’s there nonetheless.

I’m not sure if there’s a solution for this. Comics seem to be good for short distances, but definitely not long trips. Maybe a resizing is in order, or maybe I just need to suck it up and get over it, and take my trades where I go. Lately, I’ve been making an effort to re-read some stuff, and that’s actually been going pretty well. One thing about reading comics out in the world is that they can be conversation starters if you’re that sort of person. Of course, the chances are more likely that you’re just trying to read, so talking isn’t high up your list. But it can’t hurt to have as many folks out there reading comics in front of the world, battling, and in some cases reinforcing stereotypes, and generally showing that completely normal adults can enjoy reading comic books without being anti-social shut-ins. The result of that could outweigh having to carry a bit more of a load. It can’t be any heavier than that last Harry Potter book.


  1. What if comics were all still printed in the newspaper format? You could fit tons of comics that weight next to nothing. And because you could unfold them to a large size, the effect of the panels wouldn’t be lost :P. Granted the quality would decrease some because of the printing on that uncoated paper….maybe the original Sunday strips had the right idea. 😛

  2. I also take a train most days but it is only a short journey and so I find that a regular issue is just right. If the train is crowded I find I have to fold the comic round which some people might not want to do with their comics.
    In England, the publishing company pannini have taken to reprinting xmen and spiderman comics from the 70s in pocketbook form.
    In Madrid, where i am living at the moment, most people you see on the metro cover whichever book they are reading in wrapping paper. this is to protect their books but it may also stop others from knowing what you are reading

  3. I guess it’s different for me since I never have to commute (being student and all), but I tend to only have enough time to read comics through the week, when I’m in my dorm room (or library, or wherever I happen to make it to before my bike gets messed up), and leave prose books until the weekend, since that’s my free time and i use it to get that sorta stuff done (Currently reading Raymond Feist, do I need that free time)

  4. I agree, I tried to read Preacher on my break at work once and was so worried that someone would look over my shoulder and slap a sexual harrassment lawsuit on me.

  5. I don’t have a very long commute. It is far too short to read anything during it. Also I carpool and I don’t think any of my riders would appreciate me reading The Walking Dead while I am driving.

    I don’t like the idea of shrinking books down to a smaller size. I don’t think it does the art any justice.

    I usually have a trade in my bag to read on my lunch break. They’re ideal for lunch, because you can finish a four to six issue comic book arc in about an hour.

    I am not going to be satisfied with digital comics until there is a magazine sized, color, and light weigh e-reader. I don’t see that coming out any time soon.

    Finally, I think I have gotten over babying my comics. Except for the fact that I keep them in boxes all around my living room whereas magazines I just toss in the recycling bin at some point. Last week some of my comics were bent in half in between other books in my bag and I managed to shrug it off.

    Ultimately, I am happy with comics in their current form. I wouldn’t mind stocking digital copies on DVD or in my computer’s hard drive if I could read them on a satisfying e-reader and if the trades were still available for collecting. Actually, digital copies would make it easier to get away with reading comics at work. Then again that little sport is part of the fun of reading comics.

    What kind of paper stock are Vertigo books printed on? Those are very light books and I don’t feel the art is diminished in any way?

  6. I live in LA, so I drive…so I don’t have the train problem. However, I do travel for business sometimes, and I’ve had similar thoughts when packing books for plane travel, etc.

    I’ve noticed that lately I’ve been buying more manga when traveling. I tore through the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service and a few volumes of Death Note. They seem about right for travel, and maybe I’m not worried about the artwork because I know that’s just the way it is…? Whatever the case, it works for me.

    Another solution may be the 6×9 trade format that Boom! Studios is starting to use. Yeah, you may lose a little in re-sizing the artwork, but I just read through the X-Isle trade, and the re-sized art didn’t really bother me. I think American Born Chinese might have also been 6×9? I read that while on a trip – that worked well for me.

  7. I feel the exact opposite and disagree with almost everything you said, Josh.

    I could never read a prose book while bouncing around on the train. The a crowded train is about the worst possible place I frequent to read a prose book. Terribly distracting for me and uncomfortable.

    Comics are the prefect medium for travel. Not too heavy, you can pack a lot of them in you bag. Not too involving, can be read while holding a hot dog in one hand and the comic in the other. It’s no different from the utility offered by a magazine over a book.

    The only reason anyone would not find comics ideal for the situation is if they treat their comics with kid gloves. I do not. They are disposable periodicals and should be treated as such.

  8. Y’know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with the digest format. Waaaaaaaay back in the late 70s the digest form was how I read the origin stories of Spider-Man and The Hulk. And the spirit of those stories is still with me today, even though those digest books have long ago turned to dust.

    I’m really glad to see Marvel bringing back this format for Runaways, the Mary Jane lines, the new Power Pack minis, and now Ant-Man. I read the first 7 volumes of Runways in the digest form and enjoyed it immensely. I thought the format did fine service to the art, as well as the storytelling. True, I’m buying it in issues now. So I guess either on some level I do find that format visually preferable or else I am just hooked and can’t wait for the next digest to come out. Probably a little of both.

    But the digest form is more durable and easier to read and transport. They do still need to improve the binding quality. I’ve had a couple of them break their bindings already. Still, I hope Marvel sticks with this strategy. I’ve noticed a growing section of American trade paperback digests in the bookstores lately.

    It’s no accident that Manga is more popular in Japan than American comics are here, and the size/format certainly is one factor in that popularity. Manga is designed to be easy to read on the train with one hand. You can certainly argue that the art/paper quality may at times suffer. Then again, look at Lone Wolf & Cub or the Project X series and tell me that those are not quality examples of visual medium.

  9. I just listen to my iPod on the subway. 🙂

    Overall, Josh, I agree with you. However, I’m a bit of a bigger fan of digital comics and I think that a reasonably long flight would be a good place to break out that laptop and read the suckers.

  10. I agree with Patio. I’m a big fan of the digest sized books. Good for transort, easy to hold. I love my digest sized books (Runaways, Scott Pilgrim, the Minx line, the Project X line), I wish more books I liked came out that way.

    And he’s right about it not being a hinderence to the popularity of manga.

  11. I think the digest size is the way to go.

    Also, I find it no harder to read prose or comics in a busy environment. Reading is reading. So that has no bearing on my choice.

  12. Digest is definitely the way to go. There’s no denying that Manga Tankobans (or digests) influenced the current wave of popularity in digest sized books.

    And if you know anything about commuting on a train in Tokyo, you’ll know that things get real crowded, real fast. I’m sure they realized that all of the Manga heads were starting to get frustrated with larger sized books and switched to the current digest size for their trades.

    However, it is also interesting that before Manga are collected in digests, they are printed weekly in large, phone book sized volumes on newspaper stock. I wonder how the Japanese average commuter deals with that?

  13. Also, I find it no harder to read prose or comics in a busy environment. Reading is reading. So that has no bearing on my choice.

    With all due respect, I would contend that your Gravity’s Rainbow or As I Lay Dying is a bit more intellectually involving than your typical New Avengers or JLA. And that the environment of a crowded train or city bus is not the best place to engage such works.

    Not that comics can’t be as complex or thought provoking as prose books. It is simply that most often they are not such.

    I long for the days when we can cheaply pick up a comic from the spinner rack, roll it up and stuff it in our back pocket. That is what single issue comix should be all about.

  14. I’m all about prose on the train. Very rarely comics. I don’t know how it is in Chicago, but most people on the subway in NYC in the morning/evening commute seem to have no problem reading prose books.

  15. With all due respect, I would contend that your Gravity’s Rainbow or As I Lay Dying is a bit more intellectually involving than your typical New Avengers or JLA. And that the environment of a crowded train or city bus is not the best place to engage such works.

    Not that comics can’t be as complex or thought provoking as prose books. It is simply that most often they are not such.

    And not all novels are complex either. Depends on the material and the writer. Maybe I have incredible concentration skills, or a read silly books, but I read novels just fine on the train.

    I usually get a seat though…

  16. probably in between classes it is easy for me to read a comic but with all the schoolbooks I carried and the risk of damaging them I don’t bring my comic books to school, but I do bring novels and magazines and I don’t really care how poor of a shape they end up being

  17. Digest size is definitely a quick fix, but titles are limited. You can get great indy books like Stranger’s in that format, but the heroes seem to be limited to young adult, and childrens books.

    Gotta say though, I’ve been carrying around the iPhone, it’s 1 great for listening to the show, and 2 fantastic for web comics. Getting normal books to look good on the web is tough. Try reading the print in issue #1 of Fear Agent from Newsarama on your PC, at least the art looked pretty. I do so many things in front on the Computer, its rare for me to sit down and catch up on a web series. But the capabilities of the browser on the iPhone to zoom, and drag the page around have been great to read stuff on the go.

  18. i don’t have friends that read comics, just my little girls. so i don’t take my comics out of the house. as for travel or just going out, bring a book. mix it up. i love comics and i love prose so reading one or the other makes no differece to me. i wouldn’t change the size that would mess with the art.

    as far as being OCD about comics, its only natural. its art. if the image is ruined than whats the point of keeping it. besides, you spend way to much money on them each week to treat them like your red headed stepchild and through them out.

  19. I don’t know how it is in Chicago, but most people on the subway in NYC in the morning/evening commute seem to have no problem reading prose books.

    Well, of course many people read prose books on the train.

    However, I don’t think that environment is any more suitable for prose than comic books. Perhaps, less so.

    Where as the floppy, disposable magazine-like nature of the medium of comics inherently lends itself to less rigorous reading.

    …Or I may just be easily distracted. Oh, look a butterfly!

  20. I live in Madison WI and drive 30 min to work, so no dead tree editions of books. Right now I’m into audio books for my commute, also I ride bike for exercise and I prefer books to music. Right now I’m reading Mike Carey’s “The Devil You Know”. So far, it’s good.

    Only problem is if you get a bad reader, it can ruin the best of books.

  21. See how he snuck in the reference to his iPhone?

    He mocks me, even in editorial subtext.

    Paranoid schizophrenia? Never heard of it.

    I carry a trade every once in a while. Rarely read it on the commute. My mind wanders too much. I need a block of text to reel me in. That probably makes no sense as written.

  22. I usually listen to my ipod on the train but would love to be one of those people who read their comics, just because I usually have so many to go through. The main reason I don’t is because sometimes I just feel too “greasy.” On a hot day, in NYC, next to that many people, I feel like I’m going to sweat on it. Also my commute is broken up by a bus, the SI ferry, and a train, so I can’t get enough time on each to really enjoy them.

  23. It’s okay Paper. Go to your happy place.

  24. “I live in constant fear of being stuck somewhere with nothing to read”

    I am SO glad to hear that someone else has this psychosis! I alternate between comics and prose pretty evenly, but easily half of the weight of my briefcase is from books that I “might” want to read if I have some spare time. Often I’ll go out in the AM and come back at night without even cracking them open.

  25. Just a tad late in my reply…eep!

    Seeing as my longest journey is only about an hour (on the train or bus) i have no problems reading a good hefty comic like ‘the long halloween’ or a couple of ‘Y’ trades. If i was going further abroad i do tend to stick to prose or a comic like ‘runways’, but if there is something i’m desperate to read i’ll take it with me no matter the size!!