Jul 9, 2011

UK vs. USA #1: Make Sure It's Formatted

This is gunna be a big, long, rambling one folks. I wanna talk to you about the super interesting topic of comic book formats. So brace yourselves! Just a quick note up front that this article will basically be ignoring newspaper comic strips (and their reprints), and internet comics (and their reprints) just for simplicity's sake.

Can you guess which are the UK and which are the US comics?

So let's talk about the essential difference between American comic books and British comic books. Not the stories or the characters. Not the themes, or style, or tone. Let's talk about the difference in format.

American comics are all the same. There's no other way to put it. American comics are all formatted like magazines. They have glossy covers, stapled spines and colour interiors. They're all the same size, more-or-less, all the same number of pages, more-or-less. Even here, have a look.

A selection of American comics of different eras,
different publishers, and different page counts.
American comics books rose up out of the 1930s from a tradition similar to American magazine publishing. While some early comic books attempted to replicate the format and success of the comic supplements in American newspapers, they soon changed formats to resemble more-or-less the comics that are still published today.

Speaking (very) generally, American comics have come in basically three formats since the 1930s. Each format is named after the American Super Hero comic 'age' that they were most common in. During the 1930s and 40s there was the larger Golden Size. Then there was Silver Size in the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s. Since the 1970s comic formats haven't changed squat in America. That's why modern comics are referred to as Current Size.
Top: Golden Size comic, from Gilberton,
Middle: Silver Size comic, from Marvel,
Bottom: Current Size comic, from IDW.
While we're at it we should probably talk about page counts. American comics commonly use a 36 page format. How many of those pages are actual story content varies across the decades, with 22 pages as the 'standard' format starting around the 1980s. Super size, and large size comics are also common, with any number of pages (always in multiples of 4, because of the nature of how these comics are bound). Additional content was made up through ads, letters pages, editorial pages (like Marvel's Bullpen Bulletins), and of course the covers.

Covers are very important to American comics, and aside from size format they're one of the absolute defining features which makes them stand out as different from traditional British comic books. American comic book covers aren't content. They have no story or plots on them. They're a teaser image, designed to make you want to pick up the comic. Sometimes this means they're a scene based on the interior story, sometimes it means they're a pin-up designed to showcase the main characters. Covers also use gimmicks, like variants, foil covers, holograms, glow-in-the-dark covers, etc. All designed to make the comic more desirable to collectors.

American reprint formats.
A trade paperback from Marvel.
A hardcover from DC.
A digest from Marvel.

While almost all new material produced by American comics is presented in these formats, they also have a bunch of formats for reprints of old material. There's digests, trade paperbacks and hardcovers. All of these are book formats, with properly bound spines. These reprint volumes follow similarly uniform size formats to their comic book counterparts. (Weeellll... not always. Reprints encourage other oversize formats, undersized formats, omnibuses etc.)

The reprint nature of these formats is almost a technicality for many modern comics which are written in 6-issue story arcs specifically designed to be collected into trade paperbacks, prompting many American fans to simply elect to 'wait for the trade'. Archie digests have long outsold the regular size comics, making their digests almost their 'standard' size format, and they even produce new material specifically for the digests these days.
Three experimental comic formats next to a Marvel current
size comic to show scale.
A Black and White Magazine from Marvel.
A Full Colour Magazine from Archie.
A Graphic Novel from Marvel.

I don't want you to get the wrong impression, while American comics have been incredibly homogenised over the years there has been experimentation as well. In the 1930s when things started it took a while to settle on one common format. In the years since other experimental size formats have emerged, including graphic novels, tabloid-sized comics, treasury editions and magazine-sized comics. And that's to say nothing of underground and independent comics.

These new formats struggle to stay popular. Marvel's Treasury Editions lasted only about a decade, and the form has been used only sparsely since. Apart from Mad Magazine (and Archie's very recently launched magazine-sized title), none of the magazine-sized titles launched by any of the major publishers are still being produced today either.

Graphic Novels are another subject -- originally coined as a term to refer to book-length, bound comic stories, the term has been co-opted and watered down to just mean any comics in trade paperback format. Well, bugger that noise. A Graphic Novel means what Will Eisner meant it to mean around these parts. This definition of the Graphic Novel, incidentally, means that it's basically a dead format, with almost no publishers actually producing material ONLY for this trade-paperback-like format.

British comics are basically the polar opposite of American comics in terms of the comics as physical objects. They're usually large, on thin newsprint, and formatted, well, like newspapers. Unlike American comics there is no single universal format with British comics. British comics come in all different sizes and shapes. They vary in size and shape depending on the publisher, the era, and... uhh... the whims of the time.

A selection of British comics from different publishers, eras, and styles.
Take just the idea of the comic's binding. All American comics are bound by two staples along the spine. British comics? Not so much. Many are not bound at all, just folded down the middle like a paper, others use staples, and others still have glued spines!

The page counts vary wildly. The types of paper and printing vary wildly. Then there's the covers. British comics have three types of covers. There's the American-style cover, which isn't that common (look at the MASK cover above). Then there's the tabloid-style cover, which is styled to look like a children's magazine cover (which you can see above with the BeanoMAX). The final style is to just have a comic strip make up the front cover.

Talking in really general terms there are about five main formats for new material British comics. There's the full-tabloid sized comic (just under A3 paper size), the standard comic size (just under A4 comic size), American-sized comics, digests and of course the hardcover Annual format (British annuals need their own entire article).Of course, just to be annoying the sizes and layouts of these formats all vary from company to company.

Top Row: Marvel UK Annual, Titan comic, Titan TPB
Bottom Row: Marvel UK comic, Titan TPB, Marvel UK TPB.

As with American comics, any of the standard formats can also be used for reprints, but they also have trade paperbacks and hardcovers for reprints. Again... there's not much consistency. Because the source material is all sorts of different sizes, the paperbacks and hardcovers are too.

Until recently (like, uhhhh... the 2000s) British comics were way more delicate than American comic books too. They're made of thin newsprint paper, rather than the thicker paper stocks that the Americans use. They're larger, so there's more surface area to get damaged. They're also often lacking the stronger-paper cover that protects American comics so well. (Modern British comics, with their glossy paper, don't have the same problems, though.)

Part of what creates this contrast and variety in the formats for British comic books is that they have a much, much older history than American ones. British comics can trace their history right back to the 1840s, with the satirical paper Punch. (The first ongoing comic, seemingly in the world, to star a regular hero was Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, which started back in 1884.) British comic books therefore had almost 100 years' head start on the American comics. 100 years more to fuck it up, really.

American comics are, to put it simply, far more collectible than British comics. I don't mean that they're more valuable, or more sought after (they are, but that's a discussion for another time), I mean that they're EASIER to store, collate and collect.

Six decades of Fantastic Four, starting in the 1960s.
 Because American comics are a) more robust and b) all just about the same size, it's very easy to have an efficient storing system with them. The paraphernalia of comic collecting -- boxes, bags, boards -- are all tailored to the easy-to-understand American comics. British comics just aren't like that.

British comics are amazingly delicate, like old newspapers.  You can't read a 40 year old British comic in a casual fashion, though you certainly can with a 40 year old American comic. They're also all different sizes. So good luck storing your old Beezers in the same way you store your Commandos, 2000 AD's or Marvel UK comics. They're just all so... different. (Also, good luck getting bags and boards the right sizes.)

British and American digests are more-or-less on equal footing in their collectibility. We'll talk about that comparison a bit more at a later date, methinks.
Six decades of The Beano starting in the 1950s.

With the Annuals, on the other hand, there's no comparison. In fact I didn't even mention American Annuals as a comic book format, because, well, they're not one. American annuals are just over sized regular issues with more pages (and more reprints) than normal. British annuals meanwhile are basically some of the most collectible comics in existence.  They're just like American hardcovers, only not made up of sucky reprints. Who wouldn't love that?

In the end, the reason you collect any given comic has less to do with the format than to do with just, well, what you LIKE. But it's hard not to see American comics as a winner here. As actual physical objects American comics are superior in most physical aspects. We'll talk about content and colouring, and art and other aspects at a later date, but as physical objects? American comics hands down.

--Andrew S.
(Well... uhh... I hope that article was useful to... anybody.)


  1. You own the Blackthorne Battle Beasts comics? I hate you.

  2. I own a couple of them. Not all of them, sadly.
    --Andrew S.

  3. Surprised not to see 2000AD in there! Great blog by the way.

  4. Thanks fer your comment, William. The reason there's no 2000AD in there is because... well... I don't own any! Heh. My UK comics collection is relatively thin, I'm afraid.

    --Andrew S.