In critiques of comics studies, construed as a methodological and institutional form of academic research dedicated to graphic narratives, one of the most frequent accusations is that comics studies ignores or unsatisfactorily reflects all of the fundamental “turns” within the wide context of the humanities, such as the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the visual turn, or the material turn. Recently, however, there has been a new wave in the domain of comics studies that seeks to follow the so-called material turn in the humanities that started with Bruno Latour’s appreciation for the non-human actors and objects (in his 1991 book We Have Never Been Modern), which largely rekindled interest in the physical, material aspects of culture no longer treated as a sphere of strictly cognitive actions and reactions). This interest in “materiality” amongst comics scholars came with a rising tendency within comic book market to repackage classic or canonical (at least according to the dominant discourses of the “comics world,” as Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo suggest) graphic narratives as the so called “Special,” “Essential,” “Absolute,” or the “Unwrapped” editions (4). This study, which aims to expand the “materialistic” approach of comics studies, will focus on: (A) DC Comics’ Unwrapped Editions as one of the most radical physical reintroductions of a given story that activates a diversified responses from its readers, and (B) a discussion of how modern publishers’ interferences in the very basic physicality of popular comics are leading toward interesting shifts in the overall definition of the comics medium, as well as its functions and physical possibilities.
A “material turn” within comics studies is evinced by many authors and their works, which attempt to reshape the discipline that, at least until lately, has been strongly attached to the notion of comic as a de-materialized narrative. Based on papers by Jan-Noël Thon (2016) and Daniel Stein (2016), as well as more complex analyses by Ian Hague (2014), Charles Hatfield (2005) or, quite recently, Aaron Kashtan (2018), it would be accurate to say that materiality has become an attractive element in comics research, contributing to a kind of materialistic branch in comics studies as well. For all of the aforementioned authors, the physicality of comics – understood as a set of material and tactile properties of a given volume – receives well-deserved recognition as a possible way of redesigning the definition and research methods for comics. As Thon clarifies, we can now extend our understanding of comics and go beyond an art-orientated discourse towards a “complex multi-dimensional concept, which allows one to distinguish between at least a communicative-semiotic, a material-technological, and a conventional-institutional dimension” (233). If this theoretical and methodological classification is adopted, it is crucial to notice that a “material-technological dimension” stands out as a fully autonomous area of analysis, though it is not separate from the other two applicable research frameworks; it is rather an element thanks to which the whole paradigm becomes complete. It is also necessary to understand the technological aspect of comics as an irreducible component of a comic book experience, founded on narrative pleasure that can be provided through a specific material channel with all of its limitations and possibilities.
An interesting dependence of the comic art to its physicality has been observed by Charles Hatfield, who notes: “Indeed, many comics make it impossible to distinguish between text per se and secondary aspects such as design and the physical package, because they continually invoke said aspects to influence the reader’s participation in meaning-making” (60). What Hatfield clarifies is that the physical package of a comic narrative is not merely a container for the visual and thematic attractions. Far from it, given that the reader’s perception of all of these cognitive messages has a very strong intercessor in the technical carrier that a comic book fan takes into his or her hand. It is interesting, yet quite surprising, how often researchers ignore the raw materiality of comics by focusing strongly on their artistic quality as something that is presumed to exist in an ephemeral space without any tactile anchor. The specificity of comics – as a very diversified medium in terms of its physical packages – is based on the sensuality of graphic narratives as the catalyst of their attractive status (both for the creators who work on the comic’s materiality and the readers who fetishize comic’s physical exclusiveness). Therefore it is essential to concede after Sebastian Bartosch, as quoted by Jan-Noël Thon and Lukas R. A. Wilde, that it is impossible to exclude the “material-technological dimension” from comics research since without it is hard to reconstruct the full experience “not as a cluster of inert, material objects that stand opposed to asubject; instead, materialisation appears as a dynamic process wherein objects, bodies, and subjectivities only emerge as relational effects, as products of an ongoing materialisation” (Thon and Wilde 235). As a result, it becomes clear that a “material turn” is a much-needed process within comics studies, as it captures the correlation between the package of the comic storyline (with all of its variations of formats and contents) and the perception of the reader, which again can be constituted through (and not outside) the physicality of comics.
From “Essential” to “Ultimate” Edition
This article aims to apply such a correlated method to a particular comic book package, as I will reconstruct the basic connection between the comic’s materiality and its reception − in other words, between a specific strategy of shaping the material carrier for the content and the advantages/disadvantages of such for the reader’s modes of perception and, ultimately, for the pleasure-generating process. This analysis will focus on a very unorthodox series among popular comics, i.e., so-called DC Comics’ “Unwrapped” Edition format, because it reflects an absolutely essential strategy of constantly reshaping the material attractiveness of the exclusive editions as the most common market-driven expedient among the “Big Two” in comics business: DC and Marvel Comics. It may therefore be interesting to note that the much needed
“material turn” in comics studies not only derives from the perceivable shortcomings of academic research; it can also be identified as a response to the new realities of comics production and distribution.
In his analysis of museum-books (oversized collector’s albums focusing on a comic’s artwork), Daniel Stein aptly argues that these gallery-like graphic expositions – as well as all other premium formats of comics – can be regarded as the publishers’ offensive against the digitalization of the comic book market. As Stein concludes, “The museum-books are physical manifestations of a conservative (and commercially driven) impulse towards preserving the legacy of the superhero comic book in the digital age as musealisation practices that seek to counteract the centrifugal effects of digitisation with a centripetal move towards genre consolidation and canon reaffirmation” (289). Hence, we can talk about the general rediscovery – on the part of publishers – of the materiality of graphic narratives as their much-valued component. This is no novel development, however, considering that since the 1970s the establishment of direct market variant covers or limited editions have become common retail practices in the USA. Nevertheless, the strategy itself – which incidentally had its negative consequences, having blown up the comic book speculation bubble in the 1990s – is heading towards new recognition today as the whole variant edition philosophy is becoming not only a commercial gimmick but also (as Stein is diagnosing correctly) stands for a thorough reconfiguration of the tactile connection between the reader and the comic book as primarily a physical object that demands the ultimate printed presentation.
If we follow Stein’s conclusions and survey the diversification of physical formats in popular comics in recent years, we will see clearly that his ideas reflect the nature of what the market offers. The correlation between the anti-digital movement and the canonization of both the physical medium and its content is a tendency that can be found in most of the quite recent special editions of DC’s and Marvel’s titles, as they are constantly challenging the scale and scope of the comic book’s physical package. This can be lucidly demonstrated by comparing the most popular and non-traditional editions of the groundbreaking stories from the “Big Two.” Let us start then with the storyline that surrounds the shocking event of “The Night that Gwen Stacy Died,” originally presented in issues #121 and #122 of The Amazing Spider-Man series (July 1973). After 2010, this canonic tale was re-presented in at least three revitalized formats: in 2011 as the Essential Edition, in 2013 as Gil Kane’s Amazing Spider-Man: Artist’s Edition and in 2017 as a part of the Marvel Epic Collection reprint. Naturally, it could be regarded as the industry’s “cannibalization” of its own content, which is constantly reintroduced to sell the same ideas over and over again. It may be interesting, however, to look at this diversification in the light of differences between the ways in which virtually the same tale is reshaped without becoming the same physical package. And so, we have the “Essential” package: a 576-page-long collective reprint of The Amazing Spider-Man (1963) #114-137 as well as Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1 and Giant-Size Spider-Man #1-2, all in black-and-white print presented in the dimensions of 6.8 x 1.5 x 10 inches. Then there is the Epic Collection variant, with 448 pages in color, spanning The Amazing Spider-Man (1963) #105-123 in 6.8 x 0.8 x 10.2 inches. Finally, the most deluxe edition is Gil Kane’s Amazing Spider-Man: Artist’s Edition released by IDW Publishing, with 216 pages reconstructing the original panels created by Gil Kane for the Amazing Spider-Man issues #96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, and 121, all in over-sized scale of 13.4 x 1.5 x 19 inches.
All of these three examples and their various means of presenting apparently the same content are a clear indication that the gradation of physical format not only is heading towards “musealization” of a given narrative and its visual ingredients; it also strives to multiply potential perceptive modes, as the Artist’s Edition (with its focus on achieving ultimate exhibition of the artwork by a given penciller) generates a slightly different reader experience than the much more handy Essential approach. The most interesting thing to note here – just as Charles Hatfield suggested earlier – is that by examining the materiality of comics, a researcher is able to reconstruct a complex relationship between the tactile quality and perception, as the former has a meaningful impact on the visual narrative. It would therefore be reasonable to propose a form of comparative studies where the possible area of analysis would encompass the analytical collision between the same manifestations of the same story in different guises. The basic presentation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and its repackaging as Absolute Dark Knight (8.7 x 1.9 x 12.9 inches), The Dark Knight Returns Gallery Edition (22.5 x 14.5 x 2 inches) and The Dark Knight Returns (DC Modern Classics Edition) (6.6 x 10.2 inches) enable one to recreate the schemes of formal remediation of a given topic, the changing patterns of commercial discourse, and, last but not least, the reactions of the readers themselves as they are trying to justify buying the same story and create an inevitable hierarchy of the “Ultimate” and “More Ultimate” editions.
The Protocols of a Comic Book Medium
The assumption that a different physical package of a comic book activates different modes of perception, use, and evaluation1 becomes clear upon reading a post by one of the editors of Fantagraphics Studio Edition: Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and published on Prince Valiant’s official Facebook account on September 9, 2017. This short statement includes a brief quotation from Brian Kane, one of the supervisors of the album:
Look at what arrived in the Fantagraphics warehouse! I like to say that I ‘curated’ this book rather than edited it. I personally handled hundreds of ‘Prince Valiant’ pages, and oversaw their selection. The hardest part was trying to find the right mix from Foster’s entire run, because that meant passing on dozens (maybe hundreds) of other pages. Can’t wait until my own copy arrives!!!
The key statement here includes a remark about “curating” an Artist’s Edition or Gallery Edition-type of a comic book album rather than “editing” it in the classical manner employed for an ordinary comic book. In the context of redefined materiality of comics as a substantial analytical area (which combines the physicality and usability of graphic narratives), the idea that particular classes of comic book format (traditional/oversized/gallery edition, etc.) induce different types of perception and assessment of a given package (and its content) gives rise to a crucial presumption. It becomes clear that the tactile intercessor (medium) of a comic book story and art provokes much more diversified models of the reader’s approach and, as a result, practices that they associate with a given material object. Therefore, if “editing” can transform into “curating” a comic book album, then “reading” can now be seen as “admiring,” understood as a more focused attention that does not have to follow the rules and rhythm of a narrative pattern.
The premise that physicality determines reception of mediatic content dovetails with another diagnosis in the field made by Lisa Gitelman in her analysis of so-called media protocols. According to Gitelman, all media – both traditional, such as books, and new ones, such as the Internet – can be described as a set of two kinds of protocols: technical and social. The first kind of protocol defines the technical, material, and physical aspects of a given carrier, as well as the possible models of use that nonetheless are once again strictly limited by the materiality of a given medium. The second kind of protocol is based on the former and echoes the ways in which a given medium can be used, reused, or misused by the users, though again the activities here are strongly connected with the physical aspects, determining the medium’s perception by the reader. As Gitelman explains, these protocols set “a vast clutter of normative rules and default conditions, which gather and adhere like a nebulous array around a technological nucleus” (7). Gitelman’s idea can be readily applied to the heterogeneous nature of the material representation of comic books, so much so that, as observed above, it seems that the polarization of their packages is followed by a changing gradation of all of the “museum-book” varieties, which arguably not only challenge the traditional formats of comics (their technical protocols) but also their patterns of consumption (their social protocols).
Considering today’s diversification of comic book materiality – reflected in the ceaseless proliferation of all of the Exclusive/Omnibus/Artist’s/Unwrapped Editions – in the light of Gitelman’s remarks, it would be fair to admit that we are facing an interesting distinction between the traditional protocols of a comic book (as a magazine-sized form of comic narrative) and “art-book” protocols in all of the unorthodox variations of comic books. Therefore, we have, on the one hand, the classic modes of production and reception of a comic book as weekly/monthly published series with the most common size of 6.63” x 10.24” and approximately 20- to 22-page-long story, properties that support its mobility and convenience at the same time. On the other hand, the widely defined oversized editions are clearly designed with the aim of being admired, in that they tend to concentrate on their exhibitive ability (mostly by offering exclusive behind-the-scenes content, i.e., including reproductions of sketches and drawings by the original artist), being deluxe collective items intended to look impressive on the bookshelf rather than for cozy reading.
It is obvious, then, that materiality determines perception here, and that the best method of gaining insights into this interdependence is to refer to the readers themselves, their individual assumptions and opinions about a given format. I do so here by citing specific assessments expressed by comic book fans and comic book reviewers across a wide context of social media (on YouTube, Facebook, or personal blogs/vlogs). However, I will focus on an unusual format used to deliver modern graphic narratives: the so-called “Unwrapped” Edition, which is being assiduously expanded by DC Comics. I find the Unwrapped Editions particularly interesting to study using the media protocols approach, since according to readers’ responses the Unwrapped comic book seems to situate itself between the protocols of a proper comic book and the protocols of an “art-book” type of comic, resulting in a hybrid of the technical and social elements of each.
With regard to publishers’ philosophy behind the “museum-books” in which historical comic books are recreated, Stein notes: “Indeed, the struggle to save the superhero comic book and secure its survival as aprint-based form of popular serial storytelling centres to a substantial degree on practices of collecting, displaying, and re-enchanting allegedly ephemeral and rare memorabilia from past decades” (285). It would be justified to associate the Unwrapped Editions with this “art-book” protocol of capturing and preserving a type of comic book art, but this format is supposed to ensure a much more classic and reader-friendly type of reading that, interestingly, seeks a balance between the two approaches. It is crucial, however, to outline briefly the particulars of the edition in question. An Unwrapped Edition is a 7.4 x 0.6 x 11.2-inch recreation of the most popular DC Comics titles from the past several decades. For the present, there are 10 Unwrapped comics offered by DC, including Batman: Hush Unwrapped (2011), Batman Unwrapped by Andy Kubert (2014), Batman Unwrapped: The Court of Owls (2014), Batman: The Dark Knight Unwrapped (2015), Batman R.I.P. Unwrapped (2015), Blackest Night Unwrapped (2016), The Flash by Francis Manapul Unwrapped (2017), Batman Unwrapped: Death of the Family (2017), Justice League Unwrapped by Jim Lee (2017), Flashpoint Unwrapped (2018), and Suicide Squad by Jim Lee Unwrapped (2018). Infinite Crisis Unwrapped was announced, but has been suspended for the time being (Arrant 2018).
Witness Jim Lee & Jeph Loeb’s Epic as you’ve never seen before! … This volume collects the entire Hush storyline – presenting it for the first time with for the first time ever with Jim Lee’s original pencils on every page, allowing the reader to see detail and process from a whole new perspective. Batman: Hush Unwrapped is the ultimate viewing experience for fans! (Loeb and Lee)
The suggestion of the “ultimate viewing experience” is quite significant here; I would argue that the entire Unwrapped Edition configuration is a publisher’s effort to find the final/ultimate mode of comic book presentation integrating both the artwork exhibition and the traditional reading protocols. Balancing between these two strategies – which may appear to be a rather pointless or even odd move – becomes more meaningful when interpreted as an attempt to exploit another niche on the comic book market (and its material diversity). Following from readers’ opinions, the Unwrapped Editions situate themselves between the coziness of an ordinary comic and the exclusivity of the deluxe edition. Still, the question is whether this in-between quality really supports both technical and social protocols with the inevitable compromises made to sustain such a balance.
As Aaron Kashtan argues, the whole gallery edition-induced movement within modern materiality of comics can be seen as a direct response to the digital virtualization of the comic book as an object that is no longer physical. In an act of resistance, the exclusive formats strive to rekindle interest in the material package of comics and evoke a biblionecrophilic sentiment for “the retreat of the printfaithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object” (Kashtan 54). It is interesting to notice, however, that not only does the external carrier of comic books surrender to this biblionecrophilic approach; their content is also moving away from the narrative-centered pleasure towards the “admiring” model. This is well articulated in Stein’s analysis of “museum-books,” which are collective vaults of comic book artwork. As he writes:
These facsimile reproductions sanction the books’ claim to museum status: a claim that is certainly disingenuous when we consider the fact that museums generally gain their institutional and cultural authority from the ability to display original artefacts invested with unique aesthetic value (in the case of artworks such as paintings), the aura of the exotic (artefacts from foreign cultures), or the aura of the extinct (artefacts from cultures that no longer exist). (286)
Once again, the observations made by Kashtan and Stein suggest a significant movement outside the traditional protocols of the comic book medium towards a more “art-book”-type of perception. To sum up , it is very challenging to analyze all of the intermediate forms of comic book materiality, which establish their uniqueness by trying to exist in two paradigms at once., It is even more worthwhile to study the reader’s approach to such experiments as they are trying to situate that “unwrapped” attractiveness within the broader offer of the market.
Legitimization of the Unwrapped Edition Protocols Among the Readers
The following section of this article will focus on the reader’s approaches to the Unwrapped titles and their pertinent opinions. As such, it will refer to the general ideas of audiences’ research through the visual and textual manifestations of the reader’s opinions and understandings of a given phenomenon that is an “Unwrapped” comic book. This particular method continues the modern tendency to understand the audience by understanding its virtual actions and reactions (Anaz) as well as reaching towards the comic books as practice definition (by using the Nick Couldry paradigm) in which “our claims about comics are incomplete if we do not account for how particular people use them in comics-oriented practices” (Woo 184). In my research, I decided to arrange all of the quotes I found in textual or audiovisual reviews of given comics into two main groups, each of which consists of a further two subgroups reflecting readers’ perceptions. Considering online responses to the Unwrapped Editions, it is crucial to organize the first category around the ideas relating to the advantages of presenting a given title in the unwrapped format. The “Advantages” group comprises a large volume of readers’ assessments of the Unwrapped Editions that draw on the size argument; in other words, a positive opinion about the physical appearance.
It needs to be emphasized here that in most comments the Unwrapped Editions were appreciated for having the perfect size for a comic book, as something between the regular magazine and slightly oversized dimensions. As Andrew Girdwood observes in his brief statement about Batman: Hush Unwrapped: “It’s certainly worth mentioning the quality of the Unwrapped Deluxe edition too. This is a beautiful book. It’s the perfect size, easy to hold and high quality” (Girdwood). Once again than, it becomes clear here that the handiness of a given edition is treated as a warmly welcomed feature, especially in that the Unwrapped Edition – as Girdwood suggests – seems to maintain both the exclusiveness of an art-book-styled comic and caters to readers’ convenience at the same time. As a format balancing between the standard and the oversized, the Unwrapped Editions are allegedly the best configuration, offering deluxe artwork content (formerly found only in the expensive Artist’s Editions) in a package that adheres to the classical social protocols of a comic book as, above all, a handy medium.
However, it is also crucial to look at fans’ reactions to the content itself, since the comparatively compact format could impact the quality of comic art (which is supposed to be the main and most accentuated attraction here). Once again, readers’ comments on the primary feature in the Unwrapped Edition reveal that the “Art” argument is the second-most (after “Size” argument) frequently recurring opinion. Among the many relevant assessments, the most explicit are: “It’s a great book to follow the steps and become an artist. … You can see the mind of the artist. … It’s like a teaching lesson… going to school with Jim Lee. … You can touch the art” (on Batman: Hush Unwrapped); “Pencils can carrier [sic]so much information about what an artist wants to show you. … You’re focusing on art more than on the story” (on Batman Unwrapped: The Court of Owls). In essence, most reviewers were strongly impressed by the fact that the Unwrapped Editions are so precise in reconstructing and showcasing (in the museum-like exhibitive style) the original sketches of a given artist, but it is also important to notice that in many evaluations the Unwrapped Editions were treated almost as a comic book drawing course (resembling going to class with Jim Lee, David Finch, et al.). These traits are underscored in the following review of Batman: Hush Unwrapped:
Reading the book in just pencils is quite a different experience. It’s basically like looking at the final draft of the book before the go ahead for inking. If you’re marveled by Jim Lee’s art in the coloured edition, you’ll be blown away by this edition – if you’re a comic artist maybe your brain will explode with awe. After reading the book, you’ll probably get a new sense of appreciation for comic artists and the art of making comics. (Chie)
In this review, as well as in the previous quotes, the consistent recognition for having highlighted the original graphic material coincides very clearly with the implied new perception of such a material (“your brain will explode with awe,” “you’ll probably get new sense of appreciation”), which once again suggests that the reception protocols operate here along the lines of art-book rather than ordinary comic book.
The nature of the reader-defined “Advantages” of the Unwrapped Editions warrants another reference to Stein, who described the comics-dedicated museum-books as follows:
The Marvel Vault and The Batman Vault books utilize several familiar historiographicpractices. These include the retroactive establishment of authorial originators, the sacralisation of unpublished materials and fetishisation of sketches as signifiers of authorial originality, and the often nostalgic embrace of promotional materials of popular culture ephemera with which Marvel and DC (often through licensing intellectual properties) have ensured a continuous flooding of the market. More importantly, the museum-books feature artefacts to which self-identifying fans rarely have access, such as a set of original drawings . . . from the early days of Marvel’s forays into the superhero genre. (287)
Indeed, the same mechanisms of both publishers’ and readers’ legitimization of the uniqueness of technical and social protocols can be identified in the Unwrapped Edition format, which is also praised (as already noted) for its “sacralissation” and “ fetishisation” of the original artwork, as well as for engendering a special notion among the readers that they are in possession of very rare content that can even be used as semi-professional guidance. These are the features that are inherent in almost every Artist’s/Gallery/Unwrapped edition of a given comic that clearly employs the behind-the-scenes and making-of approach. The Unwrapped Editions, however, are arguably more traditional, since they also opt for lettering clarity, suggesting that a given Unwrapped title can be read as a normal, handy album.
The second category of fans’ reactions to the Unwrapped Editions can be labelled “Disadvantages” of that particular publishing modality; their major focal point is the “Difficult reading” argument that seems to go against the original idea of the unwrapped comic being as good for traditional reading as it is for displaying non-colored artwork. Among the numerous voices that were clearly disappointed by the Unwrapped Edition’s reading comfort, the following were the most symptomatic: “You buy stylized version more than the actual story. If you’re looking to read this story I recommend getting it in its full glory with colours and everything”; “Some elements of storytelling are subdued – you have to look twice. … If you prefer an easy read – choose the colour version. You won’t waste too much time reading it.” It may thus be inferred that the Unwrapped Editions are not able to achieve the affirmed lucidity of a classic comic narrative. Besides all of the efforts to sustain the same technical and perceptual protocols as in any other traditional comic book, the emphasis on the artwork layer ultimately makes the whole album gravitate towards an art-book rendering of comic-based material. The same accusation appears in Andrew Asberry’s review of Batman Unwrapped: Andy Kubert:
I’ll give you a brief description of what these issues contain and how much they are worth a read, but make no mistake– this is a book that’s devoted more toward appreciating the art than it is about seeing the stories the way they were intended to be told. I wouldn’t recommend reading anything for the first time in an “Unwrapped” edition. You wouldn’t watch a movie for the first time with the commentary on, would you? (Asberry)
The crucial contradistinction here once again follows the idea that the Unwrapped Edition is something akin to a bonus material to the main attraction of the comic book, a making-of supplement to the main feature. As such, the final product does not possess the visual and narrative unity typical of a comic book (“the way they were intended to be told”) but becomes rather a gallery/museum book that complicates the process of reading.
Finally, my inquiry into readers’ reactions to the Unwrapped Editions clearly demonstrated that some readers attempt to include these books in the wider context of the comic book market, with its evident bias towards the expensive, oversized, artwork-dedicated, collectible items in the shape of Artist’s or Gallery Editions. Consequently, I have distinguished the second tier within the “Disadvantages” category, designating it as the “Poor/Unnecessary version” argument, in view of the fact that some of the readers imply that the only reason for the Unwrapped Editions to exist is that they are more affordable variations of the more costly editions. One of the fans’ reactions to Batman Unwrapped: Andy Kubert asserts: “It’s for the ‘poor’ people and ‘poor’ Batman fans that can’t afford the Artist Edition.” The necessity of buying titles such as Batman: Hush Unwrapped or Batman Unwrapped: The Court of Owls was questioned in quite a few opinions about the entire sketch-based series, especially since most of the Unwrapped titles (e.g., Hush and The Court of Owls) were already marketed in much more appreciated formats and editions such as Absolute Batman: Hush, Batman: Hush Noir (black and white presentation of the final, inked drawings as opposed to sketches in, e.g., Unwrapped Hush) or Absolute Batman: The Court of Owls. To sum up, for some readers the Unwrapped Edition seems to be just an unfinished and pointless product, something that fails both as a normal comic book and a more expensive yet impressive Absolute or Gallery Edition. As one of the reviews concluded,
NOW here’s a strange concept for a book if ever there was one…. Art students may be intrigued by the prospect of seeing the man’s work unembellished, but again, is that enough to prompt them to buy a 320 page volume of pencil artwork? Perhaps not.Especially at such a high cover price. Regardless of the target audience, there’s a certain frustration to be found in reading this story without the lush colours of Alex Sinclair and the stylished inks of Scott Williams, both of whom must feel somewhat snubbed to be ignored in this way. … However, unless you’re a huge fan of black and white pencil work it’s unquestionably better in the original colour, rather than this unfinished comics curiosity. (“Graphic Novel Review: Batman: Hush…”)
Indeed, the never-ending struggle between a curiosity and sacralization seems to follow the fan’s perception of Unwrapped Editions, as their value (and, basically, their very reason to exist) changes accordingly to the individual fan’s taste, but also the their general idea of consuming a graphic narrative as a material object to read, to look at, or to experience.
An appraisal of the technical protocols of the Unwrapped Editions, as well as the publicity content surrounding this DC Comics series, warrants the claim that the line tries to put itself in the middle ground between traditional and deluxe editions of comics. By hybridizing and mixing the external, handy package and artistic content, the Unwrapped Editions strive to maintain a balance that, at the same time, expands the material diversity of printed comics. However, taking into account the reception issues and readers’ feedback on the coupling of reading convenience and admiration of art, it appears that the Unwrapped concept has some major difficulties in remaining readable while encouraging the “curator” perspective. This tension, emerging from fans’ opinions and statements, raises a few crucial questions and suggestions, which not only apply to the Unwrapped titles but also to the entirety of experiments wherein comic books are made to exceed their own materiality as a set of technical and social practices.
First of all, after a brief analysis of the Unwrapped Editions it is essential to determine whether this is truly the “ultimate” comic book format, namely a perfect physical representation of graphic narrative that stays mobile but offers collectible content. According to users’ evaluations, it would be fair to admit that the Unwrapped’s physical package is indeed a perfect compromise that ensures that the comic book (as a material object) remains convenient for the reader and, as such, surely tallies with comic book’s protocols in terms of usability. Still, readers’ opinions demonstrate that there is a significant difference between usability understood as material attractiveness and usability construed as reading comfort, which is strongly impaired by the Unwrapped approach. It would therefore be correct to conclude that the Unwrapped Editions, albeit deserving the label of the “ultimate” format for presenting graphic narrative content through a handy external carrier, impose limitations on visual and textual readability, which are strongly compressed in order to avoid an oversized scale. It is beyond doubt that the Unwrapped Editions cater to a niche market that is perhaps not entirely satisfying for both those readers who look for an enhanced view of the original artwork and those readers interested in perusing a proper comic book story.
Second, the Unwrapped Editions – an emanation of “biblionecrophilia” as an anti-digital approach (described by Stein and Kashtan) – raise an interesting question about the limits of the “mummification” practices within comic book materiality, namely the scale and the logic of preserving comic book artifacts. As Stein explains:
The reproductions of allegedly rare comic book materials act as ‘mummified object[s]’ that issue a false (but perhaps effective) promise: to yield experience and a sense of the authentic for readers with nostalgic memories of personal comic book encounters and even for new readers who want to re-experience the simulated authenticity of earlier generations of comic book aficionados. Offering these readers a museal gaze, the museum-books strive to resist…the progressive dematerialization of the world driven by…computer networking. (290, emphasis in original)
Although the Unwrapped Editions essentially rely on the more modern comic book titles and do not go for the strictly nostalgic feel of the classic comics, the idea of “mummification” applies all the same, since the Unwrapped concept also tries to capture the “sense of the authentic comic book content” that may be expected to be treated as an exhibit worth preserving. However, this approach leads to concerns about the possible consequences of a never-ending expansion of the comic book market, in that it looks for more and more authentic, nostalgic, and exclusive pieces of comic book’s art to be re-presented in a deluxe format. Given that numerous strictly artwork-based editions are already available, is it possible that at some point the publishers – aware of the market surplus of the art-dedicated series – will start to promote “Script Editions” of Batman: Hush or, alternatively, a “Color/Ink-Only Edition” of Batman: The Court of Owls. For the time being, these ideas may be deemed absurd, but it is not entirely inconceivable that, in order to resist the digital revolution, the materiality of comics will have to find new comic artifacts to be saved, “mummified,” and subsequently sold through multiple-size formats.
The diversity of physical forms of popular comics, manifesting in the Unwrapped Editions and in similar formats, certainly deserves in-depth theoretical study since, as I stated at the outset, the material turn in comics studies is a novel and much-needed direction of inquiry. Nonetheless, as I have demonstrated above, it is crucial that accurately designed studies of comic book materiality concentrate not only on analyses of the technical protocol evolution with the ever-changing conditions of scale and quality of the print itself. A pertinent approach to comic books as a concrete, technical medium demands full engagement with reception studies, since the social protocols, including usage and criticism of a given format, complement the strictly material perspective and result in a comprehensive analytical framework suited to the medium of the comic book.
“Batman Hush Unwrapped Review.”29 Sept. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuYU3eeIQGY&t=596s. Accessed 13 July 2018.
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