I just brought home a plastic-wrapped, weighty, beautiful copy of Neil Gaiman’s Absolute Death. It’s going to go on one of the tall shelves in the library right next to the slip-covered, leather-bound and equally gorgeous Absolute Sandman volumes. I can’t help it. It doesn’t matter how expensive they are. I need those Absolutes. I’m not sure whether it’s the geek collector-instinct or my inner book diva that convinces me to pay twice as much for the privelege of having such a handsome version of a comic, but I’m not the only one—we sell quite a few of them in the bookstore I work for. There are different kinds of definitive collections, too, beyond the Absolutes line.
Several of the comics on the list for the Great Comics Read-Along are available in more that one format. The trade paperbacks might be on the shelf right next to a complete collection, or a collector’s edition. So if you’re going on a merry trip to buy, say, Bone or Death at whatever time we make it to reading them: what’s the difference and how do you decide what’s worth buying?
There are four things I measure when deciding what version to buy: price, bonus content, print/color quality, and durability. The trend is usually that the better the last three are—the higher the first one is. For example, compare four different kinds of definitive editions.
Absolute Sandman & Absolute Death—These are the kind that I vote top of the heap. They include recoloring, fixed text, a mountain of extras in the form of interviews, sketches, etc, not to mention the packaging. The slipcovers are sturdy and decorated in the vaguely hallucinogenic art of Dave McKean. The actual books are prohibitively large and heavy, so they aren’t good for carrying around like a trade paperback, but the pages are thick and glossy. The leather binding is tough. They aren’t going to fall apart any time this century. Plus, ribbon bookmark inside! The recoloring and the bonus material are the best parts but I love the overall size and classiness of the Absolute runs. They will cost you, though; the average is $100 a piece list price. Judicious use of coupons at the bookstore of your choice will help. There are four of the Sandman books containing all sixty issues. (Trust me, seeing the Corinthian even bigger and more colorful is just that much more horrifying.)
Lost Girls by Alan Moore—sometimes it’s all about availability in addition to the other markers of worth. The newest Lost Girls edition is a large hardcover approximately the same size and height as the Absolutes, but it isn’t leatherbound and has no slipcover. The art hasn’t been recolored but the pages are thick and the watercolor swishiness of the art is well-captured without glossy print. There are other series released this way, too. The price isn’t bad. It’s half the cost of an Absolute and is a little bit less sturdy, but it would still take a serious effort to damage the binding.
Preacher/Fables/Y the Last Man special editions—in this case, it depends on how you want your shelves to look, too. These deluxe $30 editions are oversized hardcovers, but they don’t have much additional material for the price. The Fables edition only has a new introduction and an added sketch gallery. There was nothing listed on the Y the Last Man version. Considering that the first trade paperback of Fables is only $10 it seems almost pointless to spend three times as much for very little benefit aside from having a hardcover. Also, the entire series isn’t offered in deluxe editions, so the volumes won’t match. End vote: if you love hardcovers or collecting, go for it. Just for reading the trades are a better bet.
Bone complete collection—this is one of the collections that is actually lower in quality than the trade paperbacks but it’s also the only kind that’s cheaper. This style is popular in manga collections as well, an extremely thick paperback containing all of the story in one. The difference for Bone pivots on the art: the trades are colored, but the complete collection is only black and white. No extras whatsoever, either, but it is half the price of buying the trades separately. The durability is a problem, too. The thickness of the material and the relative flimsiness of the binding can result in your complete edition falling apart if you attempt to read it too many times or carry it around with you. The bonus is all about price. If you don’t mind spending $100 instead of $40, it would be best to buy the trades, but if you only want the story on hand the complete collection will work just fine.
Hopefully that will help any new comic-shoppers decide which versions are best for them. Alternately, if you’re looking for a challenge, most series also had a single-issue run. That’s dipping your toes into the slightly more obsessive end of comics collecting but it can be more fun than you would think. Overall—the trades are often a better deal, unless you have coupons to use on the hardcover collections, in which case go for it! (Or if you just like really pretty books.)