That Small Format

Since I’ve been mentioning it again a few times here and there, people have been asking me what it is about that small, 96pp, Paradox Mystery/manga-ish sized graphic novel format that so fascinates me.

This morning I found the terms that crystallise it.

In talking about the Plantin press of Antwerp, the designer of Bruce Sterling’s recent book SHAPING THINGS said this of the tradition she was following with the work’s design: that the books important enough to want to carry should be small enough to fit in your pocket.

See, that right there is a big part of the manga success — those things go in a coat pocket or in a backpack. It’s why paperbacks were such a revolution: they were cheap and they could be stuffed in a pocket. Dave Gibbons, talking about the later Martha Washington books he did with Frank Miller, talked of his desire to do a “roll it up and stick it in your pocket comic”, which speaks to why that form lasted so long.

Portable culture is crucial to any society in motion. Manga in all its indigenous forms has been a thing built for Japanese commuters. Part of why that style of anthology doesn’t play so well in America is that America’s a culture of private cars, not public transport.

Personally, if I’m going to spend an hour or two on a train, I want something I can stick in my pocket. A paperback book, or a copy of LONE WOLF AND CUB or something similar.

And a comic in that form — here’s just the tiniest bit of heresy — fits next to paperback novels. It doesn’t have to go into a Graphic Novels section. I used to see this occasionally in the late 80s/early 90s. When you can’t rack MAUS next to Garfield, where do you put it? Under S on the regular shelves.

But mostly, it’s a form/ambition thing. You’ve got 90 pages and a perfect portable format. Write something so important that people have to carry it with them – because they can.

(Originally written 14 January 2006)

12 thoughts on “That Small Format”

  1. In my bookselling days I had a customer exchange a book within minutes because he discovered it wouldn’t fit in his pocket. He was very apologetic and didn’t want to come over as a wanker but for that journey pocket-function was the primary thing.

  2. This is exactly why the scroll (which is read sideways, damn it Hollywood) largely died out as a writing format in late antiquity. The Christians wanted the codex (book, hardcovers optional) format as, before the conversion of Constantine it was an easily concealable format and afterwards a potent portable tool for evangelism.

  3. I’d argue that a scroll tube takes up A LOT less room that some of these “books” that you speak of.

    It’s just not a format you can read on the bus without lots of folding. ;)

  4. my arse is large therefore my arse pocket is large. much room for books. especially lone wolf and on each cheek. genius that keeps your arse warm.

  5. Thank you for that image. Maus doesn’t not belong next to Garfield.

    A high-school age girl was telling me the other day that they wouldn’t let her read Sandman in
    silent reading, because it wasn’t proper literature.

    Sandman. Is not proper literature.

    I’d like it if DC/Vertigo would just reprint everything they have in smaller format. I’d buy
    them all if they were smaller and cheaper…even the ones I already own. I mean, I own a lot
    of TPBs in that format. I read Bite Club that way, and it didn’t hurt the story at all to be
    that small.

  6. Sandman is more literary than about 95% of recent books published which have literary pretensions. Sadly, too many books have a shelflife of roughly the 2 – 6 weeks the publisher might choose to promote it. Once pulped, it’s fodder for the dollar bin.

  7. dan – why does maus not belong next to garfield? your implication is that they are mutually exclusive. surely that is only your decision to make in reference to your own reading tastes. my copy of maus is sitting next to a copy of ‘death will have your eyes’ by james sallis but only because that is where it landed last time i picked one of them up.

    btw – the sallis book is stunning recommended for fans of global frequency.

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