Many of my favorite books are ones that I’ve wanted to own for a long time, but struggled to find… others are unique items I stumbled upon unexpectedly and happily picked up… but this one doesn’t fit into either of those categories. I had seen Kramers Ergot 6 (an anthology of modern comics and comic art) in bookstores, although I never felt motivated enough to buy it, and I never had much interest in the series overall – not because I disliked it, more that I just hadn’t taken the time to digest it. With Kramers Ergot 7, I feel like I stepped in at the last mile of a marathon and cruised blissfully across the finish line… Not being knowledgeable about the series, I was unaware that this volume had been in the works since before #6 was even finished, and that message boards around the web had been buzzing with advance praise and advance scorn for years before the release date. I had no crescendo of anticipation as the release date approached, no high expectations, no preconceptions… I had about as much of a blank slate as one can have regarding a book with this much baggage.
Here’s how it started: as anyone who reads my blog knows (meaning, as two or three people know), I am a fan of graphic novels, and I also research book topics pretty obsessively. However, I haven’t really spent much time digging and digging in the world of comics and graphic novels. I will admit to having a limited knowledge of comics that, aside from some Bay Area mini-comics here or there, pretty much starts and ends at what Drawn and Quarterly or Fantagraphics is publishing… I hadn’t even heard of Buenaventura press (the publisher of Kramers Ergot 7) until I stumbled onto their webpage looking for this new Charles Burns book I had heard about. (For reference, that book is called Permagel, it’s fucking mind-blowing, and it is published by United Dead Artists in France. At 11” x 16”, it was the largest book in my collection for about two weeks, as you’ll soon see.)
So, about two weeks ago, I got an email blast from Drawn and Quarterly announcing a comics show in San Francisco (the Alternative Press Expo), where Chris Ware would be signing books. This caught my attention, since Ware is one of my favorite graphic novelists, and he doesn’t do signings very often. Then, a couple days after that, I got an email from Amazon suggesting a book I might like. I almost always ignore these emails, but I happened to open this one, and there was Amazon’s pre-order information for Kramers Ergot 7, a gigantic 16” x 21” hardcover comics anthology, featuring many of my favorite comic book artists (Chris Ware, Kevin Huizenga, Dan Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, etc). Gigantic, too, was the price: $125 retail (although significantly discounted by Amazon).
After I read Amazon’s little announcement for the book, I decided that I would probably get it at some point, just not right away. I checked out Buenaventura’s website to see what they had to say about the book, and of course, I saw their announcement about the Alternative Press Expo, where this book would be making its grand debut. To top it off, 16 of the artists featured in the book would be signing copies throughout the show (including Matt Groening, if you can believe that), AND the first 200 copies they sold would come with a limited edition (there goes Jordan’s Book Boner #1) letterpress print (Book Boner #2), numbered and signed by Sammy Harkham, the book’s editor, co-publisher, contributor, and cover artist.
Turns out, in a lot of the pre-release discussion of this book (and boy, was there a lot of that, given that information started leaking out about it in early 2007), the price has taken center stage. I think it’s a shame that so much attention has been paid to the price (with some people even claiming that the price is intentionally inflated so as to garner publicity), but I guess the easy counterargument to that is that if the book were priced more economically, no one would talk about it. In a nutshell, here’s how I feel about the price: anyone who knows anything about manufacturing knows that this book wasn’t cheap to make. Without having any insider information, I’d guess that the landed cost of this book, including the rolled-up cost of the R&D (which apparently included a trip to Singapore and Malaysia for a factory check) and contributor payments, is around $50-$60 per piece. This includes ultra-premium paper, hand-binding, a low print run, container shipping, and a shitload of book-board, plus payment for 50 artists… but it doesn’t include ongoing expenses like warehousing and the overhead required to market and sell the book. My educated guess would be that they’re breaking even or making a slim profit on books sold wholesale and making that up via direct sales off their website. Plus, they had to air-freight the first 200 advance copies to get them in time for APE, which probably tacked on at least $25 per book, if not more. The idea that anyone is getting rich off of this book at $125 retail is absurd if you stop to think about what went into it from a production standpoint.
Holding the book, it just bleeds quality. It is truly a deluxe production with no expense spared, and I’m glad that Buenaventura Press and Sammy Harkham had the guts and tenacity to put this book out. Regardless of how one feels about the book or the price or the size, the drive to see this project through every hurdle has to be admired. I honestly don’t know how it will do in the marketplace, but I sure am glad to own one… as a book collector, book design nut, and comics fan, this book really hits every base for me. When I showed up at APE and saw the stack of copies sitting at the end of Buenavetura’s table, it took me all of five seconds to decide I had to have one. Now, admittedly, I’m not the average book consumer (to me, $125 doesn’t seem like that much for a book in the first place, given some of the rare books I have purchased), and I spend more of my disposable income on books than is probably healthy. Of course, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with someone who doesn’t think this book (or any book, for that matter) is worth the money. Rather, I think that, in me, the publishers of this book found their absolute ideal customer: a comics nerd who spends stupid amounts of money on beautiful books. And that’s probably why the price is such a non-issue for me: as someone who feels targeted by the book and not deliberately left out in the cold, I don’t think there’s anything arrogant or presumptuous (or stupid or elitist or pretentious, or any of the other accusations that have been lobbed around) about pricing a book in this range.
So, out of all the hundreds of books I own, how does this one access that rarefied realm of my favorites? The size certainly helps, that’s for sure. According to Harkham, the genesis of the book came from the size of the Sunday comics pages from the early 20th century, something with which I don’t have an intimate familiarity or nostalgia for. When another of my favorite comic book artists, Joe Matt, told me about the similarly sized Gasoline Alley book, I didn’t rush out to get it, because I am not all that into the history of comics, and these old strips don’t seduce me the way modern comics do (this is a taste issue, like so many things I write about in this blog, so please don’t rake me over the coals for this viewpoint). But, the opportunity to read my favorite artists (as well as a whole host of fantastic artists whom I had never heard of) in this format is a real treat. Some of the strips, such as the ones by Dan Clowes or Jaime Hernandez simply pack the page full of similarly-sized panels (although the large title panel of Clowes’s strip is pretty powerful), which leads to the fairly unique reading experience of spending 5-10 minutes reading one page. (To jump back to the price issue really quickly: one of the criticisms is that the book is “only” 96 pages for $125… but shit, when one page here would be 6 pages in another book, the value increases pretty quickly.) Other strips, like Kevin Huizenga’s or Adrian Tomine’s feature standard-sized panels interspersed with very large panels that really let the pages breathe while showcasing the artists’ talent in a much more expansive format. Some artists abandon the panel format altogether and let the comic loose across the entire page. It brings me back to my grad school papers about the materiality of the text dictating the sensory experience (well, back then I called it the “phenomenological experience,” but let’s call a spade a spade)… I expected the size to be cool and unique, but I didn’t expect it to mediate my reading process so dramatically. To tie it back to an earlier post, it almost reminds me of my response to books typeset by Massin in that the presentation of the text so affects the content that the experience of reading this content cannot be separated from the book itself. My conclusion after actually reading the book is that the size isn’t just a gimmick or a publicity stunt by Harkham or a way to justify charging an arm and a leg for the book- it really does play a critical role in making the book what it is.
And let’s not forget that I toiled for an entire weekend to get this book signed by 16 different authors. It started with Kevin Huizenga, who graciously signed and sketched the book as well as the accompanying print (which was ingeniously designed by Harkham with several “pages” littering the ground – each one perfect for a signature and doodle). Other authors followed suit (some reluctantly), and by the end of the weekend, I had a limited edition print and a gigantic book signed with sketches by Chris Ware, Ted May, John Pham, Eric Haven, Jonathan Bennett, J. Bradley Johnson, Johnny Ryan, Matt Groening, Matt Furie, Souther Salazar, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Tim Hensley, Dan Clowes, Chris Cilla, and Jaime Hernandez. They were not at the signing table all at once, however, and so I carried this heavy book around the expo for two days (well, my girlfriend carried it some of the time too), returning periodically each time a new groups of authors sat down with pens in hand. Not that I would have rather bought the book already signed- seeing comic book artists sketching in person is one of my favorite things about collecting books –Chris Ware drawing Jimmy Corrigan or Matt Groening drawing Homer Simpson is too cool for words.
Now, I just hope that the book holds up over time. The boards are so heavy that I’m kind of worried that after a few years of being read, they’ll start to strain the spine joints and eventually detach… and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t come with a warranty. But again, that’s a risk that the publishers (and me as the buyer) were willing to take in order to bring this book to market (and for me to bring it home to my bookshelves). I view it as this enormous labor of love on all parts – from the publisher actually producing it, to the artists who struggled with an unfamiliar format, to the editor who had to pick and choose to produce a cogent anthology, and even to me getting all the signatures individually. It’s totally irreplaceable, to the point that even my ridiculous anal retentiveness about book condition has allowed me to overlook the bump to the top board that forever renders the book “Near Fine” and love it for what it is.