Friday, February 16, 2024

Paper and Book Sizes

Here's a blog post about my history in the fine world of art and publishing, as it relates to paper and book sizes in particular. Because this shit really matters if your goal is to print something.

Earliest memory of making a zine: 1980, trailer park by a river. In my room, which was really a hallway portion of the trailer in which I had a bed and dresser, sitting on my bed with pencil and typing paper and some comic books.

Actually, now that I think on it, I'm not sure how many comics I had at that time. But I did have a full BOX of Marvel Comics Super Heroes Rub-A-Tattoo packs! These were like bubble gum trading card packs, but with dry transfer images of the various characters. At this time, my experience with comics was limited to a stack of old Donald Duck, Hot Stuff, and Archies some cousin gave me. Plus whatever cartoons and TV shows they had, such as the Hulk and Super Friends.

Anyway... I knew I liked Spidey and The Thing and Hulk. And I was fascinated by the comic book as an object. So I took my typing paper (8.5" x 11" cheap white paper... equivalent to A4 but slightly different because we Americans can't just adopt the most universal stuff like everyone else). I folded a sheet in half so it was now 5.5" x 8.5" and I drew a battle between The Thing and Spider-Man. I have no memory of what happened in the "story" or to what degree I actually finished it. I believe I only did one sheet and I marveled (get it?) at how much like a comic it didn't look.

Fast forward to teen years. I didn't try to make a book again for a while. But I was very interested in doing it. When I got into RPGs I made my own games and the format was usually just a sheet of typing paper or whatever kind of paper I had. Often it was loose leaf binder paper from my school stash. Or a spiral notebook. Whatever worked.

But a few years later, in 1987 or so, my friends and I decided to make a REAL comic. I had seen copies of an APA, so I knew people were doing this kind of thing. People were just making their own comics and books and printing them on Xerox machines (that's what we called photocopiers). Then they would trade them or sell a few locally, mostly through the mail.

This was the "small press" scene. Our comic, called Fast Lane, ran for 3 or so issues. I can't remember exactly how it went, but some of them were full size (8.5x11) and some were "digest" size (5.5x8.5). They were all photocopied when we used the machine at a friend's dad's place of work. That was a fun memory, laying out the pages on the office floor on a Saturday morning to collate and staple them. I think we ran 50 copies. Some were sold to kids at school, most were just given away.

I'm not even sure if I have copies myself anymore. In fact... I'm almost certain I do not. Pity.

So anyway, pretty much all small press folks (I didn't hear the term "zine" until the 90s) worked at some iteration of 8.5" x 11" in the USA because that was the by far the most common and cheap paper you could get. Every Xerox machine used that size by default. And when you're doing guerilla publishing, you use what is available.

The three common paper sizes in the USA are:

Letter: 8.5" x 11"

Legal: 8.5" x 14"

Tabloid: 11" x 17"

Every photocopy machine would handle these paper sizes and every place with a machine almost certainly had a pack of each. So you could plan your book in the following easy increments:

Full size (stapled flat): 8.5" x 11"

Full size (tabloid folded once): 8.5" x 11"

Digest (letter folded once): 5.5" x 8.5"

Mini: (letter folded twice): 4.25" x 5.5"

Printed on my desktop, c. 2004.

Virtually all comic zines of that era were black and white because the cost of doing color was incredibly high by comparison. And to get GOOD color was even more expensive. This is why I have been a black and white line artist for much of my life, though the internet sort of changed that for me and I've done my fair share of color work in the past 20 years.

There are other options, of course, such as folding a legal sheet in half or folding a letter sheet down the long way to make a really tall, skinny zine. But those were rare to see. Most folks stuck with the variations listed above because they were easy, common, standard. And one thing that us comic book folks really enjoy is a standard format*.

My zines have taken on various formats over the years, but I'd say the bulk of them were "digest" sized. This was, in my experience, the most common format for small press comics. All through the 90s I was involved in various small press co-ops, making and trading my comics with other creators. It was fun times. I have a TON of old zines in storage I should bust out and share pics of.

One huge leap forward for me was when I got a black and white laser printer. It's just as good as a photocopier (of its time... this is an older printer now), so I could make zines all day long. But there was one problem: the INTERNET happened. Suddenly print books were not all the rage and zine folks were doing a lot of digital stuff. The small press networks I had grown with over the years flagged, sometimes fading away entirely. I retreated from that scene, feeling like the connections I craved there were now being met more readily online. Over time, we would also see the cost of mailing books go up and up and UP until it made no sense at all to mail a single digest sized comic to anyone. The cost of the book was far, far less than the cost to mail it.

To close out on this rambler, in the USA, in my own experience, it was most common to do your comics and zines in black and white in size formats compatible with 8.5x11 sheets of paper. Because that's what we had to work with.

*Hey, calm down. I'm not saying weird formats are bad. Hell no! I published some zines in weird formats. I did the tall skinny thing with Random Order Comics & Games issue 1, for example. And if you went to any small press conventions you'd see all kinds of weird books! People are super creative about this stuff. This post is just talking about the most common uses of the materials that were available, filtered through the lens of the small press comics world. Most small press comics folks were not interested in having a weird format, they wanted something as close to a "normal comic book" as possible, to be honest. But it was super expensive to do a professional print run. We slummed it with Xerox machines.


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