Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | The value of bad comics

Batman #8

Batman #8

Last week I talked about rediscovering the ‘70s series Secret Society of Super-Villains. As you might have guessed, this was made possible largely by the Internet. Without it, I would have had to scour back-issue boxes at regional comics shops and/or at the occasional convention. After all, that’s what I grew up doing.

Regardless of where or how I bought those back issues, the fact remains that I bought them pretty much sight-unseen. Oh sure, I remembered random scenes from isolated issues, but basically my yen for SSoSV grew out of two things: its concept and its reputation. I knew what it aimed to be, and I figured if Gerry Conway wrote most of it, it couldn’t be all bad.*

What’s more (at the risk of being obvious) I had to track down these back issues because a collected version of Secret Society of Super-Villains is apparently still trapped in royalty-payment limbo. Not that I am especially bitter about that, mind you; because clearly I don’t mind reading the individual issues and they weren’t that hard to find.

However, I will say that DC’s back issues — especially from buyer-beware periods like the ‘70s and ‘80s — are harder to get into than Marvel’s. Looking back, ‘70s Marvel seems to me to be a company exploring its own potential, building largely on the Lee/Kirby/Ditko ‘60s but also experimenting with other genres. Thanks to the eclectic Essential series, I can sample everything from Avengers to Killraven. DC’s Showcase Presents line includes B&W reprints of House Of Mystery, House of Secrets, Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, Enemy Ace, Bat Lash, early Jonah Hex, and even Secrets of Sinister House, but its coverage doesn’t reach into the ‘70s and ‘80s the way Marvel’s does. Again, this probably comes down to royalty payments, and I’d rather have DC resolve those issues first.

Besides, what I really want to talk about is the notion that one buys back issues of comics like Secret Society of Super-Villains less for their merits and more “just because.” I suspect curiosity and nostalgia are big factors in such purchases, but there is also the reality that these stories may never exist outside the original issues. Currently DC collects a good bit of its recent output, including most of the last few years’ worth of monthly comics. Assuming the publisher keeps these collections in print, we probably won’t have to worry about the preservation of those stories.

What, though, is DC’s incentive for preserving the rest of its (considerable) back catalogue? The demands of today’s market accounts for some collections: for example, linking the Black Casebook and Strange Deaths Of Batman books to Grant Morrison’s Batman work. The Chronicles and Archives books apparently address a more general “historical” desire for old stories. The Showcase books do this as well, but I would say they (like Marvel’s Essentials) are intended more as samplers than as library-worthy reproductions. Cult-favorite series like the ‘80s Question have been reprinted in paperback. Finally, in the past few years DC has published more affordable hardcovers focused on well-known series and stories, including the Jack Kirby books, the JLA, Gotham Central, and Starman collections, and the “DC Library” series. These seem less market-driven and more reader-friendly than the chronological reprints. Other “themed” reprint series, like the Greatest Stories and [Character] in the [Decade], have come and gone.

Thus, generally I think DC does a reasonable job covering a broad overview of its superhero line. The major periods of a high-profile character’s history — say, Wonder Woman’s — are fairly well-represented. The first few years of the Golden Age can be found in the five Archives (and, presumably, in upcoming Chronicles). The Showcase Presents books spotlight the crazy Bob Kanigher period and the “Diana Prince” period has those four paperbacks. Much of the modern era, from the 1986 revamp to the present, has also been reprinted. Even so, though, that leaves most of the ‘70s and ‘80s in the back-issue bins. If this were a “DC should reprint Story X” post (and it may well be, you watch), I would suggest the “Twelve Trials Of Wonder Woman” from issues #212-222 (June-July 1974 through February-March 1976), the extended storyline which got Diana back into the Justice League following her “white-suit” period. I want to read these stories mostly because I’ve just finished the four “Diana Prince” paperbacks and would like to see how the book tried to get its superhero groove back.

More to the point, I want to read these stories because they make up one of the few extended Wonder Woman arcs I’m aware of from that period. I did not read Wonder Woman regularly as a youngster, and George Pérez’s presence was a big part of me picking up the relaunch. I mean, I know she fought Kobra, and I know the original Silver Swan and second Cheetah were created in the ‘80s, but beyond that I’m hard-pressed to think of anything. This is why I liked the [Character] in the [Decade] series of reprints — a Wonder Woman in the Eighties book would really have helped me out.

And this, of course, brings me back to the central conundrum of any reprint program: why reprint bad comics? Because people might just pay money to read them, sure. (That would explain the Super-Sons paperback.) But still, isn’t a bad reprint just the opportunity to pay money to see how bad those comics are? By ignoring such a long period of Wonder Woman’s publishing history, isn’t DC basically saying “trust us, you don’t want to read this?”

Maybe … but eventually, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If no one is curious about Wonder Woman in the ‘70s, or Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ Mister Miracle, or Arak, Son Of Thunder, or Young Heroes In Love, the only place anyone will find those stories is in the back-issue bins; and in the current state of the market, back issues are — well, on the back burner.

Again, these concerns may not all be demand-driven. I am fairly sure that, thanks to royalty issues, there won’t be a Showcase Presents Secret Society of Super-Villains anytime soon; and that may hold true for reprints of other ‘70s and ‘80s series (All-Star Squadron comes immediately to mind). Nevertheless, if DC is willing to let these stories slip into obscurity, will it be satisfied with its reprint catalog in five, ten, or twenty years? By now you can probably name my perennial suggestions — ’Mazing Man, Amethyst, the Tom Peyer/Rags Morales Hourman — but just off the top of my head I can think of several other market-friendly stories and/or series which (where applicable) might be worth a little more negotiation on the royalty end:

All-Star Squadron, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by various people. There are four paperbacks of Marvel’s Invaders series currently available. DC’s WWII-on-Earth-2 saga ought to be good for at least a couple.

Blackhawk (1988-91), written by Martin Pasko and drawn by Rick Burchett and others. This series picked up where the Howard Chaykin miniseries left off, but it sought to tie the paramilitary aviators more closely to the postwar period. It began as a recurring feature in Action Comics Weekly and ran as its own title for 14 issues and an Annual.

Chase, written by D. Curtis Johnson and drawn by J.H. Williams III and others. This fondly-remembered series tie into the equally-fondly-remembered Manhunter (Kate Spencer edition), but did I mention it features the art of master craftsman J.H. Williams III? Maybe DC is waiting for the new Batwoman series to debut before rolling this reprint out.

Green Lantern #s 172-183, 185-86 (January 1984-March 1985), written by Len Wein and pencilled by Dave Gibbons. These issues featured Hal Jordan’s return to Earth after months in outer-space exile, but things didn’t end well for Hal. Following a devastating attack on Ferris Aircraft, Hal quit the Corps, leaving John Stewart to protect Sector 2814. GL-mania in general, plus Gibbons’ art and the Predator’s introduction, seem to argue pretty strongly for this reprint.

Green Lantern #s 188-200 (May 1985-May 1986), written by Steve Englehart, pencilled by Joe Staton, and inked by Bruce Patterson. These issues starred John, but they brought Hal back into the Corps, returned Guy Gardner to active duty, put the Guardians out to stud, and tied into Crisis On Infinite Earths. There’s also more Predator, plus Star Sapphire, Sinestro, and Guardian-lore, so I’d think it would have the same appeal as above.

Justice League of America #s 139-46, 149-50 (February 1977-January 1978), written by Steve Englehart and pencilled by Dick Dillin. Englehart brought some of his Avengers mojo (not to mention a certain cosmic mom) to JLA, and one of his storylines inspired an animated “Justice League” two-parter. Superman died in one issue and got punched out by Wonder Woman in another; and the League finally caught up with disaffected ex-mascot Snapper Carr. At the time Englehart’s run was somewhat controversial, but I’ve always thought it was a high point of the Satellite Era.

The original Jason Todd origin, in Batman #s 357-66 and Detective Comics #s 524-33 (March-December 1983), written by Gerry Conway and Doug Moench, and pencilled by Don Newton and Gene Colan. These stories brought into the Bat-universe the Flying Todds, an oddly-familiar family-acrobat-act with an oddly-familiar fate. Now, in hindsight, this storyline is pretty much a blip in the overall history of Robin, the Boy Wonder. It was canonical for about four years before being retconned away by Max Allan Collins and Chris Warner in June 1987′s Batman #408; and Jason’s current backstory has been the law of the land ever since. Still, I like these issues as a good example of the cross-continuity between the Bat-titles in the 1980s, and also for the way they eased Dick Grayson out of the Robin role while still giving him a meaningful role in the series. Plus, there’s some fine Don Newton art, which is always worth reprinting.

Firestorm, written by Gerry Conway and John Ostrander, pencilled by Al Milgrom, George Pérez, Pat Broderick, Rafael Kayanan, Joe Brozowski, Tom Mandrake, et al. Firestorm is either a shameless example of a writer protecting his creation, a remarkable survivor, or a little of both. His first series only lasted five issues, but co-creator Gerry Conway put him in the Justice League not long after. He then found a home in backup stories in Flash, which led to a second series, which lasted an impressive 100 issues and featured a game-changing revamp just past the midway point. It would take about four Showcase books to tell the whole story, and I think some royalties might be in the way, but it would be worth it to see exactly why the Nuclear Man stayed popular throughout the ‘80s.

I could go on, even with stories not written by Steve Englehart, but you get the idea. I own many of these comics in single issues, but I certainly wouldn’t mind having them in handy book form. (Not discounting a digital archive at all, but I still like paper.)  I also think these comics are generally good, which kind of goes against this post’s bad-comics-reprint theme.

Aha — but with DC collecting just about all of today’s titles, clearly it is preserving at least a few bad comics for posterity, no? At a minimum, I imagine those comics are valuable on an informational level, as in “this may help you enjoy this other book over here.” The bad comics of yore don’t necessarily have that appeal … but they shouldn’t all be dismissed as blog fodder, either.** DC has plenty of good-to-great comics it hasn’t yet reprinted, and it has a whole lot of bad comics I’m in no hurry to see collected. The rest isn’t all bad, and I’d like to think the missteps contain some teachable moments. We may never know, though, until DC pays more attention to the gaps in its permanent library.

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* [Bob Rozakis wrote #7, my favorite single issue, but still.]

** [Mind you, I really have no desire to read The Green Team.]

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Comments

21 Comments

Simon DelMonte

August 5, 2010 at 4:16 pm

There are so many things I want to see collected, but two stand out:

The Atlantis Chronicles, possibly the best DC work PAD ever did but impossible to find.

The Ostrander/Mandrake Spectre, just a great series from start to finish.

Where’s the Evanier/Spiegel Blackhawk? In fact, do a combined hardcover of the comics and the William Rotsler novel (one of the best comic adaptation tales EVER!)
Atari Force (highly unlikely, due to licensing problems)
and I agree All-Star Squadron deserves a new audience…

I so wish chase would be collected already. Williams just won two eisners, get on it!

I also wish DC would keep some of their already-collected material in print, such as Mark Waid’s Flash run. I’ve been wanting to read it for the longest time but Amazon lists it as out of print.

Major Bummer and finish up with the Hitman trades.

I have, for quite some time, longed to see all of the 60′s Spectre appearances collected in one handy volume.

It continues to boggle my mind that the original Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld maxiseries (and DC Comics Presents issue) isn’t put out in trade, and then immediately spun off in its own Johnny DC title. That series could still capture the hearts and minds of teen and pre-teen girls (and boys) in a heartbeat. I should know– I bought the entire series and gave it to a 13 year old girl a couple of years ago and she loved it.

And to bring Amethyst to Wonder Woman, for me the BEST Wonder Woman series of the 1980s is the criminally underrated (and probably never-to-be-reprinted) version written by Dan Mishkin (who created Amethyst) and drawn by Don Heck. I just stumbled across it completely by accident a while back and it became totally addicted. Exceedingly well characterized, plotted with real verve, featuring real charm, it’s great 1980s superhero comics and made Wonder Woman come alive for me in comics for the first time in ages. It’s a shame as I think everyone at the time (including me) wrote it off because it had a past-his-prime Don Heck drawing it (who is doing good work here).

The Atlantis Chronicles, possibly the best DC work PAD ever did but impossible to find.

All seven issues are available at MyComicShop.com, MileHighComics.com, ComicCollectorLive.com and in super-cheap lots on eBay.

This the age of easy-to-find back issues, effendi!

Reading John Ostrander/Kim Yale’s interlocking Suicide Squad/Firestorm/Manhunter runs (along with Kupperberg’s Checkmate & Ostrander’s Captain Atom issues that tied into the Janus Directive crossover) all in floppy form was one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. It can all be gotten for a decent price too. Just check eBay for the complete runs…and fill in what you can’t find on mycomicshop.com

Also yeah Atlantis Chonicles was quite excellent and very easy to order a complete set for cheap (and it’s printed on that wonderful high-end flat paper DC used for certain books in the late 80s-early 90s!)

I always thought the Infinity Inc., Sword of the Atom, and the Gil Kane Supermans were great as well. I also liked the Giffen Dr. Fate back-up story from the Flash, but I think that actually has been reprinted. And speaking of Don Newton, I also loved his Captain Marvels from World’s Finest and his Aquamans (didn’t really care for his New Gods, though).

would love to see at least the batman issues telling jason todds first origin. plus suicide squad has been needing a good trade run. would also love the original spectre stories. but till dc can work the royalty issues .for reprinting any of that stuff mentioned here. that stuff is sadly going to be stuck in the vault of dc only to be looked at if fans track down back issues.

Captain Comet, Adam Strange after the Infantino era, The Immortal Man, Multi-Alien, Space Rovers and a lot more or DC’s space material while not great comics was often a lot of fun to read.

Tom, every single one of the comics you mention is recent enough to find in the back issues bins — cheap. So why pine for reprints of them, when there are so many older and greater comics that are totally unavailable?

I yearn for stuff that can’t be found in the back issue bins — like for example, the first ten issues of Sea Devils, all drawn by the amazing Russ Heath, all with those stunning “gray-tone” covers that Russ did with Jack Adler.

I’ve always been surprised that DC hasn’t reprinted the Mark Millar/Phil Hester Swamp Thing run. Especially when Millar was doing Ultimates and Hester was on Green Arrow.

I don’t think the current DC editorial cares much for its “old” stuff (particularly pre-Crisis material); most of the time an old character is brought back it either a) is twisted into something it wasn’t meant to be (a killer, a victim etc.) or b) is just killed off. So I don’t think they’re particularly motivated to do reprints based on them except for major characters or series related somehow to stuff they’re doing today (like Green Lantern.) Which is a shame because as mentioned there IS a wealth of good stories from those times (especially in the “Bronze Age”) that even modern readers could enjoy if they just gave it a chance.

I really enjoyed that article, thanks Tom! Gave me some thought on things to look for next being a mainly DC dude.

I’ll be going the back issue route as well, much nicer than waiting for trades and the adverts, paper stock and editorials/letters always give you a much better feel for the period and what else was going on in the universe at the time.

Like i said before: put _everything_ in Showcase collections right now and keep it in print.
I think the comments here prove me right.

DC seems to keep a 30-45 year distance until books get a Showcase treatment. So someone who wants to relive the stories he or she enjoyed in their youth would be 40 to 55 by the time DC collects them. I think they’d sell a lot more books if they’d reduce it to 20 years.
And i think the comments prove me right on that too, as most books mentioned are from the late 80s.

They did do a Showcase of Booster Gold, so it seems that they can go up to the mid-80s if it ties in a lot with a current series.

I’m probably the only one out there, but I would love to see a reprint of the Dr. Occult stories from New Fun/More Fun Comics. It’s the creators of Superman on a “ghost detective” and I’m sure the whole series could be collected in a single trade paperback. Throw in Secret Origins #17 and you’ve got the whole shebang!

DC Entertainment just needs to sit down with everyone still alive,and the estates of the past on creators and rework the contracts for the “black” period of the mid 1970s-1980s.

Hopefully they’ll do it when they negotate for digitial/on-line use.

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