Friday’s Modest Proposal

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday’s Modest Proposal

It’s going to be a short one this week, as I have the Alki Art Fair this weekend — hey, we can’t all be working the San Diego con! — and also a series of workshops to prep for a project that I daresay will come up again in future columns. Anyone who thinks teachers have the summer off is living in a fantasy world.

All this is by way of saying that I haven’t had a chance to read many comics this week, but there was one that I lunged at the second I saw it on the rack.

I’ve been waiting for this book to come out from the moment I saw it advertised on Amazon four months ago.

Showcase Presents Bat Lash is simply an awesome package…. and I’m hoping we see more of this kind of thing. There are a LOT of cool series out there that didn’t run long enough to fill a standard Showcase or Essential edition… and are so obscure that they would probably not sell enough to support the full-color trade paperback packaging. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t well-written and worth reprinting — and anyway, artists that do beautiful feathering and line work (like we see here from Nick Cardy and Dan Spiegle) are better appreciated in black-and-white. The price point was nice too — $9.99 for 240 pages of comics. It felt like the best deal I’ve gotten since… well, since I bought Essential Doctor Strange volume four two weeks previously, but you all knew I’m a pushover for the Essential and Showcase books.

Looking at the slimmed-down Bat Lash edition, though, I got to thinking.

Why not take the idea the rest of the way? Why not experiment with some kind of black-and-white original line in this size? It’d be a way to go head-to-head with the manga collections and Archie digests in the bookstores, and I still think bookstores are going to be the deciding factor in who’s successfully publishing comics five years from now. Some combination of new material and reprints in this inexpensive slimmed-down Showcase format seems like something that would be a low-risk, high-return investment.

As it happens, this isn’t the first time DC’s tried that kind of experiment. Putting together the Bat-trivia quiz over the last couple of weeks had me doing a lot of research, and I was going through quite a few of my old 100-Page Super-Spectaculars.

In the early 1970’s, there was a lot of experimenting and flailing around from comics publishers trying to figure out what an attractive format would be. (It actually was a lot like today, in many ways — everyone knew something new was coming, but none of us could figure out what it looked like.) DC, especially, was all over the place. They tried publishing comics that were really huge, a series of tabloid-sized originals…

…and they also tried to get in on some of that Archie and Disney action with a series of pocket-sized reprint digests.

Neither were particularly successful — though the digests hung on longer than any of the other experimental formats, DC actually published over a hundred of them throughout the ’70s and early ’80s.

But the experiment that I loved more than any of the others were the times DC tried to combine reprints with new material. They tried it twice — the first time was in the final months of 1971, when they jumped the size of their monthly books to 52 pages and each book led with a new feature story, backed up with reprints.

Then again, in 1974, DC decided to try a variation of this format by jumping their books to 100 pages with 21 pages of new material, usually a twelve-page lead story and an eight-page backup, and the rest filled out with reprints.

These comics stand today as some of my favorite books of all time. I’ve talked about those runs of Batman and Detective here before, but honestly, I loved all of them.

Researching this and looking for scans, I remembered buying almost all of these super-sized comics.

Part of it was that they were hitting me at exactly the right time. I was thirteen years old, and just beginning to take an interest in comics history and in learning to appreciate changes in style and approach from one artist to another.

And these 100-pagers had the variety and fun of a mix tape… while at the same time, they provided an informal history of the entire DC line.

These reprint books were where I first saw the work of Alex Toth, Simon & Kirby, Burne Hogarth, Reed Crandall, Lou Fine, and dozens of other industry legends.

This era was one of the few times in my youth I ventured outside of my superhero comfort zone. The bargain was too good to pass up… the odds were that in a package that big there’d be something I enjoyed. And there always was.

Sadly, the experiment didn’t last. Most of DC’s 100-pagers lasted barely a year before going back to a standard 32-page format. The only real success story from this era was Superman Family.

Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Supergirl’s adventures all got folded into this one book; they took turns in the lead spot with a new story while the other two went reprint. Though the price varied, as did the amount of original material, it stayed a super-sized monster from its inception in the spring of 1974 to its cancellation in 1981, when it was the flagship of DC’s Dollar Comic line.

Oddly enough, though, I thought its Dollar Comic incarnation with all-new material was one of the weakest eras of the title; too much filler, too many inventory stories getting burned off. The winning combo always seemed to me to be some hybrid of new material and reprints. DC, especially, had a vast library to draw on, and in those pre-trade-paperback days, this was the only way we got to see a lot of that material. A new story plus a greatest-hits package of reprints was always the most enticing for me.

And it still would be today, I bet. Especially if you tailored something to the black-and-white format. Dark Knight Quarterly seems like a no-brainer. Get a new Bat-story with some big names for the lead — say, a 20 or 30-page piece from people you don’t normally see get to see work on Batman. Jamie Delano and Eddie Campbell, or Bruce Jones and John Cassaday… you know, whoever. Some fun out-of-continuity thing. And then you’ve got seventy years’ worth of archives to pull stuff from to make up another 200 pages. Put the whole thing out there for $9.99, same size and format, more or less, as the Bat Lash book.

I can think of another half-dozen possible packages off the top of my head. Some kind of horror anthology that pulls from both the Vertigo library and the older classic stuff. Bizarro Comics, with a new Ambush Bug lead feature and then for the reprints you could dip into DC’s vast library of demented Silver and Bronze Age experiments. Mean Streets, a crime anthology featuring a new Question or Spirit story up front and then a sampling of crime stories from the ’50s and ’60s. Our Army At War. All-Star Western. Mystery in Space. I bet you out there reading this could come up with a bunch more. DC’s already doing the low-cost sampler reprint packages for the Vertigo books, and this is just a variation of that.

A grab-bag sampler book combining new and reprint material was a major-league gateway comic for me, once upon a time. I bet it could be again. Remember, DC’s library of material goes back quite a bit further than Marvel’s. Which is not to exclude Marvel from this idea, but I don’t think they could pull it off as well. Their library of material is much more serialized for the most part. It makes it harder to cherry-pick reprints for that iPod shuffle approach. (Though I adored their experiments with exactly this kind of package — Marvel Westerns, Legion of Monsters — and snapped them up the second I heard about them.)

Anyway, that’s my notion. It’s just a thought. But comics people are always kicking around ideas about bringing in that fabled new reader, and this seems like a low-cost lure to experiment with… especially when you consider that today’s young comics readers are usually coming off a tradition of manga anthologies like Shonen Jump that are doing exactly that kind of black-and-white sampler approach.

I think it’s something worth trying. How about it, DC and Marvel?


If you’re in the Seattle area this weekend and want to say hello, I’ll be working the Alki Beach Art Fair Saturday and Sunday. Mention the column and get a free sketch!

And everyone else… see you next week.