Grumpy Old Fan | The value of bad comics

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | The value of bad comics

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.


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

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