Grumpy Old Fan | Making the old days look good

With Labor Day behind us, for most folks it’s back to work. But by the time you read this I will be out of town, well into a two-day seminar. Naturally I take comics with me for the down time, and more often than not I take a couple of thick reprint books. Picking out specific volumes got me thinking about the changing nature of DC Comics' reprints.

Now, I’ll try not to let this descend into some nostalgic pining, and I recognize that reprint formats aren’t the most exciting things. However, while today’s comics are available in print or digitally, and are collected routinely into more durable books, I’m not sure the older material is getting as much attention as it once did. To be certain, the older material is getting older all the time, with more added to it as the years go by; and modern audiences might well be satisfied with, say, just the past 20 years’ worth of DC’s output. Still, there’s value in those older stories, even if it’s just on an academic level; and I think it’s helpful to see how DC has treated it.

* * *

In the 1970s, when I was a wee lad, the main source of reprinted material was in special issues of the regular comics. World’s Finest, Justice League of America and Detective Comics would reprint old stories fairly regularly, sometimes packaging them alongside new material and sometimes just doing all-reprint issues. As far as I remember, there was no real pattern to these reprints, beyond their relation (sometimes tenuous) to the particular series. As with other DC publishing ventures in the 1970s, it eventually proved cost-prohibitive. Nevertheless, it exposed readers to Golden Age material they might not otherwise have encountered.

Probably the most accessible mainstream Golden Age overview back then was 1965's The Great Comic Book Heroes, “compiled, introduced, and annotated” by cartoonist Jules Feiffer. It included the origins of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Lantern, Plastic Man, and Captain America, as well as adventures of Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Spectre, the Spirit, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. Those stories all appeared within a period of about three years, from summer 1939 (Superman #1) to fall 1942 (Wonder Woman #2); so it didn’t exactly offer a comprehensive history. Feiffer’s essays concerned his relationship to the material and his musings on the industry’s rapid growth and eventual decline, making the book more about recreating an experience.

As neat as it was, you couldn’t find TGCBH at the local Kroger, but starting in the early ‘70s you could get tabloid-sized “Limited Collectors’ Editions” on its newsstand, right next to the regular comics. Those were definitely kid-oriented, with puzzles and crafts sandwiched between 1941's “The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus” and 1970's “Ghost of the Killer Skies!” The "Collectors' Editions" were a somewhat-diverse group, covering Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel as well as Ghosts and House of Mystery. For that matter, the series kicked off with Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and included issues devoted to Dick Tracy, Tarzan and the Bible.

(There was also Superman Salutes the Bicentennial, an especially devious way to get kids interested in an obscure Revolutionary War-era character named Tomahawk. A frontiersman who served as one of George Washington’s spies, his 25-year run started with 1947's Star Spangled Comics #69 and ended in 1972, after a 140-issue run of his own series. That series had ended just four years before Superman Salutes, so perhaps Tomahawk wasn't as obscure as I might have thought. Regardless, all that was lost on Young Tom, who kept waiting for Superman to fight the British and had to settle for a two-page framing sequence. The stories weren’t bad -- one featured an early submersible called “The Turtle” -- but man, did I feel burned at first.)

Eventually the "Limited Collectors' Editions" gave way to the “All-New Collectors’ Edition” series, which focused on original stories and tended to involve Superman fighting someone like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel or Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, a handful of “Famous First Editions” came out mostly during 1974-75 and stuck to the big names of the Golden Age: Action, Detective, Sensation, All-Star and Flash. All told, DC published these tabloids from 1972-79.

The 1970s also saw DC present its back catalog in a couple of unconventional ways. Both DC and Marvel reprinted old comics in pocket-sized paperback, but while Marvel’s reprints were in color and shrunk to fit the much smaller page, DC’s were black and white and reformatted, destroying the original layouts to keep the art about the same size. More true to the original presentations were the companies’ themed collections, like Marvel’s Origins of Marvel Comics, Bring On the Bad Guys and The Superhero Women. DC had Secret Origins of the Super DC Heroes (1976) and the ’30s To the ‘70s series. The latter included volumes on Superman (1971), Batman (1971), Wonder Woman (1972, with material from Gloria Steinem), and Captain Marvel (1977), presented mostly in black and white with color sections at the start of each chapter. As you might expect, these offered pretty good insights into the characters’ development (although Captain Marvel skipped the ‘60s completely and the Wonder Woman volume was all Golden Age), and they were good complements to the three-volume Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes series. If you could get past writer Michael Fleisher’s armchair psychoanalysis, those in-depth examinations of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman from their debuts through the late 1960s discussed a lot of Golden and Silver Age elements. (A few years back, they each got updated just in time for the New 52 to render everything moot.) In this respect the Encyclopedias were arguably the next best thing to the comics themselves.

* * *

In the early ‘80s DC went small with its reprints, presenting old stories in the thin DC Digest format. Not as tiny as the pocket-book paperbacks, and all in color, these picked up largely where the Limited Collectors Editions left off. The Best of DC series (1979-84) was joined for a while by the DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest series (1980-82), each of which got away from the older stories in favor of more recent material (like the “Year’s Best Stories” issues). Naturally, this being DC in the ‘80s, “more recent” tended to mean “Silver Age,” but regardless the Golden Age was pushed into the background.

Beyond the Digests, DC published relatively few reprints or collected editions in the mid- to late 1980s. There were a few reprint-oriented miniseries, like Green Lantern/Green Arrow (self-explanatory), Shadow of the Batman (reprinting the Steve Englehart/Walt Simonson/Marshall Rogers run from Detective Comics) and New Gods (reprinting the Kirby series with a new “final issue” leading into The Hunger Dogs), but these weren’t collected until much later. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find any DC collections from the early ‘80s beyond an updated volume, Superman from the Thirties to the Eighties.

Not surprisingly, from what I can tell, the books which kicked off a real collected-editions boomlet were The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. The DKR hardcover came out in the fall of 1986, not long after the miniseries itself wrapped up; and the Watchmen hardcover likewise came out in the fall of 1987, a few months after the summer’s final issue. 1986's two-issue History of the DC Universe got a deluxe hardcover in 1988, and older reprints soon followed: Legion of Super-Heroes’ “Great Darkness Saga,” New Teen Titans’ “Judas Contract,” and the short-lived early-‘70s Shadow series from Michael William Kaluta.

DC’s Archives program began in the fall of 1989, with the first volume of Superman Archives. These boasted high-end presentations and were priced appropriately, starting at at $39.95 apiece but increasing not long afterwards to $49.95 and currently retailing for $59.95. Each offered over 200 pages of full-color reprints on glossy paper, which worked out to about eight or nine standard-sized issues. The Archives program produced some 200 volumes from 1989 through 2014, including series devoted to Elfquest, The Spirit, and THUNDER Agents.

While the Archives may have faded, their spirit lives on in DC’s various Omnibuses (more pages crammed tighter together, but cheaper per page than the Archives) and other specialized series like the four-volume Jack Kirby’s Fourth World or the three-volume Batman Illustrated By Neal Adams. More recently, the Chronicles series was basically a paperback version of the Archives, improving on them by mixing stories from different series -- unlike the Archives, which had separate volumes for Superman and Action Comics. However, it seems like the Chronicles aren’t doing that well either, leaving the Omnibuses standing alone.

* * *

As the ‘80s ended and the ‘90s began, DC kicked off a short-lived Greatest Stories Ever Told series reminiscent of the ’30s to the ‘70s books. Volumes on Superman (1987), Batman (1988, 1992), and the Joker (1988, 1990) were soon joined by a Flash book, as well as The Greatest Team-Up Stories Ever Told, The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told, and The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told. The series was revived in the mid-2000s with a new Superman volume (2004), but the most recent one was a 2011 Batgirl book. Similar in spirit were the “Decades” paperbacks like Superman in the Forties and Batman in the Seventies, published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, there were only two series (Batman and Superman), each with five books (the ‘40s through the ‘80s), so the format wasn’t nearly as popular. The basic theme continues with various anniversary-celebration hardcovers, like Justice Society: A Celebration of 75 Years.

If you can hold on just a little longer, I only have a couple more formats to mention. First is the “deluxe hardcover” category, covering everything from the ultra-rare Watchmen hardcover from Graphitti Designs (since reprinted as Absolute Watchmen) to the two-volume slipcased Kingdom Come hardcover and the more recent Absolute Editions. In the mid- to late 1990s, DC was pretty active in the hardcover business, which included original material as well as reprints; but some of the non-Archives books were presented as more than mere collections. The deluxe Kingdom Come hardcover (1997) included a companion volume with Alex Ross’s sketches and Mark Waid’s notes; the Crisis on Infinite Earths hardcover (1998) was recolored, with a new wraparound cover by George Pérez and Alex Ross (plus an oversize poster of Issue 7's cover); and the 10th-anniversary Dark Knight Returns slipcase featured three 48-page supplements. While these titanic tomes were probably designed to entice buyers to double-dip on fairly recent books, they still speak to DC’s treatment of hardcovers as something special, rather than a routine publishing phase. The Absolute Editions were perhaps the pinnacle of this “comics as coffee-table conversation pieces” philosophy. For that matter, around the same time the tabloid-sized comic made a comeback, albeit for new stories like Paul Dini and Alex Ross’s Superman: Peace On Earth or Mark Waid and Bryan Hitch’s JLA: Heaven’s Ladder. The format itself was played up almost as much as the creative team or the story.

That brings us to the last major format, Showcase Presents, which started almost 10 years ago with October 2005's first Green Lantern and Superman volumes.  The format is focused heavily on the Silver Age (or as Wikipedia puts it, 1955-75), mostly for logistical reasons, including the costs of royalties for the original creative teams. The most recent volume seems to be November 2014's Unknown Soldier vol. 2, and the series includes some 123 volumes spanning 67 features. Again, the format is one of the big draws: most volumes proclaim “over 500 pages of [black and white] comics” for less than $20 retail. If you’re at all curious about DC’s post-apocalyptic non-Kamandi output of the early ‘70s, that’s not a lot to pay for the one-volume Showcase Presents The Great Disaster. Other experiments like Bat Lash, Captain Carrot and Amethyst each got single SP volumes as well.

In fact, the four volumes of Showcase Presents Wonder Woman cover pretty much all of the character’s oddball Silver Age stories, with Volume 4 ending right before the start of the “Diana Prince” era (which, by the way, got its own four-volume set of color paperbacks). Thus, if you don’t mind starting with black-and-white comics, those eight books cover almost fifteen years’ worth of Wonder Woman, from May 1958's issue 98 through January/February 1973's issue 204. Likewise, Showcase Presents Green Lantern volume 5 features the only collection of GL stories from the series’ post-cancellation tenure as a backup feature in The Flash. It took me a long time to collect those individual issues of Flash, so I was glad to see Showcase Presents get to that point in GL history.

* * *

By this point it’s worth asking why anyone would want to read fifteen years’ worth of Wonder Woman or whatever Denny O’Neil (and various artists) did with Hal Jordan in the early 1970s. I can’t answer that conclusively, but I can say that, for example, those Wonder Woman stories represent two distinctly different approaches to the character following the death of her creator, William Moulton Marston, and the departure of her first artist, Harry G. Peter. As much as readers and professionals alike claim not to “get” Wonder Woman, that fifteen-year stretch shows DC trying -- and not always succeeding -- to reinvent her for what it thought were appropriate audiences. Similarly, when Green Lantern was cancelled in the early ‘70s, it was getting a lot of critical attention for socially-conscious stories. O’Neil and artist Neal Adams tried to pick up with that when the feature moved into Flash, but for whatever reason they couldn’t sustain it, and GL went back to a solo act, traveling through space and busting bad guys.

As for comics of the Golden and Silver Age, I agree that sometimes they can be a little obtuse. Thanks to an Archives fire sale a few years ago, I now have all but one of the All Star Comics archives, but it’s been very hard for me to get into them. Part of it is the stories’ original format, in which the characters’ regular creative teams often contributed individual chapters to each JSA story. That results in overstuffed stories with shifting styles, so the results depend largely on everything coming together smoothly. Still, that in itself is instructive, especially compared to one of today’s big super-epics put together by an army of writers and artists.

Maybe the most important reason to encourage the regular reprinting of decades-old stories is simple curiosity. When the reprints were packaged alongside more modern fare, it was easy to compare and contrast. However, these days it seems like you have to make a conscious choice to seek out the older material, and that can be somewhat daunting. Those Archives and Omnibuses might be discounted, but they’re not cheap.

Right away digital versions present themselves as a possible solution, although any archiving of older material comes with its own set of logistical hurdles. Certainly comiXology’s DC collections span over 75 years of publishing history, but it’s not as comprehensive as it could be. I’m not saying that everything needs to be digitized -- I don’t know of anyone clamoring for Mr. District Attorney or those 140 issues of Tomahawk -- but I’m not sure it offers the most representative selection of DC’s output.

Whatever the format, the attractiveness of a vast back catalog is that ability to browse, and therefore to indulge one’s curiosity about a genre’s (or medium’s) development. I’m not saying that today’s comics don’t have their charms, or that yesterday’s were inherently better because they came from simpler times. However, if you’re reading about a character with decades of history, don’t you want to see at least some of how that history was made?

I said earlier I didn’t want this to be an “everything was better back then” rant, and I don’t want to end on a “you kids have it easy” rant. I will say that when I was getting back into comics in the mid-1980s, one of the sublime joys of my free time was going through back-issue boxes just to see what I could find. Part of that was reconnecting with old habits and familiar series, but part of it came from the awareness of all that was out there. Indeed, the actual issues themselves carry reminders -- ads, letter columns, etc. -- that this was how people read comics back then; and that can be a powerful experience regardless of when you started reading.

We might be moving away from physical back issues, and we might not be able to archive everything; but we need to be mindful of the importance of those archives, and the need to keep them going. Whether DC realizes it or not, it has set precedents for reminding its readers of its publishing history, and it shouldn’t stop now.

House of X #6 Cover May Introduce a New Home for Marvel's Mutants

More in Comics