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Grumpy Old Fan | Waiting for the fair-trade paperbacks

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Waiting for the fair-trade paperbacks

First off, I must acknowledge a significant omission from last week’s Before Watchmen post. I had forgotten about the agreement under which the rights to Watchmen would revert to its creators if the collected edition were out of print for over one year. Accordingly, I characterized Watchmen as work-for-hire. Because DC has never let Watchmen go out of print, as a practical matter I would argue that it’s been treated like a work-for-hire project. Nevertheless, the existence of that agreement adds another layer to the book’s history, and especially to Moore’s relationship with DC. While I don’t think it changes much of what I said, I still regret the omission.

Now then….

I have mentioned previously my odd relationship with Amazing Spider-Man. I have been reading it in single issues for a while now, and as a serialized superhero comic I like it pretty well. I will probably stop reading the singles at some point, most likely after Dan Slott leaves, because I don’t feel any particular need to follow it regularly (like I do with many DC titles).

However, I am pretty dedicated to catching up on the earlier issues through Marvel Masterworks. This is an expensive way to go, I know, but the Lee/Ditko and Lee/Romita stuff was worth it, and I have always been curious about how the title made its way through the tumultuous late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I’m up to Volume 13 now — haven’t read it yet, but things aren’t looking good for Gwen — and therefore just about to start the next big phase of Spidey’s development. I anticipate adding at least another couple of Masterworks to my bookshelves.

Indeed, I could supplement the Masterworks with various Essential collections of Marvel Team-Up and Peter Parker, which would go a long way towards scratching my ‘70s Marvel itches; but I have a feeling that at some point I will stop getting any more “classic Spider-Man” collections. Whether that point is in the ‘70s or ‘80s, or even in the ‘90s, post-Michelinie/McFarlane, I don’t know; but it’s out there.*

Conversely, last summer I reached the dubious milestone of having read just about every Green Lantern story since the Silver Age. I have an unbroken run of Green Lantern single issues from the 1976 relaunch forward, with Archives, Showcase Presents, and the Green Lantern/Green Arrow reprints taking care of the rest. Back in April 2010 I tried to point out the highlights, and thinking about the series today I realized there are just some stretches which don’t necessarily need collecting.

* * *

We’ll come back to Green Lantern specifically in a bit, but let’s first talk more generally about some of the collections coming in the fall. While I don’t like to encourage DC to market specifically to my demographic — fortyish fans who’ve been reading consistently for thirty-odd years — that list was pretty satisfying. Some eighteen months ago (although it doesn’t seem that long), I talked about a few arcs and/or series I’d like to see collected, maybe, someday; and darned if the new list doesn’t include a few.

In fact, eighteen months ago I was reconciled to enjoying Secret Society of Super-Villains only in single-issue form, and now I’m happy to have a more durable hardcover of the short-lived series’ first half. Similarly, Chase and Firestorm were both on the August 2010 list, and both are now represented by paperbacks. (Firestorm hasn’t yet gotten the complete-series Showcase Presents treatment I envisioned, but it is nice to have the first series and those Flash backups in one place.) Thanks to a revived reprint program, I’ve been catching up on Hitman through its paperbacks, and I’m eager to read what used to be the last Barry Allen story in Showcase Presents The Trial of the Flash.

Furthermore, DC now promises a few more items on my wish list:

— the “Twelve Trials Of Wonder Woman” (which got the Amazing Amazon back in the Justice League following her de-powered Mod phase);

All Star Squadron (in Showcase Presents form);

Amethyst, Princess Of Gemworld (also Showcase Presents); and

Green Lantern: Sector 2814 Volume 1, reprinting the Len Wein/Dave Gibbons stories in which Hal Jordan quit the Corps and John Stewart became a full-time GL. I’m hoping that the follow-up I suggested — Steve Englehart and Joe Staton’s epic tale of Hal’s return, John’s ascendancy, and Guy Gardner’s revival — sees print in a Volume 2.

There’s also Legends of the Dark Knight: Alan Davis, reprinting the artist’s too-brief run with Mike Barr (and quintessential inker Paul Neary) on Detective Comics or the Adventures of Superman: Gil Kane hardcover, which looks like the start of a similar series for classic Superman artists.

Naturally, some outstanding requests remain: Blackhawk by Martin Pasko and Rick Burchett; Steve Englehart’s Justice League of America work (and, for that matter, his and Marshall Rogers’ Mister Miracle); Jason Todd’s early-‘80s introduction from the Gerry Conway/Don Newton/Gene Colan days on Batman and ’Tec; and, as always, ’Mazing Man and the Tom Peyer/Rags Morales Hourman. So yes, here I start off saying please, DC, don’t listen to me, and 400-odd words in, I’m back to making demands.

Again, I am excited for the Wein/Gibbons and Englehart/Staton GLs to be collected because I like those stories, and I’d be happy to have them in a more durable form. However, at some point I feel compelled to ask whether every GL issue is collection-worthy. As far as current comics go, it seems like the vast majority of DC’s output for the past few years has been collected, even if certain titles are no longer in print. Moreover, many of these collections come out almost reflexively, regardless of fan reaction to the original issues. Here I am thinking of things like Bruce Jones’ widely-panned run on Nightwing, Superman: Godfall, Countdown: Arena, and … well, a lot of the Countdown-related stuff was pretty sketchy.

Now, from what I have learned of the comics business, there is no guarantee that anything will be collected. Specifically, I doubt that when Scott McDaniel agreed to draw Countdown: Arena, he knew for sure he could count on at least a trickle of income from paperback royalties. With an ongoing series, especially a decent-selling title like Nightwing, you start to expect collections, because DC knows it can make money selling Nightwing both in singles and in trades.

Problem is, though, what do you do with the runs which just don’t work? Presumably, those who wait for the trade can apply a certain degree of hindsight. In terms of Nightwing writers, folks liked Chuck Dixon, Devin Grayson maybe not so much, Bruce Jones not really at all, and Marv Wolfman and Peter Tomasi probably a little better. Still, was the Bruce Jones stuff really so bad that the Nightwing completist can feel comfortable ignoring it entirely?

Back to Green Lantern now, and specifically to the early ‘80s. In various forms, DC has reprinted all of the Silver Age GL from 1959 through the mid-‘70s. Green Lantern has been fortunate to have relatively-low writer turnover (albeit with a few short-timers) since 1959.** All of John Broome’s issues, and a good chunk of Denny O’Neil’s, have now been collected. It would probably take another couple of Showcase Presents to finish out O’Neil’s run, taking readers into the early ‘80s for a short stint under Marv Wolfman. Not only did Wolfman write one of my favorite GL three-parters (1980’s “Doctor Polaris Conquers the Universe,” issues #133-35), he and artist Joe Staton introduced the Omega Men and set up what was at the time a daring conflict between Hal Jordan’s Earthbound life and his sector-spanning responsibilities. Starting in issue #151, the Guardians exiled Hal into space for a year (comic-book time). The new regular creative team of Len Wein and Dave Gibbons brought him back in January 1984’s issue #172, which as you might have noticed is due to be reprinted in the upcoming Sector 2814 book.

All that is context for my assertion that the “exile” issues really aren’t that great. Because Mike Barr and Keith Pollard were the regular creative team, by and large the stories aren’t terrible; but they don’t take full advantage of the anywhere-but-Earth edict. In the aggregate they’re pretty generic, although I guess they make the point that Hal’s better off when he can go home regularly. From our perspective, perhaps the greater sin is that these stories in and of themselves aren’t critical to understanding the larger Green Lantern mythology. Obviously Denny O’Neil’s run stands as a contrast to John Broome’s work. Later on, Steve Englehart pulled Guy Gardner out of the coma O’Neil put him in, and Gerard Jones ran with the three-GL format Englehart created. Still, despite Barr’s place between Wolfman and Wein, I’d argue it’s sufficient merely to note that Hal was gone for a year, without having to know exactly what he was doing.

Accordingly, nothing especially fuels our need to have those issues collected; but does that mean they should just fade away? Here in the digital age, we can say no! with some confidence.

* * *

Of course, I was planning this post for last week, before Before Watchmen intervened. Since then I’ve been trying to consider my comics-reading habits more carefully. I buy a lot of collections, and honestly sometimes I am more excited about them than I am the monthly issues. (This is especially true for the Marvel collections, since I buy comparatively few Marvel books.) However, I am also mindful of the sausage-making which produced the original comics. I am sure that much of my shelves are populated with the work of creators compensated unfairly, if at all, for their efforts’ continued exposure.

In this respect, Tom Brevoort’s recent assertions — “[t]here’s really not much that goes on in the world of comics that the readers really need to be aware of [and besides] we got along for decades without this level of faux-transparency” — lend the economics of corporate superhero comics an even more ominous cast.

Make no mistake, I am probably a tremendous hypocrite when it comes to balancing social concerns with marketplace realities. I use (and no doubt rely upon) any number of products whose production depends on unsavory or outright deplorable conditions. Those choices boil down to convenience: I do these things because they work for me, even if they don’t reflect my ideal worldview.

That’s especially true when it comes to superhero comics. Although I hate how DC and Marvel have treated any number of creators, chief among them Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Jack Kirby, I still buy Action Comics and Superman and Fantastic Four, and I’ll still see the Avengers movie. I simply can’t give up following these characters, because I learned to love them before I learned the rest. No doubt that makes me a hypocrite, but being hypocritical only undermines me as an advocate. It doesn’t mean I can’t argue for better conditions.

In fact, I’d argue more precisely if I knew just what the conditions were. As Mr. Brevoort said, we comics fans operate under “this level of faux-transparency,” piecing together behind-the-scenes pictures from what peeks through: the John Rozum/Scott McDaniel back-and-forth over Static Shock, Alan Moore’s description of the Watchmen contract, Dwayne McDuffie’s Justice League frustrations, etc. With regard to reprint collections, a retailer friend tells me that the amount of royalty payments depends on the nature of the reprint. Basically, if I understand correctly, black-and-white reprints pay less than color; so a Showcase Presents might be held up if one of the creators involved wants to hold out for a color version.

However, as DC gets more comfortable with the digital realm, that distinction goes away. In fact, since DC’s digital-storage costs are presumably much different from its printing costs, I imagine there is more room for all parties to work out mutually-acceptable financial arrangements. With fan outcry currently inflamed over Before Watchmen and various other lingering incidents, now strikes me as a particularly opportune time for real transparency.  Let us know how much of every reprint dollar goes to royalties, printing costs (or digital storage), marketing, etc.  That way, we can make informed decisions about where to spend our own dollars.

We fans will always want reprints. The comics marketplace gives us a tantalizing range of options. With digital sales, those options can expand exponentially. Before too long, it will be possible — if it isn’t already — for anyone with an e-reader to access any story DC has ever published, whether it’s Detective #27, Showcase #4, or the Barr/Pollard Green Lanterns. Therefore, those stories have a shelf life their original creators might not ever have imagined; and those creators (or their estates) deserve some share of the revenues those stories might generate, whether in print or electronically.

This is all probably a pipe dream, but it’s what’s fair, and it will go a long way towards making sure fans like me continue to buy DC’s reprints.


* [Smart money’s probably on the Clone Saga.]

** [Let’s see how good the ol’ memory is: John Broome, Denny O’Neil, Marv Wolfman, Mike Barr, Len Wein, Steve Englehart, Jim Owsley (in Action Comics Weekly), Peter David (ACW), Priest (ACW), Gerard Jones, Ron Marz, Judd Winick, Ben Raab (forgot his last name), Marz again, and Geoff Johns.]

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