The notion that we rely on independent companies to save comic history is something that crept inside my head at some point last week, and refuses to leave. It’s an idea that I wrestle with — almost literally, one that I want to try and defeat, just throw to the ground and finally deal with once and for all — a lot, and yet no matter how much I want to say “No, that’s stupid!” it returns, whenever I turn my back, tapping me on the shoulder and saying “Well, actually …”
What brought it to mind was the notion of Fantagraphics repackaging and republishing Dave Sim’s Cerebus, as offered by the publisher’s Kim Thompson and more or less rebuffed by a playful Sim. The offer got me thinking about the way in which we’ve come to rely on Fantagraphics — and also IDW Publishing, and to a lesser extent, Dark Horse — to keep classics in print and ensure that we have some idea of what went before, say, 10 years ago for years to come. The problem with independent publishers, of course — especially independent comic publishers, which pretty much translates into “small press” in a lot of ways — is that, when they go out of business/give up/cease to exist for whatever reason, so do the books that they published. There is a truly embarrassing amount of amazing comics that have fallen out of print and out of memory because of this circumstance, and it should be a source of shame for the industry that that’s the case – except, of course, it’s not something that most people think about too much, if at all.
And so, when Fantagraphics, IDW or Dark Horse create archive editions or hardcover collections or whatever kind of painstakingly reproduced, beautifully designed, lovingly compiled editions bringing classic strips, characters, creators and comics back into print — usually with some kind of additional material to put it into something resembling its proper historical context — it feels like something wonderful, even if it’s not something that I actually want to read. It feels like a rescue mission, something worthy just by its very existence; a service to comics and comic history itself. Because, if they don’t try and keep this stuff around, who would?
(That isn’t to say that other publishers don’t publish old material; every month, as I look through Previews, the ads for Hermes Press always catch my eye and I feel happy that they exist, even if I’ve never seen their books in an actual store anywhere. Drawn & Quarterly does a similar curated approach for international comics history, as do manga publishers like Viz and Vertical. Dynamite, too, tends to republish work on licensed characters that predated its own run, where applicable, and on that end, I’d highly recommend people pick up the first issue of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt just to see the Pete Morisi story it has in the back. But, still; when I think archival projects, it’s pretty much one of those three that I think of, for some reason.)
For a while, we could count on DC Comics to provide some form of this — think of its work with the Will Eisner library — but these days, they too seem more interested in the recent past than anything with true historical value, and Marvel …? Well, Marvel’s sense of history and ability to keep books in print has long been a confusing and impossible to read thing, even before Disney and Ike Perlmutter made things even more unpredictable. Which is a shame; both of those companies have more resources for this kind of thing, as well as more reach to enable people to discover the work. And yet, the interest just isn’t there unless there’s IP to exploit. You can’t really blame either publishe: They’re businesses, after all, and not dedicated to uphold the history of the medium and industry that put them where they are today, as much as we (I) may wish otherwise.
Of course, the same is true of Fanta, IDW and Dark Horse. And, yet, there are those beautiful Artists’ Editions. There are the EC hardcovers. There are the Gold Key Archives, or the Nexus Archives, or the Peanuts collections, or or or … You get the picture. That Dave Sim didn’t say yes to allowing Fantagraphics to republish Cerebus wasn’t really a surprise, but my favorite part of the whole story is that, honestly? That Kim Thompson asked anyway wasn’t that much of a surprise, either. More power to that attitude.
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