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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.

This is a book that is simply PURE AWESOME.

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.

One of the very few I DON'T have. These are damn hard to track down for less than $20. The 100-page Detectives were my favorites but I loved all of the DC Spectaculars, really.

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…

I passed this up, way back when, because I thought it cost too much. You should see what it goes for NOW.

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

I love these books too, but there's a terrible problem with them... ....reprinted at this size, they're just damn hard to read.

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.

I don't actually own this one, but I would like to. I DO own this one and it's amazing. This book was my introduction to Ted Knight and Wesley Dodds.

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 were terrific comics. Period.

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.

Horror stories were especially well-suited to this kind of packaging.

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

Brave and Bold was an especially tasty treat during this period.

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.

The stuff collected in DC's Tarzan Spectaculars, especially, was a treasure trove.

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.

As always, World's Finest and Brave and Bold were the gonzo entries. But that anything-goes sensibility made the reprint selections amazing, too.

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.

Even the non-super books gave this new format a shot. So to speak.

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.

I didn't usually bother with Lois or Jimmy's books, but I even went for Superman Family. The lure of all those stories in one chunk was irresistible.

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.

Sadly, ALL-NEW!! usually translated to half-limp.

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.)

I loved this book. This one too.

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!

I'm not in this shot, but it gives you a sense of the event.

I'm not in this shot, but it gives you a sense of the event.

And everyone else… see you next week.

16 Comments

Those 100 Page giants were the greatest thing in the history of things, especially the Tarzan.

I wish Marvel and DC would go the old Marvel Tales route and start reprinting their comics from #1. For a dollar.

Tom Fitzpatrick

July 24, 2009 at 2:43 pm

I thought you said this would be “modest”? ;-)

100 pages for 60 cents. sigh. What a bargain!

Nowadays, we get lucky if we get 40 pages for a buck (ie. Vertigo).

I’m not seeing it.

Spider-man Family from last year was a 100 pager (And a Team-Up Books!) that did more-or-less what you suggest here, and it folded without a trace.

Honestly, I think the audience who have a historical interest in the form and the audience that wants the Hot! Comics! Now! are two fairly different things.

I can’t wait until DC and Marvel print all their old comics and send them to me for free.

It’s not going to happen. And anthologies of superhero comics don’t sell.

And if you sell trade paperbacks for $10, there isn’t enough profit to go around.

Also, digest books from DC were great end of the year best of’s. I didn’t read DC book on a regular basis, but I loved to pick up those digests. Comic books were designed to be cheap AND fun back then. Boy, I long for those days…

The only way this works is if the lead is something like BATMAN: RIP that refers to obscure older material.

It might work – if the publisher committed to it for the long-term (i.e. more than a year) AND if it were distributed away from the comic book shops. The format would have to be similar in size to Papercutz’s Bioncles books and Archie’s Sonic archives so booksellers could shelve it by the other children’s/YA graphic novels and librarians could buy it and put it on the shelves. I’d love to see a War comics one, if only because I always have one or two boys every year who go through my entire military section and are always wanting more.

It might work – if the publisher committed to it for the long-term (i.e. more than a year) AND if it were distributed away from the comic book shops.

Yes, exactly. I should have made that clear. It’s not an idea for something for US. It’s an idea for a way to grab the kids who aren’t coming into comic shops. Something you could sell at a Wal-mart, or put in a bookstore.. We have an entire generation of kids now who are habituated to think of comics that look like a manga digest or Shonen Jump. It’s only we fans, the Wednesday faithful, who think of ‘comics’ as 32-page full-color stapled booklets. I assure you my students see those as weird exotic artifacts from another time.

But they are still interested in Batman, the Teen Titans, and Wolverine. I’ve gone on about this at length in other columns before but really, the big two’s habit of designing something amazingly cool and new-reader-friendly and then refusing to put it anywhere new readers actually might be found (Wednesday Comics is just the latest in a long line of those) is an ongoing frustration for those of us that would like to see DC and Marvel try to be something other than fanfic houses for obsessive hobbyists.

They do try — I’ll give them credit for that — they come up with a great new concept and then fumble the last few yards because they’ve only solved half the problem. An attractive sample package is worthless if it’s not distributed anywhere it can be seen except by the readers you already have. Shoving something like that in front of us is idiotic. Then it’s just a nostalgia novelty act. Put it somewhere you might catch the eye of someone that isn’t normally looking at DC or Marvel and you’d have a plan to actually grow your readership.

You’re right, the kids do still love reading about Batman and Superman and Transformers – though it always takes me aback that their exposure to these characters comes from the video games more than the comics, cartoons, or movies. They also love reading old issues of Richie Rich and Muppet Babies and Charleton westerns. (Variety, DC and Marvel! Publish a variety of genres. Please!)

My kids (I’m an elementary librarian) love floppies. They think comic books are something you naturally find in libraries. You certainly don’t find them anywhere else in my area. In reference to your At the Kid’s Table columns, I’ve noticed my kids don’t read the new Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC lines so much. They prefer the 80s Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Transformers. Issues of Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man go out way more than the newer Marvel Adventure books and I think that’s because the older books aren’t so simple. As you said, they made you stretch a bit, but they weren’t so convoluted you couldn’t understand them.

Good point, Penny.

Today, we have the torture-and-rape-filled mainstream superhero universes, then we have the kids’ lines (Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC), which are simple and cartoony and continuity-free, but none of the above would have appealed to me when I was young.

When I was a kid, I knew that comics were for kids and most adults didn’t read them, but I still expected my comics to have a (seemingly) adult level of storytelling sophistication. I didn’t want comics where the writer was dumbing it down or writing at less than their full game. I haaaaaated “Spidey Super Stories”. I loved Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Simonson’s Thor and anything by Roger Stern or Bill Mantlo (and I still do). There’s nothing like that on the stands today. Not in the nasty mainstream superhero comics or the silly kids superhero comics.

Put a simpler way: When I was a kid, comics were made for kids who thought like adults, now comics are made for adults who think like (maladjusted) kids.

Given that the manga stuff I’ve seen is generally digest size, that would seem the way to go – in fact, releasing all comics in digest format on something like a quarterly basis seems like the best idea to me. More pages, and potentially lower cost means more bang for the buck, like the digests and 100-page spectaculars of yore.
I actually don’t agree with your comment that the digests published by DC and Archie (and to a lesser extent by Marvel and other publishers) were/are hard to read. I personally loved reading them, & loved the mass market paperback format, which made them easy to carry around and easy to put on a shelf. In the past few years I shelled out the dough to re-purchase of few of these, and still think it’s winning format, whether in b&w or color.
And yes, they have to be placed where potential new readers will see them – I had never actually entered a comic shop until I was about 13, but discovered the digests years earlier because they were close to the spinner racks, or on the same spinner racks as the crime, horror and SF paperbacks, at places like Payless drugs and Fred Meyer (anyone comics fan who grew up in the Pacific NW knows what I’m talking about…)

@ Matt Bird:

Today, we have the torture-and-rape-filled mainstream superhero universes, then we have the kids’ lines (Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC), which are simple and cartoony and continuity-free, but none of the above would have appealed to me when I was young.

I think Greg is right that comics have a long-run problem that relates to format and distribution. It is just that I am not sure about his solution.

Here is the thing: 32-page stapled pamphlets are a great format for telling stories for children. It is just enough real estate to tell a straight forward adventure story in comic form. They can roll them. They can fold them open on the floor. The pictures are big and colorful.

The problem is that a handful of times there have been a few genuine pieces of literature were serialized in that format. Thus, the illusion was created that 32-page pamphlets were a good format for adult stories. It really isn’t. At best, it is like attempting to read a novel written in a series of haiku.

As a result, the best format for kids is sold down a distribution channel that pretty well assures they won’t see them. The price has greatly outstripped inflation. The stories contained in them are generally inappropriate for them children anyway.

Digests of reprints might not be a bad second choice, if you could package them in an appealing way and get them into Wal-Mart and/or Target. However, I am not really sure that re-printed DC and/or Marvel stories in Manga format will really connect with Manga readers. For one thing, even in Black & White the art of Gil Kane, Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino would not look anything like Manga art.

It is a thorny problem.

On a less weighty note, now I really, really want to read the story “Bow Before Satan’s Children!” shown on the World’s Finest cover. With a title like that, how can you go wrong?

@ Dean

“However, I am not really sure that re-printed DC and/or Marvel stories in Manga format will really connect with Manga readers. For one thing, even in Black & White the art of Gil Kane, Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino would not look anything like Manga art.”

But it doesn’t have to connect with manga readers. The availabilty of manga created a new group of readers/fans true. But not everyone likes manga. I have boys and girls who won’t touch the stuff. Availability of reprint digests of other material could create another new group of readers/fans. I’ve put Cinebook’s LUCKY LUKE and THE BLUECOATS in my library and suddenly I have readers checking them out that never looked at a comic/graphic novel/manga before. And LUKE and BLUECOATS look nothing like manga. It’s getting a VARIETY of material out there in a format kids/libraries can afford in a place where they can find it that I want – and I think that’s what Greg wants too.

I agree digests are a good idea. They should try it. Simply publish “Essential Spider-Man Volume 1″ at digest size with better paper, so that it looks like Naruto. If it sells, do the rest of the Essentials and Showcases. If the first few don’t sell, forget it. What have they got to lose?

I dug the 100 page Marvel “monster” issues they did not too long ago, shortly after the dawn of Quesada’s reign. What was especially neat was how they (usually) tried to match the reprinted material to the new story; so an issue of Avengers that dealt with the lineup of a new team would feature reprints of similar “who will be the next Avenger?” type issues, which got around Greg’s valid point that the greater serialization of Marvel’s back issues make random reprints harder.

Granted, I don’t think resurrecting the idea is a solution to the problems entertained here; I’m just recalling the experiment fondly, and wouldn’t mind seeing it again, purely for my own edification. :)

I definitely think the key to success for any digest-sized manga-esque volumes from DC and Marvel is bookstore penetration. The Barnes and Noble at which I work has six bays of manga digests and four bays of “regular” trades; get some non-manga versions of Spider-Man, Batman or Wolverine, similar in page count to the manga digests, in there to bridge the gap between the two, for manga and non-manga fans alike, and they’d sell.

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