The growth of reprints (Dear Captain, CBG #1687, March 2012)

By Andrew A. Smith

Contributing Editor

I’ve written before about the Golden Age of Reprints, and I’m about to do so again — because it’s grown deeper and wider.

And, wouldn’t you know it, a recent arrival squares neatly with this month’s romance theme: Michael Barston’s Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics (Harper Design, $29.99).

Let’s be clear right off the bat: Agonizing Love presents no threat to Michelle Nolan’s Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics (2008, McFarland & Co.). Nolan, a CBG contributor, has set the bar insurmountably high for comprehensive lists and analysis. Racks is the gold standard for historical works on romance comics and is in no danger of losing the crown any time soon.

In fact, Barston admits early in his book, “It would seem there are about 5,500 issues I still need to make any claim to thorough knowledge of this delightful genre.” Which is not to say the book doesn’t have its charms. Barston has a light writing style that occasionally elicits a smile, and his organization is clever. He arranges his reprints in five sections by content: “Bliss,” “Jealousy and Revenge,” “Despair,” “Marriage Hell,” and “Class Struggles.” This arrangement is not only amusing, but it also demonstrates the repetitive nature of these stories, which followed predictable patterns.

That brings me to my own “love confession”: I confess that I remain curious about romance comics, because I still don’t understand them. What was the appeal? Perhaps, if I had been female in the 1950s, it would be obvious, but, lacking that advantage, I can only try to absorb as many of these books as I can in the hopes that I will develop a gestalt of the era, the social mores, and whatever forbidden thrill these books conveyed.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading old romance comics. I do. But not for the reasons they were created; I find the outdated gender roles and overwrought dialogue hilarious (which this book emphasizes). And, of course, I’m interested from a purely historical perspective.

So that’s three reasons for me to read the stories reprinted in this book. If you share them, Agonizing Love might be for you.

Coincidentally, Agonizing Love has a Jack Kirby romance-comic illustration on its cover, which will soon have competition. Fantagraphics is publishing Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics ($29.99), which reprints 21 such stories as selected by animation artist Michael Gagné.

Meanwhile, I’m merrily plowing my way through all the Marvel Masterworks, Marvel Essentials, DC Archives, DC Chronicles, and DC Showcase collections. And I don’t mean Silver Age and Bronze Age stuff.

Oh, I love that material. But, frankly, I already own it in various formats. And, if I didn’t, it can be had cheap, even as back issues of regular-sized comic books (see: Marvel Tales). No, that stuff is dime-a-dozen.

What excites me is the material from the 1940s and 1950s.

When I started collecting comics in the 1960s, back issues from those mysterious decades were already out of my price range and, of course, are even more pricey today. So it’s been a decades-long dream of mine to read that material someday, and, lo, the Big Two have answered my prayers.

DC has already finished reprinting all of the Doctor Fate and Justice Society stories from the 1940s, although I haven’t seen many other Golden Age collections lately. I won’t mind too much as long as they continue archiving Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, which they are (slowly). Meanwhile, Marvel just finished the All-Winners run (with volume 4) and is plugging away on other Golden Age titles, from the major (Marvel Mystery Comics, Captain America) to the minor (Young Allies, U.S.A. Comics).

DC is hit and miss when it comes to 1950s comics, and I’ve snatched up what it’s offered: Mad Archives, Atomic Knights, Viking Prince, some Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen here and there.

But Marvel is going great guns. As you’d expect, it’s archiving titles that lasted into the Silver Age as fast as it can, with Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish all nearing the end of their pre-super-hero runs. To my delight, Marvel has also reprinted the entire 1950s runs of Captain America, Black Knight, Human Torch, Marvel Boy, Sub-Mariner, and Yellow Claw, plus the complete Amazing Adult Fantasy and Menace. It’s already begun experimenting with war books, Westerns, jungle titles, and the impossible-to-pigeonhole Venus, which it can’t reprint fast enough to suit me.

Meanwhile, publishers without 70-year histories are finding ways to cash in on the reprint boom.

One of the biggest players is Dark Horse, which has cut deals with companies that were around decades ago and is aggressively reprinting their best stuff. DH has already collected complete runs of Gold Key’s Dr. Solar, Magnus, and Mighty Samson; Sparks’ Green Lama; Dell’s Brain Boy; and ACG’s Herbie, Magicman (from Forbidden Worlds), and Nemesis (Adventures into the Unknown).

And it’s banging away on Gold Key’s Brothers of the Spear, Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, Dagar the Invincible, Doctor Spektor, and Space Family Robinson, plus Dell’s Tarzan and Turok, Son of Stone. It’s also grinding away on Warren’s Creepy and Eerie (Dynamite is doing Vampirella), everybody’s Flash Gordon, plus the amazing Archie Archives, reprinting all of the Riverdale gang’s adventures chronologically. And, as if that weren’t enough, the Crime Does Not Pay Archives begins in April!

IDW and comics historian Craig Yoe have combined to collect the work of early horror artists; so far, they’ve done Dick Briefer and Bob Powell, with Basil Wolverton in the works. Dynamite has collected the first six issues of the Golden Age Green Hornet. Hermes Press seems to have snagged a chunk of Gold Key’s licensed TV adventure series, reprinting that publisher’s runs of Dark Shadows, Land of the Giants, My Favorite Martian, Time Tunnel, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Fantagraphics deserves its own paragraph, just to highlight the favor it’s doing us all: The Carl Barks Library, which began a few months ago with Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes.” It’s also reprinting Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse work. And it’s putting together collections of artists rather than titles, with Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth 1952-54, and Blake Bell’s Steve Ditko and Bill Everett archives.

You’ll note that only occasionally have I cluttered this list with an opinion. You can tell I’m thrilled with the Archie Archives, for example, and grateful for the Carl Barks Library. But a lot of this material I don’t have much to say about because … well, it’s awful.

That may seem like an odd thing to say when I’m devoting an entire column to the subject. Especially when I’ve admitted I’m buying all these things.

But a lot of 1940s material is just plain old drek (I’m looking at you, Daring Mystery). A lot of post-Code 1950s material is just now being reprinted because it wasn’t any good the first time around, and time has done it no favors. Even some 1960s material, such as the first volumes of Dark Shadows and Space Family Robinson, are almost unreadable.

However, I accept that as the price for gaining a comprehensive understanding of our little hobby. It’s fascinating to understand, for example, that at the same time Mac Raboy was setting new standards with Green Lama, U.S.A. Comics was setting new lows. It’s eye-opening to see all the places Jack Kirby showed up (and how much better he was than his contemporaries). It’s engrossing to see how an artist like Syd Shores goes from Captain America in the 1940s to … well, Captain America in the 1960s.

Seriously, even the worst material is educational to some degree. It’s all part of our heritage, and I accept that the bad comes with the good and is instructive in its own way. So I spend a lot of money embracing good and bad both.

I also spend a lot of money on the flood of comic-strip collections, which — for the most part — need no apologies. I don’t have room to list them all, but here are my favorites:

Forever Nuts: This series from NBM Publishing has produced three hardbacks reprinting the earliest Mutt & Jeff, Happy Hooligan, and Bringing up Father. I enjoyed them all, for historical reasons if nothing else, but Bringing up Father was a revelation. For a strip with one central joke — Maggie beaning Jiggs with a rolling pin — George McManus kept the strip fresh and exciting day after day. And the art! While Jiggs remained a cartoon, McManus’ women were drawn in photo-realistic style and beautifully modeled the elaborate fashions of the time. All of this took place in a meticulously rendered Art Deco milieu that is a joy to behold.

Blondie: I’ve never taken a survey but I imagine not many people are aware that the long-running Blondie strip had Roaring ’20s origins. In the beginning, Dagwood was from a filthy-rich family, with a robber baron for a father, while Blondie was from a poor family and dressed in flapper fashions. The crux of the strip was the efforts by Dagwood’s snooty parents to prevent him marrying Blondie, whom they regarded as blue-collar trash. This is all covered in the first volume of IDW’s collection of the strip, Blondie: The Courtship and Wedding: 1930 to 1933, which ends (as the title indicates) with the nuptials. This also results in Mr. Bumstead — who’s a dead ringer for J.C. Dithers, who would come along years later — cutting his son off from the family fortune, forcing Dagwood to seek employment for the first time in his lazy life. I’m looking forward to more surprises in volume two this month, which promises (in the subtitle) From Honeymoon to Diapers & Dogs.

The Phantom: Like Captain Easy (which Fantagraphics is reprinting in beautiful, oversize collections), the early Phantom strips are charming — they’re sort of a cross between a screwball comedy and movie serials. In fact, the tone is that of gleeful, barely controlled chaos, a feeling the Indiana Jones movies captured so well. Captain Easy is only up to volume two — I suspect sales haven’t been good — and I fervently hope it will continue. Meanwhile, collected editions of The Phantom dailies are up to volume four as of this month, with the first collection of Sundays coming in February. And if, like me, your introduction to The Ghost Who Walks was comic books, fear not: Hermes has scheduled hardcover collections of Phantom comic books originally published by Gold Key, King, and Charlton, all in the 2012 pipeline.

Peanuts: Fantagraphics has been doing a beautiful job reprinting Charles Schulz’ masterpiece in chronological order — and will be for some time to come. It publishes two books a year, which you can buy singly or wait a bit and get them both in a slipcase. The series is up to the early 1980s, so the strip is at its peak, with popular but latecomer characters like Woodstock and Peppermint Patty already regulars. Do I really need to tell you how good this is?

Flash Gordon: This series has never been neglected; currently, the Alex Raymond daily strips are available from both Checker and Kitchen Sink. But the Sundays haven’t been reprinted as often and never in their original size — until now. IDW has begun a four-book series reprinting both Flash Gordon and its companion strip Jungle Jim in full newspaper broadsheet size. I’ve received the first, and it’s spectacular. Titan Books is also beginning a reprint series of Sunday Gordon strips in 2012, but it’s hard to imagine how it can top IDW.

Prince Valiant: When Fantagraphics began publishing the famous Hal Foster strip in a series of trade paperbacks in the 1980s, I bought them all. It’s a testament to how good Fantagraphics’ new collection of that material is — it’s oversize and hardback — that I’m buying it again.

Mandrake the Magician: There have been occasional reprints of portions of Lee Falk’s second-most-famous strip now and then over the years. Points to Titan Books for beginning a series of collections for modern readers, starting in July.

After all the above, is there any wonder why I call this the Golden Age of Reprints?

Believe me, it wasn’t always like this. Decent collections were hard to come by until the Archives and Masterworks series kicked off the current glut and were virtually non-existent in the Silver Age.

What changed? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I’d guess a confluence of events, including the availability of cheap printing, Baby Boomers recapturing their youth, and publishers looking for new revenue streams.

Regardless, we live in a time when there’s a market for a Brain Boy archive. And how can that be a bad thing?

Andrew “Captain Comics” Smith has been writing professionally about comics since 1992 — and for Comics Buyer’s Guide since 2000. He can be reached at capncomics@aol.com or on his message board, http://captaincomics.ning.com.

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