Tag Archives: comics

Collecting Collections, Continued

While we’re on the subject of comics collections, a reader e-mailed to ask me if I prefer reading stories in their collected format, as opposed to their original, off-the-rack comic form.

I’ve got an answer, but let me declare some caveats first.

I like being able to pick up trade paperback collections of complete stories — particularly of titles I’ve never read — not only because it’s easier than tracking down the back issues needed to compile, say, issues 45 to 54 of Super Grim and Morose Guy, but it’s also cheaper. I like the ease of having everything in one compact, bound book, and being able to tuck it into a briefcase, where I can read it on the Metro or an airplane and lie about it being mine.

As for titles I already read and collect — like Sandman — I like being able to read and re-read the stories, or even loan the collection to others, safe in the knowledge that my original issues remain in Overstreet Price Guide Near Mint condition. Not because I want to sell them, but because . . . well, I just like them in nice condition.

But when it comes right down to it, I’m a purist. As much as I like glossy trade paperback or hardback collections, I still prefer comics in their clumsily beautiful, easily damaged, and thus completely perfect comic book format.

I think part of it lies in the fact that, to me, comics are historical documents (they are, after all, technically periodicals). There’s a strangely satisfying tactile pleasure in holding an issue in your hands, looking at the glossy cover (and the price! While I never lived in the golden age when comics were a dime, I do remember when they were forty cents!), and smelling the pulp paper and ink. Each issue is a snapshot of the moment in time when it was published — something lost in the translation over to a more timeless trade paperback.

While advertisements are usually annoying, they do provide an almost twisted historical sense to the reading experience, blaring in all their retro glory about Ataris and Super Nintendos, Dingo boots and fruit-flavored drinks, and Saturday morning cartoons. And on the creative side of things, I like seeing how the writers — who knew in advance where the full-page ads would be placed — sometimes work the page break into the rhythm of the story, providing a beat just before a major epiphany or plot advancement.

A trade paperback is also missing an important part of the personality of the original comic: the letters columns. Sandman, for example, was home to one of the most annoyingly pretentious lettercols in comics history; yet it’s still fascinating — especially with hindsight — to watch readers debate who the prodigal member of the Endless might be, submit bizarre haikus about cats, and speculate on who might die in the closing pages of the final story arc. Lettercols provide readers with a sense of community that’s missing from the trade paperback collection — and while their absence from the trade paperback is understandable, it’s still regrettable.

And finally, there was always something exciting in reaching that final page and landing on a cliffhanger that would carry you into the next issue. I remember reading each issue of Alan Moore’s Watchmen as they were published in the late 1980s, poring over every panel, reading and re-reading every issue until the next one arrived — and each one was usually late, so it took about 16 months for all 12 issues to be published.

But that anticipation was part of what made the reading experience so memorable. When I reached the end of issue 7 — where Dan Drieberg says “I think we should spring Rorschach.” — I couldn’t just turn the page and read the next chapter; I had to wait weeks. That’s an experience I can’t have with the trade paperback.

That said, I’ll still continue to read trade paperbacks and other collections. But I still can’t help feeling I’m missing something.

Collecting Collections

I just finished reading the first gorgeous volume of Neil Gaiman’s Absolute Sandman, and got to thinking about my collector’s mentality. I bought every issue of Sandman right off the comics rack in the 1980s and 1990s. I also purchased each of the paperback reprints as they appeared (including the boxed set of the first three) and I’ve been buying the Absolute editions as soon as they’ve been published. That means I’ve got three versions of the same story, in three different formats.

Why? What compels me, and others, to keep shelling out for new versions of stories we already own?

Here was my mentality, at least, going into it (and this is my version of events, mind you — my wife may differ): when the paperbacks came out, I purchased them to have them on hand for those times when I wanted to re-read the stories, but didn’t want to put the wear-and-tear on the original comics because, y’know, you don’t want to ruin your comics from frequent re-reading.

And stuff.

*wrings hands*

Anyway, that’s all very well, then, so why purchase the Absolute editions? Well, because each volume has all sorts of New and Improved Great Stuff in it, like Gaiman’s original pitch to DC Comics (see? Even Neil Gaiman had to pitch an editor!), and copies of some of his scripts and rough pencils from great stories like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Plus, the books themselves are just plain nice, with black leather covers, cloth bookmarks, and shiny slipcases. It’s the sort of book that a bibliophile just has to touch, turn over, weigh in the hands, and, yes, read. You can’t help it.

I know. That’s exactly the mentality that the Powers That Be at DC are hoping for. “We’ll dangle just enough new stuff in front of you,” they cackle as they count their shekels, “that you’ll keep right on buying different editions of the same thing!” You laugh, but be honest: how many times have you bought a favorite DVD multiple times, just because the studio released the first version in 2002, then a remastered letterboxed version in 2004, and finally a special 2-disc “Anniversary Edition!” in 2007?

Still, I’ve made some progress lately in shaking my Collector Mentality. For the first time ever, I gave away the original paperback reprints, shipping them off to my brother in Montana.

Er, except for the boxed set of the first three. Because you can’t go completely cold turkey, you know.

Jack Kamen (1920-2008)

EC Comics artist Jack Kamen — best known for his horror stories featuring saucy, plotting women and wide-eyed “widdle kids” — died this week of cancer. He was 88 years old.

Like all EC artists, Kamen’s style was one-of-a-kind. But where artists like Jack Davis or Graham Ingels made everything look heavy and inky and creepy, Kamen — due to his pre-EC background in romance comics — had a pin-up style that gave everything an air of veracity that made it seem just realistic enough — provided, of course, that you lived in a world where everyone was handsome, beautiful, and smoked cigarettes with a cool charm. No one could make wives casually planning their husbands’ gruesome deaths look so beautiful (see above), or make nebbishes plotting revenge quite so nerdily angry. As EC editor Al Feldstein once put it, “We gave Kamen those stories where the All-American girl and guy are married, and then chop each other to pieces.”

Due to his non-shocking style, EC readers usually ranked his stories near the bottom of each issue (he was regularly shoved aside in favor of the more graphically gory Ingels story, or Davis’ comic relief), but no one could ever argue that his work wasn’t first rate. And after EC, Kamen had a long career in commercial art.

What you may not know about Kamen, however, is that his legacy extends beyond the comics page. His son, Dean, is the entrepreneur and inventor who brought us the Segway and iBot mobility system. I had the pleasure of meeting Dean about ten years ago at the FIRST robotics competition down at EPCOT*, and after I congratulated him on the iBot (which he had only recently unveiled), I mentioned to him that I was a fan of his father’s work. There was a slight flicker of delighted surprise, then he smiled, shook my hand warmly, and told me how proud he was to have Jack as his dad.

Condolences to Jack Kamen’s family and friends. We’ll miss him too, folks.

* No, I didn’t have a robot in the competition — I was there as a representative of the Arizona State Department of Education to root on four crafty teams from Arizona high schools.


Looks like it’s Batman Week here at Literary Conceits, as we dip into the mailbag for a question from Rich in Ocala, Florida:

“Found your page through your review of the Ten Cent Plague, and I really liked your recent posts about Batman. As a fellow comics nerd, I’ve gotta ask: What do you collect, and how big is your collection? Any particular favorite Batman writers, artists, or stories? Always glad to read a fellow Batfan. Keep up the good work!”

Thanks, Rich. Let me see if I can cover all your questions:

The bulk of my Batman collection consists mainly of three titles: Batman, Detective Comics, and the first incarnation of Brave and the Bold. My Batman run is probably my most impressive, as I’ve got a straight run from issue #120 (December 1958) to #555 (June 1998), with a good number of issues from the 1940s and early 1950s, including this gem from 1957, featuring Batman Jones, who is not me:

My Detective run covers much the same period, though with a few gaps early in the run. As for Brave and the Bold, I was only interested in it once it became the regular Batman team-up book at issue #75 (October 1967). You had to love B&B — only there could you see such bizarre team-ups like this classic from March 1974:

As far as favorite Batman writers, artists, and stories, I’ve always been a sucker for the art of Jim Aparo, who did nearly every issue of Brave and the Bold (as well as most Batman covers in the late 1970s/early 1980s) and for the stories penned by Steve Englehart for Detective Comics in 1977-78. When I wrote for a Batman fanzine back in the late 1980s, I actually had the chance to interview Steve Englehart, and he was still pretty proud of his run on Detective Comics (though even a decade later, he was still annoyed that writer Gerry Conway had brought back the character of Hugo Strange after he had done a thorough job of killing him off).

What’s that you say? Geek check?

Oooh, busted.

First Books: Limited Collector’s Edition C-37 (1975)

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight — which broke all kinds of records this weekend — I wanted to share with you My First Batman Comic.

I first became a Batman fan not because of the comic books or the TV show (which was off the air before I was a year old), but rather because of the Super Friends cartoon, which premiered on ABC when I was six years old. It may have featured a somewhat emasculated version of the Dark Knight Detective (Hey criminals! Wanna make Batman cower? Take away his utility belt!), but, hey, it was still Batman. He was super cool, and I was completely smitten. My life as a fanboy had begun.

But I didn’t actually have any Batman comics until this one — with the clunky official title of Limited Collector’s Edition, Vol. 4, No. C-37 — which my mom ordered through the mail for my brother and me in 1975. Back in the early- and mid-1970s, DC was publishing collections of Golden Age comics in oversize editions, including reprints of the first appearances of Batman and the Flash, which still confound some rookie collectors to this day. This particular issue — under a terrific Jim Aparo cover — was touted as the Batman Special All-Villain Issue!

Needless to say, I read this thing until the cover fell off of it.

The first story, “The Cross Country Crimes!” (a reprint of Batman #8 from 1941) pits Batman and Robin against the Joker, who leads the Dynamic Duo on a murderous chase across the United States. It contained a great hook (the Joker is actually using the first letter of each state he visits to spell out his name), some scary Joker moments (Joker forces a jeweler’s bus off a cliff), and a thrilling fight in a swaying cable car. And check out this great splash of the Clown Price of Crime (complete with that iconic 1940s Batmobile at the bottom):

Next, the Penguin gets his shot at the Dynamic Duo in “The Blackbird of Banditry,” a 1947 story from Batman #43 in which Penguin declares he will “use fictional birds you’ve read about in books … and commit real crimes!” Penguin manages to stay one step ahead of Batman, and at one point even gets the drop on the Dynamic Duo by puffing on a pipe full of popcorn, which explodes into Batman’s unsuspecting face. Then, displaying a mentality that could only belong to a comic book villain, he chains the captured Robin to a wall (with a tightly drawn bow-and-arrow pointed directly at the Boy Wonder’s heart), locks Batman in a nearby cage, and (wait for it) . . . leaves to allow Batman watch Robin face an almost certain Death by Clever Trap.

Naturally, Batman uses a discarded umbrella to make a bow and arrow of his own, and as the Penguin’s arrow screams toward Robin, Batman intercepts it by firing an umbrella handle-arrow into its path — a drawing that always baffled my eight-year-old brain, as it looked to me like Batman had fired a pickle to block the Penguin’s arrow:

But maybe that was just me.

Anyway, Batman eventually nabs the Penguin, and can’t resist taunting him in his jail cell by reminding him of another famous fictional bird. “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!” Batman guffaws. Hilarity ensues.

The last three stories in the issue featured Two-Face (who meets his demise via accidental hanging at a drive-in movie theater, an image that horrified me), the Scarecrow (captured by an old vaudeville trick in which he’s smacked on the fanny by a see-saw), and Catwoman (who models her crimes on famous women criminals like . . . er, well, the wicked queen from Snow White). And if all that weren’t enough, there was even a four-page spread featuring a map of the Batcave (circa 1968) and diagrams of Batman’s equipment, including this sneak-peek at the contents of his and Robin’s utility belts:

I stared at those pages forever, trying to figure out how Batman could get those smoke capsules out of his belt so quickly, or how that laser torch really worked. When you’re eight years old, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Come to think of it, it still doesn’t.


I don’t know how I missed this when it happened in real time, but I just learned the Library of Congress recently acquired — from an anonymous donor — the original pages from Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man.

The Library’s press release is here, and there’s an official LOC blog entry on it here. I gotta admit to getting a chuckle out the blogger’s surprise at the “excessively exclamatory” remarks kicking off the first Spider-Man story, though. That sort of stuff is only par for the course for Stan Lee.

Speaking of . . . Stan Lee is one of the true innovators in comics, and remains Marvel’s greatest cheerleader and promoter. However, Spider-Man wouldn’t have been Spider-Man without the glorious pencils and inks of artist Steve Ditko. Click on the pic above to open the larger image — which includes the first time Peter Parker ever donned the familiar red and blue suit — and be dazzled. Great stuff.

Kudos to the Library of Congress, and to the anonymous donor, for preserving this extraordinary piece of American culture.

Reviews in Brief: The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu

I think I brought too much to the table for this one.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Hajdu’s book, because I did—I liked it quite a lot. The problem, at least for The Comic Nerd in me, is that there was very little in it that was unfamiliar.

However, for most readers, the material in this book will be new territory—and that’s what makes a book like this worthwhile. The story of the great comic book debacle of the 1950s—with its colorful cast of characters and a story that’s so far out it would seem ludicrous if it weren’t true—is one that deserves to be told, and Hajdu tells it elegantly. While comics-related journals and magazines have been telling these stories for decades—it’s the comics community’s very own Vietnam—there have been very few publicly-accessible books written about it (most are written by comics fans, for comics fans). So it’s nice to have the story dressed up so nicely for its first appearance before a mainstream audience.

My problem, though, was that my expectations were too high—and that’s my fault, not Hajdu’s. I kept waiting for a deep-drill analysis, but Hajdu was too busy running out his characters and telling their stories. And rightly so, because what stories they are.

At the dramatic core of the Plague lies the conflict between upstart comics company EC Comics (with its unconventional publisher, Bill Gaines) and the United States government. Waving the banner of Saving The Children—and armed with the psychobabble of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent—an aggressive Senate subcommittee goes looking for a scapegoat for the alleged rise in juvenile delinquency, and trains its fire on the enormously successful comic book industry.

An annoyed Gaines eventually rises to the bait and, against the advice of colleagues, makes an ill-advised appearance in front of the subcommittee. Trying his best to defend horror comics, free speech, and the subjective boundaries of “good taste”—and coming down off of a Dexedrine-induced fog—Gaines implodes on the stand, providing the do-gooders with the villain they need. Defeated, the comic industry bows to a self-imposed (and completely lame) code of good taste, consigning itself to a long creative and commercial decline from which it would take nearly forty years to recover.

Hajdu chooses to focus mainly on the assault on crime and horror comics, but there are times when I wished he would have focused a bit more on the attacks directed at superheroes as well. Dr. Wertham was at his most annoying—and creepiest—when looking for perversity and hidden agendas in superhero comics (Batman shares a cave with a young boy! Wonder Woman might be a lesbian! Superman is a fascist!). Hajdu touches briefly on a few of these charges, but it would have been fascinating to learn how such ludicrous claims were being received at National (DC) Comics at the time.

Finally, Hajdu never really seems to deliver the goods he promises in the second part of his subtitle: How It Changed America. There is some discussion of the fallout from the controversy—and Hajdu includes in his appendix a fascinating list of hundreds of comics writers and artists who never worked in comics again after the implosion—but Hajdu never gets much further than describing some changes in the distribution system for magazines and the lingering presence of the comics code. Instead, he argues persuasively that comics were really just the next big boogeyman for the Establishment to wring its hands about until television and rock and roll replaced it.

Still, I enjoyed The Ten-Cent Plague very much. Hard-core comics enthusiasts may not find much that’s new, but that’s okay—this book isn’t written for us. And there’s something to be said for having such an important story told so well. Hajdu does his topic justice, writing with a journalistic verve that gives even Charles Biro’s gloriously trashy injury-to-the-eye-motif-laden comics a proper tragic heft.

Four stars (out of five).

Hey Kids! Comics!

The Washington Post Book World has interesting (albeit short) reviews of Mark Evanier‘s Kirby: King of Comics and David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. You can go see the Post article here.

I’ve been a fan of Mark Evanier’s for years, though I’ve not yet ordered his Kirby bio — I plan to, though I was sorta trying to hold out for the 250,000 word tour-de-force he says he’s writing. But I’ve had Hajdu’s book pre-ordered for ages. While comics have finally regained their mainstream acceptance and “cool” (even as sales sag), comics fans have still never properly recovered from the smear of Dr. Wertham and his Seduction of the Innocent. Hadju’s book is one of the first ‘mainstream’ books aimed squarely at the issue, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’m hoping it lives up to my admittedly high expectations of it.

Hajdu’s book couldn’t come at a better time for me, in fact, because I’ve been in an E.C. Comics state of mind. I’m still making my way through volume 1 of The Complete Vault of Horror, from Russ Cochran’s gorgeous boxed sets sold in the late 1980s. I read them all twenty years ago, and only recently decided to slowly make my way through them again. I’ll get back to you with a full report on them later. Good Lord! *choke!*