Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
April 17, 2012 -- My review pile is overflowing with books that are part of what has become a huge revenue machine for publishers: reprints. But this tsunami of old comics, some not seen for 70 years, raises a new question: Which are really worth reading?
That wasn’t asked in decades past, because prior to the avalanche of hardcover reprints, not much was available. Fans and pseudo-historians like me were able to buy whatever reprints came out, because there just weren’t that many. And, of course, those few were generally the cream of the crop.
Now, though, one must make choices. Let me help with a few examples:
* Hermes Press is reprinting the material originally published by now-defunct Gold Key in the 1960s and ‘70s that was licensed from television shows. Some of it is vaguely interesting because the shows these comics were based on were pretty good, like Dark Shadows, Land of the Giants, The Time Tunnel and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. But now comes My Favorite Martian: The Complete Series: Volume One ($49.99), mediocre comics based on a mediocre TV show. This series isn’t worth a volume one, much less however many more are planned, unless you’re an MFM completist. If such a thing exists.
I don’t want to kick Hermes, though, because it’s also reprinting The Phantom comics published at various times by Gold Key, King and Charlton in the 1960s and ‘70s, a project long overdue. These comics aren’t the finest ever made, but they never get worse than pretty good. Several artists that later hit the big time started here, like Jim Aparo and Don Newton. And The Phantom is such a seminal character in adventure fiction – the first hero to wear a costume, predating Superman – that I will buy every book, plus the reprints of the comic strip that Hermes is reprinting simultaneously.
* Last week I savaged Showcase Presents: Young Love (DC Comics, $19.99) for romance stories from the early 1960s that are so misogynistic that they affront conscience and so idiotic they insult intelligence. But that doesn’t mean all romance stories are terrible, as evidenced by Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics (Fantagraphics, $29.99).
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the marquee team of the early days of comics, pioneered the romance genre in 1947 with this title, and as you’d expect from the creators of Captain America, Young Romance wasn’t bad. It had its fair share of melodramatic tear-jerkers, and occasional forays into misogyny (stupid women who need a man to teach them how to live), but Simon & Kirby also flirted with social issues like class distinctions and religious conflicts. And they didn’t restrict themselves to small towns or big cities, like most romance stories, finding romance out West or in the Korean War. Young Romance offers 21 of the best of Simon & Kirby’s romance stories, and that’s probably just the right amount.
* I truly appreciate comics historian Blake Bell’s efforts to codify the careers of early comics creators, especially the Steve Ditko Archives (up to Volume 2, waiting for 3). But Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives Volume 1 (Fantagraphics Books, $39.99) was a disappointment. There’s no information in here about the creator of Sub-Mariner that I didn’t already glean from Bell’s 2010 Fire and Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner and the Birth of Marvel Comics (Fantagraphics, $39.99). Which isn’t surprising, since the primary purpose of this book is to reprint rare, old, non-Sub-Mariner stories by Everett. But that is a problem in itself in that A) Everett’s early work is pretty amateurish, and B) excluding Sub-Mariner means excludes the writer/artist’s best early work. Oh, well, maybe Volume 2 will be better.
Finally, I have to mention Sugar and Spike Archives Volume 1 (DC Comics, $49.99). I’ve heard all my life how terrific this 1950s comic book was, which starred two toddlers with their own baby speech adults could not understand, written and drawn by the legendary Shelly Mayer. But, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t make it through this book. It seemed to have only one joke – the Look Who's Talking joke – and the misadventures the kids share are both bland and faintly familiar, as if Mayer was replicating every TV show and movie he’d ever seen.
So there are some warning signs about recent reprints, brought to you by Captain Comics. My motto: “I read the crap so you don’t have to.”
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. My Favorite Martian: The Complete Series: Volume One reprints comics that probably don't deserve the hardback treatment. Copyright Hermes Press.