Friday, March 29, 2013

A look at the Masterworks and Archives

This is part one of a two part blog about Marvel Masterworks, DC Archives and archives from other companies. The second part, coming next week, will be about current pricing and availability.

The Masterworks and archives, from their beginning with Superman Archive #1, have always had a forward from a famous or important contributor. So, for this discussion, I turned to the great Roy Thomas to write the opening introduction to my blog. Roy has written at least 75,000 forwards to the 500 books we are discussing!

 Barry has asked me to write "an introduction to his blog about introductions"--and how can I not comply? The man is a walking, talking treasure trove of archives from the Silver Age of Comics, who in addition has done me a zillion favors for Alter Ego. Besides that, I, like everybody else who knows him, will want to see what he has to say about the intros to the DC Archives and Marvel Masterworks. With his weird turn of mind, there's bound to be an insight or three therein worth pondering. For my own part, I just find myself wishing I could take back each and every one of the intros I've written for Marvel and DC and write them over again, or at least correct the inevitable error that seems to work its wicked way into each one. So Barry... be erudite... be thorough... even be funny... but above all, please be kind!

The first introduction written for an Archive was done by Jim Steranko in Superman Archives #1. Steranko gives a brief but in depth look at this era of comics, discussing the people who drew and published Superman, and how the character will change over time. Steranko comments on the actual reproductions, mentioning where and why they were touched up. At that time, and for a few years to follow, neither Marvel nor DC consistently published a Table of Contents, where they would eventually list the credits.

DC published a Table of Contents, featuring credits, starting with the very first volume of Justice Society reprints from All Star comics (1991). However, the TOC was left out of the first volume of the Legion of Super-Heroes, Superman and Batman archives published the same year. They became a permanent DC feature in 1994.

Marvel’s first Table of Contents, in the early 1990s, did not list credits. Later, by 1993, a separate page of credits were added to all Masterworks. Just a few years later the credits were added to the TOC.

This is important because: It often became the province of the writer of the introduction to place these credits in history. If they didn’t do it, the credits would be lost forever.
Batton Lash writes:

I think closer attention could be paid to correct credits. I've seen some pretty sloppy mistakes when it comes to identifying art styles . . . I urge the staff on the volumes to reach out to fandom and double check for accuracy if in doubt. After all, the collections are for posterity.

Tony Isabella has mentioned that the intros, in his opinion, became too credit-conscious and did not concentrate enough on the stories.

I have seen firsthand how people such as Mike Vassallo and Nick Caputo work hard to identify an artist. Doc V and Nick Caputo spent an entire afternoon tracking down a credit for a story, The Room That didn’t Exist!, in the Strange Tales Masterworks #1, Soon they realized that the opening splash was taken from the cover and the rest of the story was done by a different artist. After they recognized that artist as probably Mike Esposito, they checked and made sure that Esposito was working for Marvel at the time. That is an important point. On the Grand Comic Database, someone erroneously gave a cover inking credit to Wally Wood for Strange Tales #153. Nick not only saw it was NOT Wally Wood, but knew that Wood was NOT working for Marvel at that time.

To draw attention to the book, publishers know Marquee names are important and no name is more marquee than Stan Lee. I am a big fan of his. But his intros were rarely more than two pages, are often more promotion than information. He’ll mention the names of the stories and perhaps the artists, but those now can be found in the table of contents. In his intro to Tales to Astonish Archives #1, he says that the bullpen is fighting over the credits, who did what? Well, there was no real bullpen in the 1960s and there is certainly none now, so who was arguing? Lee asks the readers to submit their opinions. Lee, of course, compliments the artists for each collection, but he says almost the exact same thing for Jack Kirby in the Fantastic Four intro as he does in the Thor. Lee’s intros are fun and interesting, but not detailed or historical.

I was asked to do the five page introduction to Tales of Suspense Masterworks #4. I would have done more, but there was money involved here, and the fee for those five pages was all I could afford to give Marvel. I think this is contrary to a lot of people’s beliefs, but there were no restrictions and only one suggestion: Make it self-contained. That is, I referred to Mike V’s (and Nick Caputo’s) forwards so as not to repeat important information. It was suggested that I just spell it out. That’s it.

Roy Thomas has done countless, (yes, I gave up counting) forwards to both the Marvel and DC archives and now he is doing them for PS Publishing (The Heap, Phantom Lady and others) and my blog!!!!!! Roy is unique in this area; he can approach a volume as a fan who read these stories in the 1950s, an author who wrote them in the 1960s, and as editor who packaged them in the 1970s. As the creator and editor of Alter Ego he can do all three at once!

Roy’s forwards often have different perspectives. Roy will often give a culture background or setting to a volume. He will describe where the industry was at the time and how that title impacted it. I love his early essays for the Golden Age DC comics that don’t mention Marvel and his essays for early Marvel that don’t mention DCs. One of Roy’s first forwards, if not the first, was for DC’s The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told. Roy does not discuss much about the actual stories here , but he presents the business side of the Golden Age and DC’s relationship with All-American Comics. Roy writes about the personalities that put together these stories and even the process of cutting up the original comics to get the artwork for this publication. Roy even mentions the racial stereotyping that was going on. I often think that this became the template for other authors' introductions.

Almost 20 year later, Roy writes an intro to The JSA All-Stars. Here Roy concentrates ONLY on the characters, giving a background to The Atom, Red Tornado, Captain Mid-Nite, Wildcat and Mr Terrific stories republished. After six volumes of Wonder Woman, what more can you say about her? Well, in volume seven Roy talks about the individual stories and gives interesting backgrounds to their creation. He takes us to the Marston Art Studios and we are given great information gathered by Roy and Jerry Bails. Great stuff.

The backgrounds of the stories are often as important as the stories themselves. Dr. Michael Vassallo has done over fifteen intros for Marvel. Along with giving a history of the company and background of the artists, he gave a history of the times. He needed to discuss the Comics Code and how it changed the stories in such comics as Journey into Mystery. Mike needed to tell of the timing of the United States involvement in Korea in the 1950s to show how the comic Battlefield changed. All this in five pages at a time! Mike also had the weirdest experience of anyone I know writing an introduction. A few people on various lists really criticized him for his pointing out how the stories had changed after the Comics Code had been introduced and how the writers had trouble adapting to the code in the beginning. Instead of appreciating his accurate reporting and bringing forward details they never got elsewhere, they blamed Mike for everything from lack of sales to Hurricane Sandy.

Many times celebrities (someone famous but really on the outside of comics) were hired to write the intro. Too often they knew nothing about the stories in the book. Many then just rehash their character’s origin and powers and add nothing new. Some have made a great many technical errors getting dates and credits wrong, and others just do five pages of promotions. One writer admitted not only to having not read the stories but not liking the ones he did read. Universally, the Ronin Ro forward for Marvel’s Daring Comic’s Volume I is often discussed as being the template for the wrong stuff. He not only seemed totally unfamiliar with the stories, it seemed like didn’t particularly like them when he quickly rushed through them. Contrast that to the next introduction for Volume II by Will Murray, who knew the material and took great care and fondness in writing about it.

Will Murray writes:

"When I was assigned to write the introduction to Daring Mystery Volume 2, I looked at Volume 1 to familiarize myself with what had gone before. Seeing what the previous intro writer had done, or should I say, not done, I wrote my piece so that it covered ground he had missed. In that sense, my introduction covers both volumes. Thankfully, my editor, gave me extra space to make it all work out right. 

Famous comic book writer Tony Isabella has referred to this era as the Golden Age of reprints. But now, this era seems to be fading a bit. The costs of Marvel Masterworks, Omnibuses, and DC Archives have been going up and the page counts have generally gone down. DC and Marvel are cutting back and printing one half to one third as many. Many fans have also noticed that there are no second editions to many of these publications. If you missed one, you may not be able to find it, new or used, at a reasonable price.

Here are the inside flaps to Avengers Masterworks Volume 1 (1988) and Daredevil Masterworks Volume I, five years later. Note that the price has gone up $5 but the inside copy was the same for all books.

Originally, in the late 1980s, Masterworks were $30, quickly going up to $35. DC Archives were $40.  There was no on-line shopping then.With Superman Archives Volume 4, in 1997, DC prices  jumped to $50, skipping over $45 and Marvel soon did the same. I was able to get them on line for about $35.  This started a riff between me and my comic book store which would not match Amazon's, or anyone's price. Sadly, that store is gone, as is so many others. But I had a choice, I could pay less and buy more, or buy less and pay more.

Now the Marvels list for $75 for the Golden Age Masterworks and $70 for the Silver Age ones. All DC Archives are now $75 and about $50 on line. Last year, the latest Green Lantern Archive was listed at $60. In 2013, the next Metal Men archive will be $75. This blog will be concerned with only the Omnibuses whose reprints were NOT featured in Masterworks. Originally $100, Omnibuses now list for $125. On line they are now about $75, up from about $65.

I will discuss, next post, some great deals. I did buy three Archives for $7.50 each just last month.

DC usually saves its Omnibus editions for artist’s collections, such as the Jack Kirby Omnibuses and the Steve Ditko ones. Two exceptions have been the Challengers of the Unknown and Green Lantern Omnibuses. DC is more likely to publish sets of comics out of their archive series. These include Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Deadman. DC also has a Giant-Size Absolute series, publishing comics from the 1980s and later. 

There has been a substantial difference in quality in the publishing of these books. Some of the early Marvel Masterworks did not always look right. I remember many people questioning the art in the first Daredevil Masterwork, many thought it looked redrawn and the coloring was off.

 I was very dissatisfied with the printing, and especially the coloring, of the first Golden Age Marvel Comics Masterworks. But, boy has it gotten so much better since. The Marvel Comics Omnibus was terrific and so are the subsequent publications. DC’s Archives have been a bit more consistent, but this does not mean they are better. Marvel scans are sharper. Marvel scans at 600 dpi. DC scans at 400. This lack of detail shows up in the latest Wonder Woman Amazon Princess Archive. 

The exact number will change even as I write this, but so far DC has released about 210 Archives titles. Forty five of them were for comics such as Thunder Agents and The Spirit which were not originally published as DC (or American) comics, so we will be looking at the other 165.

Marvel has published about 190 Archives and 10 (original) Omnibuses with stories from Marvel’s Silver Age.

The Golden Age:

Marvel has published about 30 Golden Age Masterworks.
DC has published about 80. Most DC characters, Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern and the Justice League had their creative roots in the Golden Age.

Marvel’s Non Masterworks reprints of Captain America (1998) left out the filler stories that appeared in the original comics. Those stories are now included in the current Masterworks along with those thrilling and exciting two page text features that we all read thoroughly. 

DC generally only gives the stories of the Archive title characters. So the Action Comics Archives only prints the Superman stories and the Detective Comic Archives only prints Batman stories. The first Superman archives did have wonderful ads and features reproduced but those were eventually dropped. The early 1940s (separate) Superman and Batman stories that appeared in World’s Finest comics are printed in separate volumes, two volumes (so far) for the Superman stories, another two for the Batman ones. Popular fillers, such as the Black Canary and Aquaman are reprinted their own Archives, not in the titles where they originally appeared. Dr. Fate, the star of More Fun Comics, gets an archive that does not even mention More Fun on the cover. The similar Marvel ones do mention their original comics, such as Tales of Suspense.
DC had some archives that didn’t quite fit a defined category. They released DC Comic Rarities which featured World’s Fair Comics (which eventually became World’s Finest) issues I and 2, and The Big All-American Comic Book. An exception for DC, these featured the entire comic as originally printed. It had stories with such varied characters as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder and Mutt and Jeff. DC also included the text features here. Comic Cavalcade was a similar archive featuring stories from the comic of the same name. It also had stories by various heroes: Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Green Lantern, as well as the returning Mutt and Jeff and other comic stars. You even get to see an ad from M.C. Gaines’s Picture Stories from the Bible!

Leading Comics had The Seven Soldiers of Victory which currently are contained in three archives. The Seven Soldiers were a Justice League type group featuring the Green Arrow, Speedy, Crimson Avenger, Star Spangled Kid, and the Shining Knight. These books also feature their individual tales. My favorite of this eclectic bunch is The JSA All-Stars, which  features many of the JSA members in stories from several different comics: Wildcat, Hour Man, Johnny Thunder and many more. This was a fun trip and I learned the origins of many of the supporting characters of  DC’s Golden Age Universe.

 All Star Comics Archives Volume 0 was the last of the 12 volume series and was a bit different.  Volumes 1-11 reprinted the 55 issues of that comic and featured the Justice Society of America (issues 3-57). Volume 0, the last of the archives, reprinted All Star Comics #1 and #2. which featured the non-team (or pre-team) stories starring The Spectre, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Flash and many others. In Roy Thomas' revealing introduction, he points out the anomalies, the odd features of many of these stories.  

While DC has published almost three times as many Golden Age books as Marvel, neither company has reprinted many of the non-super-hero stories of that era. That changes as we get to the 1950s. 

The 1950s:

Marvel has published nearly 30 Archives spanning the entire decade of the 1950s. This included Atlas’s brief attempt at reviving Captain America, Sub-Mariner and The Human Torch in 1954. It also included a volume on Venus and three with Lorna, the Jungle Girl along with one with both the Black Knight and Yellow Claw. Marvel has given us over twenty, wonderful non-super-hero, sci-fi and war anthology stories from the early and mid-1950s. These include Journey Into Mystery, Menace, Battlefield, and Strange Tales. All of them are a great part of comic book history. We get to read the stories that were published just before the comics code and those just after.

DC has done none of this in their archives. House of Mystery, My Greatest Adventure, Strange Adventures, and Mystery in Space are not represented here unless a super-hero, such as Adam Strange, was involved. As for the end of the 1950s, along with Tales of Suspense and the others, Marvel has given us a taste of their westerns with the Rawhide Kid. There have been no western archives from DC. We did however, however, we did get Sugar and Spike from 1956!

For the early and middle fifties DC has only published three The World’s Finest Archives. 1958 and 1959 are represented in a handful of stories that are included in volumes that continue into the 1960s. These include the Challengers of the Unknown, Green Lantern, Sgt. Rock and Supergirl from Action Comics. An exception, of course the first Flash story is from 1956.

But now, the publishing of the Marvel Masterworks for this era and the Golden Age, have virtually stopped, although trade paperbacks are being released.

The Silver Age
While DC has its roots resolutely in the Golden Age, Marvel’s are firmly the 1960s. Marvel has produced about 140 Silver Age archives, including 10 Omnibuses,

DC has done about 80. You might have thought that DC would have more Silver Age reprints; after all, they were the leader in sales for that decade. Superman, was their biggest seller and  has only appeared in three Superman Family archives from the Silver Age. (Man of Tomorrow I & II and Lois Lane.) Batman also has appeared in only two. Because they were not part of their families I wasn’t counting the ten Justice League archives, but you can if you want.

The Wonder Woman archives are very interesting. DC published 7 Wonder Woman archives, covering the entire run of its creator’s, William Marston Mouton’s scripts with H.G. Peter’s art. His last one was in 1945, he died in 1947. The new Wonder Woman series, just beginning, picks up 10 years later, in Wonder Woman, Amazon Princess with Kanigher scripts and art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. Once again, DC ignores its 1950 heritage. DC has hidden all those Alien Batman stories from the 1950s, when the Comics Code ruled the Earth.

Batton Lash: I noticed DC has stripped mined everything on Batman-- except the aliens/monster phase from the late 50's/early 60s! Sure, a lot was awful, but you think the target audience (baby boomers, I assume) would snap them up, as that was our introduction to the character. DC works in very mysterious ways! 

DC now is producing less than half as many archives as they were just a few years ago. I suspect, but I cannot confirm, that DC reduced the run of many of their archives. I found Batman Vol. 7 and Wonder Woman Vol. 5, among others, hard to find and their prices have gone up considerably.
Many of the archives take me on a voyage back to my childhood. The stories, like baseball and ice cream, often seemed better then, but are still fun to read now. The first comic I ever held was Lois Lane #1 and the first comic I ever read was World Finest, The Caveman from Krypton. It’s great to be able to see those once again. I began getting bored with The Legion of Super-Heroes about 1966. Now in reprints, I get bored by those same stories. Sadly now, the DC business plan is most obvious and is pointed out in many forwards: They thought that they only had readers for about five years, so could repeat material at that time. Marvel, in the 1960s, didn’t think that way, in fact, things often got better as time when on. This could also be why, with the exception of the JLA and Legion, DC’s Silver Age Archives do not go beyond their character’s fifth year.

Even, the current Warren reprints, Creepy and Eerie, by Dark Horse, have slowed down. They were originally published at a rate of three or four a year, now they seem to be down to one or two. Dark Horse also reprinted 6 Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery from 2009-2011 but those seemed to have stopped since then. Dark Horse’s Archie Archives seem to be going strong.

The color EC archives by Russ Cochran stopped about two years ago, perhaps a quarter of their way through the line. Dark Horse is now re-printing the EC stories differently, compiling stories by artists, not by the books. PS Publishing is doing fine on its run of Harvey and ACG 1950’s classics, and now has added the Heap and Frankenstein to its ranks. There will always be random reprinting of books. We have gotten Herbie Volumes 1-3, Silver Streak, Nemesis, Doctor Solar, etc.


  1. Wordpress hates me. Here's my 2d attempt to post. Hope I can remember what I said...

    - CAPTAIN Solar?

    - You found Archives online for $5? Lucky you!

    - Masterworks were originally $39.95, and one or two were only $29.95. Shocked when they went up to $49.95 and pretty much stopped buying them.

  2. Hi Grampa!
    Well, Dr. Solar was promoted, but I fixed it. I also added a lot to the section where I mucked up the pricing. It really comes right out of what I was going to do next time, but I should have been more careful.

    Masterworks were originally $29.95 then $34.95. I am holding a Daredevil one from 1991 right now!

    And I did make a mistake: It should have been $50, not $5. But I have bought Archives for $7.50 as late as last month,

  3. As ever, I am in awe of your awesomeness. Nicely done.