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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:



Huh. I guess everyone shares my opinion about THE BLACK DOSSIER. Didn’t see that one coming.

And before the meat of this week’s entry, let me relate to you a dream that I had last night. I was reading a gigantic tome last night, a MARVEL ESSENTIALS volume as thick as a phone book. Only it wasn’t a MARVEL ESSENTIALS, it was a kind of history of an alternate-universe Marvel comics written and narrated by a cartoon Tom Spurgeon (who I’m sure will be squirming in his chair should he read this column, which I hear he sometimes does). And in this alternate universe, Marvel superheroes didn’t take off as such. They were all there, of course, but it was all played up as wild and crazy science fiction or horror or what-have-you. Tom was happily connecting the dots, giving the reader a history of this little-known comics publisher of the 60s-70s, before they folded in the 80s, due to the changing market.

Most of these comics had been lost to the ages, overlooked gems of insanity. To wit, Tom closed the book with a complete reprinting of the Magus (as in the Adam Warlock purple-afro-badguy)/Iron Fist team-up that ran in MARVEL ADVENTURES ANNUAL #13 and crossed over into MAVEL TEAM-UP, IRON FIST and THE MANTIS (not The Magus, as you might expect). The sequence I remember most clearly was written by journeyman Chris Claremont (lettered by Tom Orzechowski), with artwork clearly by George Perez and Bob Layton. But there was some crazy ultra-formalist stuff going on that led me to believe that the layouts were done by an uncredited Steve Ditko or perhaps even Steve Bissette. The Magus and The Mantis were trying to save the Multiverse from a Vampire Iron Fist (turned by Count Morbius, evidently) and the Daughters of the Dragon (not vampires, but somehow in thrall to the pasty Danny Rand.) I’m pretty sure that Iron Fist punched Thanos right through one of the rings of Saturn, maybe even all of them, in the course of this. There was wild spatial/temporal distortion as The Magus was forced to confront The Warlock lurking in the recesses of his brain and it was revealed that the Daughters of the Dragon were faking mental slavery the whole time (and not above using their feminine wiles on an elemental-styled Wrecking Crew who were working for Thanos.) The back cover of the fabulously-rare collection had Danny Rand in his Iron Mask and fangs, drinking from a goblet filled with ruby goodness, pointing at the reader and saying “Salud!” Really. I can’t make this stuff up. Or did I just?

Of course, this means I’m just old. Since I can remember a time when this sort of thing might have happened in comics.

I have become sort of the climax predator of the comics world. I mean, I’m clearly not the average comics fan. I’ll look at a fifty dollar collection of say FANTASTIC FOUR and say “Yeah, I could get that.” What’s more, I *want* to get that. I’ve been looking for it at places where I have trade credit to burn up. Mostly places like Borders, since giving me a Borders card is a pretty safe bet (and I’m impossible to shop for otherwise, since most of my family don’t live within driving distance of a Comic Relief or an Isotope or even an A-1 Comics or an Empire’s Comics Vault. Nor would they know what to get for me unless I wrote it out specifically. Tom’s gift guide notwithstanding.)

I suppose I could have blown the credit on an ABSOLUTE SANDMAN volume, but I still have the original floppies. And the original hardcovers, put out as DC realized that they could indeed put out hardcover collections of a current book and make some good money off of it. SANDMAN was really a turning point in that regard. Before that, if you wanted hardcovers, you could cough up real money for the various archives (though, actually, I don’t think those happened until after other hardcovers appeared.) So yeah, I was one of those crazies who lined up and dropped THIRTY DOLLARS on the SANDMAN hardcover, SEASON OF MISTS was the first as memory serves. You know, the one with the faux leather cover and beautiful production values (even if the paper was a bit flimsy). It wasn’t part of a series of books (though DC had reprinted DOLL’S HOUSE in trade paperback before that, and perhaps DREAM COUNTRY). It didn’t have homogenous trade dress. In fact, it was kind of hard to make out… anything on the cover other than the embossed Key To Hell. Probably kind of hard to sell to anyone who didn’t know exactly precisely what they were looking for. Luckily there were a bunch of hardcore geeks (sorry, I mean “SANDMAN readers”) who did just that. Like me. In fact, I’ve got every single one of those crazy, non-uniform-dress hardcover collections (but for DREAM COUNTRY and PRELUDES AND NOCTURNES, which I bought in the original paperback, though would consider adding to my collection though I’d likely never read them again. So if you’re selling, I might be buying.)

But I don’t recall seeing those outside of DM comic shops, back in the day. Not until they developed a uniform appearance and Endless posters started appearing on ROSEANNE and the like, did those books get whipped up for a traditional consumer market (with numbering on the spines and everything.) And now we’ve got the backbreaking ABSOLUTE collections. I see these on shelves, but I don’t see too many folks actually purchasing them. And I got an odd feeling of vindication when, at a Vertigo panel last SDCC, an editor asked “Who’s buying the ABSOLUTE SANDMAN book?” In a room full of people who’d been raising their hands at nearly every title, almost no one raised their hands.

It’s a hundred dollar book. It’s a beautiful book, re-colored immaculately, oversized and awesome. But it’s a touch hard to read, an unwieldy size and weight and the material is available at an (on the surface) better price in other forms. These books aren’t aimed at just anyone. This is climax predator territory we’re in here. A new reader isn’t going to gravitate towards any of the ABSOLUTE books. Just like they aren’t going to be heading towards the assorted MARVEL OMNIBUS books that make my mouth water every time I see them. Those things are like crack to me. But I’m a lifelong, mature comics reader (with the commensurate disposable income to match). This is major drilling down on the publishers’ parts, repackaging older material in a premium package that is both imposing and oh-so-desirable. But I guarantee that not a single soul is going to learn to love The Fantastic Four by reading the OMNIBUS. These are geek status symbols. Not unlike, say, the thousand dollar Led Zeppelin 1973 tour shirt framed under glass (albeit on a much smaller scale).

Don’t get me wrong. I want these. I’ll love and cherish every one of them. Well maybe not the SANDMAN books, but the Marvel OMNIBUS volumes. I grew up on Marvel, so those are the stories that really resonate with me and are likely to make me part with my dollars. But part of me thinks that the comics and readers would be better served with more digest books, or perhaps even thicker collections (of course, they’d have to be priced to compete with manga, which is quite a trick). Nor do I believe that being in a mature market is necessarily a bad thing. Quite the contrary, we’ve got presentations to fit most taste/cost levels (though I think we need a good middle ground package, or to have our low-end delivery system, monthly pamphlets, get a boost in perceived value.) But these big monsters are Cadillacs, and you can’t pay your bills just making Cadillacs. You gotta put some K-Cars in there, maybe some sporty little numbers with some bells and whistles, too.

That’s assuming we’re all still reading print comics in a decade and not jumped all the way over to digital. Another matter entirely.

Matt Maxwell

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