GRAEME: For those who haven’t already heard the last Wait, What?, there’s a question from Tim Rifenburg that we ended up punting on, because we thought we might need a little more reflection and/or the space to turn it into a written post. It went a little something like this:
I have recently been buying (on the cheap) a bunch of the DC anniversary compilation books that have come out in the last year or so. Every time I see the stories (or parts of stories that are picked) I am astounded on what they pick for a celebration book. If you were asked, which character or title would you like to put together a compilation for and what are some of the stories you would pick.
If you don’t know what anniversary books Tim’s talking about, he means things like this and this and this. They’re very strange books: not quite Best Ofs, but something along the lines of a quasi-historical overview, with (very) brief essays ahead of a selection of stories that try and talk about the era in which they were created and, to be blunt, fail more often than not. As Tim suggests above, the selection of stories for each book is more than normally utterly confounding, avoiding standalone graphic novels or collections but not unafraid to pick one issue of a multi-part storyline (or even, in some cases, some pages out of an incomplete issue) to use, because… well, that’s a very good question.
Suffice to say, these aren’t particularly good books. I admit that when I read the Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years collection, my first thought was “Wow, if only *I* could be in charge of a book like that…!” but then I started second-guessing myself. After all, it’s probably a good idea to consider the wider historical context when it comes to “A Celebration of [X] Years,” but I’m not sure that I have enough knowledge and awareness of my own biases when it comes to doing something like that.
I mean, sure, I’ve read Superman on-and-off — mostly “on” — since Byrne took over the character 30 years ago (In related news, I am old), but it wasn’t really until the last few years that I really got a good handle on what the 1970s and ‘80s were like for the Superman books, and everything before that, I pretty much consider interchangable in terms of quality with a blanket “Aw, it’s all pretty fun!” critical opinion. (Okay, some of the earliest material is impressively ropey, but fascinating when viewed from today’s point of view.) Would I really know enough to choose the right stories?
And even on the material I do know, how can I stop myself from choosing the Joe Kelly stories I dug so much? Or, perhaps more likely, just saying, “Man, remember when Roger Stern and Jerry Ordway just decided to do deep dives into the Kirby Fourth World material for a year or so? Let’s reprint all of that instead of the Byrne stuff that really doesn’t hold up.” My historical notes would consist of me writing things like, “Let’s pretend that Chuck Austen run didn’t exist. We can do that, right? The Azzarello/Lee run, as well. Go read All-Star Superman instead.”
This is my concern, as strange as it seems — that I’m too much of a fan to come up with anything that’s unbiased when it comes to certain characters. (Teen Titans, I’d be “Let’s do all the Haney stuff, then some of the Wolfman/Perez stuff before it got shit, then I guess we should just jump to Geoff Johns and Mike McKone and pretend the book got cancelled then, right? That’s pretty fair.”) Am I being ridiculous, Jeff? I’m kind of skirting around actually answering the question by wondering whether the idea of my curated take is the wrong one. What do you think? You probably have an entire Batman list all prepared, don’t you?
JEFF: Maybe a little, but that’s just because I like to feel like a know-it-all, Graeme.
Actually, the Batman book is pretty readable, especially in the first half because you’ve got dudes like Dick Sprang and Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams and Alex Toth doing the art, and the stories are done-in-ones that had at least a little bit of thought put into them. I read “The Player on the Other Side” story by Barr and Golden when it came out, but if I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t have begrudged its presence here.
It’s a pretty good collection is what I’m saying, so it doesn’t feel like the problem is strictly the idea of curation. For me, the biggest problem is one you didn’t touch on: the closer the collection moves toward the present day, the harder it becomes to get a decent story, since more and more of the character’s greatest or most memorable stories are part of larger ongoing arcs.
So although they can’t help but include something like “Broken Bat,” the story where Bane goes a little too far in adjusting Bruce Wayne’s chakras, there’s nowhere enough room to make that issue, which was part seventeen or something of the event, have any weight at all. It reads like a scary non-sequitur in this collection, a story told by editors who really, really hate the main character and relish him getting kicked around a little.
The way we read superhero comics, and how the marketplace makes us read them, has changed, and there are less decent done-in-ones if only because the number of times people get up to bat (no pun intended) is so much less.
That’s probably why I thought the Lois Lane volume was actually pretty decent: by the time the book switches to the modern era, it can just rely on taking the best “what’s so great about Lois Lane?” story from each decade or so and you’re set. (Sadly, it’s also the only way any female writers end up in these collections.) And because women’s opportunities in society have grown since 1939 and our representation of women’s opportunities has also grown (at some point much later), the take on Lois changes more dramatically.
So part of me wonders if the problem with these collections is that the characters are too big, basically trapped by their ever-increasing responsibilities to move product. The problem is that apart from a handful of secondary characters for Batman and Superman, there really aren’t that many supporting characters who’ve been around that long. Part of me wishes DC would just flat-out embrace itself and do a few volumes of DC: A Celebration of 75 Years, so I could get some Golden Age Batman and Wonder Woman, some Silver Age Superman and Flash, and liberally season the whole thing with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen and Challengers of the Unknown and Angel & The Ape and Englehart’s Green Lantern and Doom Patrols from several eras and anything and everything else
What do you think? What would you put in there, would three or so stories from every era about any DC character have any chance in the marketplace? Or are the DC Celebration books trapped by the undeniably strong marketing hook of [CHARACTER THE PUBLIC KNOWS]– A COMPILATION OF STORIES FOR PEOPLE WHO’VE BEEN INTERESTED IN THE CHARACTER BUT WOULDN’T KNOW WHERE TO START?
GRAEME: Here’s the thing: I really like the character-based books, and think they’re a different beast altogether from your idea of a DC: A Celebration of 1965 [or Whenever] series (which made me think: did you ever see the massive Paul Levitz-written Taschen book from a few years back that was basically DC: We Published A Lot And We’re Really Happy To Still Be Here 75 Years Later? It’s so great, Jeff).
I think the celebration of eras is something that only makes sense to the existing collector market, whereas character-centric books can appeal to both newcomers curious about learning more about a particular character — for all its faults, Suicide Squad the movie seems to have turned people onto the various characters therein, whether Harley, the Joker (apparently, some people seemed to be surprised by the Joker in the movie…?) or Waller — and well-meaning relatives thinking, “Oh, [Person X] likes comic books and isn’t the Flash one of those famous characters?” around the holidays.
I’m not just disagreeing with you, though; you’re 100% right about the way in which we read comics having changed over the last few decades, and the problem that the disappearance of the done-in-one story brings for these kinds of books.
To answer your question — and Tim’s question, from the start, however: The more I think about it, the more I come to the decision that these kinds of anthologies should only ever be decided by committee, and should focus not on quotas or comprehensive overviews, but more on getting to the spirit of the subject at hand. So, for example, if it’s a A Celebration of DC In The 70s, it shouldn’t be a strict “We pick 3 stories from 1971, 3 from 1972…” etc., but instead “which stories say the most about where DC was in that decade?” (I’d throw in things like the “Kryptonite No More” Superman story, Englehart/Rogers’ Detective, Goodwin/Simonson’s Manhunter, a story from Ghosts or one of the horror anthologies… If I could control everything about comics, I’d want to throw in an issue of something like Welcome Back, Kotter, as well… Remember those “A DC/TV Comic” logos?)
It reminds me, in a roundabout way, of what DC’s trying to do with the Rebirth line: get back to the core of the characters, albeit the core as defined/understood by the current caretakers of the characters. But, really — if someone says they’re putting together a celebration of a particular character, that doesn’t mean a historical retrospective. A celebration of, say, The Demon doesn’t mean you go “Well, I guess he appeared in Demon Knight a few years ago, and there was also that 1980s Matt Wagner series,” it’s just a shit ton of Kirby. A celebration of Green Lantern, if I’m being brutally honest, wouldn’t/shouldn’t include half of the stories I love (Sorry, Green Lantern: Mosaic) because they’re kind of peripheral to the heart of the concept. So, if I’m completely honest, if I were in charge of these books, I’d ensure that I wasn’t the only person picking stories. Get a bunch of people who genuinely love the character together and let us all fight out what actually speaks to who that character is, and then those stories go in.
Oh, and then get each of the committee who decided to on the stories to write mini-appreciations of each story that explains just why they belong in the book, to help newcomers understand what’s happening and give the hardcore fanbase something to argue with.
That said, if I was to choose a character/concept that deserved one of these books, and that hasn’t already got one…? The Legion or the Justice League, of course.
Also, to put the cat amongst the pigeons a bit, my personal Legion book would likely not include anything published post-the baxter series’ end in 1989. Sorry, everyone who loved 5YL and the Waid/Kitson reboot, but as much as I like that stuff myself, it’s more tangential to the central Legion of Super-Heroes appeal than anything and everything that came before for me.
JEFF: I see your point, Graeme, and I think, technically, it’s a more cohesive concept for the series—arguably a better concept—but I think that’s pretty damn dull and possibly harmful to the way DC exists in the marketplace.
For better or for worse, they’ve re-invented the Legion a shit-ton, they’ve been fidgeting with Superman’s status quo for the majority of his 75 years, and that’s not going to change (unless DC suddenly hits on the perfect sweet spot with their Rebirth books and they proceed to dominate the sales charts). Part of what’s confusing about comics to a newcomer is trying to figure out what “counts” or where to start. Having the Celebrations function as sampler sets for a character across the decades isn’t a bad way for someone to understand the palimpsest-like nature of DC’s universe…and maybe to help them find the way they want to explore. If I hadn’t had enough exposure to the material already, for example, I’d be trying to hunt down those Kurt Schaffenberger Lois Lane stories after reading Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years. But I also dug Kathryn Immonen’s take on the character, or that Phil Jimenez/Joe Kelly Wonder Woman interview issue made me think I should dig up more of that Wonder Woman run. To put it another way, somebody out there loves Matt Wagner’s take on The Demon and probably a lot more love Garth Ennis’s. Neither of those really fried my burger, but I think having a sampler allows a wider range of people to dig the character than would dig just the crazy-ass Kirby stuff.
So although I understand and appreciate your approach to these volumes, I worry that your approach just creates a canonical approach to the characters that leaves no real room in for the neophyte: it’s very much a “here are the stories we like best from forty years ago” angle, even if those stories are picked from a more current epoch.
By the way, I do love the idea of having the Celebration of DC volumes broken into eras, but I was literally talking about several volumes that each covered from the early era to now, maybe broken up by stuff like horror or weird heroes. Really, I just want a really big volume that will have all of the weird byways DC’s traveled down. The same way those 100 page giants or those oversized treasury Christmas editions really seemed to open up the possibilities of DC when I was a kid, I really want something that showcases one of DC’s great strengths, which is the breadth of its universe. We need more Angel & The Ape fans, damn it!
GRAEME: We almost had those in the mid-80s! I fondly remember The Greatest Team-Up Stories Ever Told, which was my introduction to Alex Toth, as well as The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told, which was… well, a weird “we have no other other theme, so sure, an era-specific book!” And then there’ve been a bunch of other anthology-style collections since then — I wouldn’t be surprised if the sales on those books (Remember DC Goes Ape? Or DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories? Pulp Fiction Library?) were what made TPTB at DC go, “Fuck it; let’s do character-specific books instead.”
And, hilariously, while I see your point about the sampler approach to characters and why my idea is restrictive and potentially harmful, I’m sticking to it. I genuinely think there’s value in creating a conceptual “canon” for the big DC properties, so that there’s one book that can be pointed to as saying, “oh, that’s what that character is all about.” It’s not like the other stuff is suddenly erased — someone who really loves the Matt Wagner Demon can still go hunt down back issues because it’s probably never going to be collected [EDIT TO ADD: Guess I’m wrong], but the Ennis collections will be out there, or whatever — but they don’t have to all be included in the “definitive” book, goddammit. To hell with your accusations of dullness, Jeff Lester! This is what I’m pitching to editorial!
…We’ve just turned into DC Collections Department roleplay, haven’t we…?