Look Back to the Future

These days, it seems that "retro" is becoming very hip at comics companies. It started several years ago, as comics like Astro City and Supreme hearkened back to the good old days of non-gritty superheroes, and a lot of titles are playing off that nostalgic feeling these days. Planetary explores the archetypes of past comic heroes as well as film and pulp novels, Alan Moore's ABC line is full of pastiches and archetypes and with folks like Waid and Busiek filling their pages with obscure characters from the past, respect for comics history is at an all-time high.

So I suppose it was inevitable that the companies would start releasing the "real thing," actual comics history instead of stories that tie in or stories that retread. In December, DC will launch their "Millenium Editions," reprinting key issues ranging from Action Comics #1 to WildC.A.T.s #1 and Marvel will be running "Marvel Select," limited series that reprint key issues of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Even relatively new publisher Top Cow is getting into the act with "Top Cow Classics," three words that make me feel incredibly old. Seeing Witchblade #1 reprinted as a "classic" for me is akin to hearing "Everything Zen" by Bush on an oldies station.

Even better, it's not just reprints, but clever packaging that's making a comeback. DC has resurrected it's 80-page giant format to give us new material at a more cost-effective price (if it's all good material, that is) and has taken to printing 80-page and 100-page reprints themed around Secret Origins, Teen Titans, JLA and more. Marvel has been putting out the wonderful Essential books, containing 20-some issues of comics in black and white, on newsprint, for bargain prices, and will soon be releasing "monster" sized issues, 100 pages for $2.99 that include not only a new story but up to four other, older stories that relate to the main story. There are plans for about a dozen of these in 2000, and of course there are more Essentials on the way.

For me, this is comics nirvana. While sometimes this stuff is hokey and even hard-to-read, more often it's really enjoyable. I knew Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were to be respected for what they had contributed to comics, but I didn't realize how cool their work had been until I read the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man or the original incarnations of the New Gods. And the idea of paying three bucks for 100 pages of comics is mind-boggling to me.

I'm not a back issue collector. I scour the cheap bins at conventions for books published no later than the late 70s to complete collections of books I haven't read, but I don't (and won't) pay the prices or do the tracking required to put together a good collection of Silver or Golden Age books. That doesn't mean I don't want them, though. I'd love to have a complete library of books from that time, whether it be for enjoyment or for reference purposes. But I haven't been willing to shell out the prices for the hardcover Masterworks or Archives. These varying edition reprints are just the answer needed.

Now, whether you are a 14-year-old wanting to know a little more about Spider-Man (i.e. you're one of those readers who hasn't already read Spidey's origin retold in roughly six hundred different stories) or a 50-year-old investment banker looking for a nice, sturdy collection of your childhood memories, there are options. Hardcover, softcover, collection, single issue, color, black and white...it's very impressive.

For a long time, some people at the Big Two have seemed ashamed of their history. Witness the shoddy treatment of the JSA, or the focus on new, flashy characters at Marvel in the wake of the Image revolution. Things seem to have reversed now, with an ongoing JSA series, books tied tightly into Marvel continuity such as Thunderbolts and the Avengers, or just the wide array of reprints available.

It's a good time to be a comic-book reader. Now if only it were a better time to be a retailer, publisher or distributor. But hey, one thing at a time.

Randy W. Lander

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