Curating collections

[ 11 ] December 15, 2020

On editing reprint collections

Another of my many dubious distinctions in comics is probably having the edited reprint collections over the longest stretch of time, 46 years now.  (Okay, I didn’t do any for decades in the middle of that stretch, but I said it was a dubious distinction.). It’s always been a fun assignment, providing an excuse to go play in the DC library or my own collection, revisit old friends, and have the pleasure of introducing new readers to tales I enjoyed.  With the latest, DC IN THE ‘80s: THE END OF ERAS about to come out, I’ll share some thoughts on the subject.

The projects have been born many different ways, but in pretty much every case the format and available page count was set before I got the assignment to assemble the contents.  That was true when I was curating the reprints for the back of 100-Page Super-Spectacular issues or LIMITED COLLECTORS’ EDITION tabloids, and is still true on today’s hardcovers.  Budgets matter, and there are always assumptions about what will have an audience large enough to justify it being published.  The hardcovers I’ve edited in recent years are the largest volumes I worked on, and as celebratory volumes, have had budgets large enough to allow for some interesting opportunities.

My first goal is always to include something (or somethings) unique that will elevate the book from simply being twice-told tales.  The very first comic I got a full editorial credit on, LIMITED COLLECTORS’ EDITION #C-34, CHRISTMAS WITH THE SUPER-HEROES, set the tone.  I found an unpublished Angel & The ApeChristmas story by John Albano, Bob Oksner and Wally Wood to include.   For ACTION COMICS: 80 YEARS OF SUPERMAN, I remembered the unpublished Siegel & Shuster era Superman story in Marv Wolfman’s collection, and for the DETECTIVE COMICS volume that followed, the Lew Sayre Schwartz Batmanbreakdowns in Dale Cendali’s.  The new ‘80s book couldn’t have anything of that great provenance by definition, but I was able to go for scarcity instead: a chunk of the first, seminal Style Guide by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez and Dick Giordano, a story from the Superman newspaper strip of the period and Alan Moore’s Twilight proposal.  All items that someone might possess, but none ever in a published DC volume.

The next step is to create a balanced list of targets, sources that deserve to be included in the theme.  For the END OF ERAS, it could have just been a collection of the genre titles that were wrapping up in that decade, but there were two reasons to include a good swath of super-hero material as well: fans were more likely to pick up a book that included their favorite characters, and there’s a San Andreas-size fault line between the pre-CRISIS DC universe and post-CRISIS.  So the major heroes had to be represented.  Off to the bound volumes!

There are three different decision rules operating here:

First, for the heroes, the goal is to find a story that represents the era both in its storyline and creative contributors.  For Superman and Batman, I found stories that touched on the pre-CRISIS interpretation of the Golden Age versions…and for Superman, it was a given that Alan and Curt Swan’s delightful “Whatever Happened To The Man of Steel?”  would finish off the book.  Wonder Woman allowed me to bring in Don Heck, and The Flash of course was required to show Carmine Infantino’s later period. I considered some Green Lantern and Justice League choices, but opted instead to represent the back-ups of the time with Firestorm.

For the vanishing genres, selections from series required picking a prime example, and one that could stand alone.  Sometimes that meant calling up the talent who had worked on them, sometimes pawing through to find a qualifier.  The decision rules were complex: better to find a Jonah Hex drawn by Tony DeZuniga to show the original creator’s art; for Warlord an issue Mike Grell inked himself since he had chafed under longtime inker Vince Colletta’s brush; if there was a dominant contributor, include them (could Bob Kanigher and Sam Glanzman’s epochal run on Haunted Tank be ignored?).   TV comics could be covered by SUPER FRIENDS, and toy tie-ins (not a vanishing genre in comics, but by and large from DC) by MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.

Selections from the anthologized stories were, I admit, far more arbitrary.  There were hundreds of pages of mystery and war tales to pick from, and if science fiction was a smaller stack, it was still a rich pile.  Your choices would certainly vary, but I was pleased to put in contributions by longtime DC contributors like Irwin Hasen, Lee Elias  and Gil Kane…as well as young and rising voices. 

When the budget permits, adding essays is a distinct pleasure, and I’ve been able to reach out to so many old friends and fascinating people.  My all-time favorite was getting Laura Siegel Carter in the ACTION volume, marking the first time a Siegel contributed to a Superman book they were earning royalties from.   

I’m back at it, finalizing the next volume, ‘80s: THE EXPERIMENTS, getting legal to dig out some dusty old contracts (yes, I signed them but do you REALLY expect me to remember three or more decades later when I can’t recall what I had for dinner yesterday?) and clear some interesting items for the collection.  

In going through the collection’s odder corners, I found what is certainly DC’s rarest experiment, but unfortunately can’t include it as it’s an early ‘90s project.  We teamed up with Time Inc. to do a test magazine, an issue of WHAT’S UP? that combined comics using the Looney Tunes and other DC goodies with a sort of kids’ PEOPLE/ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.  Only a few copies were printed and were used for market research testing, which sadly indicated the idea wouldn’t work  to Time Inc.’s then high standards.  If I get to do ‘90s volumes, I’ll try to include some of it then.

Still having fun.

Comments (11)

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  1. Isabel Omero says:

    So many questions about DC’s reprint priorities. Among them, why are DC collections not all, by default, released digitally? Will the original Silver Age Legion ever get its digital due? Why has there not been even one collection devoted exclusively to Superman by Curt Swan? And finally a thank you for The Starman Omnibus, the greatest collection in the highest quality ever released by DC.

    • Paul Levitz says:

      I left the desk before it was practical to release collections digitally, so I don’t know why some are and some aren’t…for the older ones it would almost certainly be an issue of the expense of preparing the material digitally.

      Never thought about the fact that there’s not a specific Superman volume devoted to Curt. It would certainly be well deserved, and fit the piece I wrote years ago honoring him which you can probably find on my Facebook page. That would be so much work to curate, but so much fun…

      • Isabel Omero says:

        FYI, I made my own hardbound Curt Swan Superman volume using only the 25-page “3-part-novels.” I don’t think anyone would argue with the stories as classics.

  2. Todd Haney says:

    Thanks for the insight on curating a collection like this. I seem to remember the editor’s POV presented in many of the early ‘Best of DC Digests.’ This helped new/younger readers put things in perspective in regards to a character’s history, a creator’s work, an important storyline, or even to the company’s history! For me, that kind of information became crucial in order to develop an interest in other characters and genres. It really helps readers appreciate the rich history and seek things out. I realize that things are out of sorts at the company right now, but I do wish someone at DC could show some goodwill by offering this kind of insight for future collections. The company might be in a better position to learn what us old-time fans prefer (or at least indulge us for why some collections are not often published). Best to you this season!

    • Paul Levitz says:

      I really enjoyed doing the texts for the old Legion digests, tracking which stories were re-writes of early non-Legion tales and the like.

      As to why some collections aren’t published, not speaking for the current team, most often it’s just a guess about what could sell enough to meet profitability targets. Bob Wayne and I debated SUGAR & SPIKE ARCHIVES for years–a series we both loved, but that I didn’t believe had enough support in the marketplace. He got it published after I left, and I delighted in owning the volume, but wasn’t surprised that the ales numbers were fairly low.

      Generally, two forces seem to drive sales of collections: either a connection to a currently published series or character that’s doing well, or enough scarcity of the original comics as back issues that buying a collected edition is a ‘bargain.’ When both are true (say, BATMAN ARCHIVES #1, our very first ARCHIVE edition), home run. Something scarce and collectable but not linked to current activity, like THE SPIRIT ARCHIVES series which I’m so proud of, is more difficult. Eisner’s work (personal and studio) on THE SPIRIT was historically important enough that we did reasonably well off the whole run and preserved an important chunk of comics history. But there’s not much in that class.

  3. Rob Staeger says:

    I love the insights into your process too, Paul — thank you! And I’m glad to see the second volume, The Experiments, is back on. I’m looking forward to getting that volume, too…and hoping you pick out a nice ‘Mazing Man story for inclusion!

  4. Very glad to read your insight into the upcoming “End of Eras” collection! As a Hex historian, I was puzzled at first as to why you picked Jonah Hex #54-55 to reprint. My best figuring had been the presence of Turnbull’s “Fort Charlotte Brigade” and El Papagayo, but I imagine they helped narrow down which of the DeZuniga issues to choose. In either case, I’m looking forward to picking up a copy, and I’ll certainly grab the “Experiments” collection as well when it comes out.

  5. Kim Bene says:

    I always enjoy 😊 you essays on the businesses side of comic books and find them absolutely unique. The fan press and commentary has so much about artists and writers but very little about the publishing process that makes their work visible and available. You do just that, and in a clear tactful writing style that also displays your depth of knowledge and love ❤️ of you subject. Thanks Paul for quietly being a comic book force on the same plateau as Lee, Kirby, Shawartz, Eisner, et all.

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