Sunday, May 10, 2009

Reprint This! Update on Starman

I finished reading the second of DC's new Starman Omnibus collections, and I have to say that this is emphatically the right way to do a collected edition of a modern book. The fifty-buck hardcover reprints thirteen issues of James Robinson's superhero series, along with the first of the series' annuals and three issues from the anthology Showcase which feature the supporting players, along with considerable background details, commentary and sketches from the artists, who include Tony Harris, Guy Davis and Steve Yeowell.

If you've never had the pleasure of reading Starman, I really believe this is among the two or three best American comics of the '90s. It's the story of Jack Knight, a reluctant second-generation hero and the sixth to use the name, who defends the beautiful art deco metropolis of Opal City from bizarre crime. It's a book more about family and heritage and honor than it is fisticuffs and the usual superhero shenanigans. Robinson occasionally displays a tin ear for dialogue, but his narration is really captivating, and it's easy to get caught up in the grand sweep of Opal and her champions.

A detour to New York City to consult one of the DC Universe's original heroes, the Sandman, is so note-perfect that the publisher should use it to teach new writers how to craft an engaging crossover, and a later story which pits Jack and two unlikely allies against a demon in a poster is surprising at every turn, with a clever conclusion that will have a lasting, fascinating impact on future stories. It's definitely a title worth reading, and thumbs up to DC for creating such a nice package. They plan to publish the complete 81-issue series and all of its side stories and supplements in six of these omnibus volumes.

Read more of what I've written about James Robinson at A Journal of Zarjaz Things.

Read other reviews of this series:
Van Jensen at ComicMix
Randy Lander at Inside Joke Theatre
Greg Oleksiuk at PopMatters
Jason Sacks at Comics Bulletin
Paul W. Smith at Den of Geek

In other news, perhaps the month's biggest announcement has come from Alan Moore, confirming the rumors that Top Shelf will be issuing a complete edition of his "published-in-many-places" comedy The Bojeffries Saga. This new collection will include a new 24-page story that artist Steve Parkhouse is said to be tackling now. Moore's announcement came in the second part of the mammoth interview that Pádraig Ó Méalóid conducted for The Forbidden Planet Blog.

Fantagraphics has unveiled a little more about their forthcoming collection of Gahan Wilson Playboy cartoons. It's still on track for an October release. The three-volume slipcased hardcover is going to set you back a tidy $125, which means I'm putting $10 a paycheck in the kitty for this starting now. The book will feature introductions by Neil Gaiman and Hugh Hefner, and not only every cartoon that Wilson's contributed in his fifty-one year tenure with the mag, but his fiction and accompanying illustrations as well. The behemoth will clock in at more than 1000 pages. Can't wait, even if my accountant might want to have a word or two with me about it.

Speaking of Playboy, Dark Horse's collection of the two issues of the Hef-published Trump, mentioned here back in January, has been delayed and is due out in mid-August. This will feature classic work by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Wally Wood, Mel Brooks, Max Shulman and many others. Incidentally, my son finished the first half of Fantagraphics' Humbug, the magazine that followed Trump, and not only proclaims it to be awesome, but also wants it noted that he's the only modern-day tween to have read it.

In what sounds like it was a late April Fool's Day joke which went a little far, it's been strongly rumored that IDW is preparing a collection of Jack Kent's long-running newspaper strip King Aroo for later in the year. The strip ran for an impressive sixteen years before winding down in 1965, but it's incredibly obscure because only a single paperback collection was ever issued, in 1953, and because it only appeared in a handful of papers for most of its run. Some of the sample strips available online show it to be an incredibly charming and silly strip, reminiscent of Pogo with its puns and quirky characters, and while I'm curious to see more, I think IDW has something of an uphill climb selling this almost unknown character to a modern audience.

Speaking of Pogo, most recent word on the grapevine is that we'll be waiting until sometime in 2010 for the new line of Fantagraphics collections to get going.

And speaking of IDW, whether they are going to do something with King Aroo or not, they are planning a reprint of Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta's 1980s SF serial Starstruck with new coloring.

Over at DC, it looks like Peter Milligan's well-regarded '90s take on Shade the Changing Man is finally getting some long-overdue attention. A collection of the first six issues was released many moons ago, and it's finally getting a second later this year. Personally, I find Shade to have aged very badly, but I'm still looking forward to this earlier stuff from the run. But before that, DC is prepping hardcover collections from some of the other titles in their run, similar to the Starman books, including Fables and Alan Moore's Tom Strong. And they've finally solicited the Eclipso "Skinny Showcase" I've been talking about for August:

Written by Bob Haney
Art by Lee Elias, Alex Toth, Jack Sparling and Bernard Baily
Cover by Bernard Baily
One of the strangest comics villains ever stars in this volume collecting HOUSE OF SECRETS #61-80! On an expedition in the South Pacific, scientist Bruce Gordon’s dark side is unleashed after being exposed to a black diamond. Transformed into the powerful Eclipso, he embarked on an evil rampage as his good side attempted to reassert control.
Advance-solicited; on sale August 26 • 296 pg, B&W, $9.99 US

If you're enjoying Drawn & Quarterly's collections of the Moomin comic strip, and who in their right mind isn't?, then you might want to check out some reissues of the classic Moomin picture books that Tove Jansson did in the 1960s and 1970s. The publisher is starting up a new line of children's books called D+Q Enfant devoted to "lost classics and new soon-to-be classics" which will include the old Moomin series. Fine, give me another reason to want to have another kid before too long.

When I featured a blurb last month about our friends at Titan Books, I didn't have any news about Roy of the Rovers. Well, there's a new set of 1970s strips due in June - 208 pages of "scorching soccer action" from the period that introduced the hotheaded character Paco Diaz and took a hardline stance against hooliganism in the stands. Down the Tubes also points out that Titan's long-delayed Best of Battle is finally scheduled for next month as well. Fingers crossed!

That is all for this month. I would like to thank everybody for reading and all the nice e-mails, and also let everybody know that June's updates will be a little delayed. Look for the feature article on the 5th and the news update on the 15th. Happy reading!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reprint This! Steve Ditko

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected several titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

Artist Steve Ditko has earned accolades, praise, the thanks of a grateful comic-lovin' world and even a Jonathan Ross-helmed documentary for the BBC on the strength of his work. One of comics' most notorious recluses, the quiet artist was blowing kids' minds in the sixties with his work on characters like Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Creeper and the Question, all of whom he created or co-created. In the seventies, his workload didn't slow down much, even if his profile was a good deal lower than previously. For the publisher Charlton, he drew hundreds of pages for their horror titles, while continuing to occasionally draw more conventional adventure stories. The stuff he was doing was sometimes outlandish or utterly unconventional, but it all shares two common traits: it all looks terrific and it's all out of print and quite difficult to find.

Marvel has released some of the artist's work for them in a large-format collection entitled Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko, but most of his work for DC and Charlton has not been seen since it originally appeared. Since DC owns almost all of the output from Charlton (everything, I understand, save the small amount of material which the creators themselves re-purchased, such as the superhero comic E-Man) and has even incorporated some of their more successful trademarks into their own continuity, I don't believe there's really anything stopping DC from assembling a package of some of these strips. (Reader Martin Wisse suggests that much of this material might also be held by Roger Broughton's company; Devlin Thompson told me that months ago and I should have remembered.)

Killjoy, for example, was a completely bizarre character who "starred" in a pair of delightful eight-page episodes. Almost nothing about the character was shown or revealed; the focus was on the villains who were whining and protesting that nobody had the right to interrupt their evil schemes. You wouldn't expect to find satires about government and corporate obstinance in the back of a children's funnybook in 1973-74, but there they were, a pair of wonderful, high-concept comedies masquerading as something about superheroes. They'd be forgotten if scans hadn't shown up over at The Groovy Age last year, although reprints of the two stories did show up in a small press collection called The Ditko Package in 1989.

In fact, there are several small press collections out there, not the least of which are the ones that Ditko's company has had a hand in. But none of these have had the ability to work with several different publishers to assemble something more consistent. Of course, even his major work is not readily available in a simple format - I don't believe you can just buy a single book with all of his Dr. Strange episodes without getting a lot of later, inferior work in the same package, for instance - but a broad anthology might be possible, and show off a lot of interesting material in one place. Blake Bell's wonderful site Ditko Looked Up includes a fascinating stripography which mentions several books I've never seen. He drew the final issue of something called Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men for Atlas/Seaboard, for instance, as well as a couple of issues of Tiger-Man for that publisher, and four issues of Stalker for DC in 1975. Other work was a little sporadic at the time.

Apart from the horror comics and Shade the Changing Man, which I wrote up in an earlier Reprint This! and which deserves its own collection, and twelve episodes of Starman which appeared in the pages of Adventure Comics, there were unusual things like the first issue of Man-Bat, three episodes of the Kirby-created Demon and contributions to DC's SF anthology Time Warp. But best of all these things, from my perspective anyway, was the fantastic Odd Man.

I was about seven, and already a voracious comic reader, when DC started running house ads announcing the huge new expansion coming to their lineup. Called "The DC Explosion," one of these ads showed a group of characters who'd be getting their own titles or back-up series. The thunderously bizarre Odd Man was among the crowd in this one ad (you can see it at Fanzing's article about the debacle), and I was determined to see his story, and so I started scouring the Eckerd Drugs and 7-11s and Majik Markets for the issue of Shade the Changing Man which would feature the character. It was never released. As many of you know, the DC Explosion rapidly backfired into what we call the DC Implosion, and the contents of Shade # 9 were junk-published internally by the company for trademark protection.

I thought that was it for the Odd Man for almost fifteen years until I learned that Detective Comics # 487 published the story, or, as it turned out, a revised version of it, apparently with the cliffhanger ending jerry-rigged into an conclusion. I looked in every comic shop, junk store and flea market in north Georgia for this book, and could have assembled a complete decade's run of Detective except for # 487 until I finally heard about that new-fangled eBay thing that folk were talking about, and got an account just to buy this comic. And lots of other junk, but that came later.

At any rate, there remains a heck of a lot of great Ditko artwork out there which has never been republished. Unfortunately, some of the Marvel material includes licensed properties like Micronauts and Rom, to which the publisher no longer has the rights. But it's long past time to get started on a proper retrospective of this great artist's work. Sure, you're probably not going to coax a quote out of him for the back cover, but how about it, DC?