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March 22, 2009


Five Kinds Of Serial Comic Books I Prefer To Buy Right Now Over New Ones

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The great thing about breaking the serial comics habit -- if you have one -- is that it frees up money for all sorts of different ways to access the comics art form. The obvious alternative that many pursue is to purchase collections and book-length comics instead of those same works in a serialized form. That's become such a popular model that it's slowly shifting the fundamental comics publishing paradigm, if it's not already all the way shifted. But there are others: pursuing comics on the Internet, buying comics and cartoons as used books, even borrowing from one's local library. One of my favorites is the purchase and consumption of older serial comic books. Not for collecting, necessarily: I have no problems with comics collecting and God bless everyone who ever buys a comic with that in mind. I'm talking about buying older serial comics in order to read them.

There have been enough comic books published in North America over enough years to enough different audiences of enough different attention spans that wide swathes of them are available for very cheap. The proliferation of trades and collections have in many cases reduced the demand for titles based on people simply wanting to read them, and eBay has been in many cases a valuable check on the illogical if not outright corrupt inflation of prices for books that not enough people want. The end result is that you can frequently purchase comics as fun, as interesting and as compelling a read as anything on which DC and Marvel have recently raised their prices. It's also a chance to read many comics with their original (sometimes superior) production , formatted in the way originally intended, in styles and modes of presentation that might stand out against the backdrop of today's comics in that much more of a pleasurable way.

Here's a few of the strategies I'm employing right now for buying some older comic books to read. Some may interest you and some may not, but I hope that in the very least they get you thinking. Comics is as amazing an art form in its corners and blind spots as it is in terms of its award-winners and best-sellers. There's always a wealth of material out there to be explored.

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1. Steve Gerber's Superhero Comics
It's been more than a year since the writer Steve Gerber died, and as a fan of his work I've been grateful for the renewed interest in his best-known series such as Howard The Duck and Omega The Unknown. Gerber was a working pro for years in and around that work. While DC was his home for a bunch of later comics that I have yet to dive into, I'm just now picking up for very cheap a few runs of his 1970s Marvel Comics books where Gerber did solid if less spectacular work. Gerber did a short run of Guardians of the Galaxy comics that I remember reading as a kid that I'll be seeing again soon; ditto some Son of Satan short stories for the Marvel anthology Marvel Spotlight. Of two more celebrated Gerber runs with the Man-Thing character and the Defenders concept, the Defenders material can routinely be unearthed for less than $2 a pop. I just snapped the bulk of them up for $1.50 an issue, free shipping.

I don't hold out hope that any of these will be a revelation. I suspect they'll entertain, which is the primary value I get from comic books like this, and additionally provide me some extra insight into an interesting writer's career. It's easy to do this kind of thing for any creator that interests you by googling blog posts like this one or by using the tailored search engine at comics.org.

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2. 1980s Indy Comics Cribbed From A List By Frank Santoro
The cartoonist, painter and occasional writer about comics Frank Santoro is a devotee of many of the comics he was reading before the mid-1990s. I asked him for a short list of comics he sees out there in Direct Market bargain bins that he finds worth picking up and this is how he responded:
5. Coyote
4. Nexus (First issues)
3. Mai the Psychic Girl
2. Doctor Fate (Giffen)
1. Slash Maraud
He later added:
The other thing is, that you might want to discuss, is how one can find "runs" of a particular series that will be awesome. Like late Byrne FF's when he's just doing Kirby Monster stories and barely having a storyline that continues from issue to issue.

Or Nexus. I see Nexus 18-30 ALL THE TIME. There are some amazing 2-3 issue runs in that series.
I don't want to speak for Frank, and I'm not sure I endorse all of his choices -- I love Steve Rude (Nexus) and Ryoichi Ikegami (Mai); I'm less sold on Chas Troug (Coyote) and Paul Gulacy (Slash Maraud). Still, listening to Frank hold forth on comics in this manner is a great thing for how it promote a restless, unapologetic way of exploring this tidal wave of decaying paper that's out there. I believe Frank appreciates both specific artists that may not have worked on top-selling comics and also aspects of the kinds of art they were doing at the time that maybe not as many people do now, whether by fashion or for lack of skill. Your reasons may be different than Frank's, but I can't imagine a better person to emulate when it comes to seizing on whatever books do that do it for you, wherever they can be found, whenever they were published.

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3. DC Reinventions of the Superhero Genre That Never Quite Took
One small subset of comic books where DC may have an advantage over Marvel is that their focus on icons over approach means they've spawned a number of weird, unsuccessful re-working of the superhero comic over the year, many of which are available at bargain-bin prices. There are limited runs within titles that work like this, such as the 1984 Legion of Super-Heroes re-launch and its first five issues of near-demented Keith Giffen-led narrative inscrutability. There are also series that manged to deviate from form to the point where the plug was pulled sometimes in a mercy-killing way and sometimes in a "world is unjust" manner.

Two of the better-known DC dead ends that I own are the 1980s Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden Thriller series, which for its first eight issues plays exactly like the best weekend-syndicated action-adventure television show that never existed, and the 1998 series Chase, which is like all the good parts from all the dopey over-serious superhero comic book you've ever read given a much classier than they deserve treatment and put under one cover: James Robinson's Starman crossed with Brian Bendis' Alias. One great thing about buying discounted comics series in their entirety is that you know going in exactly how long you'll have those stories with you, and can appreciate them without the disappointment that comes with cancellation.

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4. Jack Kirby At Marvel In the 1970s
It's amazing to me that with as many great re-publications of Jack Kirby's work as we've seen in the last decade there's still so much to be enjoyed about the original comics. A lot of Kirby's 1970s Marvel works, some collected and some not, are available at prices of less than $2 a pop. This includes the second half of a wild run on Captain America with panels that all by themselves are worth a stop and stare: it's like reading comics brought home by a father who is taking sales trips to an alternate dimension full of crazy people. I know that a lot of people flat-out didn't like Kirby's return to that comic, and a lot still don't. I enjoy Ed Brubaker's rootless super-spy take as much as anyone, but there's something about the fact that a veteran of World War II chose to do those comics with that character that I think has to be taken into account. Also, as the years pass it's clear that Kirby had a much different idea of what constituted a superhero's level of mastery of the situation than you find now -- his patriotic superhero scrambled to survive as much as dominated the action.

I know that a recommendation of these comics as comics may be old hat to many of you, but way too many greeted that Losers collection like they were a bunch of new books that had been found in a crate in Kirby's garage for me to think that everyone has taken advantage of all the cheaper Kirby works out there. If nothing else, you should make sure you bolster your Eternals and Devil Dinosaur collections with a few books like Captain America Annual #4, where we get to see Kirby's take on a second generation of evil mutants that have over the years managed to be less popular than the season three roster adds on The White Shadow. In other words, some artists make it worth your while to act like a completist, and none more so than Jack Kirby. Buying the individual comic books as you need them or even as you don't is a great way to do that.

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5. Alt-Comics, 1980-1995
It's hard to remember a time when alt-comics publishing meant making lots and lots of comic book series. Now that we're near 2010 and in the midst of what seems like the prime days of a sustained journey into books-oriented art comics publishing, it's fun to look back on that decade-plus period where series and lots of them were what dominated the snootier funnybook neighborhoods. You might have to steel yourself towards not being able to finish everything you start, but there's a wealth of almost-forgotten material out there well worth your time.

A number of alt-comics anchor publisher Fantagraphics' more interesting roads not taken are still out there to be had in comic book form for less than $2 a pop, including the science fiction romp Dalgoda (it also had a sequel), Mike Kazaleh's always elegant-looking work and Doug Gray's comedic adventure Eye of Mongambo. You can also find talent that will remind you of cartoonists publishing through Fantagraphics today, like foul-mouthed cultural critics/comedians Dennis Worden and Scott Russo. Fanta's main rival at the time, Kitchen Sink, offered up a smaller number of alt-comics now available at discount prices, several of which a worth a look: the science fiction series Alien Fire and Paul Pope favorite Border Worlds and the historical drama Kings In Disguise spring to mind.

In the end buying old alt-comics is just like buying old comics, period. The art form that looks so assured in the twice-yearly catalogs of its boutique publishers and in the boardroom presentations of its largest companies has a past that's fractured and for the most part can be found stuffed away in any number of boxes and closets, waiting to be discovered.
 
posted 2:59 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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