Wednesday, November 2, 2011

FYC Replay: Indy Anthologies - an introduction

For Your Consideration: Independent Anthologies: an introduction

By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: I love variety, experimentation, and the opportunity to see writers and artists working outside the confines of the typical and the mundane. The best places to find all this are within the pages of comic anthologies where some of the biggest names – Alan Moore, Brian Michael Bendis, John Cassaday, Paul Pope and others – got their starts. Click on in for a brief introduction – the first of seven parts spotlighting independent comic anthologies . . . for your consideration.


Since the early days of comic publishing anthologies have been an important part of the landscape. Most characters at that time got their start in these books’ short stories. Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, originally saw print in Action Comics #1, which also included Zatara the Magician and Tex Thompson, while Bob Kane created the Batman for the anthology from which DC Comics would eventually take its name. In issue 27 Detective Comics, which also included more typical detective yarns with characters like Slam Bradley and Speed Saunders, the Dark Knight detective made his debut and has anchored the book ever since.

For publishers in this fledgling market it only made sense. Timely, National Publications, Fawcett, and others were able to give artists and writers an opportunity to create new characters without investing the time or money needed for the publication of a brand new periodical that had no guarantee of success. Publishers afforded themselves the luxury of seeing which characters in these anthologies did not work and which ones would be able to carry their own titles. It was a sound business model, one that also gave many young creators a chance they might not have seen otherwise.

These, and later anthologies such as The Haunt of Fear and Two-Fisted Tales from EC Comics or the Warren magazines Creepy and Eerie, were also able to appeal to a wider audience. Though all offerings of a particular issue might not be to every reader’s liking, there would often be enough variety within the overall theme of a book to entice fans moreso than a tightly focused publication might. And, with a variety of stories from a number of creators, the possibility of discovering an unknown artist or writer was exciting and could lead to the purchase of sister publications with stories from these same artists. For much of the first couple of decades, anthologies were an integral part of comics publishing.

With the dawn of the 1960s, there was a renewed interest in comics coinciding with the resurgence of superheroes. The Flash ushered in the Silver Age of comics with his initial appearance in Showcase #4, another anthology, but the real boom came about when Stan Lee along with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a host of other talented artists brought about a seismic change in superhero storytelling. Wishing to make these characters easier for fans to relate to, Lee, Kirby, Ditko, et al. created heroes that were flawed. Spider-Man faced trouble at school in his alter ego, while the Fantastic Four argued among themselves like the family they were. Pulling readers in with these new characters, Lee chose also to ground his continuing series within a specific continuity. This did a couple of things. First, it added another layer of authenticity to the stories being told at Marvel Comics as actions in one tale would have repercussions in another. This also, very slyly, made the entire line of Marvel comics coveted by fans because they did not wish to miss out on anything. It was a masterful storytelling and marketing move by Marvel Comics, but this, along with the rapid ascendance of superheroes as the genre within the comics medium, also had consequences for anthologies.

Certainly, anthologies were still being published, but they were becoming fewer and fewer every year. Marvel had “split book” titles such as Strange Tales while DC was still publishing Showcase along with others such as the 1970s horror titles House of Mystery and House of Secrets. But the rabid fan base that enjoyed the continuity introduced by Marvel Comics, coupled with the virtual monopoly on the medium by the superhero genre, did not seem to allow for books that included multiple short stories within different genres from various creative teams. Ironically, despite this emphasis on a new type of storytelling, the advent of Marvel Comics started a movement away from the purchase of comics for the pure enjoyment of reading the stories toward the collector mentality that continues to this day. For me, this shift from reading to collecting – though I have been guilty of it in the past – takes some of the magic out of comics.

For quite some time, there were many – as there still are – that believed anthologies don’t sell. This sentiment was held by publishers, editors, creators, and retailers. Certainly, it is more difficult to market an anthology. The hook present with a character (the Dark Knight Detective) or a creative team (Claremont/Byrne X-Men) is often difficult to come by with something that, by its definition, is meant to offer a variety of stories – often within multiple genres – by various writers and artists. Practically speaking, it is almost impossible to create a book in that vein that will include stories of an equal quality and entertainment value across the board. The differing styles among the artists and writers coupled with the diverse interests of the audience dictate that this will be the case. It’s the same with anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Harlan Ellison put it best in an afterword to his graphic Night and the Enemy when he stated – while lamenting the deluge of sequels, trilogies, and “shared universe” novels within the book market – “The casual reader – or viewer – seeks familiarity, a comfortable sense of knowing what’s going on, as you’re going in.” It is this familiarity that has helped to push anthologies to the bottom of the publishing pile.

But it is this unfamiliarity and variety that draws me to anthologies, whether they be prose, comics, or on television. If the quality is there – a higher hurdle set for these types of books than the more familiar “soap opera” style comics – then I expect to be amazed and entertained every time. Does this mean that every single story in Negative Burn or Afterworks is going to appeal to me? No. I have particular tastes that may run counter to other fans’, and varying art styles, storytelling techniques, or certain uncared-for genres may leave me wanting more from specific offerings. But I do know that, on balance, there will be enough to keep me interested and keep me buying.

Unlike those of us living here in the States, our counterparts in Europe and Japan, two areas of the world where comics have become an accepted part of the cultural landscape, have grown up with high-quality anthologies. In Japan for example, stories are often serialized in large “phone book” manga magazines, which include many stories, each of which is continued in subsequent issues. Only when a particular serial becomes popular enough are the chapters collected into books called tankobon. Manga has become such an integral aspect of Japan’s cultural landscape that one can find almost any genre represented therein, from sports to romance to action-adventure.

Europe has its fair share of anthologies as well. Some of the best known come from England – titles like Warrior, 2000AD, Crisis, and Eagle. Many of the best-known and critically acclaimed writers and artists from Europe that have made their marks in the American comic market got their start creating short stories for anthologies such as these. Garth Ennis wrote Judge Dredd for 2000AD while Grant Morrison created Zenith for the same publication. Bryan Talbot, Dave Gibbons and Steve Dillon all found work in these weeklies’ pages, while Alan Moore contributed multiple Time Twisters and Future Shocks to 2000AD, and two of his seminal works – Marvelman (published as Miracleman by Eclipse in the United States) and V for Vendetta – began as serials in Warrior. Moore, the most revered writer in the history of comics, has stated in more than one interview that creating short three to five page stories for these anthologies as he began his career was the best education he could have gotten for writing comics. After creating a complete tale within those narrow confines, producing longer epics with twenty-plus page chapters was far easier.

In recent years, with critical acclaim for books such as Flight, initially published by Image and now with Villard, and MOME from Fantagraphics Books, fans have been able to find more anthologies, and more variety, in their comic browsing. One thing that has helped this resurgence is the expansion of graphic novels in the book trade. No longer tied to the monthly pamphlet format, anthologies can be more like traditional books – larger spines, more stories, and a variety of genres – because all the stories found within its covers are self-contained. Books like the aforementioned Flight and the Dark Horse Book of Hauntings revolve around specific themes within which creators tell their tales – respectively, flight and ghost stories – in order to market these anthologies to a new audience. Others, like Solo – sadly cancelled by DC – and Kramer’s Ergot from Buenaventura Press, work on the traditional theory of producing books that include a variety of stories of a high quality for their audience. However they choose to do it, I’m glad to see the comic anthology going strong in this new century.

It is within the pages of these books that the creators of tomorrow, as well as more established creators, are able to experiment with storytelling and push the medium forward while also charting out new waters for their own personal oeuvre that might not be possible within “more marketable” comics. Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at some of these anthologies. The books spotlighted will be some of the best out there, many you might have heard of, some you may not be familiar with, but I hope that in the end you might take another look at some of these books. And please feel free to join the discussion. I want to know what books you like, what ones you don’t, and why. Turn me on to something new, and I’ll try to do the same. Until next week, keep reading.

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