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Thursday, 2 December 2010

About Formats. The Telephone Book Collection

Christmas is coming up and you may be looking for presents for the comic fans of your acquaintance or maybe you might want to take this opportunity to try some comics. If so, that’s what this blog is for: comic recommendations for the new reader. Of course, graphic novels are quite an expensive medium, probably more than most of us will want to spend on anything less than the closest of relatives. So today we at New readers…start here turn the spotlight on a format that emphasises quantity and economy: the telephone book collection.

What’s This All About?
Comicbooks as a medium have a long history. Some series have been running for decades. As an example the Superman character was created in 1938 and has been used pretty much continuously by DC ever since. As you can image this creates an enormous back catalogue of material of varying quality and worth. Reproducing this amount of material in the usual high quality expected of graphic novel collections would be prohibitively expensive for both the publishers’ and the consumer, so the “telephone book” collection was born.

The so-called “telephone book” format provides inexpensive reprints of classic comics from the 1950s to 1970s. The format is so named because the books are thick, usually over 500 pages long, but with black and white art reproduced on poor quality paper. The two oldest comic companies both publish their archive material in telephone book format, Marvel in the Essential series (Essential Spider-Man, Essential Fantastic Four and so on) and DC in the Showcase Presents series (Showcase presents Superman, so on).

What’s Good About Them?
The big trade off with the telephone book collections is quantity over quality. Even the shorter collections from the early years of Marvel’s Essential imprint collect over twenty issues to a book. Most single issues of the time contained complete stories so you can be assured of getting a large and varied selection of stories.

Admittedly, for the purposes of this website the Essential and Showcase series are rather limited propositions. As with any form of entertainment the comic format has improved over the course of decades. The modern collections we usually recommend on this site are better drawn and more  skillfully written with longer and more complex storylines than those collected in the telephone books. Why would you want these then? A few ideas spring to mind:

If you find your imagination particularly fired by a character you might want to read some of their older adventures and so this post gives you an idea of the formats available.

As the target demographic for comics has changed over the decades the stories in these collections are usually quite suitable for younger readers. Most were produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority, a voluntary censorship body formed in the 1950s. Whilst the CCA had its sinister side, mainly in repressing discussion of political topics, it does usually assure an “all-ages” rating for the books.

Finally, some of the pulp science fiction adventures (particularly the Superman and Justice League Of America volumes of Showcase Presents) are genuinely hilarious. Absolutely, gloriously insane in the way that only science fiction of the Flash Gordon era can be.

Finally, if nothing else they provide interesting and unusual colouring books with added literacy value.

What’s Bad About Them?
For a start, the issues reproduced in these collections were never meant to be collected. These days individual issues are written with an eye to the fact they will later be presented in book format so they can be read smoothly as one continuous narrative. These older issues were written in such a way that a reader could pick up any one and understand the plot straight away. In practical terms this means there is a lot of expositional dialogue recapping events from as little as twenty pages ago.

As previously mentioned the art is reproduced in black and white but was originally represented in colour. For the most part the narrative flow does not suffer from this but there are exceptions where the art has included full-colour elements that were excised:

That phoenix should be a roiling mass of flames but as you see the loss of colour makes it just a white phoenix-shaped void in the art. Colouring was not as intricate an art in comic's cartooning then as it is now and so such problems associated with omitting the colour are rare in these collections.

Finally, although in a sex and violence sense the stories are suitable for readers of all ages this is not always the case politically. Owing in equal parts to the attitudes of the time and CCA censorship  active discussion of sexual and racial politics is extremely limited. In regards to sexual politics characters acting under CCA restrictions are chastely virginal unless married as well as being universally straight (the CCA in fact banned all representation of homosexuality until the early 1990s).

Racial politics, when broached, are even worse. Casual racism is not uncommon and even when trying to present racial issues in a sympathetic light the efforts can be somewhat ham-fisted (see our review of Green Lantern/Green Arrow for a more detailed discussion of this problem). For instance, the Green Lantern volumes of Showcase Presents feature an Inuit character as Green Lantern’s best friend and confidante, a mechanic, a kind and clever man. In the modern comics he is known by his given name as Tom Kalmaku, in these 1960s comics he is known by the nickname “Pieface”. Whether the writers of the time fully appreciated the racist connotations of this nickname is unclear.

Other Archive Formats
For the sake of completeness it should be pointed out that Marvel and DC both publish full-colour equivalents of the “telephone book” collections. Marvel’s publishes these higher quality collections under the Marvel Masterworks imprint, DC under the Archive Editions banner. These series are full-colour hardcover collections with digitally remastered art printed on high quality paper stock. Naturally, the higher quality of the reproduction reduces the page count considerably (about 250 pages at the most) whilst the cost rises to about twenty-five pounds at Amazon’s most reasonable offer.

Details of the volumes in Showcase can be found at the DC Comics website [here, scroll down to S] or on Amazon. The Marvel website has been recently upgraded and does not at this time have a list of their graphic novel back catalogue.  If you search on sites like Amazon by putting in 'Essential Marvel' you will get a lot of these books listed.

Both the DC Showcase and Marvel Essential paperback collections usually sell for no more than £15, new.

1 comment:

  1. I've never been a big fan of these huge collections..
    I dunno... The cheap paper (that doesn't look like it will hold on well over the years) and the lack of colors doesn't do it for me... :/

    I would prefer to have less issues but the colors on (even "old school" colors), that's why I prefered to find all the old Booster Gold issues over buying the DC Showcase.

    Fun trivia fact: "Marvel France" released most of those Marvel Essential with new colours for french speaking territories.
    In fact that's how I got most of Spidey's run from the beginning to the 80s.
    Here's a look at their covers: http://www.bedetheque.com/serie-3896-BD-Spider-Man-L-Integrale.html