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'Superman,' 'Archie' releases highlight diversity of Library of American Comics

by ANDREW A. SMITH Scripps Howard News Service on September 22, 2013 1:50 AM

The purpose of comic-strip collections from America’s rich past is entertainment. But in many cases, they’re a public service, too.

Such is the case with IDW’s “Library of American Comics,” which aggressively searches out classic comic strips in danger of disappearing, because there was no mechanism (outside of private collectors) to save them. The Library, edited by the legendary Dean Mullaney, is in the process of preserving dozens of classic comic strips in beautiful hardback collections.

Mullaney, editor and publisher of Eclipse Comics from 1977 to 1994, is the perfect guy for the job: He combines the experienced eye of an editor with the enthusiasm of a fan.

“The goal of the Library of American Comics is first and foremost to preserve and bring into print as many classic strips as possible,” he says. “It’s equally important that we frame the strip within its historical context, which is why our books contain introductory essays that provide details about the strip and the cartoonist. This way, new readers can jump right in and start enjoying strips that may be as much as 100 years old.”

Mullaney isn’t exaggerating with that number. The Library is reprinting such strips as “Bringing Up Father” and “Polly and Her Pals,” both of which began in 1913. It’s also preserving dozens of other famous strips from various eras, from “Bloom County” to “Gasoline Alley” to “Flash Gordon.”

Two recent releases highlight the diversity and quality of the Library — and raise some questions: “Archie: The Swingin’ Sixties Dailies Volume 1: 1960-1963” ($39.99) and “Superman: The Silver Age Dailies Volume One: 1959-1961” ($49.99). Aside from the historical importance of these books, they are worth getting because they’re so much doggone fun.

The “Superman” book will seem vaguely familiar to longtime Super-fans, because most of the stories are adapted from 1950s Superman comic books — but in longer, comic-strip form, allowing for more details and extrapolation. See the lion-headed Superman (again)! Wonder (once more) who is behind the Black Knight’s helmet! (Re-)visit doomed Krypton, where Superman falls in love! Best of all, these Super-tales are brought to you by classic Super-artists Curt Swan and Wayne Boring. It’s like finding a stash of old Superman comics you’ve never seen before.

The “Archie” book is equally good, with gag-a-day strips by original Archie artist (and probable creator) Bob Montana. After 20 years working on the Riverdale gang, Montana is at the top of his form in these genuinely funny strips starring not only the ol’ redhead, but Betty, Jughead, Miss Grundy, Mr. Weatherbee, Reggie, Veronica — even minor characters like school janitor Mr. Swensen and cafeteria chef Miss Beazley.

This gag-a-day format contrasts with the first Archie collection that IDW released, which collected strips from 1946 to 1948 that told long-form stories. The reason those strips exist is because both the Archie and Superman comic strips began in the early 1940s! That raises some obvious questions, like why are these two collections from the ‘60s (called “the Silver Age” in comics parlance), and will the other Superman and Archie strips ever be collected?

Mullaney explained the problem. “The most difficult part of our work is to locate good-quality source material,” he said. “No strips ... no books.” Mullaney provides some strips from his personal collection, but he also relies on loans from other collectors and university archives, as well as the newspaper syndicates.

“The sad thing — which makes our work more important — is that for many strips, there are no known collections of the entire run,” Mullaney said. “Often, we will gather strips from around the globe, piecing together a complete set.”

Which explains why the Superman daily strips are being reprinted in chunks. Mullaney said he has a complete set of the Sunday Superman strips, and those will be published chronologically. But the daily strip is tougher.

“I’ve been in touch with many long-term collectors who have tried in vain for decades to assemble a complete set of dailies,” he said. “We started with the Silver Age dailies for two reasons: (1) it’s a period many in our audience, me included, read as children and there’s a great demand to see these strips for the first time; (2) Sidney Friedfertig, who’s been collecting the strip for years, has put together the only known set of the Silver Age strips.

“That said, we’ll print the Silver Age first. Then go back to the 1950s ‘Atomic Age’ (we’re still working on locating some years), and finally, the Golden Age (we have about 90 percent of these in hand).”

The Archie strip is equally problematic.

“There are no known archives of the strip,” Mullaney said. “A fan sent Archie Comics a scrapbook containing the first few years of the daily (1946-48), which is what we used for our first volume. We have since located several complete years from the early 1950s, but not 1949. When we eventually find the missing strips, we’ll print them. In the meantime, we located a great stash of complete dailies from 1960-1970, so skipped ahead to ‘The Swingin’ Sixties.’ “

And it is this work, archiving as much as entertaining, that makes Mullaney’s job a public service.

“The important thing is that, in the long run, we’ll all have complete runs of these strips on our bookcases,” Mullaney said. “It won’t matter if the Silver Age was published first or last. The key is having the complete library!”

And this comic fan couldn’t agree more.


Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com. For more comics news, reviews and commentary, go to his website, comicsroundtable.com.

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