On History: The Secret Stories

By | Tuesday, August 18, 2015 3 comments
When I was just getting into comic books in the early 1980s, my options for "research" were pretty limited. There were no comic shops nearby to pick up back issues, conventions for few and far between, the internet didn't yet exist, and my income as a 12-year-old was limited to pocket change I earned caddying at a local golf course. (Which, by the way, was nowhere NEAR as neat a job as Caddyshack led me to believe!) The reprint policies we see today were FAR from the norm, which meant that even finding reprints of old comics was difficult!

But for some reason, in 1981, Ideals produced a series of four trade paperbacks featuring a short collection of stories reprinting tales of Spider-Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four housed under a "Secret Story of..." umbrella. They had original painted covers (although I can't find out who the artist was) and all featured the same back illustration and cross-promotion (seen at right). Each book contained an origin (though not necessarily the original telling), one stand-alone story from around 1970, and a then-recent-ish stand-alone story. I presume the intent was to show how the characters have progressed over the course of two decades. Each books had a painted cover David Anthony Kraft provided introductions for each story, short character biographies, and some general background information.

And, for whatever reason, our local library had a set of these.

It was a small library; the town only had a population of about 7,000. They had a few floppies that periodically came (I only recall The Avengers but I'm sure there were a few other titles) but these Ideals books were just about the full extent of their graphic novels section. As I recall, they were shelved between the Garfield and Peanuts collections, and the how-to-draw books, mostly ones by Lee Ames. I checked these out fairly regularly, particularly the Fantastic Four volume, and until I got my hands on a set of the Marvel Handbooks around 1988/89, these were pretty much the extent of what I was able to learn about the history of the Marvel Universe.

Strange to think now of the limitations fans faced even as recently as the 1980s with regards to older stories. We knew they were out there; the current issue number indicated that there were several hundred issues that came before. If you could get to a comic shop, you could rummage through the back issue bins, but even if they did have every issue (which they never even came close to!) you couldn't afford them all. You could find the origin stories in a few places, but if you wanted to see what happened in #5, or #12, or whatever, you were largely out of luck until you could find an original copy and afford to purchase it.

Even back in the day, I recognized that those Ideals books did not live up to the publisher's name. The spot illustrations used throughout the books were very badly cropped and placed. I didn't think the story selections were all that good (greatful as I was to have them available). Kraft's interstitial prose struck me as both sophomoric and condescending. But they did help to connect me with comics that were published before I was born, and provided a window to a larger tapestry of stories. And for that, I'll have to thank them.
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Matt K said...

I remember one or maybe two pamphlet-format publications along similar lines, with text summaries of characters' history accompanied by panels or clipped out images as illustrations.

Spider-Man had one, and maybe… a general Marvel one also? I think these were probably four issues, and then if my memories are not totally muddled the Fantastic Four series I'm thinking of ran longer, with more detailed issue-by-issue summaries. At least one of these things had "Index" as part of the title, maybe it was the FF series.

(Do you have any idea what I'm talking about, hopefully…?)

I purged all these years ago, probably as part of growing boredom, though if things weren't quite yet to the point that they are today it was getting there. With sprawling wikis for everything from Hellboy to My Little Pony, plus of course the cheap phonebook reprint editions, such texts seem very much archaic curiosities.

But they are a powerful reminder of how things have changed with longform fiction like this. Shoot, I remember when comics were also jam-packed with footnote references to back issues, which iirc also disappeared years ago, probably owing in part to the same changes.

I'm really a bit curious what this must be like for a fan under, say, 25. Must be a much different experience in some ways.

There were a few different things along those lines. Comics File Magazine did a series of "Files" TPB books -- Fantastic Four Files, Superman Files, etc. FantaCo did, I think, six issues of "Chronicles" floppies -- Daredevil Chronicles, X-Men Chronicles, etc. There was a Marvel Comics Index series devoted one issue each to the FF (with a Steranko cover!), Thor, Spidey, etc. (This was before the more commonly known 12-ish issue series that each character got later. Peter Olshevsky did all of them.)

There were a few other reprint books too. In 1979, Fireside had a series similar to the Ideals one. They had the Origins, Son of Origins, etc. books as well as one each dedicated to the FF, Hulk, Spidey, Cap, and Dr. Strange(!). Here also they had unique painted covers.

Matt K said...

Okay, thanks. It seemed like there were at least two related but different types of summary series that I was recalling. Cheers.