Metatextual Artifacts

By | Monday, April 13, 2020 2 comments
Most of my personal comics library consists of books. Several thousand pamphlet comics, a few thousand trade paperbacks and hardcovers, and a few hundred prose books about comics. When I first started getting in to comics, reprints were sporadic and inconsistent at best, so a lot of what I picked up were the original printings of the comics stories. Because that's what I was primarily interested in. I wanted to learn about how the Avengers formed and what those original adventures were like, I didn't necessarily care that I had an actual copy of The Avengers #1. But for many stories, getting those original issues was literally the only way I could read them.

In the vast majority of cases, I'm interested in the story so I don't care what format it comes in. At one point, I wanted to see how Batman evolved as a character and bought the first several volumes of The Batman Chronicles. They're not great reprints and they're on cheaper paper, but it gets the basic stories across. I can see, "Oh, here's how they introduced Catwoman" or "Oh, I've got context for the Red Hood now" or whatever.

On occasion, I do find the context of the original book helpful. If I know a reprint has been modified somehow (often getting recolored) or if I want to look at the original fan letters or ads or something, I'll try to go back to the original if I'm able. That's still not always possible from a practical standpoint, but there are sometimes facsimile editions that come very close. I've actually picked up several of the IDW Artist's Edition books so I can even look at close reproductions of the actual art used for production. It's not quite as good as looking at the actual art pages themselves, but those are even harder to get your hands on than the old comics!

This brings me to a bit of my current dilemma.

I also have in my possession any number of ephemera that is tied to comics, but not actually comics themselves. Marketing pieces, mostly, promoting an upcoming series or event. They're almost entirely tangential to the comics I normally read. But they can provide a great deal of context that would otherwise be absent from the actual comics. Often there's some additional art unique to the marketing that is absent from the comics. Letters or promotional copy that help explain what the creators were trying to do, which might not be evident in the final product depending on how talented they are! I find this type of stuff incredibly useful when I'm researching something, but the problem is that it's frequently so rare that it's barely even known about by anyone, much less accessible in any form!

Taskmaster business card
For example, I have in my possession a "business card" from Marvel's Taskmaster character that was used to promote the "Acts of Vengeance" storyline. (The front is pictured at the right, the back featured a checklist of all the issues the crossover was featured in.) Now, this was from Marvel and was widely promoted so I expect a number of folks who were Marvel fans from that era might recall it, but how often does this come up? If you were working on a piece about "Acts of Vengeance" how likely would you be to even come across a reference to it if you didn't know it already existed? And if you did, how likely would you be able to find one? It would have to be an original artifact because it's never been reprinted. Why would it be?

And that's one of the interesting challenges. Finding these esoteric metatextual items to put the actual comics in a broader context. This is the stuff that wasn't saved at all because people were interested in the comics, not the promotions of them. There historically was that proverbial mother who threw out every kid's comics, thus making many of them rare, but the kids themselves often didn't even bother to save the ancillary stuff, so those pieces can be even more rare! But those pieces can prove very enlightening if you can find them.

Of course, the downside to recognizing that is that you loathe to throw out anything you might get contemporaneously because you never know when it might prove to hold some significance later on. Which means I've also got in my personal library several drawers and boxes full of what likely looks like (and may well end up being) garbage. But you never know when it might come in handy...
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Matt K said...

I love this. The ephemera in my Sherlock Holmes collection is priceless. Almost anyone could collect the books, DVDs, etc. that I have, but who would also have a lobby card from a Great Lakes Theater production of a Sherlock Holmes play…

Man, "Acts of Vengeance." Earlier today I was thinking about Scourge of the Underworld.

Damn did the 1980s have the good Events at Marvel. Secret Wars, of course. "Let's cap a bunch of C-list villains." "Let's have supervillains change up their usual antagonists." "Let's cap a bunch of muties." Etc.

The stuff that's intrigued me -- but I haven't gotten into because where would I put it? -- are the in-store three-dimensional display pieces. The cardboard mini-bookshelf with a "life size" cutout of the protagonist. The counter unit displays. Mobiles. Lots of interesting stuff there, but storage is definitely an issue for a lot of it!

I think the reason a lot of those earlier Marvel events worked was because of Jim Shooter. He kept close oversight of pretty much every one while he was EIC, and one of his constant mandates (not just for events, but for every issue of every book) was that it could always be someone's first issue so make sure all the relevant character and story information was presented. There was zero chance of any of that stuff being collected into a TPB back then, so each issue had to stand on its own. Creators weren't asked to write for two different formats simultaneously and couldn't "cheat" by leaving plot points or character identifiers for just "once somewhere in the broader story maybe."

Shooter's successor, Tom DeFalco, wasn't as authoritarian about that kind of thing. He still practiced it, but he let it slide a bit more, so the events during his tenure don't hold up quite as well in that regard, I think. Particularly towards the end of his time as EIC.