Few industries are as dependent on staying connected to the past as the comic book business.
From an almost self-destructive devotion to continuity as well as steady reprints of classic stories and homages to memorable covers, comics publishers never miss an opportunity to look back. When have you ever seen DC miss an opportunity to put out an anniversary edition around one of its characters or titles? No doubt you've heard of Marvel #1000, the comic celebrating the 80th anniversary of Marvel Comics #1? So with all the attention given to celebrating the past, how is that we haven't seen the return of one of the great components of Bronze Age comics publishing?
That's right ... where are the Treasury Editions?
I know that a few years back, as the MCU was already in full gear, Marvel released some modern Treasury Editions featuring modern-day tales of Spidey, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Women of Marvel. The goal was the same as it was back in the '70s: to use this special format to introduce new readers, this time fans who left the theater after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) wanting to learn more about Peter Quill and his band of cosmic misfits. I'm not sure how those books sold, but I really wish Marvel would have kept putting out those super-sized reprints. For those not old enough to remember a time before cell phones or basic cable existed, Treasuries were oversized comic anthologies in the 1970s printed tabloid style in a 10x14 format. These books were HUGE and full of awesome. They were as effective a gateway drug into comics as any other type of reprint, because what kid doesn't want to read a superhero comic that's bigger than a cereal box?
Oversized comics date back to the early days of the medium. Humor Publishing put out books larger than standard comics, and DC Comics in the 1930s printed some titles such as New Fun #1 in 10x15 format. But for all intents and purposes, the Treasury Age of Comics began in 1972 with the publication of an iconic, misunderstood young hero: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
DC published The Limited Collector's Edition of Rudolph, and within a year released another Treasury, featuring Shazam. Marvel was never one to let a good idea go uncopied, so in 1974 it released its first oversized anthology, starring Spider-Man. The image on the cover to Spectacular Spider-Man #1 is very likely the most-seen Spidey image in history. What made the Treasuries great for fans was their accessibility. It was a cost-effective way to read early adventures of heroes like Spider-Man and the Hulk. For publishers, they were a neat entry point for new readers.
Treasury books would be the chosen platform for two of the most important comics projects of the decade. The first was 1976's groundbreaking first Marvel-DC crossover, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man. The success of that book led to another team-up, this time matching the Man of Steel with the Greatest.
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali may sound absurd, but you have to appreciate the context of the times. Back in 1978, when the comic debuted, Ali was the most famous man on the planet. I mean, there's famous, and there's Ali famous. This was a BIG DEAL. The resulting story, essentially involving invading aliens and a story twist that 7-year-old me didn't see coming, is considered by some to be the most beautifully drawn comic of the modern age. It's hard to argue that point when you see the in-his-prime Neal Adams pencils with gorgeous inks by Dick Giordano and Terry Austin. Other memorable Treasury books included Star Wars comics edition, and a personal favorite of mine, the Wizard of Oz adaptation. Maybe it had to do with rising costs, or the fact that collectors had a real hard time keeping them in Near Mint condition, but Treasuries died out once we entered the 1980s.
But that was then. Now, could these oversized beauties make a comeback? I say, why not? I'm frankly stunned we didn't see Marvel put out a retro Treasury as part of its 80th anniversary, or finally give fans the X-Men Treasury book we all wanted so many years ago (my grudge game is strong, people).
The 2010 re-release of the Superman/Ali book in an oversized hardcover edition was such a hit, it's been reprinted more than a half-dozen times. DC may have fumbled the launch of its Black Label imprint with its clumsy handling of the Batman: Damned hullabaloo, but the oversized format used for those books was a great decision. The almost-Treasury-sized comics look great and are a proper showcase for top-shelf storytellers like Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, and Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. with their current Superman: Year One. We need to see more books in this format.
Treasury books also carry more value than just a cheap nostalgia money grab. I have no idea how the Marvel Treasury revivals from 2016-17 sold, but since then publishing tactics have evolved. Imagine kids coming out of the theater from the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster seeing a Treasury-style book featuring those same characters at the concession stand. The Treasury format was always meant to be something different, something special. Don't use it to reach the same fans who already buy comics. Use them to reach the fans who love the film and TV heroes, but need a way into the source material. In that regard, why can't the Treasuries work at Walmart? The new stories being commissioned by DC for the 100-page Giant comics sold at the retail giant (and doing very well) would look even better in 10x14 size. And who's to say Archie or Image couldn't do their own super-sized book? I bet fans wouldn't kick a Riverdale or SAGA Treasury edition out of their collection.
When you're fighting for attention in a crowded marketplace, you need to find ways to stand out. Sometimes bigger is better.
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