Geek Punditry #14: Filling In the Gaps

I’ve been reading comic books pretty much since I learned to read. The hook caught me when I was still in elementary school and my dad brought home a box of Archie Comics from a co-worker, and it was set even more firmly when my uncle gave me some old issues of Green Lantern and Legion of Super-Heroes he had. And much like watching your favorite TV show over and over, rereading old comic books is a form of comfort entertainment for folks like me. Oh sure, I still read new stuff, but revisiting the classics is like a shot of dopamine straight to the ol’ cerebral cortex (or wherever dopamine goes). The digital revolution in media has made that easier. You can find old stories you lost years ago, voraciously read precious comics without the fear of damaging those pristine back issues in your collection, or FINALLY read that missing issue of Power Pack you could never find as a kid that explained why the hell all of the kids had suddenly traded super powers and how the Snarkwars ended. This was serious business, friends.

Imagine waiting 35 years for apps to be invented so you could finally read this.

Of course, not everything is available digitally, not yet anyway. With nearly a century of comic books to digitize before they can be made available (and rights issues tying up a lot of them in various ways), the dream of a single device from which you can read every comic book ever made is probably going to remain a dream. But with Marvel Comics boasting over 30,000 comics on its app and DC hosting a library of over 24,000, it could practically take a lifetime to go through the stuff that’s already out there. Psyched for the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie? You can read every issue of their series right now. Pumped for the Blue Beetle film? The history of Jaime Reyes awaits you! Want to go back to the beginning? Check out every appearance of Superm–

Oh, wait.

Actually, not every issue of the assorted Superman comics from the past 85 years is among the 24K titles DC Universe Infinite has waiting for you. As every American learns in first grade, Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and appeared in nearly every one of the title’s 904 issues before DC’s line-wide relaunch in 2011. But of those 904 issues, only 463 of them are on DCUI as of this writing. There are similar gaps in the other long-running Superman titles such as Superman and Adventures of Superman. Clark’s buddy Bruce Wayne has a similar problem: of the 811 pre-reboot issues of his flagship Detective Comics, DCUI has 696 as of now, again, with similar gaps in his other titles. Not as bad as the voids in Superman’s history, but still frustrating.

You’re telling me THIS isn’t worth digitizing?

My favorite characters and stories, as you may have noticed, tend to lean more towards DC than Marvel, but I also believe in credit where credit is due, and when it comes to making their library available, Marvel is considerably ahead of DC. You can read almost the entire run of the main series of their flagship properties like Fantastic Four, Avengers, and X-Men, and any gaps that exist are far smaller than those of their rivals. They’re also filling in the gaps much faster, with an almost weekly addition of big chunks of missing books (the last couple of weeks have given us dozens of issues of Dazzler, for instance), whereas DC rarely puts more than five or six older issues up a week, and usually from five or six different series, making it take much longer to complete a run if it gets completed at all.

I know it’s not as simple as pushing a button, of course. For comics that were produced before computer technology became a standard part of the production process (which means practically every comic produced before the 90s and a lot of them after that), digitizing them is a process. You need to find quality prints, scan each page by hand, and remaster them to make for a solid digital reading experience. For many comics, that means completely recoloring them based on the original guides. This takes time and money, so I don’t mind the wait. What bothers me, and a lot of other fans, is the kind of haphazard nature of what gets added. For example, this week’s slate of older books being added to the app includes Creature Commandos #1 from 2000, the first issue of the 1991 update to Who’s Who in the DC Universe, the first issue of the Eclipso: The Darkness Within crossover from 1992, Superman: Day of Doom #1 (a four-issue miniseries from 2002 produced for the 10th anniversary of Superman’s “Death”), and Stormwatch #46 from 1997. They’ve been (slowly) adding Stormwatch for some time now, so that makes sense, and Creature Commandos was part of James Gunn’s big DC announcement from a few weeks ago, so I get that too. The rest of them…baffling. Not that I’m complaining about anything being added, I have no objection to any of these titles. I just can’t figure why they’re going to those books when they haven’t yet added, for example, issues #216-274 of The Flash.

Less important than Creature Commandos #1.

Some things will probably never get digitized, I know that. For example, I’ve got no idea who currently owns the rights to the Adventures of Bob Hope, Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners series launched in the 50s, and I doubt anybody except me actually cares. There are issues of the old Showcase anthology series that featured licensed characters DC has no rights to, such as G.I. Joe and James Bond, and which will almost certainly never be seen on the app. Then there’s Sovereign Seven, a series by legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont, set in the DC Universe and often guest-starring DC characters, but for which the copyright was held by Claremont and artist Dwayne Turner. It would probably take some sort of monetary agreement between all the parties involved to add that series, and with so many other books still waiting for their shot, it seems unlikely that DC will make the effort to do so any time soon.

Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to know what happens next.

Then there are long runs of Green Lantern and Justice League Europe from the 90s that now present serious problems because the writer, Gerard Jones, plead guilty to possession of child pornography in 2018. Here’s a case where it’s perfectly understandable that DC doesn’t want to do anything that looks like they’re promoting his work or having to pay him royalties, and I don’t blame them for that. But it sucks for the other writers and artists who worked on those comics and who, through no fault of their own, find their back catalogs throttled. It also leaves us a case where some pretty big storylines are missing or incomplete, both for DC and Marvel. (Most notably for Marvel, Jones wrote what is to date the only ongoing Wonder Man series. With that character slated to get a Disney+ MCU series, normally you would expect his comics to be fast tracked for inclusion on the app, but as of now the only issues available are a few that are chapters in the Avengers crossover series, Operation: Galactic Storm.) 

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is because DC recently held their first “Backlist Breakout” poll for users of the DCUI app. Users were presented with a slate of eight titles not currently available and were asked to vote on which ones we wanted to move to the front of the queue, with the top three promised to be added to the app beginning in June. My vote was for one of the eventual winners, DC Challenge, a miniseries from the 80s where an all-star group of writers and artists participated in a sort of “exquisite corpse” experiment: the first team produced an issue of a DC crossover and then handed it off to the next team to continue the story with no instructions or input, figuring it out as they went along. This kind of storytelling has been done in books and other forms of entertainment, and the result was a delightfully insane comic that went totally off the rails, leaving the creators of the last issue the unenviable task of trying to make sense of a plot that had ballooned to include time travel, Nazis, the planet Earth itself being moved to another galaxy, and Groucho Marx. I cannot wait to read it again.

The most important vote you’ll cast this year.

The other two winners in this round are books I’ve never read: the five issues of the 1967 Blue Beetle series (featuring Ted Kord, not Jaime, and published by Charleton Comics, but which DC owns the rights to) and the first 12 issues of the seminal fantasy series Warlord. The support for Warlord on the DC boards made its victory seem almost a foregone conclusion, and I look forward to it, since I’ve never read those issues. But it does open up another problem. Only the first 12 issues of Warlord have been promised. That’s 12 out of a series that ran for 133 issues plus six annuals. If fans want to see issues #13-24, Warlord is going to have come out triumphant again in the NEXT round of “Backlist Breakout” this summer. And then keep winning, every twelve issues, again and again, to finally make the whole series available. If it fails to win in even one round fans will be left dangling, their series put on a shelf with other unfinished titles like Adventure Comics, Doom Patrol, and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane.

“Is this a joke to you?”

Again, I don’t mind waiting for everything to be digitized. And I even like the idea of “Backlist Breakout” making a game out of deciding what the next goodie added to DCUI will be. But there are some gaps that are so conspicuous that I just can’t figure out why DC isn’t doing anything to fix them right now.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is admittedly thrilled that DC finally finished adding Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew to the app a while back, but he’s quite put out that they haven’t gotten around to the three-issue Oz/Wonderland War miniseries that wrapped up the original Zoo Crew’s story yet. 


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