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Tue, January 4th, 2011 at 12:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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NEWS OF NOTE

RETURN OF THE LETTERS COLUMN:
I have a soft spot for letters columns. I spent a lot of time reading them and writing to them in the 90s. Before I had Pipeline, I had a string of letters printed in the backs of comics like "Star Trek," "The Savage Dragon," "Marvel Comics Presents" and dozens of others. I still get the occasional email from someone just discovering this column who recognizes my name from the letters columns of yesteryear.

And, back in the day, DC had some of the best letters columns. They were spread out over two pages. They weren't afraid to print dissenting letters. The editorial voice had character, often coming from a creator or directly from the editor. But letters columns became outmoded in a Gotta Have It Now world of the internet, and most have disappeared in the last ten years, replaced by message boards, blogs, and Twitter. Who wants to read letters talking about the story of three issues ago? It seems so archaic -- or "quaint," if you'd rather be cheerful about it.

That's why I have mixed feelings about DC announcing the return of the letters column to their books later in 2011. To the credit of Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, they're talking a good game. They're talking about modernizing the letters column to be more up to date, which should be doable in the modern age. Page layouts are done on a computer, after all. All the letters to be responded to are sent via email. There's no need to retype, print out and cut and paste the letters column manually up on a white board before taking it to be shot on film. (I have an example of one of these I'll have to show you next week.)

Why can't there be a simple template in InDesign or Quark or whatever system DC uses to prepare each issue? Insert the letters and responses and you can fit in a letters column at the last minute. Might be hairy at deadline time, but it's definitely do-able.

Even better, DiDio and Lee talk about not having anonymous letters in the columns and having people using real names. That's a big thing. Even in the waning days of the DC letters columns (which I believe I wrote about at the time as being put out of their misery upon their disappearance), they pulled message board posts and emails from the DC AOL message boards, resulting in an ugly letters column filled with letters from NightWing024Rulez and BatGirlFTW instead of T.M. Maple and Malcolm Bourne, etc. Demanding real names and locations is key to having a believable letters column, I think.

My reservation about this comes from the reason for this return. Letters columns are there to fill the space of those two missing story pages in DC's upcoming $2.99 titles. I bet that DC would fill that space with ads to help foot the printing bills or, at the very least, house ads to hype up that month's top releases. I appear to have guessed wrong on that, and I'm happy to admit that. The reality is much nicer.

The only thing left to be seen is the content and the character of these letters columns. Will there be a "voice" to these letter columns, or will they be superslick DC house organs spewing out canned responses? Will the columns not be afraid to print thoughtful criticism, or are these two text pages really just user-submitted house ads?

COPYRIGHT:
There's a lot of talk in the world of comics about intellectual property and creator rights. Given the lawsuits flying against Marvel and DC from creators and their families based on the change of copyright law effective in 1978, I found this Duke law site particularly interesting. It's a partial listing of works that would have fallen into the public domain this year had that copyright law not been changed. It includes two "Lord of the Rings" books, "Lord of the Flies," Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who!," the first issue of "Sports Illustrated" and movies like "On the Waterfront" and "Rear Window."

Someone out there, I'm sure, can do the math for me and list the comic book characters and titles that would be public domain by now, too. Here's the specific information:

"But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years (an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years). Under those laws, works published in 1954 would be passing into the public domain on January 1, 2011."

So what comics came out in 1954? Those are the ones which would just be passing into public domain this year. Everything created before that -- Superman, Batman, et. al. -- would long ago have passed through.

BARKS! AT LAST!:
Merry Christmas to all of comic-dom from Fantagraphics, who announced through Robot 6 over the holidays that they'd be publishing The Complete Carl Barks, to the tune of two hardcover books a year. It'll take 15 years and 30 books to complete the set. I'm greedy and wish they could handle three a year, but I'll take what I can get. Beggars, choosers, etc.

I can only hope that the series sustains itself and can be seen through to the end, because this is a book series that Duck fans have been clamoring for for as long as I've been reading comics, and the previous oversized black and white editions of "The Complete Carl Barks Library" went out of print and up for big bucks in the secondary market.

Of course, the devil is in the details. My initial worry about the smaller size seems to have been quelled in the comments to the original story, where the final size is mentioned: 7 x 10 inches is pretty close to full size. But next to the oversized 80s reprints, that's a big drop. For the most part, I don't think the art will suffer for it, but I'll reserve judgment until I see it, and treasure the album-size format that Gemstone reprinted the works in during their run in the 90s.

Second, the stories are being recolored. I know a lot of people didn't like the gradient-happy work that Susan Daigle-Leach and others did in the 90s, but it never bothered me. The flat original colors do bother me, but that's likely a generational thing nobody could ever hope to overcome. I eagerly look forward to seeing some sample pages out of new colorist, Rich Tommaso. He's basing his work on the original colors, which isn't a bad thing. Taking the new printing processes and paper stock into account, they could very well work.

They're not just scanning in the old comics. That will make the comics look ten times better. I guess they'll be using the same kid of black and white film or files that Gemstone used before they recolored everything, then. That'll work. Again, seeing sample pages will help us relax about reproduction values.

It sounds like they're not going to number the volumes, but rather give each book a title. Maybe the years of publication will be included on the spine to help order them up, I hope. That would be similar to what they do with "Peanuts." Was Barks consistent enough to make that work? His production slowed up a little in the last couple of years, didn't it? Or, I'm misreading the whole interview. We'll see.

The most painful part of the series is that it doesn't start until the end of the year. I want it now! It'll be worth the wait to have this series of hardcover spines facing out of a bookshelf in my house, though. I'll be flipping through all 30 volumes for a break from helping my daughter fill out her college applications. Time will fly, eh?

MASS MARKET:
Check out this display at the checkout of my local Toys R Us. Iron Man, Batgirl, Superman, Toy Story, and Donald Duck! Not bad.

BOOKSTORE:
Borders, in the meantime, is hastening its descent into the abyss. Robot 6, still doing the best job reporting the most interesting news in the blogosphere of late, points out that Borders announced last week that they'd be late with payments to some publishers. They may not even be late -- they can't guarantee any payments will be forthcoming.

That's slightly more honest than most comic publishers, who promise their freelancers that they'll be paid after the mythical movie money comes in or the next big check from Diamond, just before going belly up and leaving everyone high and dry.

Pair that news, by the way, with the 50% Off Any One Item In Store that Borders sent out to its email list last week, and the company starts looking desperate for any sort of quick cash infusion, regardless of long term thinking. If you need to pay the publishers to keep the books coming in, you don't care about robbing Peter to pay Paul. You'll deal with Peter later, when you start robbing Patrick to pay Peter. And then pity poor Penelope, purse snatched to pay Patrick. Etc. etc.

If you were thinking about paying $20 to join Borders Rewards Plus for the year, I'd seriously consider a better investment for 2011, like maybe four copies of whatever #1 issue Image publishes next.

And, of course, look out for comic publishers on razor thin margins to feel the pain from the inevitable demise of Borders.

ORDERING AND UPCOMING:
Just put in an order for a fresh batch of Cinebooks this weekend. In addition to the fourth volume of "Largo Winch," I'm bringing home the first volume of "XIII," which I already owned as a Marvel reprint, but never read; a nearly random volume of "Lucky Luke," a series I'm far behind on reading; and, from Marvel's Soleil line, "Ythaq" Volume 2, the first volume of which I quite enjoyed in 2010.

Yes, one or more of those might inspire a review in the weeks ahead. You've been warned.

DIGITAL:
Why are we so complacently accepting the $3.99 price point on day-and-date digital comics?

The new "Wolverine and Jubilee" miniseries starts this week. I'd read that digitally, if it was available day and date for $2 an issue in a format that I was sure wouldn't be lost to the ether if the website I bought it from went bankrupt tomorrow. It'd be easier to pirate it, still. It's 2011. We've learned little. Sad.

I'll wait for the trade. I'll buy that through Amazon. So, there you go: Keeping the digital prices high saves the brick and mortar retailers by forcing me to Amazon. Doing digital half-measures will not save this industry. I can only hope the publishers learn this lesson before it's too late.

I have other places to spend my money. I don't need to throw it down the digital hole. In some cases I'd like to, but then it's impossible to buy it at the right price point and at the right format.

It can be very frustrating.

Other Ventures: With the new year comes new looks for my two other blogs. VariousAndSundry.com got a much-needed facelift, while AugieShoots.com (my photography blog) gets a whole new Version 2, complete with a new mission statement and purpose. I'm very excited about it, and I hope you'll click over if you're into photography at all.

How to get in touch: Twitter @augiedb || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

Where else I hang out: AugieShoots.com || VariousandSundry.com

TAGS:  pipeline, carl barks, dc comics, fantagraphics, marvel comics, digital comics

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