The purpose of comic-strip collections from America's rich past is entertainment. But in many cases, they're a public service, too.
Such is the case with IDW's "Library of American Comics," which aggressively searches out classic comic strips in danger of disappearing, because there was no mechanism (outside of private collectors) to save them. The Library, edited by the legendary Dean Mullaney, is in the process of preserving dozens of classic comic strips in beautiful hardback collections.
"The goal of the Library of American Comics is first and foremost to preserve and bring into print as many classic strips as possible," he says. "It's equally important that we frame the strip within its historical context, which is why our books contain introductory essays that provide details about the strip and the cartoonist. This way, new readers can jump right in and start enjoying strips that may be as much as 100 years old."
The Library is reprinting such strips as "Bringing Up Father" and "Polly and Her Pals," both of which began in 1913. It's also preserving dozens of other famous strips from various eras, from "Bloom County" to "Gasoline Alley" to "Flash Gordon."
Two recent releases highlight the diversity and quality of the Library —- and raise some questions: "Archie: The Swingin' Sixties Dailies Volume 1: 1960-1963" ($39.99) and "Superman: The Silver Age Dailies Volume One: 1959-1961" ($49.99).
The "Superman" book will seem vaguely familiar to longtime Super-fans, because most of the stories are adapted from 1950s Superman comic books — but in longer, comic-strip form, allowing for more details and extrapolation. Best of all, these Super-tales are brought to you by classic Super-artists Curt Swan and Wayne Boring. It's like finding a stash of old Superman comics you've never seen before.
The "Archie" book is equally good, with gag-a-day strips by original Archie artist (and probable creator) Bob Montana. After 20 years working on the Riverdale gang, Montana is at the top of his form in these genuinely funny strips starring not only the ol' redhead, but Betty, Jughead, Miss Grundy, Mr. Weatherbee, Reggie and Veronica.
This gag-a-day format contrasts with the first Archie collection that IDW released, which collected strips from 1946 to 1948 that told long-form stories. The reason those strips exist is because both the Archie and Superman comic strips began in the early 1940s. That raises some obvious questions, like why are these two collections from the '60s (called "the Silver Age" in comics parlance), and will the other Superman and Archie strips ever be collected?
Mullaney explained the problem. "The most difficult part of our work is to locate good-quality source material," he said. "No strips ... no books." Mullaney provides some strips from his personal collection, but he also relies on loans from other collectors and university archives, as well as the newspaper syndicates.
"The sad thing — which makes our work more important — is that for many strips, there are no known collections of the entire run," Mullaney said. "Often, we will gather strips from around the globe, piecing together a complete set."