Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Joy of Anthologies: Why 'Dark Horse Presents' Rocks

One of my favorite reads each month is Dark Horse Presents, which was relaunched this past summer after a more than 10 years of being out of print and a few years running as an early digital comics title on MySpace.com. It's an excellent reminder of the value of anthologies and of the rewards (and perils) of sampling material you most likely never would have tried.

I rarely read the original DHP, which had a long run as the publisher's flagship title from 1986-2000. The original series was, as I recall, a normal size black-and-white comic book that helped launch everything from Paul Chadwick's Concrete to Frank Miller's Sin City and John Byrne's Next Men. I did, however, enjoy other anthologies, including the occasional issue of Negative Burn and, being a big 1980s Marvel fan, Marvel Comics Presents, of which i own a complete set of all 175 issues. (And before anyone asks, I somehow completely missed Action Comics Weekly and have yet to read an issue. I've never heard anyone talk about it or recommend anything in it.)

The new DHP deviates from the comics anthology norm by being in color — the market for black and white these days appears limited to folks well-established in that format such as Jeff Smith and Terry Moore — and being extra thick, with most issues clocking in at 80 pages. That makes each book nice and thick — you could line up a nice run of these on your bookshelf and they would look pretty cool — and continues the prestige format of the 1980s that I still like quite a bit.

The content, though, is the real reason to buy this book, and I say that acknowledging right off the bat that not everything in here is good or even things that I like. But any book that serves up new Concrete short stories as well as new serials from the likes of Howard Chaykin, Neal Adams and Jim Steranko is worth a look. Of those, I like Concrete the best because I think the character works very well in that format and Chadwick always produces thoughtful material. Chaykin's "Marked Man," a pulpy tale of a thief hiding in plain sight, also is a good read. Adams' "Blood" is, however, a mess to read with really nice art — very much like Batman: Odyssey though not as out of place here as it is on that iconic character.

A lot of that stuff I would probably buy and read even if it was published on its own. So when the books also include entertaining series I'm only somewhat familiar with, like Carla Speed McNeil's Finder,  Michael Gilbert's Mr. Monster and Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's Beasts of Burden, it's a real bonus. And then there's some completely new stuff that adds even more to the mix, my favorite so far being Eric Powell's one-off short "Isolation" in issue #5.

Again, not all the features are to my liking, but skipping over a story every now and then is a lot easier when it's one of 10 or so stories in the book. And getting 10 or so stories, including a few brand-new serials or one-shots each issue, is a much cheaper way to try new material or read up on new creators than buying a couple full issues of just about anything else. The joy of anthologies comes in finding new things you didn't expect and liking them. I'm having the same experience with prose, working my way through for the first time Harlan Ellison's original Dangerous Visions volume on my Kindle. I'm enjoying that experience for many of the same reasons. The other thing I like about this kind of anthology is it will get you eventually in on the ground floor of something cool, some new comic that will debut in the pages of DHP and go on to be a hit on its own, either as a comic or something else.

I hope DHP sells well enough to be around for a long time — and that its success prompts more publishers to put some of their weight into projects like this that allow for the kind of experimentation comics desperately needs to stay a vital and interesting medium.

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