When DC announced that a price hike from $2.99 US to $3.99 US for titles such as Booster Gold and Teen Titans would be accompanied by expanded content in the form of backup features (Blue Beetle and Ravager, respectively), fan and industry-pundit reaction seemed fairly level-headed. Many were understandably relieved that readers would at least get more value for the extra buck. Others questioned the viability of such an approach. I can understand such skepticism, as the addition of backup features in conjunction with a price increase has been tried before. In fact, DC’s did exactly this in 1980, and the experiment only lasted about two years.
A couple of years after the infamous “DC Implosion” — which saw the cancellation of a number of new or short-lived titles, launched as part of what the publisher previously billed as the “DC Explosion” — DC announced it was raising prices from 40 cents to 50 but was adding eight-page backup features pretty much across the board.
In an in-house ad campaign portraying the various backup features as non-existent collectible stamps, DC touted these additions as reasons to get really excited about its comics. It worked for me, as many of these features spotlighted characters I’d never heard of before. I ended up reading a lot of these features, and through them, I was introduced to an even more diverse array of weird and wonderful characters.
Among some of the more noteworthy features DC launched in comics carrying the September 1980 cover date was Nemesis in The Brave and the Bold. Nemesis, by Cary Burkett and Dan Spiegle, was the only wholly original character to be featured in one of these backups. His storyline culminated in the main pages of the series as he teamed up with Batman. The character was revived a few years later as part of John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell’s Suicide Squad. He turned up in cameos in the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, and today boasts the prominent role as Princess Diana’s love interest in Wonder Woman, penned by Gail Simone.
Some titles had rotating features. The Super Friends backup alternated among the well-known Wonder Twins and the lesser-known international heroes Jack O’Lantern and the Seraph. Action Comics alternated between the Atom and the new Air Wave, later added Aquaman to the rotation and occasionally featured a couple of those characters teaming up. Superboy backup stories alternated between Krypto the Super Dog and Superbaby. Even the non-super-hero titles got in on the act, with Scalphunter featured in the back of issues of Jonah Hex, Enemy Ace in Unknown Soldier and O.M.A.C. appearing in Warlord.
Probably my favorite of all of these eight-page backup features was the one that never spotlighted the same character twice. A regular feature called “Whatever Happened to…?” appeared in most issues of DC Comics Presents, the publisher’s monthly Superman team-up title, for two years or so. Most of these short features offered endings to the stories of lesser-known or used DC characters. Most were various Golden Age super-heroes, but it also turned its attention to obscure genre-adventure properties of the past, such as Western lawman Johnny Thunder, private eye of the future Star Hawkins and the joint future of Mark Merlin and Prince Ra-Man.
So this year, DC will take another stab at it, not only with Booster Gold and Teen Titans, but with its upcoming Doom Patrol relaunch, which will carry Metal Men backup stories. It would seem this is something of an experiment for DC, though it’s already dipped its toes in these waters recently. Chapters of “The Sinestro Corps War” storyline that ran through the Green Lantern titles not long ago featured “Tales of the Sinestro Corps,” featuring origin stories of various Sinestro Corps members. And Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Dr. Thirteen backups from Tales of the Unexpected eclipsed the main Spectre feature and were collected in a well-reviewed and solid-selling trade paperback (Architecture and Mortality).
While I’m at a loss as to why DC Editorial thinks there’s a demand for a solo Ravager feature in the back of every issue of Teen Titans, the decision to give Blue Beetle a second lease on life in the pages of Booster Gold is a good one. Whether or not there’s sufficient potential in the character to sustain an ongoing series on its own is arguable, but clearly DC recognizes that the Beetle’s newfound popularity on television (see the new Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon) merits a move to maintain the character’s visibility in its comics.
My hope is that DC approaches this renewed initiative more aggressively and markets it accordingly as well. It’s not that I think a stronger effort will yield different results than what we saw in the early 1980s. Quite the opposite. I see this latest kick at the can being as short-lived as those before it. And that’s OK. The reason I want DC to push this endeavor is that there could be a payoff, but it’d be an emotional one for a younger audience that’s just now discovering comics and the colorful world of super-heroes. Memories of the backups of the 1980s evoke a warm, nostalgic response in my heart, and I relish the notion that another generation has the chance to experience something comparable.
Just for the nostalgia factor, I’d like to see DC launch such backup features throughout its main line of titles. How about restoring Adam Strange and Scalphunter to the pages of Green Lantern and Jonah Hex, respectively? What about a Penguin serial in the back of Secret Six? One of the strengths of a shared-continuity, super-hero universe is discovering or rediscovering new characters and worlds, and expanding the line of these monthly shorter stories offers more opportunities for such discoveries.
Of course, that a simpler time couldn’t sustain these backups for any extended period (and at a cheaper price, at that) would seem to signal the same approach isn’t going to work today. But in a quarter century or so, I’d like to believe some grown-up lover of the comics medium will think back on the backup features of 2009, smile and wax poetically about them. Probably in his telejournal on the binary brainscape or something.