Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Century 21 Volume 3: Escape from Aquatraz

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Century 21 Volume 3: Escape from Aquatraz (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010)

I really, really didn't intend to buy this book.

Many months ago, Reynolds & Hearn released the first two editions in a planned ongoing series of reprints from the pages of the '60s British weekly TV Century 21 and its follow-up comics. These were tremendously successful comics for a few years - at the height of Thunderbirds-mania, the title was said to be selling a third of a million a week - but after a while, interest in Gerry Anderson's loosely-linked series ebbed. TV 21, as it was called after 1968, was canceled and merged with Valiant in 1970, having already absorbed its own two or three sister spinoffs. The last of the period Anderson strips, based on the live-action UFO, ran in the comparatively short-lived Countdown. Strips were later created for subsequent Anderson series like Space: 1999 and Terrahawks for the comic Look-In, but these are outside these reprints' purview, which ends with UFO in 1970-71.

What I said about the first two volumes was that they were interesting but deeply flawed. Certainly they're great reproductions of the original comics, on terrific paper, but I don't like the patchy, "best-of" way that the series are presented. For example, here in volume three, there are two Stingray storylines (21 episodes by Alan Fennell and Ron Embleton) from 1965-66, two Fireball XL-5 storylines (10 episodes by Fennell, Mike Noble and Frank Hampson) from 1965, three Thunderbirds storylines (15 episodes by Scott Goodall and Frank Bellamy) from 1968 and much later in 1969, a Captain Scarlet one-off story by Howard Elson and Ron Turner from a TV21 Annual and a later two-part story by Goodall and Noble, plus a couple of Zero X stories and a single UFO done-in-one.

This is completely maddening. It's like trying to listen to the Beatles catalog by way of a bunch of high-schoolers' randomly-assembled mix tapes. The publisher should have either reprinted all the comic content of each issue chronologically, which would have preserved the occasional crossover episodes, or presented each series on its own - volumes of the complete Thunderbirds, the complete Stingray, the complete Lady Penelope and so on.

But the real bugbear is trying to read the episodes and dealing with the damn issue of the gutter. These Stingray episodes originally ran as a two-page splash across TV21's centerspread, and somehow, despite an exterior margin in this book of two inches, the production department couldn't find the space on the insides of the pages to create a reasonable interior break. Some cavemen in the book trade think that having the negative space caused by interior margins an inelegant and ugly solution. You know what's worse? Being unable to read what you've paid for because word balloons and artwork has disappeared into a gutter.

You've heard this; I said so when I reviewed the fourth volume. But see, the thing is, Diamond, the incompetent distributor who services comic shops, let this copy of volume three fall into a black hole, as they do, and I wasn't planning to see it. It was obnoxious enough when volume four showed up and neither of my major complaints about the series had been addressed over the many months between the first two volumes and it.

(And my blog is that damn important, by cracky, that Reynolds & Hearn should have been paying attention. Yes, I'm joking, but I also resent paying for substandard merchandise in a system where you have to pre-order a book and cross your fingers for fear of the American distributor, Diamond, canceling the order. This has happened more than makes any sense, and yet we wonder why the direct market is falling apart. [Also, where the hell are those Johnny Red reprints that you solicited through Diamond a year ago, Titan?] I prefer pre-ordering a book through a local shop. The system doesn't reward customers like me.)

So anyway, after the fourth book arrived, I told my local shop, the excellent Bizarro Wuxtry in Athens, that I was done with this series, and no matter how much I like the comics, I would not be paying for a volume five, so please don't order one. About two weeks later, the long-missing third volume showed up, and I felt obliged to shell out for it. (Direct market comic shops enjoy the discounts that they do because the books are non-returnable.) We've since got the word that the planned fifth volume has been canceled as the publisher has gone under, but rumors have been circulating that Marcus Hearn, who is, genuinely, a real champion of sixties teevee and for whom I have the greatest respect, hopes to revive the reprints at another company.

I hate that these great comics have been handled this way. There's surely an opportunity to do a proper, complete, warts-and-all reprint, either with or without the original behind-the-scenes "news" articles about the crazy plot machinations from the 21st century, and that's the book I want to buy. I won't be purchasing any other books in this particular series unless they fix the gutter issue and, honestly, since I don't have any confidence that they will, hope to see a proper, complete TV21 archive start up in 2020 or so.

No comments: