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Fans vote with their pocketbooks on the fate of Marvel's Masterworks series with the new FF volume.

By Craig Shutt     November 08, 2000

Marvel Masterworks Editor Tom Brevoort wasn't worried that his new volume of Silver Age reprints, containing Fantastic Four #51-#60 and Annual #4, would ship late. And the hardcover's appearance in late October, two weeks earlier than its solicited Nov. 8 due date, was a pleasant surprise for fans who've been awaiting a long time for new editions of the hardcover reprint series. What does worry him is that he can't promise there'll be any more volumes. That decision will be up to the fans, who will 'vote' on the continuation of the series by buying the new volume. The situation is simple, he says: Not enough sales, no more books.

Supply and Demand

The Masterworks series began in 1987, a couple of years before DC's on-going Archives program started, and reprinted key Marvel Silver Age and X-Men comics in hardcover books. The series ran for 27 volumes before being discontinued, even as DC's Archives program picked up steam. The reason? Sales on later books in the series dropped off, apparently because retailers over-ordered based on sales of earlier volumes and then sold off back stock at discounts when the demand for later books didn't hold up. That further encouraged fans to wait for closeout sales rather than order the new books up front, decreasing print runs and ultimately dropping sales below profitable levels.

Brevoort's need for a buyer vote is pretty standard fare in comics, where low-sellers disappear quickly. But he's heavily promoting the importance of this volume in order to encourage early and fast sales to fans. The book, now on sale, costs $49.95 for 240 pages of full-color Stan Lee and Jack Kirby adventures. This includes some of the best-remembered stories from the series, in a period when Lee and Kirby were at their peak. Many of the stories have been reprinted only once, during the 1970s.

'There has been a devoted base of fans and retailers who have been asking for the Masterworks to return, and I personally like the books,' says Brevoort, who edited the final volumes of the original series and has been editing the recent second printings. He also sees the high bids the later books generate on online auction sites. 'But those just show how high one or two people will go for one copy of the book. I need about 5,000 people to pay cover price.'

The new FF Masterwork met its ship date so easily because it was printed overseas to a production run set before final retail orders were received. 'A key to this book's profitability was finding a supplier who could do a good job with it, given more time and a lower cost,' explains Brevoort. 'We bit the bullet and created an order to ensure we had it on time. Now our job is to sell enough in the first few months via initial orders and reorders so it makes sense to do more.'

A New Approach

If given the chance, the next in the series would be Daredevil #11-#20. 'Daredevil is a popular comic right now,' says Brevoort, 'but most of those stories haven't been reprinted in a long time if at all, and they have great artwork by John Romita Sr. and Gene Colan. Those are the points that I think drive strong sales on a Masterworks volume.' In fact, Daredevil #18 may never have been reprinted, and the rest appeared in a hodge-podge of different titles, making such a collection a godsend for back-issue fans.

Another key reason for reprinting the Daredevil issues is that they aren't currently scheduled as part of the Essentials reprint program. That series includes 20 or more issues in a black-and-white phone-book style for $14.95. The reproduction sometimes is muddy, but for many, it's hard to beat the reading value. 'With a program like the Masterworks that already is struggling to remain viable, we don't want to muddy the water by doing material already reprinted in Essentials,' says Brevoort. 'That would cut into my already shaky sales numbers.'

In its defense, the Masterworks program offers high-quality paper and gorgeous coloring, but the mention of a Daredevil volume brings up a complaint lodged about the first Daredevil volume. It was colored using modern computer techniques that added shading and other effects not available to 1960s colorists. Brevoort assures purists that the original coloring was followed precisely for the new Fantastic Four book.

'The early Masterworks had pretty good budgets, so the pages were recolored completely,' explains Brevoort. In the case of the Daredevil book, they tried an upgrade since the coloring was being done from scratch anyway. 'My philosophyand budgetis different.' For the new volume, Brevoort dug out his original Fantastic Four comics, shot clean color copies and marked those up as color guides for the new separations, ensuring exact replication. 'It looks righter to me, and it costs less.'

To create the crispest reproduction possible, Brevoort took the extra step of making a public plea to the owners of original art for the comics to allow him to borrow their pages for use in the book. Although he could offer only an acknowledgement rather than any kind payment, including a comp copy of the book, he received a strong response. He received all of issue #53, five pages from #51, three pages from Annual #4 and assorted others.

Brevoort points out that as a result of this artwork, the Masterwork will showcase the best copy of #53 ever printed, owing to its use of all the original art, better reproduction equipment, better paper and original coloring guides. For other issues, he received black-and-white reprints from UK publications, which were cleaner than some of the company's own existing repros. 'They're not as crisp as original artwork, but they were better than the other options I had available to me.'

Rather than being upset at the lack of clean repros in Marvel's files, Brevoort says he's more amazed the company has as good of a collection of past art pages as it does. 'The stats and repros haven't always been given the greatest care, because maintaining them wasn't a high priority,' says Brevoort. Issues that are gathered and sent out for foreign reprints or other occasional use weren't always refiled properly upon return, creating chaos. Marvel's bankruptcy also dropped the refiling of art pretty low on the list of needs.

Having to remaster some of the old art isn't a new concern, he notes. But with the original Masterworks series, the larger budget allowed gaps to be overcome with more ease. 'Several covers in the original volumes are actually clever forgeries by John Romita Sr.,' reveals Brevoort. Romita was given blow-ups of the cover stats for reinking. On the Iron Man Masterwork, Brevoort had such bad copies for one issue that he sent stats for the entire issue to original artist Don Heck and had him reink it completely. 'We had more leeway then to spend extra money filling the gaps.'

Extra Goodies

As added incentive, the new book also includes two goodies not included in the original issues: two extra pieces of Jack Kirby art. Including extras is something not done in previous Masterworks volumes, nor is it done with DC's Archives. The two pieces are Jack Kirby's original character design for the Black Panther (when he was to be called The Coal Tiger) and a rejected Kirby cover for Fantastic Four #52, both of which have been printed before. 'I had two extra pages to work with, and I knew I had these two funky things available,' explains Brevoort. 'I like throwing in bonuses and extras when I have them and I have the room. Why not?'

In addition to the extras, the new FF volume is notable for another change: a new trade dress that was begun with six previous volumes that are available again via second printings. Some on-line fans began expressing their outrage as soon as that news was revealed, shuddering at how the faux-marble graphics on their existing volumes will clash with the bolder, brighter graphic style of the new volume. Brevoort only sighs at the dilemma.

'Sometimes fans miss the forest for the trees,' says Brevoort. 'There were reasons for introducing the new trade dress, and it's a change that is now in place. We'll keep the trade dress instituted for the active, on-going Masterworks reprint program for any new volumes, rather than changing back to accommodate fans who were buying them five years ago.'

However, he stresses he is sympathetic to the concern. 'I understand the desire for consistency, and I respect the complaint that the fans want the books to remain the same. But ultimately, it's a matter of what's important in the big picture. If that change stops someone from buying the book, all I can say is that it's hard to please everyone. At the end of the day, you're still getting 240 pages of Lee and Kirby stories.' He adds that a variety of Marvel books, including Golden Age reprints, Boy's Ranch, Captain America volumes and various trade paperbacks, all have different looks, and they all look nice on his own book shelf.

In fact, Brevoort admits his call to action by fans is at least in part aimed at his shelf. 'Fans see my statements about the continuation of the series as a threat, but it's really just a statement of fact. If they don't buy this FF book, there probably won't be another volume. And I want to do more of them. I've got room on my shelves for more, and I want them myself. If fans feel the same way, well, here's their chance to show it.'

Brevoort expects Marvel will know the final fate of the series by early 2001, when reorders begin to slow. Once the numbers are tallied, fans will find out if enough of them cast their ballots for the series to continue with the Daredevil book. The election is underway nowvote today!


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