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Sunday, March 04, 2012

Retro Thrills from Ilex Press

Tim Pilcher has been working in comics for a long time now and his enthusiasm for the medium has led him to write books such as The Essential Guide to World Comics (with Brad Brooks) and the two volumes of Erotic Comics: A Graphic History. He's been an assistant editor at DC Comics' London office for Vertigo comics, is now a consulting editor at Ilex Press, and is the current chair of The Comic Book Alliance, and gives regular talks on the subject of comics.

Basically, Tim likes comics. All comics. And he likes to promote them however he can. His latest venture for Ilex Press is a great way to bring some classic comics to the attention of fans and public alike in a cheap accessible format.

The Little Books of Vintage... series is a set of six full colour softback books covering a specific subject of 1950s American comics. Horror, Crime, Combat, Romance, Sci-Fi, and Sauciness are the topics, with each 112 page book priced at £3.99 and stuffed with extracts from those old comics. The small 112mm x 82mm format doesn't really allow for any full length stories to be reprinted, but the books offer a marvelous showcase of covers, panels, vintage ads and so on.

The focus is mainly on the art as these are really intended to give people a cheap sampler of the look and atmosphere of those bygone comics. In the case of the Sauciness book, a couple of the out-of-context panels provide unintended humour or make the stories seem, well, saucier, than they actually were, but that's all part of the fun of these items.

The majority of the material in the books comes from pre-Comics Code sources so it's good to see a British publisher getting these once-forbidden comics back on the shelves. Each book comes with a short introduction where Tim Pilcher has provided a brief history lesson about the genres he covers. Naturally, the damaging anti-comics crusade and how horror comics were "effectively neutered", and how the "thriving genre collapsed in 1954" is mentioned in the Horror and Crime books. Likewise, the jingoistic aspects of war comics, and how Harvey Kurtzman's strips for EC took an anti-war stance is also covered in the Combat collection.

If there's a negative to the books it's that the binding is a bit too tight to show off the few double-page spreads that are represented, but thankfully most pages stand alone.

At the back of each book is a free fridge magnet of a classic 1950s comic cover. Great comic art reduced to fridge magnets? Well, it's a way to start a conversation about comics if guests notice them on your fridge door, and that can't be a bad thing.

Fridge magnets become the main focus of another collection, the Lovelorn box set, which features 16 covers of romance comics from titles such as Exotic Romances and GI Sweethearts. The set is accompanied with a 48 page book which gives a brief history of the genre and then a story synopsis for each of the 16 covers.

Got enough fridge magnets by now? How about postcards? Ilex have two books in that regard too. Tales of Terror and Lovelorn each feature 30 full postcards of vintage horror and romance comic covers. There's some excellent stuff here and the 165mm x 120mm size shows off the artwork nicely.

I'm very enthusiastic about comics of the 1950s. Perhaps partly because I was born at the end of that decade and just missed them, but also because they often have such high quality artwork. Mainly though, the fascination for me is that marvelous juxtaposition of clean cut characters and white picket-fence environments being invaded by the most gruesome horrors. In that respect they betray the paranoia of the times, where conservative "normality" was ever fearful of the latest bogey man "corrupting" their society. From Communism to rock and roll, it seems that everything was a target of suspicion - and even comics themselves became a perceived threat to the status quo. The fact that these comics caused such "moral" outrage that they were banned is the true horror.

These format of these books may not appeal to the serious collector who wants his archive collections reproduced as closely to the original size and presentation as possible, but really these are meant to be fun items for the wider audience. Presented as gift books or bought as an impulse purchase, the Little Book of Vintage... collections act as a nice primer and fast history lesson about comics long gone. If they broaden people's minds beyond the current comics they know, then that's great. It's even better if they encourage some to delve a bit deeper into the subject and buy Ilex's more in-depth books on comics such as Fredrik Str├Âmberg's Comic Art Propaganda or Mike Conroy's War Comics: A Graphic History or the numerous archive books such as those published by PS Publishing or Yoe Books.

Apparently pre-order sales on the Little Vintage books have already done spectacularly well so snap up your copies now while you can! The books will be released soon and can be ordered from Amazon.

Ilex Press website:

Tim Pilcher's blog (mature readers only):

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