24 February 2009

Comics Publishers Don’t Make It Easy for Cataloguers

Yesterday I nattered about some frustrations in how libraries, especially mine, shelve their comics collections. But today I want to acknowledge that comics publishers, particularly those that issue series, don't make this process easy.

Those companies' comic books are usually produced by a team: scripter, penciller, inker, letterer, colorist, and sometimes others. A single bound volume often contains issues from several different teams. And then the companies add their whole masthead of managers and executives, which traditional book publishers just don't do.

The result is a list of names that looks like movie credits. Which should be the principal author for cataloguing purposes? Usually it's the first credited scripter. But, as with movies, companies can give credit on those volumes according to marketing clout rather than who wrote what.

DC Comics credits Chuck Dixon as primary author of Nightwing: Year One on the front cover and spine, but lists the less celebrated Scott Beatty first on the credits page inside. Different libraries in my regional network now file that important work under different author names.

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul is a recent collection of issues from Batman, Nightwing, and Robin magazines, all telling a single story--a "crossover event," in the parlance of superhero comics. The front cover credits two men: Grant Morrison and Paul Dini. The title-page spread lists five writers, eight pencillers, six inkers, four letterers, and four colorists, one of them "Studio F." Not to mention the contractually obligated line "Batman created by Bob Kane." And it really doesn't mention cover artist Andy Kubert, or the several "variant cover" artists represented in the book.

Furthermore, of the book's ten chapters, three were written by Peter Milligan while Morrison and Dini wrote only two apiece. Why isn't Milligan on the front cover? Morrison's been a star scripter since the late 1980s, when he did weird and wonderful things with DC's fourth-tier hero Animal Man. Dini is beloved by Batman fans for overseeing the animated cartoons of the 1990s. Milligan was part of the same 1980s "British invasion" of superhero comics writers as Morrison, but he hasn't gained the same name recognition.

Of course, we might deem that Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul should simply be shelved and listed in the Batman series. Its storyline was, after all, planned by committee, and its major characters were created before any of those writers came of age: Batman in 1939, Dick Grayson and Alfred Pennyworth in the 1940s, and Talia and Ra's al Ghul in 1971. Thus, DC Comics is the primary "creator" of this book, though it passes on credit and royalties to individual writers and artists.

But that simply leads us to another aspect of these collections which must drive cataloguers batty. Formally they all have the same main title: Batman This, Nightwing That. Sometimes such volumes get catalogued under the main title, sometimes under what's technically the subtitle. It looks like a nightmare. My library system's catalogue includes volumes of Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze series under the main titles A Thousand Ships; Age of Bronze. Vol. 2, Sacrifice; Sacrifice; Betrayal; and Betrayal. One. (Okay, it doesn't help that volume three of the epic is coming to us in two volumes.)

And then there's the challenge of lining up a series in order. If a company is issuing collections of every issue in a series, as DC's Vertigo and Wildstorm imprints are doing with Fables and Ex Machina, then it can number those titles sequentially. (Giving libraries a chance to put a sticker right over the volume number, but that's another issue.)

But there are no numbers on Batman volumes because there are simply too many of them. And no one knows what order they go in, anyway; some are "in continuity" and others aren't. Even for a series with smaller and simpler output, such as Robin, the volumes aren't numbered. Why? DC collected the magazine's first few issues in Robin: Flying Solo, then skipped over about a hundred issues and started collecting again in this millennium. So the company eschews volume numbers altogether and lets readers and reference librarians have the fun of figuring out which collection comes next.

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