Saturday, October 11, 2003

Publishers dusting off vintage comic characters

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

MIAMISBURG, Ohio - A publisher who got into comics when the industry was on a downswing now is riding a wave of interest in vintage funnies.

Mark Thompson of Checker Book Publishing finds old comics and comic strips, secures the rights to reprint them, gives them a computer-brushed makeover and packages them in paperback form. He sells them to comics stores, bookstores and online.

Checker, founded in 2001, is one of the few companies that devotes itself to reprinting the older, classic comics, said Calvin Reid, comics editor at Publisher's Weekly. Smaller companies may do the same thing but without Checker's wide distribution, he said.

Industry giants Marvel Comics and DC Comics also reprint some of their classics.

Vintage comics represent an unearthing of the artifacts of people's youth, and reprints are in demand, said comics historian and author Robert C. Harvey, of Champaign, Ill.

"It's an exploration of the American culture in the broadest sense. And if people don't collect and publish this stuff, it's lost forever."

Checker operates out of this Dayton suburb with three employees and a part-time intern. Comic books are scattered on the tops of folding tables, while paperback reprints stand on a display shelf. A few computers and drafting tables fill out the office.

The 36-year-old Thompson, who often wears blue jeans and a flannel shirt to work, named the company after his cat.

Most Checker reprints are science fiction or adventure comics.

On Oct. 16, the company plans to release reprints of Steve Canyon, the blond-haired, square-jawed Air Force pilot. Reprints of Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy will come out in November.

Steve Canyon, which appeared from 1947 to 1988, was created by Milton Caniff, who grew up in Dayton. At the height of its popularity it was carried by 600 newspapers. However, papers began dropping the strip because of protests against the Vietnam War, Harvey said.

At the end of 2002, Checker had four books in print. It now has nine out, with 10 more due in the next four months.

"It's pretty much picking the right books," Thompson said. "The stuff that we explore varies from marginally easy to get to completely impossible to get. Sometimes we just get plain lucky."

After making inquiries at the Cincinnati Public Library, he discovered the works of Winsor McCay, a cartoonist who worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer and in New York and produced the Little Nemo strip in the early 1900s.

Thompson was expecting to get microfilm, which is more difficult to reprint. However, the library had kept bound, printed editions of McCay's strips in the basement.

"I got the books, and they had about an inch thick of dust on them," Thompson recalled.

The comics are scanned into a computer, which removes yellowing and blotches.

Black-and-white comics can be colorized, but Thompson likes to remain faithful to how they originally appeared.

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