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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Remembering when TOR published black & white DC paperbacks

A few weeks ago I went to pick up a box of sci-fi paperbacks someone in my city was getting rid of. If the price is right, I usually don't even ask what's in the box -- there's always an assortment of interesting things to keep me entertained. The nice thing about cheap paperback novels is that after you're done reading them, you can pass them along to other readers who, in turn, pass them along to other people when they're done with them. At some point in time, depending on the network of people you're trading with, they'll probably find their way back into your hands. It's all part of the urban ecosystem, I guess. 

While digging through a pile of yellowing Harry Harrison novels, I stumbled upon this:

It's the same size as a regular old paperback novel, but when you check out the interior, it's actually....

Yes, that's my thumb.

 ...a black & white reprint of 1979's World of Krypton 3-issue mini-series written by Paul Kupperberg and illustrated by Howard Chaykin and Murphy Anderson

This is a great rush of memories for those of us who were old enough to remember these. No, I'm not talking about the World of Krypton mini-series; I'm referring to the black & white paperback-sized DC reprints published by TOR Books.

TOR Books, founded by Tom Doherty, is a publishing company based in New York that was known for publishing science fiction and fantasy books. If you're a Conan the Barbarian fan, you may remember that TOR published a whole bunch of Conan paperback novels from 1982 until about 2003.They also published one Elfquest novel in the mid-80s [that I know of], as well as a whole bunch of novels based on the V franchise in the late 80s. TOR is still active today; still publishing books.

I don't know what led TOR to publish paperback-sized black & white reprints for DC comics, but I do know that they weren't the ONLY ones who had this idea: Marvel had Marvel Illustrated Books (reprinting the adventures of Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc...), Warner Books & Signet Books were reprinting MAD magazine (I had a huge collection of these growing up as a kid), and Dell Books were reprinting CRACKED magazine

TOR Books also wasn't the FIRST publisher to reprint black & white paperback-sized reprints of DC comics, either. In the mid-to-late seventies, Tempo Books (Grosset & Dunlap) also published black & white paperback-sized reprints of DC comic books, but they didn't stop there -- they also published Marvel & DC puzzle books, an Incredible Hulk paperback, a Star Hawks paperback, a Dick Tracy paperback, a Mandrake the Magician paperback, a few Spirit paperbacks, a few Richie Rich paperbacks, and a whole bunch of Heathcliff and Hagar the Horrible paperbacks. Tempo Books published mass-market comic book reprint paperbacks from 1969 to 1985 (with the bulk of it's DC paperbacks released in 1977/78) , so there wouldn't have been much overlap between TOR and Tempo.

As far I can tell, TOR Books only published 6 of these mass-market paperbacks in the early eighties, but they were reprinted over and over again so they were not as scarce as you'd expect them to be. The six titles were:

1) World of Krypton: The Home of Superman. This one was first published in 1982 and reprinted many times afterwards. This is a reprint of 1979's World of Krypton mini-series and, after a quick read through, no panels from the original mini-series have been left out (I haven't done a page-by-page comparison, yet).

2) The World's Greatest Superheroes present Superman. Published in 1982, this paperback reprinted the Vandal Savage Strikes! storyline from The World's Greatest Superheroes newspaper comic strip that ran in 1978. Written by Martin Pasko with art by George Tuska and Vince Colletta, this paperback features Superman, the Flash, Aquaman AND Wonder Woman (no Batman, however). Vandal Savage was a curious choice for a villain, as I imagine any new fans gained via the Superman films wouldn't have been familiar with him.

3) The Superman Story. I believe this was originally published in 1983 [but I may be wrong]. This paperback is a reprint of Superman #500 (1979) written by Martin Pasko and illustrated by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte. [Thank you, Brian O'Neill for pointing this out.] This paperback was reprinted in 1988 to coincide with Superman's 50th anniversary.

4) The Superman Puzzle Book. First published in 1983, I'm going to assume this was all puzzles (mazes, word searches, and etc...). I don't know if I want to consider this a DC paperback per se, because it probably wasn't something you re-read over and over again. You probably just threw it in the trash after all the puzzles had been solved.

I believe at some point in 1983 (most likely as a holiday gift set) the 3 books could be bought as a gift-pack:

With three Superman films (SupermanSuperman II and Superman III) released between 1978 and 1983, Superman was a really hot property for DC, so it should come as no surprise that the four of the seven books were Superman-centric. The Supergirl film was released in 1984, and I'm surprised TOR Books didn't release a Supergirl-themed paperback as well. Missed opportunity?

5) Swamp Thing. First published in 1982, this paperback collects the first three issues of 1972's Swamp Thing written by Len Wein and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. While this was a blatant attempt to take advantage of the hype created by the 1982 Swamp Thing film (it says so right on the cover), I don't care -- I would've bought this in a heartbeat. I've never actually seen this before researching this article, and I go to A LOT of garage sales, flea markets and used book stores... so yeah, I guess this one is pretty rare.

6) The New Teen Titans. Published in 1982, this reprints the New Teen Titans preview from DC Comics Presents #26 and the first three issues of New Teen Titans -- all by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. This is another one I would've loved to have gotten as a kid: you've got the first appearance of the New Teen Titans, the first appearance of Deathstroke and the first appearance of the Fearsome Five all in one book. New Teen Titans was one of DC's "IT" books in the 80s and this would've been a nice introductory to DC readers who may have missed the first few issues. Another "IT" book of the 80s? Legion of Super-Heroes. Why didn't they get a reprint like this? No clue. Anyways, this paperback weighed in at a massive 224 pages. All the other books were 160 pages, except for the Superman newspaper strip reprint (which was 128 pages).

7) The Untold Legend of the Batman. Published in 1982, this paperback reprints all three issues of Untold Legend of the Batman mini-series from 1980 by Len Wein, Jim Aparo and John Byrne. This mini-series originally included 3 audiocassettes (one cassette to accompany each issue) that read the issue to you. This was the same mini-series that was a cereal give-away (albeit the issues were in a smaller format) in 1989. This paperback was reprinted a few times, and even more so with DC gearing up for the Batman film being released in 1989. This paperback was my greatest achievement as I convinced my parents it was a novel (why else it would be featured in a Scholastic book ordering brochure?) back in elementary school and they let me order it. My parents had a strict "we'll let you buy one book a month from the Scholastic ordering catalog, but it has to be a BOOK book. No sticker books, comic books (including Garfield) or Nintendo guide books." Thank you, TOR Books, for helping sneak this one by my parents. 

TOR released two other Batman-themed books in 1988: The Riddler's Riddle Book (contained no illustrations, just text) and the Joker's Joke Book (I'm guessing this had text and illustrations). As you can probably guess, I've never seen either of these in person:

These would been published about a year before the 1989 Batman film, so things were ramping up.

So why did TOR Books only publish six DC paperbacks? I'm guessing that DC's Special Blue Ribbon Digests and Best of DC Blue Ribbon Digests kind of made them obsolete. DC Digests cost less, were in full color and faithfully reprinted the original comic page onto a digest-sized page (even if you did need a magnifying glass to read the text sometimes). Meanwhile, the TOR Books were in black & white and used a panel redistribution method to make everything format nicely within the paperback (because size does matter), but it means they fit less content into soooooo many pages.

A page from the comic book version of Untold Legend of The Batman...

...ended up looking like this in the TOR reprint paperback:

Photo source:

Finding these in near mint condition is going to be tricky; mass-market paperbacks were meant to be a  cheap form of disposable entertainment -- so they weren't built to last. If you were a collector, you would've bought the hardcover copy of the book.

Mass-market paperbacks were pocket-sized and meant to be stuck in your jacket pocket so you could read them while riding the city bus or subway. A comic book cleverly disguised as a paperback novel. I can't quite explain it, but any time I was flaunting one of these paperbacks in elementary school I felt like a badass for somehow finding a loophole in the system. Anytime I'm at a flea market or used book sale and I find one of these, I tend to pick it up just out of principle.

Keeping this in mind, most copies will have a bit of water damage, yellowing paper, chunks missing out of the cover, creased pages and tears in the interior -- so finding a near mint version of any of these might be a challenge and a little pricey. I've never stumbled upon a near mint copy.


FYI: For inquiring minds, TOR Books would go on to give Marvel the same treatment in 1990 with an Amazing Spider-Man black & white reprint paperback and an Incredible Hulk back & white reprint paperback. There may have been more, but these are the only two I know of.

1 comment:

  1. Until comic shops made it easier to track down back issues, this was the ONLY way I could read The Untold Legend of the Batman.