Remember the digests?
DC introduced their digest line in the fall of 1979 with 'The Best of DC', followed roughly six months later by their second digest title, the 'DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest'. Each digest contained 100 pages of reprints, usually along specific themes; the second issue of 'The Best of DC', for example, featured several Batman stories from the 1940s through the 1970s, closing with "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge!", the classic re-introduction of The Joker by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams.
In retrospect, the digests were a reasonably shrewd move on DC's part. Archie Comics had enjoyed success with their lines of digests being displayed at various points-of-purchase (supermarkets and the like), and it must have seemed like a no-brainer to The Powers That Be at DC to try to emulate that strategy. If everything worked according to plan, then they would have had access to a new sales market, in terms of exposure to both kids and parents.
Best of all, production costs were comparatively low since the content of the digests consisted almost entirely of reprinted material from years past. (This was before the major publishers began paying royalties on past work, by the way. Newsprint was also much, much cheaper.)
I don't have any sales figures or statements from DC that would give any idea of the measure of success they attributed to these lines, but it says something that both digest series become monthly books, having started out on bi-monthly schedules. What's more, DC's long-time series 'Adventure Comics' changed formats in 1982 with issue 491, and become a digest book.
The 'Adventure Comics' digest is notable for several reasons, but primarily because it presages the introduction of DC's Archive Edition reprint volumes. According to Paul Levitz, co-editor Carl Gafford wanted to use the Adventure digests to stage a series of chronological reprints of the original Legion of Super-Hero stores, at a rate of two per digest. (The remainder of the 100 pages was filled with reprints of stories featuring a variety of other characters, including The Spectre, Black Canary, The Sandman, Aquaman, the Marvel Family, and others. That first digest issue has some very nice Alex Toth work on the Black Canary story, incidentally.) These chronological reprints continued through to the last issue of Adventure, number 503, at which point the Legion took over the 'Best of DC' digest series every so often to continue the sequential reprints. The net result is that the cumulative digest reprints contain all of the Legion material that's in the first four Legion Archive Edition volumes.
I'm very fond of the digests for one simple reason: As I've probably mentioned several times over the course of these Hembeck commentaries, I like reading the old stuff. DC is sitting on a vast history of comic art, and unfortunately, the economics of comics publishing, as they currently stand, limit their ability to make these stories available to the consuming public. Their Archive Edition reprints go a long way to address this situation, but there's still a lot of stuff that, sadly, won't ever make it into those high-end reprints.
While we're on the subject of reprints, I picked up a copy of the 'Art of Walt Simonson' book a few weeks ago, and I've been kicking myself for not chasing it down sooner. Captain Fear, Hercules, Batman, Manhunter, the Metal Men, etc. - Simonson is an amazing artist, and this kind of book really gives him his due. My only complaint is that it didn't include all of the Metal Men books he drew; if I want to find them, then I have to go to the back issue market. Note to DC: yes, you should count that as the loss of a potential sale. You need to find some way - electronic or otherwise - of making your back catalog available to people; call me if you want some ideas.
Now, what I'd really like to see is an oversized coffee table book with all of the covers that Neal Adams has drawn for DC over the years, each stripped of its series logo and indicia. After all, they did it for Dave McKean's Sandman covers, right?
Addendum - 2000/06/24
Mea culpa, mea culpa. Turns out that the 'Art of Walt Simonson' book does contain all of his Metal Men stories. Very highly recommended. Oh, and Walt is currently working on an 'Orion' series for DC. Well worth checking out.