This month, Marvel Comics revived the long-defunct “Treasury Edition” format with the first collection of Spidey, Robbie Thompson and Nick Bradshaw’s old school take on Peter Parker’s high-school years.
But the collection is old-school in more than just storytelling –Treasury Editions are an oversized format familiar to many long-time fans that’s served as a showcase for some of comic books’ most memorable moments, from Marvel and DC’s characters finally matching wits to Superman stepping into the ring with the legendary Muhammad Ali.
Printed in a tabloid-sized format (the new Spidey collection is 10.2 by 13.4 inches), Treasury Editions were once the IMAX of comic books. A mainstay of newsstands and convenience stores, they represented some of the first mass-market collections of comic books, presenting both classic and original stories at a size that showcased the epic scale and detailed artwork of the tales within.
“There’s just something exciting about seeing comic art at that size,” says Rob Kelly, who maintains the website TreasuryComics.com, which chronicles the history of the format. “Some of my best memories of childhood are when my dad had to take me to work with him on a weekend and would plop me down with a stack of Treasury Editions – I wouldn’t make a peep for hours!"
“I remember going to a department store and seeing these giant-sized books – Dick Tracy, the Super Friends, the Marvel ones…there were no comic shops where I were, and these were my window into being able to see all these stories that had come and gone before I was even born.”
Before comic book companies kept a large backlist of trade paperbacks and hardcovers, or readers could access most back issues in electronic format through such services as comiXology, access to older stories was scarce, meaning readers either had to pony up for back-issue prices or check out sporadic monthly reprint series on newsstand racks.
With sales of comics on newsstands down in the early 1970s, Treasury Editions provided a more upscale format that allowed comic books to compete with higher-priced magazines – and for fans to experience stories they might have missed before.
“It’s very similar to what movies did in response to competition from television in the 1950s – they got bigger,” Kelly says. “This was in an era when you didn’t have to pay reprint rates, so most of this material could be done on the cheap.”
For some fans, these reprints proved to be their gateway into some of the masters of the comic book format.
“I was exactly the right age for treasury comics,” says writer and artist Ty Templeton. “I really loved those comics for being gigantic, and filled with especially good comics. The treasuries were the first place I saw both Barry Smith and Buscema/Alcala Conan stories. The All-Kirby treasuries of Thor and the Fantastic Four were essentially the first trade paperbacks of their time. Couldn't say enough good stuff about treasuries.”
Treasury Editions regularly reprinted such major books as the first appearances of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, along with some of the characters’ biggest storylines.
“I'm pretty sure this was my first exposure to ‘The Galactus Trilogy’ since I didn't see it in its original run initially,” says Madman creator Mike Allred. “It remains my all-time single favorite comic book story.”
Fans of Allred’s work on Silver Surfer have that Treasury Edition to thank.
The books also offered a bevy of original stories, from the sublime to the bizarre. The very first Treasury Edition was, of all things, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, published in October 1972. Rudolph and friends would enjoy four Treasury specials in total, the last oddly taking place during the summer (it was the 1970s).
Sometimes the subject matter became more eclectic. Joe Kubert edited and provided layouts for The Bible, adapting everything from Adam and Eve to Noah’s Ark. Nearly a decade after Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke blew minds with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jack Kirby adapted the film for a considerably-more-dialogue-heavy Treasury Edition, which itself spawned an oddball regular-sized Marvel title that eventually introduced long-running character Machine Man. Occasionally, there’d even be reprints of such offbeat properties as DC’s Welcome Back, Kotter book or classic Dick Tracy comic strips.
Often, reprints would cut parts of the original stories (the Galactus reprint excised all subplots not involving the planet-eater from the original issues, and recolored Galactus to his more familiar purple armor from his later appearances) or lost a bit of context (the Doctor Strange Treasury Editions mostly consists of cliffhangers and resolutions to different stories by such artists as Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and Frank Brunner). But as a showcase for the imaginative characters and stories of comics, they were more than successful.
“As a kid it was just a stunning and awesome thing to behold,” says Allred. “A gigantic comic book, for cryin' out loud!”
That giant format also gave a chance for creators to cut loose on stories that were, well, bigger than a mere monthly comic. The most popular tradition was, effectively, “Superman vs.”
“Superman seemed really pissed off in the ‘70s, because he was always ‘vs. somebody,’” Kelly says.
Not only did Superman battle Wonder Woman and have a decades-in-the-making confrontation with DC's Captain Marvel in his Treasury tales, his biggest sales rival in the 1940s, he crossed over with Marvel to match wits with Spider-Man not once but twice, in stories where longtime competitors Marvel and DC finally joined forces. The two companies had actually first joined forces in 1975 for a Treasury adaptation of The Wizard of Oz film.
But perhaps Superman’s most memorable Treasury tale came in 1978 with Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali, a work that’s taken on new resonance with Ali’s recent passing. Pitting the champ against the Man of Steel in a “Fight to Save the Earth from Star-Warriors!”(guess which movie had come out the previous summer?), the tale was rendered with maximum exuberance by Neal Adams, who had a horde of real-world celebrities watching from the stands on the book’s iconic cover.
Spoiler: Ali actually wins the fight (the whole thing taking place on a planet orbiting a red sun, rendering Superman powerless), but the two team up and save the world by the end, with Ali proclaiming, “We are the greatest!” The book made a memorable impression on a number of young fans, including an 8-year-old Brad Meltzer, who wrote about its effect on him when it was reprinted in 2010.
There would be many other memorable Treasury Editions – from Jack Kirby’s bombastic Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles to Walt Simonson and Archie Goodwin’s adaptation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes original that featured the wedding of founding members Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad– but by the early 1980s, the format was effectively dead.
At least one planned Treasury Edition original story with the Justice League was later reformatted as a tale in the JLA’s regular title, but others, such as a four-part retelling of the King Arthur legend, never materialized (there’s a look at some of these lost projects here). Among the last Treasuries were Batman vs. the Hulk and a reprint of Marvel’s G.I. Joe title. Annoyingly, while Marvel’s adaptations of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were reprinted in Treasury format, Return of the Jedi was printed as a regular-sized miniseries.
The format didn’t die off completely; there were books, such as Scott McCloud’s Destroy! and Frank Miller and Geoff Darrow’s The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot that were printed in the larger format, while in the late 1990s, Paul Dini and Alex Ross took their love of the format as the basis for multiple larger-format collaborations starting with Superman: Peace on Earth.
More recently, IDW’s done some Treasury-sized takes on such books as Locke & Key and Jem and the Holograms, and Oni Press did special Treasury-sized editions of such books as Rick & Morty and Invader ZIM for last November’s Local Comic Shop Day.
The Spidey collection represents the first new Treasury Edition from Marvel in more than a decade – and if it’s successful, it could herald more editions like it in the future. For a generation who grew up with these books, it’s a chance to relive the feeling of those giant books – and for newer readers who might be used to reading comics on their phone, a chance to see just how massive and imaginative a comic story can be.
Do you have a favorite Treasury Edition, or have any thoughts on the Spidey Treasury? Sound off below!