ISSUE #29: Keys That Don’t Sell Like Keys
A Look into the Unsung Keys of DC Bronze Age Horror
Well, hello there! I hope you all had a fantastic week and that you uncovered some amazing gems in your travels. I managed to sneak away to Memphis Comic Expo on Saturday and had a surprisingly successful go of it. Woot!
Thank you all for the tremendously kind comments from last week’s “Wife Knows Best” feature which was, admittedly, quite a different route for these articles. This week, I’m going to do something else even more off the beaten path and I hope you enjoy it. Here we go…
Keys. What exactly constitutes a key? Is it the introduction or death of a character? Is it the reappearance of a character in the story and/or on the cover? Is it just a cool cover bound to be a classic? Is it controversy like a recall, error, something naughty, something political? Is it just rare? Is it a variant? Is it just really old? Is it just a first issue/#1?
Well… yes. All of those and many other reasons, as well. In truth, the idea of a key is so loosely defined that there is no one definition. The market decides, CGC and Overstreet note it and then it’s off to the ebay races. I think, though, that we can consider the first appearance of a character to be a key.
Sometimes, the controversy surrounding which issue contains the first appearance can be a bit sticky, but the rule stands true. First app = key. Well then, in that case, keys sell for more, right? Nope, not always.
You thought you knew me, “Mike doesn’t examine keys in this segment, right?” Well, I’m breaking that rule, today, because the true purpose of Cover Tunes is to bring to light books which should be more highly appreciated than they are.
Usually, it is a conversation of covers and art, but it doesn’t have to be. This week, it isn’t about covers (even though many of them are incidentally cool). I want to look at a group of keys that don’t sell like keys, but should.
DC Horror – Past and Present:
With the recent re-launch of the Sandman Universe (the partial reimagining of the Neil Gaiman segment of DC’s horror universe from the original late 1980’s and 1990’s Vertigo imprint), the launch of Justice League Dark and the Wonder Woman “Witching Hour” arc, the launch of DC’s Black Label and re-launch of Vertigo imprints, television shows like Preacher, Lucifer and the upcoming Swamp Thing on the DC streaming service, the WalMart and Winter Special Swamp Thing one-shots and the Cursed Comics Cavalcade, DC is clearly paying some serious homage to what they were once the kings of during the Bronze Age: Horror.
Many important DC horror characters were introduced in the Bronze Age, continued into the Copper age and are still being used in the Modern Age. They are the mainstays of the storytelling (which should be of paramount importance, right?), yet their first appearances are largely ignored in the secondary marketplace.
Big characters like Swamp Thing, Zatanna, Sandman, Lucifer, Constantine and others, even Etrigan the Demon, are largely collected and their first appearances can be quite pricey, but what about their B-level compatriots? Why don’t they get the love? Well, Cover Tunes family, let’s finally give some of the most important of them some love, shall we?
First Appearance of Abel
The principle storytelling vehicle as well as the caretaker of The House of Secrets, Abel would continue to be used quite heavily in a variety of Bronze Age DC horror titles, namely “Plop!” alongside Cain and Eve, as well as a recurring character in Swamp Thing, Hellblazer and, especially, Sandman during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Again, he is being used in the new The Dreaming and House of Whispers books that just recently launched.
There he is, right on the cover of this issue #81. In a recent discussion with Neal Adams, he stated to me that the character was imagined out of a guy who used to hang around with Len Wein quite often in the DC offices. He was quite “husky” and walked with a cane and had that look that lent itself to a persona such as Abel’s. Abel is the tortured, often bumbling brother of Cain.
Cain plays tricks on Abel, ridicules him and figures out a way to harm or kill him in virtually every meeting between the two. It is quite an amusing satire on the biblical relationship between the characters. Perhaps one of the most amusing characters in the “Sandman Universe,” Abel has been a mainstay in DC Horror for 50 years. Wow!
In addition to this issue being a first appearance of an important recurring character, it also has a wicked cover by Neal Adams. Thus, it should be 2x a key, right? Well, you can have this one in mid-grade pretty regularly for $20 or less. I got mine recently for $8. “Unfair,” as Abel would say.
First Appearance of Cain
Much like his brother, Cain is the main storyteller and caretaker of the House of Mystery – the broad house – which is the neighboring house of Abel’s House of Secrets – the tall house. Cain is the antithesis to Abel; his foil in a brilliantly juxtaposed relationship between the two characters.
While the aforementioned Abel was modeled off of Len Wein’s friend, Cain was modeled off of Len, himself, according to Neal Adams. As stated above, Cain is the tormentor of his brother, Abel. Much like Abel, he has been a mainstay of DC Horror for 50 years, co-hosting Plop! With Eve and Abel as well as popping up in Swamp Thing, Hellblazer and Sandman along with his brother.
The duo of Cain and Abel were more thoroughly explored by Gaiman in the Sandman series where they were no longer just story hosts, but in fact participating characters in the story plot and granted an invitation to live in the Dream realm.
Again, we have another fabulously rendered cover by Neal Adams and the first appearance of a 5-decades old character who has been consistently used. As such, this should be another hugely pricey book, but alas, it isn’t. Again, a crisp $20 bill can get you a pretty sweet copy. I just got mine recently for that.
First Appearance of Eve
Eve is a tough character to classify. Based loosely around the biblical Eve, this version was the Host of (and sometimes-character in) Secrets of Sinister House. Also, by issue #15 of Weird Mystery Tales, she takes over host duties, there, once Destiny moves over to Secrets of Haunted House. She pops up in House of Secrets and House of Mysteries from time to time and co-hosts Plop! With Cain and Abel, as well.
At first, she is depicted as a crone and often called a Witch (as a matter of fact, her letters section was called “Witch’s Tales”). However, later depictions of her would have her alter appearances quite frequently showing her ability to de-age. She was almost always depicted as having a sharp tongue, shown with a raven (First, Lucien and later, Matthew) and dwelling in a cave within the nightmares of the Dream realm. Her backstory is mostly explored in Gaiman’s Sandman series beginning in issue #2 where she resurfaces quite frequently.
Another cool cover and a bit of a tricky book to locate, this one is generally really cheap… like $5-$10 cheap. I recently found a fairly high grade copy in a $3 bin. For a 45 year old character that has been utilized so frequently, that seems like an impossibility.
First Appearance of Destiny of the Endless
Man, another Kaluta cover that rocks, a Bernie Wrightson splash page and Kirby pencils on one of the stories AND a first appearance?!?! That’s gotta sell like a huge key, right? Nope, again. $10-$15, even for a nice copy. Hmmm.
Destiny, one of the Endless, is the oldest of seven personified siblings which are archetypal representations of universal concepts. I know, that’s a lot of English Class vocab, but that’s what they are. Destiny is the only one of the Endless that did not make a first appearance in the Sandman series, but he does appear there.
When he does, he’s shown cloaked and with a book that contains the entirety of existence (including the future). He was first the host of Weird Mystery Tales up through issue #15 (where Eve takes over) and then moved over to Secrets of Haunted House.
First “promo” Appearance of Lucien the Librarian
“Generally Accepted” First Appearance of Lucien the Librarian
Lucien is the Librarian of the Dream realm and keeps watch over the realm in Dream’s absence. As such, he is quite important and adept and he is proven to be amongst Dream’s most trusted characters. He presides over the library of all stories that have ever been dreamt including those that have never been written.
His first appearance was in a promo story in Weird Mystery Tales #18, but his main first appearance is generally accepted to be a few weeks later in Tales of Ghost Castle #1 where he is the main host.
He becomes enormously important in various story arcs of Gaiman’s Sandman series and was even at one time Dream’s and Eve’s raven, yet his first appearances are both $5-10 books, both of which sport awesome Ernie Chan covers.
First Appearance of Matthew the Raven
While Sandman #11 is not from the Bronze Age, it introduces a newly imagined version of a character that was originally introduced in the Bronze Age, Matthew Cable. Cable would later (in this Sandman #11) become Matthew the Raven. I know, I know, that’s a little convoluted, but it’s important.
Swamp Thing #1 is already a pricey key and while Matthew Cable dies in the issue as a human, he is not brought back into the canon until Sandman #11. Because he dies while in the Dream realm, he is granted existence there as a raven. Additionally, I thought it fitting to include at least one actual Gaiman issue in this article since it is largely to do with his genius that all of the characters mentioned in this week’s column were reimagined, reused and saw some fantastic character expansion.
That is all she wrote for the week. If we ever get a Sandman film/show or if these characters make it into the upcoming Swamp Thing show, we will see a fairly nice price bump for some of them. These books can be really difficult to acquire in high grades and now may be the time to snag them while one still can.
I hope you enjoyed our little detour, this week. Until next time, please, let me know your thoughts in the comments, thanks for reading and happy hunting.