Of course, we’ll disregard here any comics that I own in more than one format – the likes of Sandman, Phonogram, We3 and so on – partly because most will be discussed elsewhere, and partly because they don’t really count. There are, however, a few single-issue comics that for one reason or another I’ve ended up with multiple copies of, and this is one of ‘em.
The first Neil Gaiman comic I ever read wasn’t Sandman, or Miracleman, or that Hellblazer issue I wrote about recently, or anything else particularly high-profile you might expect. Instead, it’s DC’s Secret Origins Special #1 from 1989, a comic that I read and loved probably if not around the time of publication then within a few years of it. At the time I read it, of course, I didn’t know who Gaiman was – and even upon becoming a fan of his work in later years, it took a while to go back and discover that this particular comic was also (in part, at least) written by him.
So what is it? Well, Secret Origins was a 50-issue (plus a few specials and annuals) series put out by DC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which did pretty much exactly as it said on the cover – told in single-issue (or sometimes half-issue) form the origin stories of a variety of DC characters. At a time when said facts were somewhat in flux due to Crisis, it was handy to have a reminder of exactly how the “current” version of a character was supposed to have come to be, and often these retellings could put a new twist, perspective or other enhancement on the original tale. I’ve got a few of the issues in my collection, but one of the most memorable is this one – I’m not sure why it’s a “Special” (it was the only one, to boot) and not an annual, mind, but it’s essentially the same thing.
The focus is on three of Batman’s most famous villains – although rather than telling an “origin”, each of the three vignettes concerns itself more with alighting on a particular element of the character’s past. It’s all held together by a framing device (written by Gaiman) about a TV crew making a documentary about Gotham’s colourful criminal element – to the chagrin of Batman, who sees it simply as glorifying them and possibly inspiring copycats. It’s fairly workmanlike, though it does contain a cameo from none other than John Constantine, and also a nice twist at the end that serves to answer the obvious question of why a certain well-known villain hasn’t shown up in the issue’s pages. The two stories that aren’t written by Gaiman are decent enough – the stronger is a Penguin story by Alan Grant and Sam Kieth, which has the sort of tone you’d expect from Grant’s early ’90s Batman work; while Mark Verheiden serves up the usual “is he good or is he bad or what?” in a deliberately morally ambiguous story about Two Face and his wife.
But inbetween these two, we also get a story written by Gaiman himself – and it’s this story that’s the reason I love the issue so much, and why I’ve ended up getting multiple copies. It’s called “When is a Door?” and it features the Riddler being interviewed by Gaiman’s TV crew. It’s a wonderful little piece, in which Nygma bounds around assorted giant advertising paraphernalia and bemoans the loss of the innocent days of super-villainny (“You look around these days – it’s all different. It’s all changed. The Joker’s killing people, for god’s sake! Did I miss something? Was I away when they changed the rules?”) with direct nods to the ’60s TV series. Oh, and tells a lot of bad jokes. It’s a really nice play on the dichotomy that’s almost always existed within Batman stories – the difference between the “light” and “dark” sides – and while it may not be the only one, it is perhaps rare in doing so through the eyes of a villain rather than from the perspective of Batman himself.
Given that my comics collection exists largely for reading (and re-reading) rather than preserving, it’s inevitable that sometimes a comic will come along where having more than one copy just makes sense, to guard against loss/damage. This will, I imagine, have been my reasoning behind snapping up a second copy found in a back-issue box some point a few years ago – I knew I already had the issue (although even now I can’t remember whether the one I had was the original I’d read all those years before, or another copy picked up in the interm – it’s in surprisingly good nick, you see, where other comics from that time have ended up with torn covers and suchlike). It later proved even more prudent, when I took the original copy along to a Gaiman signing – where he informed me that it’s one of his favourite stories of his, and the only example of his buying a page of original art from something he’d written, a page he later gave to his son as a birthday present – which meant that I could keep the signed copy in a bag (signed issues are about the only things I ever want to “seal”) and keep the second one for re-reading purposes. It’s not as rare or obscure as it used to be – finding a wider audience due to being reprinted in the Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? trade – but it’s a great little issue to dig out on its own every so often, and having that “backup” copy means I’m always likely to be able to do so.