If you were a comics fan in the mid-1970s, the appearance of Superman from the 30s to the 70s, Batman from the 30s to the 70s and Origins of Marvel Comics on the shelves of bookstores and libraries was a monumental occasion. Though these books were not book-length comics works like Burne Hogarth’s 1972 adaptation of E. R. Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, or even the first anthology of classic superhero comics collected in hardcover (Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes appeared in 1966), they provided some of the first affordable access to comics history, and crucial validation that superhero comics deserved a place on the bookshelf. These books as much as any in comics history paved the way for the graphic novel revolution in the trade book industry that ripples down to the present day.
The woman behind these transformational works is not unknown. Her name is Linda Sunshine and she has written over 50 books, including many bestsellers, pop culture guides, and adaptations of movies, and has worked in the publishing industry for half a century. She continues to enjoy good health and a successful career into her 70s. However, her role in transforming comics from ephemeral newsstand periodicals to permanent, bound and archival book collections, has never fully come to light.
Sunshine was just starting her career as a junior editor at Crown Books in 1972, when she and legendary Crown Books publisher, Bruce Harris, launched the Harmony Books imprint to exploit the then-new category of trade paperbacks as well hardcovers in affordable editions that typically featured trendy, pop culture-oriented topics. “I had this idea to do a hardcover book about Superman,” Sunshine explained. “No one had done that before, and I actually had to talk DC into doing it, because they were very skeptical.”
Sunshine, in her early 20s at the time, said she cold-called then-DC Comics publisher Carmine Infantino to tell him about the idea. “He said, ‘well, take me out to dinner and we can talk about it.’” Sunshine had no experience wining-and-dining prospects. “I couldn’t order any food because I didn’t have enough money, so I just told him I wasn’t hungry,” she recalled. “I don’t think he’d met anyone so naïve and stupid in his life,” Sunshine said. “But he loved the idea and okayed it on the spot.”
Infantino put Sunshine in touch with E. Nelson Bridwell, DC’s archivist and resident expert on DC history. “Today we’d say Nelson was a typical nerd. He had thick glasses and pale skin and just stayed in his house reading comics all day, but he was an unbelievable resource, like an encyclopedia. He picked out the stories for the book and did most of the editing.”
Harmony didn’t have the budget to do the book in full color, so most of the first stories were reprinted in black and white, with a tipped-in color section printed on glossy stock to reproduce some covers and one or two key moments in the character’s history. It proved to be a huge hit and a front-table staple in bookstores through the remainder of the decade, alongside companion volumes, Batman from the 30s to the 70s and the hard-to-find Shazam! From the 40s to the 70s.
When Sunshine moved to Simon & Schuster to head up their Fireside trade paperback line, she brought her idea of comic reprints with her. This time she reached out to Marvel, which was looking for ways to increase its commercial and cultural footprint.
Legendary Marvel publisher Stan Lee loved the idea, and plans were immediately put into effect for a collection of important early Marvel stories from the 1960s, this time reproduced in full color on quality paper. Published in 1974 by S&S, Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee was a huge success for the imprint and led to an entire line of Marvel Fireside reprints that continued into the early 1980s.
Sunshine recalls working with Lee on the introduction to Origins, which became controversial due to Lee’s claims of being the sole creator of Marvel’s canon of popular superheros, contrary to the accounts of his equally legendary co-creators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and unsupported by subsequent comics scholarship. Sunshine says she deferred to Lee’s knowledge and expertise, particularly since he was also the publisher of the material she was licensing. “At the time, Stan was well known in the comics business but not the celebrity he became later in his life,” she recalls.
With the success of the Marvel books, she returned to collecting classic material from DC. By the late 1970s, Infantino had been replaced as publisher by Jeanette Kahn. DC assigned a young editor and comics writer named Michael Uslan (who would later become producer of the Batman films) to work with Fireside on new reprint collections, including genres other than superhero comics.
The first DC book in Sunshine’s new series of reprints was America at War edited by Uslan (1979), which reprinted many of the company’s best war comics of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That was followed by Mystery In Space: The Best of DC Science Fiction Comics (1980), featuring pulpy space-action stories mostly edited by Julius Schwartz, and finally a collection of romance comics, Heart Throbs (1979).
Heart Throbs was edited by Manuela Suares (under the nom-de-plume Naomi Scott), who brought a subversive feminist perspective to the cheesy romance stories and penned a hilarious introduction. Suares is now chair of the Pace University publishing program and remembers her early-career stint working on the title as great fun.
For thousands of comics fans, the Harmony Books and Fireside reprint collections were their first chance to read the early stories of their favorite comics characters in the book format. Significantly, the books made their way onto the shelves of mall bookstores, public libraries and even some school libraries, paving the way for the great graphic novel-trade collection boom to come in succeeding decades.
Perhaps Linda Sunshine’s role in this development was only a footnote in her own long and successful career, but it is an important, and heretofore unsung, accomplishment for the medium and the business of comics publishing.