I think it's very important to learn more about the history of this crazy little industry, if only to enhance one's knowledge and put into perspective what's happening now. You can learn more about your favorite artist if you know about the industry's past greats and can recognize something in their work that is reflected in your favorite's art style. If you know more about classic storylines, that may enhance your guessing on how a current, similar story may turn (or you may catch someone cribbing - accidentally or otherwise - someone else's work!). Knowledge buys you the opportunity to say something other than "Uhhh... I really like your work," if you're lucky enough to meet your idols at a convention. And if your dream is to work in comics, background on what has gone before will be essential to keeping your job (or your barstool at the "pro bar").
Knowledge is power. And power is what it's all about in superhero comics.
Here's a brief rundown of some of my favorite books about the history of that genre. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are also dozens of books about specific artists and writers, characters and publishers, how-to books, books on comic book theory, psychology, and philosophy, books about graphic novels, manga, and media tie-ins. There have even been a couple of comic book cookbooks. Most importantly, there are a lot of books available about other comic book genres - because the world of comics is an incredibly large one, more than just superheroes. But that's a good place to start...
A Note about Availability: If things work right, Roger will be placing links in this column to the books that Westfield has available for purchase. Sadly, many of these great books are currently out of print. But that doesn't mean that you can't find them! Amazon, eBay, Half.com, and other internet sites sell used books, but also talk to your local comic book store, as they just might have some of these stashed in their backrooms or in a dusty old box somewhere. Also, I see books like this all over at conventions. If you can make it to a show, look around for them or ASK! If one guy doesn't have it, he might know someone at the show who does, because most of these guys know each other and might be able to point you in the right direction. Finally, don't forget to check out the place where I first read a lot of 'em - the local library! (When I was a kid, I checked out The Great Comic Book Heroes so often that when I started working at the library in high school, the clerks got together and bought me my own copy for my birthday.)
The granddaddy of all books about comic books has got to be The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer. Highly acclaimed at the time of its original publication (1965), it was extremely notable for its extensive selection of reprinted superhero origin stories. A rarity for the era, many of the stories had not seen the light of day since their original publication in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Feiffer's short essays are the real heart of the book, wry commentaries recalling his childhood fascination with the medium that ultimately inspired him to become an artist. Fantagraphics repackaged the essays in a new edition in 2003, dropping the now-readily available and much-reprinted origin stories.
One of the earliest and best examinations of the Golden Age of comics is the two-volume The Steranko History of Comics (Vol. 1, 1970; Vol. 2, 1972), written by the acclaimed artist best known for his groundbreaking work for Marvel Comics (Nick Fury, Captain America) in the late 1960s. Published in an oversized, tabloid size (which allows for some amazing full-page graphics), Steranko writes passionately, and in great detail, about the artists and medium that he obviously loves. The first volume covers the earliest (and most remembered) characters from the era (Superman, Batman, Captain America) as well as providing a wonderful overview of the pulp era. But it's the second volume where Steranko really digs in, with lengthy examinations of the Fawcett and Quality characters and publications, as well as a revealing chapter on Will Eisner's The Spirit. And the covers of the two volumes - both drawn by Steranko - are incredible! Originally planned as a series of volumes, continuing the narrative up until present day, History sadly ends here, with the remaining volumes unpublished. But what is here is amazing, and it gets my vote as the most deserving project in need of reprinting, especially in light of the asking price of the original volumes in the secondary markets.
Les Daniels' first book on comic books, Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (1971, out of print) was a wild ride through the entire history of comics to date, cumulating with much info about the then-current world of underground comix. Massively illustrated with complete story reprints (and a 16-page color section), this book was published at a time when you could see stories about Superman, Uncle Scrooge, E.C. horror, Fox and Crow, Sub-Mariner, and Wonder Warthog side-by-side. Twenty-some years later, Daniels went on to write the more-or-less "authorized" histories of today's two biggest publishers: Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics (1991) and DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes (1995), both of which are still in print as trade paperbacks (although in need of updating). Also worth seeking out are Daniels' character histories of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Many of comics' First Fandom came together for All In Color For A Dime (1970, reprinted with new material in 1997), edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, featuring sparkling essays by Roy Thomas, Ron Goulart, Bill Blackbeard, Ted White, Jim Harmon, and others. Most notable is the acclaimed essay by Harlan Ellison about George Carlson's Jingle Jangle Comics, one of the odder, yet charming, publications of the Golden Age. A second collection of essays, The Comic Book Book, was published in 1973 and reprinted in 1998. All editions are now out of print, but used copies are pretty easy to find.
Of immense interest to those who are looking for background into the recent Superman/Siegel court case is Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of The Comic Book by Gerard Jones (2004), one of the most compelling histories of the origins of the comic industry to date. Essentially the story of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their long struggle to get the world's most famous superhero into print (and of what happened to them afterwards), Men of Tomorrow also tells the stories of many of the key creators of the era, including Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner. But of far more interest (at least to me) are the largely unsung stories of the creators' natural adversaries - the publishers and businessmen who exploited them, and the corrupt and mob-connected distribution companies who controlled them all. It's the down-and-dirty history of the squeakiest clean superhero icon ever and the clueless, naive kids who created him.
The Comic Book Heroes: The First History of Modern Comic Books - From the Silver Age to the Present (1985, revised and expanded in 1996) by Gerard Jones & Will Jacobs is pretty much what the title says it is. It's a great book and remarkably evenhanded in its first edition. The new material in the updated version was written by Jones solo after he had become a comics insider. There's a certain darkness and one-sidedness to the new section that may be either reflective of the times - corresponding to the then-current "grim & gritty" era - or of the bitterness that seems to envelop many people after they've been in the business for while, myself included. Most of the problems occur in the material covering the then-current era. It's difficult to write such a history without the benefit of hindsight and time passing. But the book is still essential for its coverage of the Silver and Bronze Ages. Sadly, this is also out of print but well deserving of a new, updated version.
Not so much a history, but a real in-your-face art and design extravaganza, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art (2003) by Arlen Schumer evokes the spirit and power of the artists of the era. With separate chapters on Infantino, Ditko, Kirby, Kane, Kubert, Colan, Steranko, and Adams, the cream-of-the-crop of superhero artists is well represented. On occasion, some of the modern design and coloring techniques are a bit jarring when applied to the artwork of another, older era, but it's wonderful to see this art in this super-sized format. Again, out of print, but used copies seem fairly easy to obtain.
Baby Boomer Comics (2003) by Craig Shutt, the self-proclaimed "Mr. Silver-Age", is an irreverent and joyful look at the wonder of the Silver Age. Thankfully, that includes all of the wacky madness of the era that we've all come to know and love (or at least tolerate, in the case of those who take their superheroes a bit too seriously). Since Craig's the guy who's been writing and moderating the Pro vs. Fan Trivia Challenges at Comic Cons for many years, you can bet that this book is packed with trivia. It's also the funniest history book that you'll ever read (Jon Stewart excepted).
Comic Book Artist Collection Vol. 1 (2000), Vol. 2 (2002), and Vol. 3 (2005), edited by Jon B. Cooke, collects the entirety of the earliest issues of the acclaimed TwoMorrows magazine. The publication was dedicated to documenting comics history from the artistic revolutions and influx of new talent at both DC and Marvel starting in 1967 and evolving into the Bronze Age. CBA celebrated the era in lengthy, detail-oriented interviews with the creators themselves, creating in essence a massive oral history of the era. Tastefully designed with simplicity, each interview features generous amounts of representative B&W artwork, much of it unpublished work or sketches. These volumes, along with The Warren Companion (an extremely expanded version of issue #4 of CBA), have set the bar a little bit higher in terms of comic book scholarship. (Upon doing research for this article, I was horrified to discover that all but Vol. 3 are out of print. Someone must do something about this - yesterday!)
The one comic book reference book that is never far from my desk is The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide, subtitled "A Critical Assessment". It's a massive, almost 800-page volume (in teeny-tiny type), featuring a critical rundown of virtually every comic book published up to 2002, the date of the most current edition. Take a minute to think about that. Long-running titles, popular characters, and critical favorites get the majority of coverage. The article on Batman (the title) is 21/2 pages long, followed by 21/2 pages on Batman graphic novels and one-shots, a page on Batman mini-series, another couple of pages on Batman-related titles, two pages on Detective Comics, plus individual listings for Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, Batgirl, and others. By contrast, a mini-series that wasn't popular nor by top creators may be summed up in a single sentence. Each entry covers the general plot or points out the most important storylines. Lesser storylines are acknowledged, but the emphasis is on the highpoints. (Example: for (Uncanny) X-Men, the 1960s stories are pretty much glossed over, the Thomas/Adams era is discussed more fully, and the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne period dissected in detail.) The important stories are recommended, and when long-running titles are in decline (as sometimes unfortunately happens), the Guide is not afraid to tell you that as well. You may disagree with the guide from time to time, but that's part of the fun! About 95% of the time, they're dead on. Edited by Frank Plowright and written by dozens of reviewers from around the world (but mostly Brits), each and every article has something interesting to say, and the amount of information that you never knew before is incredible. An amazing feat. One wonders how they will be able to fit (hopefully) upcoming, updated editions in a single volume!
Not really a history, nor even an encyclopedia (although it is set up like one), Comics: Between the Panels by Steve Duin & Mike Richardson (1998) is a frustratingly unique book whose subtitle should more properly be "An Anecdotal History of Comics" (although it isn't really a history). There are an amazing amount of great stories in this book, the kind of stories that you hear in the pro bar at a comic convention, as told by old guys with lots of miles on them. They're not just about the comics themselves - there are fascinating stories about how some of the historical Collections of comics (like the Edgar Church Collection) came into being. The thing that frustrates me about this book is that after I read a great entry, it reminds me of something else, so I flip to that entry and read it, and then it reminds me of something else. I'm still not sure that I've read the entire book, because of the temptation to skip around! Ah, there are worse things, I guess... One last thing, the cover of the first edition is one of the greatest "What's that logo?" trivia contests ever!
Probably the most notorious book about comics is Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Frederic Wertham (1954). This book equated comic books with juvenile delinquency and almost destroyed the comic book industry. (And so was the one I most wanted to read when I was a teenager. Heh, heh.) It's been out of print for so long that I lost track of it. According to Amazon.com, it apparently quietly slipped back into print in 1996. I wouldn't recommend it - it's a very hard-to-read academic work, and if you love comics, it will probably make your head explode. Much better is Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (1998) by Amy Kiste Nyberg, another academic text, but this one is remarkably readable and clearheaded. It takes Seduction as part of the growing controversy about comics and follows the public and private and governmental reaction that lead to the development of the Comics Code Authority. Of special note, it includes the actual text of the Code and its subsequent revisions in 1971 and 1989. This book also provides excellent background for those of you reading The 10-Cent Plague.
The three published volumes of Michael Fleisher's The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes series (Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman) were recently reprinted by DC. They were an early notable example at indexing each character's appearances from their debut up until 1966. The Encyclopedia format was bit unwieldy, and much of the information in the book was presented at least twice (once in the alphabetical listings and again in the chronological listing of the adventures). Apparently in conjunction with the reprintings, each of the books are being revised and updated. (The first one, The Essential Batman Encyclopedia, by former DC Editor and long-time Westfield subscriber, Bob Greenberger, should be out in June.) I am very interested to see how they will incorporate all of the material published since then, as well as explain the various retcons of adventures and characters over the years. At almost 500 pages, will this book be big enough for all that?
As I said, that's just the start of your "well-stocked superhero comic book bookshelf." There's plenty more available, if you're interested! Happy reading!
KC CARLSON reads so much that he often dreams about reading books that don't actually exist.
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