Friday, July 18, 2008

My Top Five Books About Comic Books

Next on my list of lists is a subject near and dear to my heart. The American comic book. People are always asking me how I know so much about the history of comics, and the truth is, I learned a major chunk of that knowledge from the first three books on my list at a very early age. I was 10 when I got hold of All In Color For a Dime, which is the first book on the list, but I'll explain more about that as I go. So here's the list. If you read these five books I believe you will have an excellent understanding of the history of the comic book right up until the 1950s. Unfortunately I can't recommend a really good book about the 'Silver Age' of comics which occurred in the 1960s. There hasn't a really good book about that era yet, though there are quite a few good books about individual creators who worked during that time.

All In Color For a Dime

   This book of essays about comics opened my eyes to the vast history
of the comic medium. So many characters that I'd either never heard of or knew
very little about. It's where I got my knowledge of the original Captain Marvel (Shazam). It's where I learned all about the original Human Torch, about Golden Arrow, The Fin, Hydro-Man, Mr. Scarlet, The Face, Atoman,The Blonde Phantom, The Claw, Black Terror, and so may other long vanished superheroes. Most importantly it's where I found out how a man named M.C. Gaines had more or less invented the comic book by originally reprinting Newspaper Comic strips in booklet form and how Detective Comics number one was the first comic book to feature all original material and would eventually lead to the first appearance of Superman. Heady stuff. On a personal note, one of the two editors of the book was the late Don Thompson. Don, along with his wife Maggie, was the first person to buy my writing, hiring me as a columnist for the Comics Buyers Guide. He was also just a great guy and a lot of fun to be around.

The Steranko History of Comics Vol I & II

   I'm counting these two slender volumes as one book because basically one just continues the other. Jim Steranko, something of a legend in his own time, is one of the most influential comic book artists of all time despite a relatively small amount of published work. People who've never even heard of him are still aping his techniques by aping the styles of earlier artists who learned from Steranko. His two volumes of comics history are truly a treasure trove of information because Steranko conducted dozens of interviews with the surviving artists, writers, and editors of comic's Golden Age. These books don't just offer facts, but also anecdotes and remembrances and stories by and about the men and women who were there at the beginning. The first chapter in volume one covers newspaper comics and the second covers the Pulp magazines of the 1930s. These two mediums gave birth to the comic book as we know it. After that, the books go on to detail the histories of comic book companies like DC, Marvel, Fawcett, Quality, and smaller, lesser known outfits. Plus there are hundreds of cover reproductions and tons of new and old original art. All of this is put together with Steranko's amazing sense of graphic design. Unfortunately these books are out of print and usually command high prices these days. But if you can find them, buy them. They're that good. I only wish Steranko had gotten around to putting out the other projected volumes in the series.

The Great Comic Book Heroes

   Long before playwright, satirist, and cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer was famous, he worked as an assistant to Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit and one of the driving forces behind the early comic book industry. Before that, Pfeiffer was a wide eyed comics fan, dreaming of being a professional comic book artist. The Great Comic Book Heroes is part memoir, part history, and part collection of reprints. Pfeiffer talks about his exposure to comics and what an effect it had on his life, then goes on to tell anecdotes about his experiences in the comics industry. But for me, at age 11, the main draw of the book were the comics reprints, because almost all of them were origin stories. I'm pretty sure that this was where I first saw the (original, not a re-telling) origins of Superman and Batman, and I know it's where I originally saw the origin stories of Flash, Captain America, Green Lantern, The Human Torch, and several others. It's also where I got my first look at a Will Eisner Spirit story. I received this book as a Christmas present from my grandparents in 1973 and I still have it. The dust jacket is tattered, the covers are scuffed, and the pages are worn from re-reading. A much loved book.

The Comic Book Book

   This follow up to All in Color For a Dime is more of the same. Essays about various comics, creators, and companies. Probably my favorite in this one is The Rehabilitation of Eel O'Brian, which is about Plastic Man, one of my favorite Golden Age characters. There's also a cool chapter of the various jungle heroes that followed Tarzan into the trees. Another note here about Don Thompson. The last time I saw Don alive he got me to do a drawing of Captain Teddy, my funny animal superhero, in his copy of the Comic Book Book. It was filled with sketches by artists far better and far more famous and I was honored to be included.

Men of Tomorrow

   A somewhat more gritty look at the Golden Age of comics is Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow. Jones, a former comic book writer himself has an insiders knowledge of the industry and his history looks more at the creators than the creations. It's not a happy book, as Jones often focuses on the more bizarre or unfortunate aspects of the comics industry, and he does perhaps a bit more amateur psychology than I think necessary about how the dull and tragic lives of some of comics earliest creators turned into power fantasies on the four color page, but I'm sure there is some truth to that in many cases, so there ya go. Very well researched and worth reading.

   That's the list. I didn't do this one as a Top Ten list because I don't think there are ten books that really cover the subject well. I did mention there are some books about individual creators that I think would be good material for the student of comic book history. These include:

Curt Swan: A life in Comics

Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder

Forms Stretched to Their Limits:Jack Cole and Plastic Man

Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wally Wood

Gil Kane: Art and Interviews

Will Eisner's Shop Talk

Kirby:King of Comics

The World of Steve Ditko

  I'd also like to recommend Will Eisner's graphic novel, The Dreamer, a fictionalized bit of autobiography that gives a fairly accurate account of Eisner's life in the early days of comics. Names have been changed, as Jack Webb would say, but it's still easy to recognize the characters meant to represent Jack Kirby, Bob Powell, George Tuska, etc.


Anonymous said...

Funny...I was doing a search on Jules Pfeiffer and happened to come across this post. So few people know about "Great Comic Book Heroes", yet that book is equally important in my collection as it is in yours. The reprints of the origin stories fascinated me when it was received as a gift at 10 years old, as did Pfeiffer's forward. When my son was 10, I gave him the wonderful Alex Ross portfolio, which almost inspired the same feeling in me. The Pfeiffer book will always be a staple of my collection.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

What an odd coincidence since I just put that post up yesterday. I'm glad to know the book meant a lot to someone else. Thanks for letting me know. And great about the Alex Ross portfolio. I'm reading the Justice Society series this weekend where elements from Ross's Kingdom Come overflow into the regular DC universe.