Thursday, March 25, 2010

For the Love of Comics #9: Vital History

Words: Christopher Irving

 It all started with The Great Comic Book Heroes. Written by writer and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, Heroes reprints several comic book stories from the 1940s, bookended by Jules’ recollections of being amongst the first generation to grow up with comic books.
    My bookshelf has grown since my father gave me his old copy when I was still a kid. Now I have dozens of books on comics history, but only a handful that I consider vital. I’m also not counting any reprint books, or books that are comprised of Q and A interviews (I consider those “resources”, not books).  This is, by no means definitive, and I’m always open to hearing about any I might have missed.

1. The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer. Naturally. Feiffer reprints everything from the origins of Superman and Batman, to early appearances of oddball heroes like Plastic Man and the Golden Age Human Torch. While not the most esoteric of reprint books, Heroes is a wonderful cross-section of what made the Golden Age shine.

2. The Comic Book Makers by Joe Simon. Simon’s thoughtful memoir of his career in comics kisses no asses and makes no apologies. While not the most hard-hitting and tell-all memoir ever written, Simon doesn’t glorify the old days like several of his cohorts from the time.

3. Eisner/Miller by Charles Brownstein. Want great quotes from either comics legends on what they were aiming for when they did their landmark works? E/M flew under the radar which I really think is a downright shame: there are some great nuggets in here.

4. The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu. Hajdu’s detailed and in-depth study of the E.C. Comics horror and crime comic books of the 1950s, and the ensuing book burnings and Senate hearings that followed, is a fascinating read. It seems to get a bit too stuffy at times, and may plod in chapters, but to Hajdu’s credit, he keeps the book from getting too one-sided.

5. Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones. Jones’ study into the origins of comic books, centering around Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is what I consider the definitive comics history book. The minute I first put my copy down, I realized I better raise my game to as close to Jones’ level as possible if I ever wanted to get out of the fan magazine clubhouse.

6. Steranko History of Comics 2 by Jim Steranko. Just newly reprinted for only six clams, this oversized gem is a classic overview of the comic book medium. I do, however, have to admit: I haven’t read this book in its entirety before but, now that I have this new edition, you can bet your psychedelic pop art pattern that I’ll be curling up with it sooner rather than later.

7. Our Hero: Superman on Earth by Tom De Haven. Just out a few months ago, De Haven’s exploration of Superman’s history and societal effect is a fun read told through De Haven’s wry humor. As skeptical as he is, even he can’t help but optimistically celebrate the virtues of the Man of Steel.

8. All in Color for a Dime and The Comic-Book Book by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson. These two essay collections are vital to any student of comics history. I honestly can’t think of a better batch of essay writers in one collection that parallel this one: these volumes include Roy Thomas, Jim Harmon, Harlan Ellison, Ron Goulart, Bill Blackbeard, Maggie Thompson, and Donald F. Glut. Coming up with a contemporary version is top on my list of dream projects.

9. Jack Cole and Plastic Man  by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd. Spiegelman’s New Yorker essay on the Plastic Man creator and genius, Jack Cole, is beautifully repackaged in this odd-looking book by designer Chris Ware. Loving comics history includes loving the offbeat and different creators, and Cole was the best of them.

10. The Krypton Companion by Michael Eury. Michael Eury, former DC and Dark Horse editor, and all around nice guy, came out with this overview of the Weisinger era of Superman a few years ago. If you can get past the Q and A sections, and go straight to the informative and fun essays, you’ve got yourself a helluva book.

11. Kirby by Mark Evanier. Who better to write about Jack “The King” Kirby than his friend and protégé, historian Mark Evanier? Mark does a splendid job of keeping the Kirby fan Mark at bay while writing an entertaining and top-notch definitive biography of the man who brought power to superhero comics.

12. Any book by Ron Goulart. I’d once heard that Goulart was once a stand-up comic: I can believe it from his tongue in cheek style. He’s done countless history books, and I can instantly recommend any of them. He’s the first historian who made learning about this old stuff fun.