I also read non-fiction books about comic books, so on this page I'll review some of those I've read.
The Comic Book Heroes (1997 edition) by Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs
1997 (softcover, 21.5cm+27.5 cm), 400 pgs., publisher: Prima Publishing
Apparently the first edition of this book, published in 1985, was substantially different, with this version also being more Jones' work than Jacobs' (according to the intro).
In many respects, this can be viewed as the (American) comic book book: it's big, it's comprehensive from the mid-'50s to the present, chronicling both the comics themselves and the people who make them, and it's just a little bitchy. This is no company sanctioned "history" but the reminiscences of a fan, turned disillusioned fan, turned pro, turned disillusioned pro. Yet the authors don't cross over the line especially. They name names and air dirt, but there's also an even-handedness for the most part, celebrating the accomplishments as well as the foibles, even within the same person or title. Sometimes, though, they play the coy game of being annoyingly oblique -- if you've got an accusation to level, I say do so, don't slur through intimation.
At times the book can smack of grumpy old men bemoaning how comics were so much better when they were young (and snow whiter, and the sun shinier). Their praise of the '60s can be a bit cloying to a child of the '70s/'80s like myself, even as their attack on the early '70s can seem a bit choleric (particularly as, later, they wax nostalgic about the creative freedom of that period granted by the big companies). At other times, I found myself nodding quietly in agreement with them.
They play to all sides, one moment mocking fan-boy "zombies", the next slighting the pseudo-intellectual pretensions of the Comics Journal crowd, the artistic visionary of one decade is the pabulum peddler of the next. Everyone gets their heaping of praise and scorn. Except Jones and Jacobs. Having turned pros, it stands to reason mention of their work would be included, but it's a little off-putting to read about how brilliant and clever Jones and Jacobs are...when you know it's Jones and Jacobs writing it!
The book is sufficiently long that I've forgotten
some of the specific comments I wanted to make, but definitely a must
have for the true comic fan. It's entertaining and provocative, particularly
as it chronicles the staggering decline in sales in the last few years,
and the clear fact that no one in the business has any idea how to turn
things around -- or are unwilling to if they do. When you read about the
mind-boggling salaries comic pros earn these days (in a business where
they used to struggle to pay their rent) you know why the cover prices
are so high. Yet not even Jones and Jacob (pros themselves) suggest that
returning comics to being a minor indulgence, price-wise, might help bring
back readers. Don't get me wrong: comic workers should make a respectable
living, but when you're talking movie star salaries in a business that's
being ground into the dirt, with an ever dropping readership, some changes
maybe need to be made.
The Comic Book Makers (1990, 2003) by Joe Simon and Jim Simon
2003 (softcover, 21.7cm+28.2cm), 192 pgs., publisher: Vanguard Productions
The legendary Joe Simon (long time Jack Kirby collaborator, and creator of characters like Captain America, and entire genres like romance comics) presents a mix of personal biography and reminiscences, with anecdotes about others in the biz, largely focusing on the Golden Age of comics.
An interesting book, full of some unusual anecdotes -- some familiar to readers of these sorts of books, but many not. But the book is hamstrung a bit by seeming a little too much like a random collection of remiscences, often with too little in the way of overall cohesion or context. People crop up in one anecdote, then disappear just as quickly, and Simon's career going from one company to another can be confusingly presented, etc. Curiously, there's a lack of personal warmth in the book. Simon and Kirby were partners and collaborators for almost two decades, even, apparently, living next door to each other for a while, yet there's little indication of their personal relationship. And given that, years later, Kirby's later partnership with Stan Lee has led many to claim that Kirby was the creative genius, and Lee took credit for his ideas (something Simon certainly doesn't dispell in his portrayal of Lee), when relating his own work with Kirby...Simon leaves you with the impression that he was the creative force, and Kirby more the sidekick. So either Simon is pulling a Lee, or maybe Lee deserves more credit than revisionists have given him.
Simon's comments can be curiously reckless or self-serving: is he really intimating that Charlton Comics' executives might have had a hand in the attempted assassination of sleaze publisher Larry Flint (Simon denies a connection but, by even bringing it up, seems to imply one)...or is that just a joke? And at one point he describes his mid-'70s collaboration with Kirby for DC, The Sandman, as a runaway hit...when it only last 6 issues (maybe the first issue sold well).
A decent book, benefitting from the fact that Simon was there, and can provide insight into the business workings and the seamier side of the business, and there are some nice extras (a transcript from some of the 1950s hearings into comics). But a little choppy and with too little structure to be a great book. Also included are a couple of vintage Simon-Kirby stories (one from a Damon Runyon-esque strip called "The Duke of Broadway", but seeming atypical, but with no explanation for its content; and a horror story). There's also plenty of other art samples including, most intriguingly, a page of a comic originally drawn by C.C. Beck, and the published version by Jack Kirby. Seeing how the two men approached the same sequence, with the same script, is fascinating (even which panel the captions are placed in is shifted around for slightly different effect). For those interested in the process of comicbook storytelling, the comparison is intriguing -- not that one is necessarily better than the other, but they're different.
The Comic Book Reader's Companion by Ron Goulart
1993 (softcover, 18.75cm+23.5cm), 195 pgs., publisher: Harper Perennial (A Division of HarperCollins)
This is an excellent, fun encyclopedia with entries on scores of comic book characters and titles, sometimes brief, sometimes nicely elaborate, with occasional black & white pictures. It's basically a softcover -- and edited -- version The Encylopedia of American Comics, a bigger, hardcover encyclopedia Goulart wrote; that latter book contains all the material in the Comic Book Reader's Companion, but many more entries, as well as stuff on comic strips and the creators.
Goulart has a Golden Age & Silver Age bias, and the lion's share of the book is devoted to older titles (though entries on still-active titles contain fairly up-to-date data -- ie: his Batman entry has references to Miller's The Dark Knight Returns). That's a bit of a weakness since, for instance, there are no entries for Bronze Age "minority" heroes like the Black Panther, Shang-Chi, Power Man, etc.
Actually, Goulart show's a bit of a self-serving bias in that practically the only entry for a recent title is Tek World, a short-lived, not especially significant 1990s comic based on William Shatner's Tek novels...a comic written by Ron Goulart! Hmmm.
Still, all in all, a fine book.
The Comic Guide
see The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide
DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels
1995 (hardcover, 23.5 cm+30 cm), 256 pgs., publisher: Bulfinch Press (A Division of Little, Brown and Company)
This is an enjoyable enough book...but I don't know if it's just that I've maxed out on these kind of books, or what, but I had mixed feelings toward it.
Daniels doesn't go the standard route with these sort of books (as he had in his earlier book about Marvel, or his later one about Superman -- both reviewed below) of writing them as books, with a kind of narrative as the material is explored in chapters. Rather, he's tried to do a nice little coffee table book, broken up into bite size chapters of about two pages each (a page of text, with lots of illustrations). It makes it a fun, breezy read, where you can pick it up when you've only got a few minutes to spare, with each "chapter" focusing on its particular subject. The down side is that the book can seem a tad superficial, skimming over things. As well, things are covered without as much overall context -- the Teen Titans over the years are covered all in one section, rather than detailing their evolution over the years in their proper chronological places. As well, after having read many books like this, I was familiar with most of it, with Daniels offering little in the way of fresh anecdotes, and, with the "snippet" approach, not that much about the behind the scenes struggles. Nor does Daniels include any reprinted comic book stories (as he has in some of his other books). Still, there's plenty here, detailing DC's beginnings as a pulp magazine publisher, and including its properties branching out into movies and TV and radio.
Ultimately I did enjoy this, but there
are better, more comprehensive books out there. Probably reads better for
those who are just delving into the behind-the-scenes tomes that are non-fiction
comic book books.
The Great Canadian Comic Books by Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert
1971 (hardcover, 20.5 cm+28 cm) 264 pgs, publisher: Peter Martin Associates
A nice intro to the Golden-Age of Canadian comic books (the 1940s), focusing on Toronto's Colonial Distributors (Bell Features) which was responsible for the most famous Canadian heroes like Johnny Canuck and Nelvana. The book features introductory pieces, and a historical overview. Even better, it reproduces plenty of pages from the comics themselves -- since, unlike American comics, these characters have fallen into obscurity, one can't stress how important it is just to simple reprint the material itself. Which is the problem. Despite the devotion and obvious passion of the writers, only one or two stories are printed in their entirety, the rest are just snatches of this and that -- which might be O.K., if story descriptions were substituted. But they aren't.
You come away still not really knowing much about the strips, who were the characters, the supporting cast, the plots. In other words, the book gives you a glimpse into this long ago medium, but leaves you wanting so much more. And, of course, wanting to learn more about the other publishers, too.
This is basically a primer on Canadian comics, not the definitive guide. Unfortunately, no one else has picked up the slack. I've only read one other book on Canadian comics (called Canuck Comix, I believe), which was a fine book, but entirely text-oriented. So The Great Canadian Comic Books remains the best source to date -- and good luck tracking it down. The copyy I've read is a tattered old thing in the local library, with pages missing, graffiti, etc. The copyright is credited to Nelvana Limited, I assume the same Nelvana as the Canadian animation studio. Unfortunately, they never did anything more with it themselves (no Johnny Canuck Saturday morning cartoons, no Thunderfist graphic novels).
It remains a fun book that can inflame your curiosity
to learn more...but what this country needs is someone to publish a book
simply reprinting some of these stories in their entirety (or at least
with story synopsis) so that you can get a genuine feel for the stories
Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics by Les Daniels
1991 (hardcover, 25 cm+30 cm, I believe there's also a softcover version) 288 pgs, publisher: Abradale Press, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Entertaining look at Marvel Comics, decade by decade, from its origins in pulp magazines to the beginning of the '90s. Particularly interesting is the stuff up to and including the "Marvel Age" (the 1960s). Lots of illustrations, behind-the-scenes comments, intriguing trivia, etc. Of course, it's basically a puff piece -- there's some nitty gritty and acknowledging of problems and conflicts here and there, but nothing too incendiary...or critical. Still, highly readable. Included are also reprints of a 1950s Sub-Mariner story ("Vengeance" by Bill Everett), a 1960s Spider-Man (from #2) by Lee and Ditko, a 1980s limited distribution Wolverine short by Chris Claremont and Marshall Rogers, and a 20 page Fantastic Four ("This Man...This Monster" #51) by Lee and Kirby.
Of course, read with hindsight, there's a certain
irony to the closing of the book as Daniels' chronicles Marvels push into
the '90s with a host of new titles, proud, cocky, dressed for success...when
most of those "hot" new titles would be cancelled just a few years later.
The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide ed. Frank Plowright
1997 (softcover, 15.5cm+22.8cm), 688 pgs. publisher: Aurum Press
Billed as a critical assessment of over 2 500 titles, it pretty well lives up to its name. The first book of its kind -- at least that I've ever come acrooss. It's a handy review/reference book that I find myself consulting often when I'm thinking of leafing through the back issues bin. Not that I agree with the reviews all the time, but it provides some interesting commentary. Of course, it doesn't give an issue by issue review, but series overviews, assessing artistic periods. Still it will, in fact, single out particular issues or story lines that are of note.
Staggeringly comprehensive, I only found a few series that had been overlooked. Though, of course, it doesn't cover anything much past 1996. Curiously, it's British (even using British expressions in some reviews) but most of the reviews of British comics are only of comics reprinted in American editions (and it seems to have a British bias, tending to give a preponderance of gushing reviews to British comics and creators).
Definitely a book worth having on the shelf. Too
bad there aren't more. After all, there are dozens of movie review
books at the book store. Heck, I'd like to publish my reviews in book form!
Superman: The Complete History by Les Daniels
1998 (hardcover, 21 cm+26 cm), 194 pgs. publisher: Chronicle Books
I n my review of Tales of the Dark Knight: Batman's First Fifty Years, I comment that there may be a weakness in a book devoted to a single character...this proves me wrong. This truly comprehensive tomb is a lot of fun, chronicling Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's early struggles, fruitlessly pitching their unconventional idea of a "super man", through to the character's various forays into other mediums (Daniels even covers things like an unsold Superboy pilot that was filmed in the '60s) all lavishly illustrated including lots of rare photos of obscure Superman memorabillia.
I'm a bit of a grumpy cynic, so as the book moves into the modern era I found I got a bit more critical, wondering where the line is between an objective chronicle and a propaganda piece (nowhere would you read that, as far as I know, DC and Superman have been lagging behind rival Marvel in the sales department for the last 30 years). And when Daniels takes an unexpectedly condescending attitude to Siegel and Shuster's legal battles to obtain greater compensation for their creative efforts, is this a reflection of his own take on the situation, or the result of "encouragement" from DC?
Like with his Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, Daniels includes some reprints of Superman stories: "Powerstone" (Action #47 1942). "The Shrinking Superman" (Action #245 1958), "Metro 900 miles" (Superman #9, vol. 2 1987). Reflecting a curious trend noted in the comic book anthology The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, Daniels curiously skips over the '60s and '70s when choosing reprints (omitting anything by Curt Swan even as, in the book itself, he acknowledges that Swan's drawing of Supes is seen by many as the quintessential Superman) while the more recent story isn't even a Superman story -- it's a Lex Luthor story! Surely it reflects a problem with the comics in recent years if in two books, the "best" story they can come up with is more interested in the villain than the hero!
Still, over all, this is a thoroughly engrossing
Tales of the Dark Knight: Batman's First Fifty Years by Mark Cotta Vaz
1989 (softcover, 21cm+27.5cm), 210 pgs, publisher: Ballantine Books
This is certainly a good book, I'm just not sure why, viscerally, I don't feel it was a great book. Maybe an entire book devoted to one character is a bit much, or maybe, for all the detail and stuff Vaz includes, there's still a sense that there are some angles unexplored. There's a section on the '60s TV series, for instance, but no reference to the movie serials of the '40s (or the various animated versions).
Still, it's pretty good, with some comments from behind-the-scenes types, and some interesting tid-bits with which I was unfamiliar. And there's some nice stuff on pre-comics, pulp-style adventurers dating back to the 19th Century. There are plenty of black & white illustrations, and full colour cover reproductions.
In the end, maybe Tales of the Dark Knight
is more aimed at younger readers. By that I don't mean it's juvenile,
or that an adult couldn't or shouldn't enjoy it -- hey, I did like it.
I merely mean that, though there is behind the scenes stuff, a lot of the
book is dedicated to Batman and his stories -- a primer on the character
and his world, more than it's a chronicle of the medium.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
1993 (softcover, 17.25cm+26cm), 216 pgs, publisher: Kitchen Sink Press for HarperCollins.
McCloud's book is intriguing, both in his attempt to analyse the medium, and in how he chose to do it. Understanding Comics is a comic book itself, told in panel format, with the McCloud-caricature talking to the reader and leading us through the evolution of the medium (dating back, he postulates, thousands of years) and its techniques while waxing philosophic along the way. Oh, and being funny, too. Understanding Comics is quite amusing in spots -- and atmospheric (when was the last time you read a non-fiction book with atmosphere, eh?). At first it might seem like an odd technique -- a non-fiction comic about comics -- but no one would think it strange to do a filmed documentary about film. Using this technique, McCloud presents a highly readable book where he can demonstrate the very things he's talking about, utilizing irony and subtlety that wouldn't be available to him in a straight prose book.
McCloud manages to make the book seem more than just a dissertation on comics, imbuing the thing with enough asides to make it seem, at times, like an examination of the Human Condition -- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the funny book crowd. Granted, like any discussion about deeper meaning, it works best when you're wrapped up in it. Given time to reflect, some of his theories didn't hold up all that well for me, but it remains thought-provoking (and fun, don't forget fun). A weakness is in some of his discussions about techniques. McCloud tries to avoid getting too subjective, blatantly dissing one genre (ie: superheroes) for another -- the subtext is there, but he tries to mask it. But there's a feeling that McCloud, like too many comic folks, puts too much emphasis on the art over writing. Sure, he gives some thought to writing, but in one sequence he examines ways to convey a pause through repeated panels, stretched out panels, etc. But he doesn't point out a pause can be conveyed through writing by having a balloon with "..." semi-joined with the sentence that follows it -- even though McCloud uses that very technique himself later. Too often comic folks treat writers as just an afterthought...and then wonder why comics have trouble delivering great stories and characterization!
Anyway, a great book for the fan and the would be pro, and maybe, just maybe, a good book to get a non-comic reader to read. Heck, it should be added to the curriculum of High School Art classes (after all, it covers more than just comics, and puts comics in the context of the evolution of art, in general).
I think the book may've been re-issued by more
than one publisher over the years (including DC Comics).
Women in Comics by Maurice Horn
1977 (hardcover), 1980 (softcover, 21.5cm+28cm), 230 pgs, publisher: Chelsea House.
Dedicated to chronicling female characters, and the evolution of female roles, in both comic books and comic strips from the 1890s to the 1980s, this is an excellent book. Though it's not as cerebral or high-minded as my description probably implies. This is, basically, a coffee-table, read-it-in-brief-spurts-while-waiting-for-your-eggs-to-boil, sort of thing. Each decade is prefaced by a two or three page essay, then followed by an encylopedia-like reference guide, well illustrated by both colour and black & white pictures.
For those interested in really exploring the medium, Horn has unearthed some truly obscure characters and strips (at least they were to me). Particularly those from the early half of the Century. And since he includes entries, not just on female leads, but also female characters who were supporting players (girl friends, etc.) in titles starring a male lead, this is a good reference to just comic books and comic strips in general. He also has entries on characters in European and underground comics.
The only weakness -- if it is a weakness -- is that he also includes a smattering off entries (and pictures) on more racy, adult-oriented material. Therefore, it's a fine book for grown-ups, but you might want to think twice before letting the kiddies read a couple of the pages. And, of course, it was published in 1980, so it's not exactly up-to-date.
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