Saturday, December 7, 2013

Worthwhile Independent Of The Documentary, Superheroes! Is An Engaging Pop Culture History Volume!

The Good: Well-written, Fairly thorough
The Bad: Some missing elements, Does not fully explore a few concepts/characters
The Basics: Probably the definitive history of comic books in relation to popular culture in the United States, Superheroes! stands well on its own.

For the past few years, I have been reading and reviewing graphic novels and when I started, it was because I recognized that so many new films were based upon graphic novels. There was a pretty obvious massive crossover in geek culture to popular culture when V For Vendetta (reviewed here!) was adapted for a film and it was a major cinematic release/success. Recently, PBS aired a documentary on the history and significance of comic books in U.S. pop culture. To go with that documentary, the book Superheroes! was published.

Superheroes! has the appearance of a coffee table book, but what it actually is is a text book. For anyone and everyone studying the history of significance of comic books, Superheroes! might well be the definitive text. The book, written by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor, is filled with obscure and interesting photographs – covers of comic books that have not been seen intact since they were originally released (long before they were ever considered collectible) – but it is the text of Superheroes! that makes the volume a “must buy” for historians of U.S. pop culture.

Superheroes! describes the history of comic books in three major movements. In the United States, comic books began their ascent during the Great Depression. Starting as anthologies serialized comic strips that were sold dirt cheap and as collection of pulp books that were dominated by pictures, comic books became a phenomenon geared toward children when Detective Comics began monthly publications and sold their dime comic books to children through candy shops. The massive appeal of comic books erupted with the creation and release of Action Comics #1 – the first appearance of Superman.

Superheroes! then describes the creation of many of the major superheroes: Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Following the Great Depression, during the 1950s, the nature of comic book heroes evolved . . . and they came to the attention of agents of censorship. As a result, comic books evolved again and with the creation of the Comics Code, popular culture and geek culture around comic books diverged. While the mainstream books brought superheroes into a constant struggle to save the Earth, independent books pushed the boundaries of humor, taste, and social issues.

The final section of comic book history explores the way comic books started to use darker protagonists and comic books were adapted into major motion pictures. The eruption into mainstream culture brought a legitimacy to the fringe culture that young people and adults who had been interested in comic books never before had.

Authors Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor do more than simply present a straightforward history of a fringe movement in the United States. Instead, Superheroes! compiles a slew of original interviews including quotes from a huge number of significant personalities in the comic book world. As a result, Superheroes! includes views from Stan Lee, Adam West, Alan Moore, and Lynda Carter that add depth and perspective beyond what one usually finds in either a history book or a coffee table volume.

The added perspectives are enlightening and Superheroes! is well-researched and well-written. It does have some gaps (The Human Torch is referenced as a comic book long before The Fantastic Four are created and transitions like that are presented somewhat erratically). Despite some gaps and having to gloss over some specifics about individual popular titles, which makes sense for keeping the book manageable in size and readable, Superheroes! is a worthwhile read and something everyone who truly loves comic books ought to own and read multiple times.

For other reference books related to comic books, please check out my reviews of:
The Wonder Woman Encyclopedia
Watchmen: The Film Companion
Mythology: The Art Of Alex Ross


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Dear W.L.Swarts,
    I am the coauthor of the book and I thank you for your positive comments. One thing that confuses me, is a sentence about the Human Torch: "It does have some gaps (The Human Torch is referenced as a comic book long before The Fantastic Four are created and transitions like that are presented somewhat erratically)." We all know that the original Torch was a 1940s character, repurposed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the Fantastic Four in the 1960s--what transitions are erratic, then? I am asking out of genuine curiosity, not to be critical or difficult. Many thanks. Larry Maslon

    1. Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading! (It's always a pleasure to hear from the artists whose works I review!) The Human Torch thing was one example, but for that example, the Human Torch is referenced several times in the section on the 1940s and beyond and while it is casually mentioned that the character was co-opted for the Fantastic Four (I love the "something old, new, borrowed, blue" line you used when mentioning how Stan Lee assembled the Fantastic Four!), the process was not as detailed as I - as someone who actually knows virtually nothing about the FF or comic book history (your comment "we all know" is not accurate! :) ) - might have hoped. Lee is credited as a comic book genius and the Fantastic Four is regarded as one of the most popular Marvel franchises of all time. I, for one, was a bit surprised to learn one of the main characters was taken from a prior series. How did that come about? How did the original authors react? Why did Stan Lee not create an original character? Etc. is not answered in the book. Still, a fine volume that answers most questions exceptionally well and should be the definitive text on the subject!

      Thanks again for the comment!