Monday, August 1, 2011

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 1

Finishing the Blake Bell book on Steve Ditko reminded me that I really enjoy nonfiction books about comics, comics creators and the comics industry. I also realized I have quite a few such books and they might make for an interesting post. Then I started listing them and realized it might take several posts.

So here’s the first one, focusing on books that offer historical overviews or essays about comics as a medium or specific comics characters

All in Color for a Dime and The Comic-Book Book, both edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson. These are very influential books in comics history, being collections of essays about all kinds of topics from Jingle-Jangle Tales to Captain Marvel. All in Color was first published in 1970 and became a rare and expensive find by the time I learned of it, so I had to wait for the 1990s re-issue. The Comic-Book Book was one of the first books on comics I got, as it was commonly available in used bookstores. I picked it up the first time because of Don Thompson, whose reviews in Comics Buyers Guide I enjoyed reading quite a bit in the last few years before he died.

Superman: The Complete History, Batman: The Complete History and Wonder Woman: The Complete History, all written by Les Daniels and beautifully designed and filled with amazing images by Chip Kidd. These are really solid and fun books to read and look through, even though there’s something about them that feels restrained and somehow corporate in tone. The book on Wonder Woman was the most interesting to me as her history is written about less frequently, even though it’s perhaps the most oddball and interesting of them all.

The Comic-Book Makers by Joe Simon with Jim Simon. I checked this out of a library and then had to return it before I finished reading it because I was moving. But it was interesting enough for me to seek out when it came back into print years later. An excellent look back at what it was like to work in the Golden Age of comics from one of the most-accomplished creators of that time.

The Comic-Book Heroes, by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones. The original, 1984 edition of this was a book I coveted for a long time before I got to read it. I first saw it in the Waldenbooks at Paradise Valley Mall in Arizona sometime in late 1986. I desperately wanted to read it because it was the first history of comics I had seen that covered the era I was most interested in — the superhero books from the Silver Age on. Being a broke teenager, it took me a while to come up with the cash to buy the book, by which time the sole copy at the store had been sold. I didn’t see another copy until a few years later when I was in college and one turned up at the excellent Bookman’s store in Tucson. I devoured the book and loved it, especially for how compelling it was in recounting not just what happened in the books but the companies and people who were creating them. It also had some great criticism of a lot of comics of the time. Needless to say, I re-read this book several times and was thrilled when an updated version came out in 1996. That version was even better than the original, expanding the original book to cover everything that happened in the 1980s and up through the insanity of the speculator market and through the crash. Jones, of course, saw much of this first hand as a prolific scripter for both Marvel and DC, and the book is full of interesting details. If a third version were to be produced, I would be first in line to buy it.

Perhaps even more compelling is Jones' Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. This one goes all the way back to the dawn of the comics business and focuses in particular on Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz as they start and build DC into the industry powerhouse. This is full of well-researched details and exposes a shadier side of the industry. The battle over Superman waged between DC and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster is central here, and the details are both fascinating and heartbreaking. There’s plenty of other great stuff from the Golden Age and even a look at the circumstances that created the comic book in the first place. Another absolute must-read.

Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics and DC Comics: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes, both by Les Daniels, seem like they’d be natural bookends. The Marvel edition is a surprisingly solid, warts-and-all history of the publisher from the days of Martin Goodman up through the heyday of superstar artist Todd McFarlane. It does a very good job of covering all the bases and features lots of very nice cover reproductions and vintage photographs of creators. There’s even an illustrated “how-to-make-comics” section and annotated reprints of some vintage stories. The DC version, however, is nowhere near as interesting because it doesn’t weave the details into as interesting a narrative. Instead, it’s episodic and focuses a lot on how successful DC characters have been in other media. The Marvel book is better, but the DC version is still interesting for the photos and artwork.

I already wrote a ways back about Watching the Watchmen by Dave Gibbons, and had a chance to talk to Dave about the making of the book. I wish this kind of documentary evidence was readily available for more seminal comic book series. Basically, Gibbons kept every drawing and every scrap of paper related to the series and presents here in astonishing detail the work that went into making this important book. Gibbons also writes down his recollections, and it all adds up to a fascinating look at what creating comics can be like.

One more for this post: The Photojournal Guide to Comic Books, photographed by Ernie Gerber. There were four volumes in this series, with the third and fourth devoted exclusively to Marvel. These were very hot and expensive when they first came out, featuring color photographs of the covers of thousands of comics. It wasn’t comprehensive, but it included all the historically significant books from the Golden Age up through the 1980s. Today, the internet does this kind of thing better with extensive online photo galleries that can be searched and viewed with ease. But I still admire these and pull them out on occasion to thumb through because I always spot something interesting I hadn’t noticed before.

Next: Great comic book interviews.


Anonymous said...

What about your own book about the X-Men comics and films?

Tom McLean said...

Don't worry, I'll get to that. This is Part 1. Part 2 is coming in the next day or so.