Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Histories of Comic Books

Comic books have been with us for more than three-quarters of a century and while interest (calculated by the sales) in the books themselves seems to be waning, the growing number of books about their origins and creators being cranked out seems to indicate that there is an audience for the history of the medium.

Some of these books are written by people who have been inside the business, first-hand witnesses to the events they are recounting. Others are by fans who have devoured the history and know almost as much as if they had been there. And then there are the ones that are written by people who weren't there, don't know people who were there, and sometimes just make things up.

In the latter group goes the book Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book Culture by Lawrence Maslon and Michael Kantor. This is a companion volume to a documentary of the same name that aired on PBS. There are lots of illustrations, including a number you can find in virtually every other history of the industry. (To be fair, how could you do a history of comics without having the cover of Action Comics #1 in it?)

In reading these books, I often find statements of "fact" that are wrong. Some of these can be attributed to the author getting information from one source and not verifying it with anyone else. Discussing the heroes of the All-American line in the 1940s and the Justice Society, the authors say, "The heroes created there, often by Sheldon Moldoff, were admired but not nearly as successful as Superman and Batman, and none of them had his own book." Now, Shelly was a prolific artist throughout the Golden and Silver Ages and spent much of his career being a ghost for Bob Kane on Batman, but he is not credited with creating the heroes of the AA line.  And then there's the little matter of The Flash and Green Lantern, who starred in Flash Comics and All-American Comics as well as their own solo titles.

Particularly cringe-worthy in this book because it was a fact very easy to check is the line in a paragraph about servicemen reading Superman comic books during the war. "Apparently, there were several 'dumbed-down' issues of Superman, with simpler vocabulary, available at induction centers."
"Apparently"? No, it's a fact! DC produced versions of six of its books for the U.S. Navy, to help personnel with vocabulary and reading comprehension.

And it doesn't take much online research to find them.

It would be great if authors of these histories had their work vetted by an industry professional. Bob Greenberger, Paul Kupperberg, Allan Asherman -- they are just a few of the guys who've been in the biz and know the back stories. They and others like them are easily found online and whatever it costs to have them check the work is worth it.

Meantime, I'll keep reading these books and wishing they were more accurate.

1 comment:

  1. I'm leary of any book of comics history that focuses on one publisher and is written by someone closely affiliated with that publisher. I've read some of the DC "history" books and found them filled with knowing misinformation and outright lies, usually to make the company look better. I remember a Batman book that I couldn't get more than one chapter into because a) the writing is terrible and b) it took cheap shots at Bill Finger. The only exceptions to this are some of the Marvel books where the writers seemed willing to at least mention some of the warts.