An industry long in the shadows gets its due with a mainstream historical text.
Although the tide has lately turned toward respect for the more literary subfield of graphic novels, the critical community still largely ignores the superhero pulps that constitute the vast bulk of comic books. Fortunately, this punchy new history dives right into that world of brawny, ridiculous heroics and implausible scenarios with commendable and unapologetic gusto. Michael Chabon explored the Lower East Side, Jewish, immigrant roots of the industry in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), but Jones (Honey I’m Home, 1991, etc.) digs deeper, limning the grubby details of an always-disreputable business and coming up with a fistful of gold. He excels at describing the early-20th-century New York milieu that nurtured the art form, “the bed in which the comic book was born: countercultural, lowbrow, idealistic, prurient, pretentious, mercenary, forward-looking, and ephemeral, all in the same instant.” Jones profiles such key figures as Harry Donenfeld, a pioneering comics kingpin (and buddy of gangsters like Frank Costello) with a lust for the deal and an unerring eye for what would sell, early industry greats like Jerry Siegel and Wil Eisner, and some not-so-greats as well (Batman creator Bob Kane had limited talent, to say the least). In one of the more astonishing scenes here, publisher Lev Gleason gets a great deal in 1941 on a few million pages of pulp stock, provided he can get it printed in a weekend; on Friday, he grabs a team of artists, who put out a 64-page Daredevil issue by Monday. If this sounds familiar, it’s the basis for one of Kavalier’s best set pieces.
Bold and brassy, with a solid grasp of its material.