A soup-to-nuts history of mostly male, mostly American superheroes of the 20th century.
This slab of superhero history is a colorful companion to Maslon (Arts/NYU Graduate Acting Program; Broadway: The American Musical, 2010, etc.) and Kantor’s (Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, 2009, etc.) upcoming PBS documentary. It’s one of those strange amalgamations that arise from things like Ken Burns’ documentaries: the comprehensive history that only skims the surface. But as an introduction to comics culture for novices, it does the trick. Starting in 1938, the authors chart the origins of the DC icons and delve into the awful history of Fredric Wertham’s war on fun and the development of the Comics Code Authority. The most iconic characters get their own breakout sections, rendered in dazzling color illustrations. Better segments bring context, with the benefit of hindsight, to groundbreaking moments like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. However, the authors sometimes diverge from the source texts to focus on TV and hundreds of movies ranging from Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance to the wealth of modern adaptations. This is probably based on the documentary source, which needs that imagery to thrive. One hopes the film more deeply explores some of the more shameful events in the industry’s history, like the bad blood between DC and Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Another aspect that makes the book feel generic is the clear focus on the big two: DC and Marvel, with only a slight deviation into the Image Comics rebellion. That shuts out a ton of indie publishers, effectively pushing eclectic characters ranging from The Rocketeer to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into the shadow of more recognizable caped crusaders.
An academic recounting of a truly rich creative history, but it’s territory covered with more fun and attitude by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s The Comic Book History of Comics (2012).