Thursday, December 10, 2009

Books of the Year, Part 4: Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941

We're living in a magical time when virtually every superhero comic book gets collected in book form, but few of those collections are as magical, memorable or just plain wonky as SUPERMEN!, a fat, full-color volume edited by Greg Sadowski and published by Fantagraphics.

Like the subtitle says, this book collects various stories from the very early days of super-hero comics, long before the rules that now govern the genre had been established. For one thing, you won't encounter too many familiar faces in here. Maybe you've heard of Jack Cole's Daredevil (not the blind guy Marvel publishes) or Simon and Kirby's Blue Bolt, but actually seeing their adventures, drawn when those legends were young men, eager to (a) make a buck and (b) put something, anything on paper, is a revelation. The stories range from action-packed to barely-sensible, but they all have a crazed energy you just can't fake. Clearly written on the fly, the tales in SUPERMAN! struggle to make sense from panel to panel much less build to a logical ending, and that, needless to say, is part of the fun. They read like the sort of stories imaginative kids would think up -- which might be why they appealed so much to kids in the first place.

The reproduction is solid, with the original lurid colors thankfully preserved and the stories themselves bracketed by vintage covers, ads and other bits of ephemera. Sadowski provides extensive notes in the back covering these forgotten lunatics, and novelist (and big time comic fan) Jonathan Lethem contributes an introduction that sums of the appeal of these oddball stories better than I ever could. So, take it away, Jonathan...

"A collection like SUPERMEN! works like a reverse neutron bomb to assumptions about the birth of the superhero image: It tears down the orderly structures of history and theory and leaves the figures standing in full view, staring back at us in all their defiant disorienting particularity, their blazing strangeness."

I remember when I was first starting to read comic books as a kid. Every so often, in a reprinted story in a 100-PAGE SUPER SPECTACULAR or one of those big FAMOUS FIRST EDITIONS, I'd catch a glimpse of a Golden Age comic book and marvel at how fascinatingly alien they looked to my modern eyes. The best praise I can offer SUPERMEN! is to say that these stories are even older -- and even more bizarre.