Thursday, January 13, 2011

Books of the Year, Part 4: Books about Comics

Continuing in the oft-delayed series (parts 1, 2, and 3), here's the penultimate round-up of 2010 books of note, this time focusing on various volumes exploring the history of the funnybook medium.

Book of the year, as far as books about comics are concerned. Not only does it reprint tons of bee-yoo-ti-ful Jaime Hernandez art (including the entire strip he did for the New York Times), but it takes a detailed, insightful look at his work that arrives at the only sensible conclusion: He's one of the greats -- and I mean the all-time greats. Not only is he one of the finest cartoonists ever to pick up a pencil, but he's one of the best writers, too. It made me dive back into my entire Love & Rockets collection.

This is the sort of book I can't even imagine existing a few years ago. I first discovered Meskin's energetic work in the old Secret Origins and Wanted DC reprints that used to crowd the quarter boxes when I started collecting in the late 1970s. Meskin's art stood out, mostly because his figures and compositions always seemed to explode off the page. And now there's an elaborate book that (a) examines his whole life (b) reprints lots of vintage art and (c) includes plenty of originals? Tell me this isn't the best time -- ever -- to be a comic book fan.

Some great reading between these covers even if, strictly speaking, it's not all "comics criticism." You get chapters from Gerard Jones' "Men of Tomorrow" and David Hadju's "The Ten Cent Plague," a Gary Groth interview with and Dan Clowes appreciation of the great Will Elder, Howard Chaykin on Will Eisner's tendency to bend the truth, Seth waxing rhapsodically about John Stanley's teen comics and Peter Bagge explaining why he thinks, and I quote, "Spider-Man Sucks." Maybe my favorite piece is Ken Parille's detailed examination of Dan Clowes' "David Boring," an article that made me look at one of my favorite comic stories in a whole new way.

Like his previous book, "Batman Collected," Chip Kidd's "Shazam" isn't so much about comic books as it is about all the pop culture debris that collects in the wake of a very popular comic book. I'd always heard Captain Marvel was more popular than Superman back in the Golden Age, but having grown up in the modern era, when the reverse is obviously true, that was damn hard to believe. Kidd's book, with its endless parade of toys, tie-ins and promotional material, proves it once and for all. And, needless to say for a Chip Kidd book, it's all beautifully photographed (thanks to Geoff Spears) and impeccably presented.

I'll wind things up with three books devoted to horror comics. "Four Color Fear" wasn't quite a revelatory as Greg Sadowski's previous collection, "Supermen," mostly because that really old super-hero stuff is even less reprinted than these horror stories. Still, this is a great collection, with vintage work from Basil Wolverton, Joe Kubert, Howard Nostrand, Bob Powell and especially Jack Cole, who delivers a couple of twisted masterpieces here. Also, there are fascinating, detailed end notes and a lurid collection of covers in the middle. This book edges out the year's other 1950s horror collection, Jim Trombetta's "The Horror! The Horror!" mostly because all Trombetta's text deliver anything that wouldn't have been better served by more reprints. (That DVD of the paranoid anti-comic book show from the 1950s is pretty sweet, though.)

Another side of horror comics gets the spotlight in this book collecting a whole slew of Dick Briefer's legendary -- but little seen -- Frankenstein comics. Editor Craig Yoe puts it all in historical context and includes plenty of background material, but what he does best is include a wide sampling of both the horrific and humorous strips Briefer did. And it's beautifully designed, too, with a fun die-cut cover where the eyes of the funny version peek through the face of the scary version.

Finally, there's Mike Howlett's gory, gruesome autopsy of the wild publications legendary publisher Myron Fass unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Lacking the charm of Frankenstein or the wit of the '50s comics -- heck, lacking virtually any charm or wit at all -- these magazines are tough to defend but impossible to resist. There's virtually nothing I like better than exploring the sleazy underbelly of pop culture, and pop culture doesn't get much sleazier than this. Bravo!

Next: The Year's Best Pop Culture Book


brent said...

Been meaning to pick up Four Color Fear. I got the other book that came out around the same time called The Horror! The Horror! which is a good coffee table book but from the sounds of it FCF might have a little more "Guts" to it. Sorry, bad pun.

photo editor said...

not a big fan of comics, but... love reading. maybe i should read these once, i guess they were called 'books of the year' for a reason :)