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Friday In The Reference Library

It amuses my wife Julie, and several of our friends, to suggest that I know everything there is to know about comics, pulps, and junk culture in general. And I will freely admit that I do have a head full of that kind of minutiae — I mean, I’m no Mark Evanier or anything, but I’ve got some game.

Truthfully, though, especially if you have a writing gig like this one, you better be able to look things up. Of course the internet itself is an invaluable resource, and I use it a lot, but it’s nice to have actual comics history and reference books on hand, too. A few weeks ago, someone suggested taking a look at some of these scholarly (and some not-so-scholarly) works out there about comics. So here it is.

These are by no means ALL of them. They’re just the ones I own and would recommend. If your personal favorite’s not listed here, well, it’s probably on my shopping list (I still need to order Spurgeon and Raphael’s Stan Lee biography and Evanier’s upcoming Jack Kirby book, for example.)

Coming soon!

This library gets added to almost as often as the actual comics collection. I’m endlessly fascinated with comic books and pulp fiction as an artform, as a pop culture phenomenon, as a societal mirror… and you know, there are lots of cool books out there about all those things. As far as popular culture historians are concerned, we are living in a renaissance of scholarship.

The first one of these I encountered is still one of my favorites.

My primary source and first real glimpse of comics scholarship.

This is the original edition. In its first, mid-sixties incarnation, The Great Comic Book Heroes reprinted a wonderful collection of Golden Age stories including the origin tales of Superman, Batman, Captain America, Flash, Green Lantern, and Plastic Man, as well as stories featuring the Spectre, the original Human Torch, and the Spirit. I first saw this book in a B.Dalton’s in 1972 and I devoured it IN THE STORE. The comics reprints, anyway. For an eleven-year-old “the words part” in the front was just in the way.

Years later, in college, I acquired a copy of my own, and with the patience of adulthood I discovered the “words part” from Feiffer that framed the reprints was well worth my time as well. By turns funny and insightful, The Great Comic Book Heroes is both an analysis and a memoir of the Golden Age superheroes from their beginnings in the 1930′s up through the attacks by Dr. Frederic Wertham.

New edition's nice enough, I guess. But I prefer the original.

There’s a new edition (omitting the comics reprints) from Fantagraphics, and I certainly would recommend that as well. Even with just Feiffer’s text, it’s worth having in any incarnation. But — it must be said — even though I can’t blame Fantagraphics for not wanting to go through all the clearances hassle with so many Archive Editions and so on available to collectors today, still… the older edition with the reprints is much more fun. Try eBay or Amazon or even Heritage Auction Galleries. Though the word’s out on the original edition and rare-book collectors tend to drive the price up (come to think of it, this column probably isn’t helping) you still sometimes get lucky. Try a used-bookstore search engine like Alibris or Bookfinder.com and see what you turn up.

Feiffer’s book is great fun but I wouldn’t rank it as the BEST history of Golden Age superhero comics. The one that I think is absolutely the one to beat is, sadly, incomplete.

A terrific, but sadly incomplete, history of comics. It only went two volumes.

Unfortunately Jim Steranko’s History of Comics only reached volume two before it was over (I’m pretty sure it was projected to go longer) but he still covered an amazing amount of ground in those two volumes. Volume one was an overview of comic books’ origin in newspaper strips, a chapter on pulp heroes’ influence, then chapters on Superman, Batman, Captain America, Namor and the Torch and the other Timely heroes, the JSA, and the kid-gang comics like Boy Commandos and Newsboy Legion. Volume two covered the Marvel Family and the other Fawcett heroes, the Blackhawks, other flying heroes like Airboy and Captain Midnight, Plastic Man, the Quality stable of heroes like Doll Man and Uncle Sam, and wrapping up with Eisner and the Spirit. Exhaustively researched and profusely illustrated with examples of covers and interior page art, and all delivered with two magnificent wraparound covers by Steranko himself.

Since it came out in 1972, and Steranko himself was in the business, an additional bonus was that many of the artists under discussion were still alive and Jim Steranko was able to get hold of them and ask them things. As a result it’s got a lot of first-hand accounts of inside stuff that you just don’t see in other books about the Golden Age. It’s simply the best overall history of superhero comics’ Golden Age I’ve ever run across.

So, naturally, it’s out of print. Sorry. These days it’s usually an exorbitantly-priced collector’s item. But if you see it, grab it — sometimes they’ll turn up at a convention or something. I happen to know that Zanadu Comics in downtown Seattle has two or three copies of volume 2. (“Warehouse find,” Howard tells me.) They’ve got them much more reasonably priced than you’d see on eBay. And I really, REALLY recommend the book. I bet if you sent an e-mail they’d be happy to work out some kind of mail-order thing if you’re not in town.

Speaking of incomplete histories, I talked about Michael Fleisher’s Encyclopedias in this space a few weeks ago

These are exhaustive -- and sometimes exhausting!-- but good to have.

But this is as good a time as any to remind everyone that DC’s bringing the Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman volumes back into print.

Nice to see this one back, at least.

I glanced through the new edition at the store last week and it looks nice. Recommended, as long as you remember it’s a reference work and a little on the dry side.

For those that are interested in EC, the flap with Dr. Wertham that resulted in the Comics Code, and the beginning of Mad Magazine, I really like this book.

A great overview of Gaines, EC, and Mad, by a guy who was there.

Frank Jacobs worked at Mad with Gaines and was able to talk extensively with him, Al Feldstein, and all the other Madmen. I’ve always regarded this as pretty much the final word on the subject. Although — full disclosure — I haven’t seen Mark Evanier’s new book about Mad, and knowing Evanier, that’s probably pretty good too. But get the Jacobs book first.

This brings us to the Silver Age, more or less. There are several books covering this era that I’m very fond of.

Another terrific primary source.

This is an interesting book — again, sadly, out-of-print — that reprints, side-by-side, the Golden Age origin and then the Silver Age reboot of most of DC’s mainstays. The framing text from Denny O’Neil is brief, hardly more than a few paragraphs before each character’s reprint chapter, but nevertheless is really informative and raises this effort above just a trade paperback reprint book. Worth hunting down.

Just as an aside, as long as we’re discussing mid-sixties superheroes we should at least acknowledge the elephant in the room, considering how much fan anger and agony has been spent on the subject.

As hated as this show was among fans, I still love it, and the book is a treat.

Love it or hate it, the Adam West Batman television show had a huge impact on superhero comics at the time, and its influence was felt for years afterward as superhero creators struggled to get AWAY from the imprint it made in the national consciousness. What often gets lost, in all that kerfluffle over its influence on the public opinion of superhero comics, is that it really was a smart, funny satire, especially in its early episodes. I found Joel Eisner’s Official Batman Batbook to be a breezy, entertaining look at the series and an easy-to-use reference and episode guide. The various reminiscences from the show’s guest stars, writers and producers make it well worth picking up. (Conspicuously absent is any commentary from Adam West or Burt Ward themselves, probably because they were saving it for their own hack-writer ghosted memoirs. Skip those and get this instead.)

And there are Stan Lee’s tales of Marvel’s early years, again framing reprints of origin stories.

Another primary source...

Fans have argued themselves blue in the face over how accurate Stan’s recollections are, and Stan himself has often said his memory is notoriously bad. But the fact remains that these are really fun books.

...And its sequel.

I like the first two, Origins and Son of Origins, the best. These two books did well enough that Fireside Books did a whole series of trade paperbacks with Stan and the Marvel characters. There were also Bring On The Bad Guys, The Superhero Women, and books individually about the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Dr. Strange. I own some of these too but really you can’t call them references. Although they are very cool.

If it's the only game in town, well, okay.

Marvel’s brought revised editions of some of these out again recently (with what I consider to be vastly inferior covers) but still, they’re worth picking up. Try for the originals with those great painted covers by John Romita Senior, though.

When it comes to straight history books about the Silver Age, though, I prefer Jacobs and Jones’ The Comic Book Heroes.

Makes a nice bookend with Men of Tomorrow.

The first edition starts with Julius Schwartz rebooting the Flash and goes on up through the 1980′s, with looks at the Claremont-Byrne X-Men, the new Teen Titans, and Frank Miller’s Daredevil. Jones did a revised, updated edition a few years later that includes the beginnings of Image Comics and the boom-and-bust of the collectibles hysteria in the early 1990′s. The new edition is quite a bit more personal in the latter half, since Jones had himself gone on to write for DC and Marvel in the 90′s and his experience colors those chapters. Still, even though it’s more of a memoir in places than some would like, I own and use both editions as references… and I find both books entertaining reads just as books, which is always a plus.

And of course most of you reading this have probably already heard of Jones’ follow-up, Men of Tomorrow.

Jones' bookend with The Comic Book Heroes.

Everybody in and around comics has already praised this to the skies, so I’ll confine myself to a quick Me Too! What They Said! It’s good, it’s well-researched, and if you are interested in comic books you should read it. Period.

Les Daniels has done a number of really nice coffee-table books about comics and their history, but I like this first one the best. Lots of good Silver and Bronze Age stuff in here.

Another nice overview of comics up to the 70's.

Comix starts with comics at the very beginning, with the Yellow Kid, and goes forward from there. It has chapters covering EC, the early years at Marvel, and the undergrounds, among other things. My personal feeling is that Daniels’ follow-up efforts, as pretty as they are, tend to be a bit lightweight; I know that sounds ridiculous considering they’re usually the size of an end table, but to me they’re books that are meant to be looked at, admired as artifacts, rather than actually read. But his first one spoiled me. Your mileage may vary.

I love pulp fiction in all its forms, and I am a sucker for books about the history of superhero comics’ predecessors, as well. Of those, this is probably my favorite.

An invaluable gift I use all the time... thanks again Nancy!

I use this more than any other when I’m trying to confirm my memory on this or that point for whatever article I’m working on. The amazing thing is that I had no idea it existed; it was a gift from a writer friend of mine, Nancy Rue.

It’s kind of a funny story. She was in the middle of a series of young-adult novels taking place during different periods of American history, and she thought it would be fun to have her characters in the 1930′s books collect and read comics. So she called me, her go-to guy on all matters concerning comics and junk culture, to find out what superheroes 1930′s kids would collect.

“There’s a problem,” I told her. “Super heroes didn’t really get going until ’38 and ’39. There were no superhero comics in 1935. Chances are your nerd kid would have been reading the pulp magazines instead.”

“What are pulps?”

So I gave her the quick sketch and suggested a couple of books. She didn’t get those, but instead found Don Hutchison’s book at Amazon, which was vastly superior to anything I recommended. And she sent it to me as a thank-you gift when her novel was done.

In my defense, the books I DID recommend were pretty good too. This is another favorite of mine.

This book is AWE.SOME.

Peter Haining published this anthology in the 1970′s, and it’s simply wonderful. It’s a collection of short stories from pulp pioneers as diverse as Jack London, Ray Bradbury, and Dashiell Hammett, but the great thing is that he introduces each one by including an amazing amount of historical material. Plus it includes as an appendix the wonderful reminiscence Charles Beaumont wrote about “The Bloody Pulps” for Playboy in 1962.

If we didn't have Peter Haining doing these terrific books, I'd be screwed.

Haining also did this book as well, which I haven’t yet acquired but it’s coming sometime in the next couple of weeks. (I always find something to spend a couple of bucks on when I’m researching the column. It’s not really a paying gig when you factor that part in.) Even sight unseen, I expect good things, though. Haining’s got enough of a track record with me — I have a number of his other fiction anthologies here — that I’ll plug the book here.

The other one I originally suggested to Nancy was Lee Server’s delightful Danger Is My Business.

A terrific pulp overview. I steal a lot of style tricks from Lee Server.

This one’s more of a history book, but with breathtaking color reproductions of various pulp covers scattered throughout. A really high-end art book, and a treat even if you know nothing about pulp fiction.

He has a follow-up that’s tremendous fun too.

Not all that relevant, but I love it.

I mention it here mostly because people seemed to enjoy the column about trash spinner-rack paperbacks I did a while ago. If that’s your thing, believe me, you’ll love Server’s Over My Dead Body. Certainly I did.

There are a couple of other ancillary books I wanted to recommend, too. I don’t know that they qualify as scholarly works, but I think Mark Evanier’s three essay collections pictured here are well worth the time.

Scholarly? No. Knowledgeable and fun? Absolutely.

These are compulsively readable, entertaining books. They are mostly composed of columns that Evanier originally wrote for Comics Buyer’s Guide, but in many cases he’s extensively revised and extended them for the book edition. Just plain fun. From TwoMorrows.

I also wanted to give a quick recommendation to these two “biographies” of America’s most famous cop.

This one's pretty good too. Lots of actual strips reprinted.

See, it says so right on the cover!

Invaluable for Tracy fans, and a fun read, too.

Seriously, they’re both terrific books and you probably could find them used or remaindered on Amazon for chump change. Both are extensively illustrated with actual strips and panels from Chester Gould’s strip and they’d make lovely companion pieces for the new Complete Dick Tracy collections coming out now from IDW Publishing.

And finally, just for sentimental reasons, I want to mention the first newspaper strip collection/history book I ever bought.

It cost me six weeks of lawn-mowing money to get this book.

I fell in love with this book in the sixth grade and I mowed lawns relentlessly for two months to scrape together the $7.95 it cost to buy it. (It pains me to think how little money that seems like today; trust me, back then it was huge.) I was already smarting over having missed the Feiffer book at B.Dalton’s and I was determined to never have that happen again. (Shopping for books was much more of a hunt, in those pre-online ordering days.) It’s pretty much the only reason I watched the TV show with Gil Gerard.

And you know what? I’d still recommend it and I certainly still treasure mine. It collects the very first Buck Rogers strips, as well as some alarmingly racist ones from World War II, on up through some later Atomic-Age entries. And there’s lots of fun extras including one of the radio-show scripts and a terrific essay by Ray Bradbury. This one, like the Feiffer book, tends to go high on eBay and from dealers but it’s worth hunting down.

That’s probably enough, I think. I could go on and on — there’s the Modern Masters and Companion series from TwoMorrows, various historical collections and critical overviews from Fantagraphics, and so on…

Lot of good stuff in here.

But I have a hunch you all are familiar with those already. And all this book talk has got me wanting to go cruise Amazon myself and see what’s new. I better quit before I spend any more money.

See you next week.

18 Comments

Wow, nice resource, thanks!

Wow. Out of all these, I have one thing– the second edition of Jones and Jacobs’ Comic Book Heroes. It’s great.

But, yeah. I must be a poser.

As for Les Daniels, I quite liked his Marvel book, but the DC one was a huge letdown.

I had many of those books – the one’s from the 70′s I mean. including a son of origins signed by stan, john romita and john buscema! what a day that was meeting them all at like age 9 or 10? wow. anyway- all those books from the 70′s, particularly the pfieffer book, were the hugest influence on my life long obsession with creating and reading comics. thanks for the memories, as i no longer have any of those books.

except the pfieffer. ya aint gonna get that dog-eared, coverless book outta my cold, dead fingers.

The books by goulart, et al, were crucial references and a cornerstone of that 2nd generation of fandom we belonged to. it gave me a perspective on the medium many of my peers din’t have back then- i’m very greatful for learning at a young age where the medium came from.

Cool. I have (or have had) most of the non-pulp centric volumes.

I also had good luck using Interlibrary Loan to scare up Steranko’s History of Comics. Even if you have to pay a buck or two it’s totally worth it. Maybe more fannish in it’s enthusiasm than dry and research, but great fun to read.

I was actually able to score the Feiffer book for $10 off ebay just last year. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the very same book that my elementary school library had–the very book that first exposed me to comics back in 1st grade. A have vivid memories of the Golden Age Green Lantern origin, and I always wondered where that memory came from, since I never owned any golden age comics or reprints as a kid. When I got this book, it all came back to me.

See all the important stuff you learn in school!

I have a lot of these in my own comic book library, including original editions of The Great Comic Book Heroes, Origins of Marvel Comics, Son of Origins, The Great Batman Batbook, and both editions of the Jacobs & Jones book. I don’t have Peter Haining’s pulp book, but I do have a great book by him about cinematic depictions of Sherlock Holmes that I picked up in England in 1992.

I didn’t know about a lot of the pulp books on your list, Greg. I’ll have to look around for those.

I’d also thoroughly recommend Michael Farr’s Tintin: The Complete Companion, All In Color For A Dime and the Smithsonian collections of newspaper comics & comic book comics.

Anyone here know where I can find a copy of William Rotsler’s Blackhawk novel from the 80s?

Anyone here know where I can find a copy of William Rotsler’s Blackhawk novel from the 80s?

Here you go.

Great idea for a piece, Greg.

Thanks for the post. I’m putting several of these on hold at the library.

I have “The Great Comic Book Heroes” with the reprints as well–great book.
I’ve read a ot of the other from the library, but don’t have copies of my own.

Some great references.

Have you read “The Comic Book Makers” written by Joe and Jim Simon ?

The Gerard Jones/Will Jacobs book is indipsensible, but also kind of annoying in places. They hardly have a kind word for Grant Morrison, for instance, and even Alan Moore gets a lot of bile thrown his way. Very subjective, is what I’m saying. But the Silver and Bronze Age schapters are a must-read.

It’s funny Greg, because even though you’re about I figure 10 or 12 years older than me, I pretty much was reliant on the same reference books from the 1970s as you were as an early teen growing up in the early 1980s.

Anyone who grew up loving comic books inevitably got to know 741 in the Dewey Decimal system, because that’s were all the reference books about comics wound up. (I never acclimated to Library of Congresss numbering the same way). And I read a whole bunch of those through that– that’s where I got to see The Comic Book Heroes (which I amazingly found at a used bookstore for $8 last year!) and Secret Origins of the DC Super Heroes, which was like the Holy Grail of books– not just for the actual reprints of the Golden Age and Silver Age origin stories of all of DC’s stable of characters, but for the text pieces by Denny O’Neil as well.

In this age of Showcase editions and Archive Editions and Marvel Essentials (the latter two inventions of the 1990s; the first one only a recent development), it’s easy to forget how completely inaccessible Golden and Silver Age stories were. The Comic Book Heroes was the only place I ever saw a Human Torch story from the 1940s for years.

But I’m actually surprised Greg, you’ve left off some major reference books from the 1970s that were virtually indispensible to my life as a comic book nerd:

The first one is Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia of Comic Books – first published in the mid-1970s it’s a mammoth 700 page tome with entries for thousands of comics, creators and characters. I learned all about Siegel and Shuster’s near destitute fate from that (it was written just before their deal with Warner Brothers) and found out about all sorts of characters and books I would have never have known about. It’s an actual ‘adult’ scholarly text so there’s entries about Underground comix and European comics so the nudity and ‘gross’ art was a little beyond me as a 12 year-old but it was otherwise awesome
One surprising omission are Crown/Bonanza’s books reprinting Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Shazam! stories: Superman – From the Forties to Seventies (and similarly titled for the other characters. This was the motherlode of reprints for these characters– even though it was a distinctly odd collection for Superman and Batman (the 60s stories distinctly favour the early part of the decade when Weisinger and Jack Schiff were doing gonzo stuff). But they had essays on the history of the character by E. Nelson Bridwell which were the only sort of authoritative history of the characters for a long time, even though the Superman one he was not permitted to talk about Siegel and Shuster by name. (Gloria Steinhem did the intro on the Wonder Woman volume)
This was a little after your time Greg, but around 1982, Scholastic published a book for young adults about the history of superhero comics called (imaginatively) Super Comics, which had a history of the genre written by Denny O’Neil. It was an excellent book– it’s the first place I ever read about Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

I lost my copy of Super Comics years ago, but I still have highly dessicated, even coverless copies of the Horn encyclopedia and the 30s to the 70s books. (The Superman one still has in my 11 year-old scrawl updated annotations on all the Superman novels and Films that had come out since the book was published in 1971!) I’d love to find copies in better condition some day.

Dan (other Dan)

June 2, 2007 at 11:02 am

Neat stuff!

I’ve heard about Frank Jacobs’ book on Mad, but never read it. Completely Mad by Maria Reidelbach (Little, Brown, & Co., 1991) is a great history of Mad from its beginning, including some good information on EC, profiles of creators, and lots of reprinted pages. Dick DeBartolo’s memoir Good Days and Mad (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1994) is funny and informative, with contributions from about 30 other Mad creators. A lot of the focus is on Bill Gaines. Really nice resources; I picked them up at the awful bookstores they have at outlet malls, so I imagine there are hundreds of thousands sitting around waiting to be picked up.

“don’t get your panties in a bunch, old chum.”

One reference book I wish existed is a collection of all the historical articles from the Overstreet Price Guide. I haven’t bought a price guide in many, many years, but those articles were usually pretty well-written and thorough.

But I’m actually surprised Greg, you’ve left off some major reference books from the 1970s that were virtually indispensable to my life as a comic book nerd…

I know. I was careful to put in a disclaimer because I knew I’d forget SOMETHING. The Horn book, believe it or not, I’ve never read… though it’s on the shopping list. Same with Ron Goulart’s many fine efforts. The Smithsonian collections are nice too. All In Color For A Dime and Simon’s The Comic Book Makers I just plain forgot. Bad Columnist!

I loved the DC “30′s to the 70′s” books dearly, but that’s strictly nostalgia talking. Looked at objectively as collections I don’t think they’re all that great; the essays from Bridwell are the only reason, really, to hang on to them. There are better collections available today. (Of the ones they did, I think Shazam! From the 40′s to the 70′s is the real one to go after. That’s the one where you don’t see much of that material reprinted. Superman and Batman are pretty well covered elsewhere these days.)

There was a Superman trade that came out in the 80′s that had the same 30′s-to-the-70′s vibe to it, and I think Bridwell was involved with that one too. It was called The Great Superman Comic Book Collection and I much preferred it to the “Greatest Stories Ever Told” book DC did later on. That one I never see listed for under $35 from dealers, or I’d be all over it.

Amazon.Com has a bunch of copies of the original Great Comic Book Heroes from their used booksellers averaging at about $10-15 before shipping. These are the ones with the reprints, and they’re hardly mint, but I scored one for $10 shipped that should do me nicely.

And I just bought the Fantagraphics edition without the reprints, too…I guess that will head off to eBay.

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