Jules Feiffer's indispensable overview of the Golden Age of comics: if you don't already own it, track it down immediately!
In June of 1972 my family packed up and moved from California to the East Coast, Connecticut to be specific, and my just-shy-of-seven-year-old world was shaken to its foundations. I found myself suddenly uprooted from my friends and familiar kid culture and deposited into a decidedly hostile and racist world in which the majority of the few blacks to found in my hometown were domestics, and if you weren’t there to bow and scrape nobody wanted to know you. With two notable exceptions I had no friends — parents actively urged their kids to shun “chocolate people” — and they weren’t always available, so much of my time was immersed in finding was to stimulate my imagination all by my lonesome. To that end I discovered old movies on television and the limitless worlds found in books on Greek mythology (one of which in particular I checked out from my elementary school’s library every time it due for return, pretty much memorizing its contents during my second and third grade years), but the thing that really resonated with me was the period’s nostalgia boom and the subsequent resurgence of entertainment from the 1930’s and 1940’s, especially the radio shows.
Both of my parents had been born during the Great Depression and grew up with that pre-television medium ruling the airwaves, so when the programs of their youth rose from the pop culture grave they urged me to check out many of their old favorites. The shows I especially enjoyed were THE SHADOW, INNER SANCTUM and TARZAN, and my dad correctly figured that if I liked that stuff I would most likely enjoy the comics he and my mom devoured as kids. Both of them hit comics-reading age just as the comic book was a-borning, and so they witnessed the introduction of such landmarks in American culture as DC’s “Big Three,” Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, as well as a host of other fresh-out-of-the-inkwell mystery men and women, so when it came time to pass on the family addiction, my dad figured my education should begin with the ancient origins of what would come to be known as the “Golden Age” heroes. Unbeknownst to me, a good deal of the old school stuff ranging from the late-1930’s up through and including the early-1960’s had been seeing reprints in the oversized annuals and “hundred-pagers” of the period, but I wouldn’t find out about that until the following year; in the meantime, my dad scoured the mail order book catalogs and settled on two books that he felt were the perfect place from which to launch my interest in comics: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (about which there will be more in another post) and THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES.
Lemme tell ya, those books completely rearranged my way of thinking about superheroes. What I had previously known of them was informed by TV shows and cartoons, and while I enjoyed many of them not one held even one tenth of the raw imagination and fun found in the ages of those two big coffee table tomes. Here it is, nearly thirty-seven years later, and I’m not only totally, hopelessly addicted to comics, I’m actively preaching the four-color gospel to any and all who will listen, and I put the largest portion of the blame for that on Jules Feiffer’s THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES.
Opening with a series of essays on his perceptions of the deeper meanings of the featured characters (which I admit I skipped when I was a kid), Feiffer takes the reader on a stroll down memory lane and gives us a good look at several familiar superheroes in their most unrefined — some would say “crude” — versions, and what we see is of great historical interest. The Big Three are seen in their earliest incarnations (with Batman being the nearest to what we now know him as) and the tales featuring other Golden Age mainstays, including a few origin stories, resound with the “anything goes” atmosphere of the nascent superhero biz, namely ridiculous costumes (the original Green Lantern’s outfit would have startled people even at Mardi Gras) and a balls-out effort to entertain, no matter what. The origin of the first Flash is a total hoot, an early Hawkman adventure serves as a shameless catalog of Hal Foster and Alex Raymond swipes (not that I knew that in 1972, but over the next few years I gained a clue) and the Batman story seen here couldn’t have been better if it tried, especially since it’s the first Joker story and the Joker was in no way a comedic presence, instead being a garish, visually bizarre sociopath who would have been right at home among Dick Tracy’s rogues gallery.
But the two stories that held the most fascination for me were an early Sub-Mariner chapter and a story featuring Will Eisner’s the Spirit. I was already quite familiar with Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, from his 1960’s cartoon series and considered him my first favorite superhero as a result; I was intrigued by the dichotomy of his physical beauty and nobility when measured against the fact that the guy was an arrogant douchebag of the first order, but that’s what made him so much fun, knowing that if such language weren’t considered beneath his princely status he would have told pretty much every other character in the Marvel Universe to fuck themselves six times sideways, and then manually introduced their heads to their own colons. But while the “Marvel Age” reboot of Namor was an anti-hero by conventional standards, his prototype version from the late-1930’s/early-1940’s was an outright villainous heel by comparison, at least until he grudgingly realized that Nazis and such were the real menace (and not the entire human race) and fought with the allies alongside Captain America and the original Human Torch.
In the story reprinted in THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, Namor is ordered by the king of Atlantis to go to the surface world and commit whatever acts of deadly terrorism he felt like, and the young prince was only too happy to oblige. He surfaces next to Manhattan and immediately sinks a passenger vessel, after which he physically ejects innocent people from the Statue of Liberty, throwing them several stories to their doom, tears down an elevated train (presumably killing the straphangers)
and then, in a truly eye-opening sequence to a seven-year-old Namor groupie, the Sub-Mariner tears the spire from the top of the Empire State Building and chucks it to the street below, causing untold amounts of damage and (presumed) loss of civilian life.
The Sub-Mariner doing what he does best: fucking shit up and being a complete and total asshole.
The chapter ends with Betty Dean, Subby’s WAC girlfriend showing up to try and reason with him and warn him that if he doesn’t cut the bullshit the Human Torch will be all over his ass in no time flat. The prince sneers at that and replies with an arrogant “Bring him on” attitude that left me saying, “Shit! What the hell happens next???” I was stunned to see Namor, the supposed hero of the story, killing people in no uncertain terms and acting like the biggest douche in the world, and I totally got how this raging assholism in the face of the heroic and patriotic examples set by the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel could appeal to kids. But it was only a matter of time until Namor was considerably toned down or refocused so as to be less of a terrible example for the youth of the Yoo Ess Ay, and WWII provided just the rehabilitation required.
The Spirit story was another matter altogether. I’d never heard of the seminal strip or its protagonist, but the artwork intrigued me because it displayed a much more sophisticated level of craftsmanship than anything else in the book (unless you counted the Foster and Raymond ripoffs), and the story itself was a bit more “grown up” than what my seven-year-old taste was ready for, and that frustrated me. I wanted to like the Spirit, but I just didn’t get it and considering that the story in question was not only an early installment but also a weird one-off that took place in what I think was supposed to be Egypt, it didn’t make sense to me that the material would warrant an ongoing series. Nonetheless, the Spirit nagged in my memory for about another year-and-a-half, until Warren, the company behind ERRIE, CREEPY and VAMPIRELLA, launched a magazine that reprinted a lot of Spirit material and I found myself instantly hooked after reading “The Strange Case of Mrs. Paraffin” (3/7/1948). With that story I got what the big deal was all about, but it was the odd and mysterious tale that I first saw that made me aware of the visual genius of Will Eisner, and for that I owe Jules Feiffer a tremendous debt.
THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES remains one of my favorite books on the subject of the American comic book and I highly recommend it to any who are curious, however I urge you to hit used book stores or the internet to obtain one of the old hardcover coffee table editions because it’s of a pretty decent size and features vibrant printing that allows the art to speak for itself. Seriously, you (and the little ones you influence) can’t go wrong in giving this a well-deserved read.