Sunday, February 20, 2005

BOOK REVIEW...COMIX, A HISTORY OF COMIC BOOKS IN AMERICA by Les Daniels (Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1971)

I've mentioned this book in a variety of outlets over the past twennysome years. It is a tome that had a major effect on me, not only because it was one of the first places where I got to read a detailed rundown on the whys and wherefores of comic books and just what they meant to an overweight pre-pubescent pariah of dago extraction, but because it was published at a time (and read at a time) when said pariah had discovered comic books as an inexpensive (fifteen then twenty cents, less for old ones at the garage sales) means of entertainment that one could easily get obsessive over. So, to be gosh-it-all honest about it, I would consider COMIX to be one of the few books that has made a lasting impression on me and I'd also consider it a downright influential read as well, up there in shaping my being along with LEFTISM REVISITED, INTELLECTUALS and THE MAD READER amongst material a little less, er, heady. Besides, this book is at the top of the pile in my bedroom and every time I have to head to the porcelain throne to do something I prefer not to mention in such high-class company, I have to grab something to read in order to get my mind off the fact that there's brown smelly stuff popping outta my hiney and this book just always happens to be handy enough. It's not like I always have the time to go searching for other reading material, especially when the Sorbitol is starting to kick in...

Anyway, this book (which was part of FUSION magazine's attempts at starting a STONE-styled publishing company along with Peter Guralnik's [hope I got the spelling right] FEELS LIKE GOING HOME and the dead rock star obit NO ONE WAVED GOODBYE) gives us a pretty good, not detailed or anything like that history of the Amerigan brand of comic book (you'll hafta look elsewhere for a Euro histoire which sure could be used by old timey comic fans like me!) and to beat all, it was written by a guy who is pretty knowledgeable about his subject matter and comes off like some grown-up kid that once went to school with Beaver only it's ten years later and he's a hip longhair now but the years of comic mania are still deeply inbred in his suburban soul. It's a fan to fan talk we're getting here, and given how many comic book histories and general studies since could range from brilliant to downright term paper dull, we gotta be thankful that this book (perhaps due to its rock mag connections?) reads as hip/snot smoothly as some of the better early-seventies Golden Age of Rock Criticism pieces that I've tried to emulate for the past twennysome years!

After giving a brief-yet-packed history of Amerigan comic strips, author Daniels launches head-first into the early days of comic books, mainly in praise of the DC line and their stellar efforts along with the other early publishers and their high-quality wares (most notably those of who else but Quality Comics who not only had the top-notch Plastic Man but the Spirit...nothing on Timely/Atlas/Marvel here since they get their own chapter later on). It's pretty snat stuff since it gives us that feeling of just what superheroes of all stripes meant for the ever-growing pre-adlo kids who made millionaires out of pulp publishers once on the brink of ruin. The book goes on, covering all of the basic stops ("Dumb Animal" comics, EC, the Comics Code, the post-Code oversized comic book/magazines...) in that aforementioned style that could also be well-used in a punk rock or local horror host history making COMIX perhaps one of the better historical reads (for "our" gulcher) extant.

Sure you get the author's personal views injected into just about everything, but I don't mind even if I disagree with him not only because of his swift style, but the fact that Daniels is right most of the time. Por ejemplo, very little is written about the Archie Comics Group and their contributions to the industry, and what is written's less-than-complimentary (perhaps due to MLJ head John Goldwater's fierce rivalry with the groundbreaking EC line as well as his role in helping establish the infamous Comics Code Authority, which is deftly taken apart along with spearhead Dr. Fredric Wertham in its own chapter), but I find that perhaps a minor aberration alongside the lack of space given to some of the Silver Age publishers like Gold Key, who maybe shoulda gotten a li'l space just for effort but didn't probably because Daniels just wanted to cut the gristle outta his saga.

And yeah, you get the obligatory gaffes that one comes to expect from these otherwise accurate studies (such as Daniels' confusing of the Fantastic Four's arch-enemy Dr. Doom with the first Marvel Silver Age hero Dr Droom, something which I took as truth until comic historian Larry Boyd [hey, get in touch!] corrected me years later), but I can't complain otherwise. I can't even complain about Daniels' now-patented tying in of Dr. Wertham's anti-comic book crusade with "McCarthyism" and the middle-class values of the "fifties" (booo, hisss!). But even then, Daniels is adept enough to know that Wertham was your garden variety liberal and even states it, and in many ways this book is written in the hip collegiate libertarian style that one could still find on the left in the seventies before it all went down the tubes towards posthumous LBJ deification, and it's perhaps this attitude which makes COMIX such a nice, smooth, breezy read.

The fact that this book stops at 1971 with chapters on Marvel (and their move towards more "relevant" material) and underground comix putting a lid on things is fantastico, because (at least for me) the early-seventies of comic bookdom was right at the end of at least my classic Golden Age of Comics Reading period. The mainstream of comics became a little too pretentious (again, at least for me) due to the new move towards liberalization of past modes, and if it weren't for the Marvel sci-fi/horror reprints of the 20-cent era I probably wouldn't've been buying comic books at all. I mean, whereas The Man of Steel was once a force of might and good beyond the trammels of an increasingly-sick society, by now he was giving the Teen Titans patented, paternalistic homilies on racism and sexism in the pages of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, which shoulda changed their title to THE WEAK AND THE SIMPERING after publishing "The Thing That Destroyed a Town" (and it wasn't the monster on the cover I'll tell was YOU and ME!). Anyway, I still get a charge out of COMIX, for believe-it-or-leave-it but that's MY culture, MY civilization, and who knows, it might be yours too.

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