Saturday, June 6, 2015
The Great Comic Book Heroes!
It's pretty much impossible to overrate the impact on yours truly of Jules Feiffer's seminal mid-60's tome The Great Comic Book Heroes. I discovered this gem at my local public library while still a young budding comics fan and I cannot know now how many different times I checked it out, to once again savor (for free...hee hee) the Golden Age gems contained within its oversized pages.
For let's not be too coy about this, when as a youngster I got my clutches on Feiffer's extended essay on the nature of superheroes and their role in society, I was not in the least interested in his insights but rather in his four-color evidence which offered to me prime examples of Golden Age art and story which I'd only glimpsed on the muddy pages of Fantasy Masterpieces.
This volume offered up to me my very first Spirit story by Will Eisner, an early effort which sadly I still thinks does not truly do justice to the glowing credit Feiffer rightly bestows on the great creator. This book offered up my first look at the wacko origins of Green Lantern and Flash, two Golden Age heroes I sort of knew from their Silver Age Justice Society appearances in the summer crossovers. We get wild stories about The Spectre, a truly scary character and Hawkman, a fabulously rendered but nonetheless stuffy hero, and the truly offbeat Plastic Man, whose name I didn't understand for years yet. The big three are present with stories of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all clever enough. But always a Marvel fanboy, the trio of tales starring Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, and especially Captain America always were my faves. The glimpse we get of Captain Marvel, a character still locked away at the time by DC's lawyers was fascinating, made me yearn to see more.
That was then. This is now.
When I was able, I bought a copy of the book for myself when it was released in paperback in the mid-70's. Later still I found an original copy of the 1965 Dial Press hardback (in a store in Ashville, North Carolina if I recollect properly) and treasure both. Some years back Fantagraphics published the book again, this time minus the comic supplements and I bought that too. So I love this book, that's true.
But I don't think I ever sat down with the intent just to read Feiffer's fascinating essay for its own sake ever. I now have and let me say that as I get older (today I turn 58) the notes in his writing merely ring truer and truer. For the first time I was able to almost perfectly understand all his 30's allusions without missing a beat, allowing the full richness of his imagery to percolate as it ought.
Feiffer's thesis as much as I can paraphrase it seems to be that comic books are properly junk, the very stuff which critics like the well-meaning but nonetheless loathsome Wertham (my opinion not Feiffer's necessarily) claimed they were. And that being junk was their point, their attraction. The connection between comics and juvenile delinquency has never been proven, and frankly never will be. It doesn't exist in that way, but the allure of comics as something delightfully anti-social is the very essence of the form.
So let me take a moment to thank Jules Feiffer on behalf of my ten-year old self who was delighted to read and re-read and re-read again those vintage comics tucked between his wizened words and let me thank him again now properly as an adult for those words themselves. You nailed it Mr.Feiffer, well done.