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.

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10 comments:

  1. Happy Birthday, Rip. I'd known about this book for years, having read about it, I think, in the 1967 edition of The Penguin Book Of Comics, which I borrowed from my local library in 1972 or '73. Like you, I bought the Fatagraphics edition a few years ago. Wertham, of course, over-egged the pudding of his argument, which had a kernel of truth in it, but that's too big a subject to get into here. Send me a slice of the cake, birthday boy.

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    1. Oops! Fantagraphics, I mean.

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    2. Thanks for the good wishes. I didn't have cake, but pie. I love pie.

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  2. I remember looking through this at a store as a kid and feeling as if I'd stumbled onto some sort of occult book,parts of it seemed so strange to me, In used book outlets I tended to seek out the cartoon paperbacks where I discovered Feiffer's Sick Sick Sick, The Explainers and others. It inspired me to pick up a discounted collection called Feiffer's Album, which had prose stories and plays in addition to cartoons.I soon found a second hand copy of his novel Harry the Rat With Women and I figured he must've been the most sophisticated writer ever. The only writing I thought came close at the time (I was still pretty young) was Will Eisner, the Spirit having just been reprinted by Harvey Comics. It was years before I found out that most of those Spirit stories were also written by Feiffer.

    It's been some years, so I don't know how Harry holds up, but I do recommend his detective novel Ackroyd. His first graphic novel Tantrum was just brilliant, and I recently heard a podcast interview with him about his latest, Kill My Mother, which is done in the manner of a film noir. He's still got it, after being in the biz for 70+ years.

    And Happy Birthday from me,too,sir.

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    1. I will have to check some of those out. I've read precious little Fieffer outside of his comics work.

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    2. He wrote screenplays as well. Carnal Knowledge is pretty much unfiltered Feiffer, and was very controversial when it was released.

      And though huge chunks of his script were mutilated or ignored, his wit is evident in the early scenes of Robert Altman's 1980 Popeye.

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  3. That is THE BOOK that inspired Ol' Groove, as well. Got it (the glorious hardback copy) when I was in the fifth grade, and have read it dozens of times.Hey, this old teacher's off for summer break! Maybe it's time to read it again!

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    1. It is definitely worth it. It's a brisk but intoxicating read.

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  4. Whoa, whoa, *WHOA*...!!! :O :D :P did I hear it's ur *birthday*? :O *Hey*! ...it's my birthday, *too*! :D ...*YEAH*!!! lmao :P mine's on June 6th as well ;) B) happy b-day to you, then :D & hope you enjoy it all...thanks for the site & take'r easy! :D

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