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UNITED STATES 22.04.2012Features

Jim Lee | All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder No. 6 | 2007 Original artwork

Every Picture Tells a Story

KAA-POW! 75 years of comic book heroes captured and contained at last!

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Courtesy Taschen

TODAY, it is difficult to recollect that comic books were once regarded as a reading matter only for juveniles and the educationally challenged. Or seditious, if you were to believe psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whose rabid and vitriolic writings in 1954 prompted the American Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to investigate comic books. However, in the last 25 years comics have been rehabilitated as incisive social comment, as psychological insights into the society that created them, and as graphic design of sparkling originality. And it is true – they are all of these things and more. On 22nd February 2010, a copy of Action Comics No. 1 (June 1938) which first introduced Superman to the world, sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $1,000,000.00.

The ancestry of the ‘comic strip’ can be speculated on endlessly, according to one’s definition of the comic strip formulae. Were the 25,000 years-old drawings in the Lascaux Caves a form of picture story – or really a magical incantation? Could the hieroglyph and picture combination in Ancient Egypt be regarded as an early comic format? And what of 18th century satirical prints, complete with speech bubbles, which made ‘stars’ of Rowlandson and Gilray?

In fact, the creation of comic books, despite a marvellous, indigenous genre created in England, and latterly France and Japan, has been dominated by America. The vast commercial market place that the United States commands, and their national obsession with the super-powered and anti-hero, has created such a presence in the comic arena that they seem to now define the comic idiom of the 20th century. So much so that it is easy to forget that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the gang are actually the creations of mere men. But let’s face it – the English do have to pinch themselves to remember Sherlock Holmes never really lived outside the pages of fiction. In the age before television, YouTube and the iPhone, the impact of that ‘otherworld’ of comic heroes on susceptible minds is hard to comprehend today, but the genre rapidly became a publishing phenomenon.Two firms dominated the American comic (and thus world) market: Marvel Comics (1939) and DC Comics (derived from Detective Comics) founded in 1934. These publishing giants, now part of Disney and Time Warner respectively, could trace their origins back to the evolution in newspaper printing in the 1890’s and the ‘funny’ sections, printed in bright, primary colour blocks edged with a black line. But, with the world-famous Superman character (rescued from a reject box by Vin Sullivan, created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, and used as the cover feature in Action Comics No.1, June 1938) DC comics might be said to just have the edge. Although literary scholars tend to point out The Scarlet Pimpernel (1901) was actually a progenitor of the hero masquerading as hapless fop.

DC Comics has now had the Taschen treatment and the result is itself a phenomenon. An extra large format (29 x 39.5cm) 720-page monolith, this is absolutely the definitive book on DC Comics, its history and its profile today. The author, Paul Levitz, is perfectly placed to command this accolade: a DC Comics executive with 38 years’ service, climbing to role of President and Publisher; writer of over 300 stories including Legion of Super-Heroes; editor of The Comic Reader; but above all – a dedicated fan. This is a work of love, and Levitz’ breadth of knowledge and attention to minute detail is truly astounding. And then, the illustrations – more than 2,000 – encompassing preparatory drawings, front covers, collectibles, movie links, page spreads, rare examples of vintage titles; complete with archive photographs of the great graphic artists that created these works. It is always a surprise, when viewed from today’s perspective, to see these famous comic creators at work – crisp white shirts, Brookes Brothers suits, tie, neat hair-cuts – a far cry from Robert Crumb and the Vietnam War generation artists who introduced a modern comic revolution to America. But DC also moved with the changing mood. By the time Power Girl arrived in the new millennium, sultry‘n’sexy was the image rather than moral and wholesome.

Levitz has – more or less – adopted the convention of dividing the development of US comics into universally accepted periods, or eras: Proto-comic books and the Platinum (or Stone) Age, -1938; Golden Age, 1938-1956; Silver Age, 1956-1970; Bronze Age, 1970-1984; and Modern Age, 1998-2010. Levitz introduces his own ‘Dark Age’ for DC covering 1984-1998. These are examined in detail with fold-out, illustrated four-page ‘timeline’ spreads, allowing the reader to get an overview of DC in context. A thumbnail biographical sketch of the key (human) characters in the DC story appears at the end, an invaluable resource in itself. And the whole content is exhaustively indexed and cross referenced. The production quality is outstanding, the XL format enables original covers to be reproduced full size – and the authentic text is unbeatable. At £135 this giant of a book is not cheap, but if your world involves art, graphic design, social history or just a love of comics, then this is a book you simply cannot afford not to acquire. 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking is a work of art in itself and Taschen’s platform of in-depth, single subject surveys, has reached a zenith with this scintillating edition. It comes as no surprise that 75 Years of DC Comics is the 2011 Winner of the Eisner Comic Industry Award for Best Comics-Related Book of the Year.

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