“Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture” is a 304 page full color hardcover, published by Crown Archetype, with a lot to say about comic books. As has always been my experience, a companion book to a PBS series is worth getting. This book is attached to the upcoming feature-length documentary on PBS, “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” originally slated to air on three separate nights, now scheduled to air all on October 15, 2013. It’s a smart choice since viewers, much like readers, appreciate it when they can dive into a subject all in one go.
The story of the comic book superhero industry lends itself well to being observed in an uninterrupted panorama. At 75-years-old, this is still a young industry and what is happening today can’t help but remain a story in flux. You might think that, after 75 years, things have settled down. But you would be wrong. That is a relatively short blip of time, ask any historian. Furthermore, this is an industry inextricably linked to far more than commerce, far more than it ever bargained for.
But say what you will, superhero comics remain embedded in the culture. And there are artists within the industry who continue to push the superhero comic forward. Along the way, we get work that is transcendent and rises to the level of art. Just considering all the examples can make your head spin. There is a reason your head might spin. Superhero comics have tapped into something as deep as any literature or art and resonate on a primal level. So, who truly owns today’s superheroes? People from all walks of life will lay claim to that. Cobbled together from the old salty pulp magazines and Sunday funnies, superhero comics have always run into conflict with their varied audiences. Kids and comics are a natural combination. But so are adults and comics.
What you will find in this book is a treasure trove beyond any extras on your DVD or Blu-ray. With the book, there is an even greater opportunity to fill in the gaps and extend discourse in well-thought-out words. For instance, while few would quibble on the quality and significance of “Watchmen” and “The Dark Night Returns,” two landmark works in superhero comics, it is fascinating to get this quote in the book by Len Wein, co-creator of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing and Marvel Comics’ Wolverine:
‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Night Returns’ were both very violent books. They were meant to be exceptions to the rule. They weren’t intended to be a blueprint for the industry to follow, they were intended to be something to show you here’s what could have happened–let’s not go do that. But they were hugely successful and so everybody started to do those books.
If anyone knows what he’s talking about, it would be Len Wein. What he is saying is that those two works had a purpose and served a purpose. If a marketing plan just calls for more of the same, it is already dead in the water. It may sell but readers will sniff it out and may not come back for yet more of the same product now four, five, ten times removed from the original.
What Laurence Maslon, a co-writer on the PBS documentary, and Michael Kantor, the filmmmaker, keep coming back to in both the film and in this book, is that superhero comics, by their very nature, will always be engaged in a never-ending battle in more ways than one: a battle to refine their purpose and remain relevant. And, in one way or another, even if the customer/fan may not fully realize it, they will have the final say, maybe not now but someday.
Readers will find this book to be exceptionally comprehensive and quite relevant. While the book was created prior to the uproar over the DC Comics decision not to allow Batwoman/Kate Kane to marry her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer, the writers for this book were clearly sensitive to the significance of such a storyline and provide a fresh example of the never-ending battle.
“Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture” is available as of October 1, 2013, and is published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, which you can visit here. And don’t miss this very special PBS documentary, “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” and you can learn more about that here.