Tip Top o’ the Top, Pop!
by Dan Nadel
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I can’t help it, so I’m going to write about history today. Please hold your gag reflex. This is actually just a “fun” post. A simple one mostly for my own list- making enjoyment. I love books about comics history — I love the personalities behind them, I love their peculiar visions of a canon, and, of course, I love them for their information. Here’s what a I look for: Honesty; A clear purpose for the book; research distilled into solid prose; an original opinion or critical idea about the material; accuracy.
Herewith a list of my current favorite books about comics history, or older anthologies containing historically-based selections. Fuck it, these books are all on my “reference” shelf. That’s the criteria. OK? OK.
In order of current enjoyment:
1) National Lampoon Presents French Comics (The Kind Men Like). 1977.
This appeared the same year as the American Heavy Metal, from the same publisher. So, go figure. This book collects comics (many in color) from the French scene of the 70s and contains, as far as I know, the only English translations of artists like Sole, Lauzier and my personal fave, Lob! Who was Lob? I dunno. All of this work seems beamed down from another planet and, from what I can guess, was contemporary with Metal Hurlant, but more “straight” in a way. There’s no other book like it. I’d like a 300 page version of this book.
2) The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told. 1990.
Before there were magical programs to add that sense of volume that you know Alex Toth was always seeking in his color, DC put out books with simple flat color seps on uncoated paper. This one is my favorite, as it contains fantastic stories by Jimmy Thompson, Toth, Mort Meskin, even Sheldon Mayer and a wonderful Dan Barry story. There’s a great Bernard Baily Spectre story in here as well, and generally a good education on what all the old fogeys are talking about when they mention the golden age canon.
3) Confessions, Romances, Secrets & Temptations. 2007.
Shouldn’t we build a monument of some kind to John Benson? He is responsible for some of the best research, compiling and editing of comics history. Squa Tront, Panels 1 & 2, Humbug, and his two romance books. This is the prose edition, full of excellent and sometimes quite eccentric interviews with St. John romance cartoonists and writers. An indispensible peek inside the industry and its characters.
4) Masters of Comic Book Art. 1978.
A total schlock-fest of a book, but I love it for its dated version of who was a “master”. Robert Crumb AND Richard Corben AND Philippe Druillet. Oh, and Barry Smith for good measure. Seems idiosyncratic and personal to me and offers a nice period piece vision of a guy like Druillet who otherwise seems lost to North American comics. Side note: As I was getting ready to post this I noticed Warren Ellis’ post on Druillet and French SF comics. Such an intriguing topic and nice to see someone out there interested in it.
5) Les Chefs-D’Oevre de la Bande Dessinee. 1970.
A nearly 500 page brick of a book that anthologizes everyone from McCay to Angelo Torres to Franquin to Will Gould to Guy Pellaert to Don Martin to Moebius to Tenebrax and even back to Caran d’Ache. A heroic attempt to connect all the Anglo-European dots circa 1970. Awesome and inspiring.
6) Men of Tomorrow. 2004.
The best damn prose book yet written about comics. Compelling and fearless in Gerard Jones‘ willingness to tell the truth about the industry. I love his combination of culture and commerce and found it quite moving at times. Jones understands and can explain where, for example, Siegel and Shuster came from, culturally, and where they went artistically, and how, precisely, they were mistreated and, more tragically, how they sabatoged themselves, too. Tangentially: I’m amazed at how few people within comics seem to have read this book. It more or less exposes the true roots of “nerd culture” and the sad exploitation behind it all. Easier to look away, I suppose.
7) The Encyclopedia of American Comics. 1990.
Ron Goulart‘s masterpiece (and another man deserving of a monument). An indispensable guide to his sensibility and his knowledge. Goulart, like Benson, came along too early to be fully appreciated. This book, with its lengthy entries on the popular and obscure, covers a tremendous amount of comic book and comic strip ground, and seems to represent a gathering of facts from all over Goulart’s voluminous publishing career. It is sadly out of print, so someone re-issue this tome! It’s brilliant.