Tip Top o’ the Top, Pop!


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.

That’s it!

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8 Responses to “Tip Top o’ the Top, Pop!”
  1. Anonymous says:

    A good list. I'd also add Mike Barrier's great book on Carl Barks.

    The Jones book is 1) a great read and 2) largely right on the big picture. BUT it also heavily relies on rumours, some of them wildly improbable (i.e. Gershom Legman ghost wrote Seducation of the Innocent; Wertham was secretly being paid off by the big comic book companies to run EC out of business). The protrayal of the Mafia in the book owes more to mythology than history.


  2. BVS says:

    true story, the day after I finished reading Men of tomorrow, I was visiting San Francisco and standing behind this family in line at a Japanese fast food place in a mall, and it was Gerard Jones. I said hi, and was apparently the first person ever to recognize him in public.

  3. Brad Mackay says:

    "The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told. 1990." – What an awesome book. I bought this on eBay years ago and love the dropped out pulpy feel of it. It's as if these are bound copies from the DC vault. A great score.

    And, Jeet – i'm not sure what you mean about the mafia. I thought it was common knowledge that they controlled magazine (therefore comics) distribution in the early days. Even Alvin "Bizarro" Schwartz told me people in the DC offices packed "heat" just in case the mob paid a visit.

  4. Dave says:

    Lob is Jacques Lob.

    And you are correct in assuming that he was associated with the Metal Hurlant crew. He wrote the script for Delirius, one of the volumes in Druillet's famous Lone Sloane series.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I don't doubt that the early comic book publishers were gangsters or had ties to gangsters.

    What I meant by "mythology" is not the fact that comics publishers had mob ties, but rather the way the mob is protrayed in Jones' book: as an almost all-powerful conspiracy with its tentacles in every branch of society. That's the sort of thing one gets from pulp fiction (say Donald Westlake's portrayal of "The Syndicate" in his Parker books, or in the later Godfather movies). The mob existed and exists but it was much more small time and grubby than Jones gets across. See Daniel Bell's essay on "The Myth of the Mafia" in his book The End of Ideology.


  6. afdumin says:

    I'd have to add Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes to the lists, as it's personal favorite of mine.

  7. Brad Mackay says:

    Sure, sure Jeet. That's what all the mob lawyers want us to believe!

    Point well-made, and taken!

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