12/28/09

"Was Superman a Spy?" by Brian Cronin


One of the things that most fascinated me about comics when I was a kids were the secret origins of the superheroes. Every well-developed character had one: Barry Allen was struck by lightning and a mix of chemicals and became The Flash; Billy Batson was selected by the ancient Shazam to receive the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, et. al; the orphaned Bruce Wayne vowed to spend his money and skills fighting crime to avenge his parents' death. It filled in the motivation and gave depth to the story, but it also opened up avenues for exploring "what if?", and frankly, gave us kids something to gossip about. "Man, if I had Spider-man's powers I would have saved Uncle Ben..." The secret origin led to the humanity of the heroes, which let me identify more closely with them. Now for Christmas I got two books which tell, not the secret origins of the heroes, but of the creators and artists behind the comics.

"Was Superman A Spy?" by Brian Cronin is a collection of 130 bite-sized essays that explore the urban legends around comics and their creators, bursting some and supporting others. Some of the essays are culled from Cronin's blog "Comics Should Be Good!" (also here: legendsrevealed.com) while others are new for the book. Cronin started writing his blog when he was "caught" in an urban legend how Walt Simonson made a list of all the appearances of Doctor Doom in comics that he disagreed with and declared them to be Doom-bots (you can read more about this story here)

I was instantly hooked. I know quite a bit of comic lore, but I still found rich veins of gold in this book. One question I always had: Why change Bruce Banner's first name for the Incredible Hulk TV show? In the section on the Hulk it's explained that the producer of the series, Kenneth Johnson, felt that alliterative names were immature, and dubbed him "David." Moreover, Johnson felt that red would be a better color to express rage than green, but luckily Marvel drew the line there, and we had to wait until 2008 for the Red Hulk. Another example of the research explains how the Batman TV show production played havoc with the plotting of the Batman comic, ending in Alfred's resurrection and the birth of Batgirl. The story is that Gardner Fox had killed off Alfred in Detective Comics #328, but William Dozier, the producer of the TV show demanded they bring him back in the comic so there would be continuity with the show. For a number of months Batman had been battling the Outsider, but no one knew his true identity. Since Fox was in a bind he made Alfred the Outsider. He explained that a scientist had taken Alfred's corpse and attempted a regeneration on it, which revived the butler, but left him with amnesia, hideously unrecognizable, and a hatred for Batman. Eventually Batman reversed the effects of the regeneration just in time for the TV series.

"Was Superman a Spy?" is in three parts DC (consisting of Superman, Batman and then other DC comics), Marvel (Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk, Captain America, X-Men, and various) and then "Other Comic Book Companies" (Walt Disney, "and the rest."), which makes it easy to browse, or read straight through. There's also an extensive list of sources, and an index by artist that makes it a great starting point for your own research. I ate it up like potato chips -- I couldn't stop with just one.

Harvey Kurtzman's origin may not have been secret, but his career was certainly mercurial, and it would take an impressive book to capture the length and breadth of his work and the people he influenced. Lucky for you, "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics" by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle is now available. Yes, I know Kurtzman's work: I read my dad's old Mad comics, I have reprints of most his EC comics, and I've even been bamboozled by the humor in "Help!" (ok, I'll admit it, I even read Little Annie Fanny, although I didn't "get it."). But Kitchen and Buhle have brought all the parts of Kurtzman's life together, linking his pinball career with the tremendous output of art and humor. They include such facts as: Kurtzman was a part-time orphan (after his father died his mom gave up Harvey and his brother to the orphanage, but retrieved them when she remarried), he tried to set up a blind date with Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner (she was working as Kurtzman's assistant at the time), and he brought John Cleese and Terry Gilliam together for the first time to work on his magazine Help!

The book is in five sections, approximating Kurtzman's professional life. The first chapter includes his World War II experience, brushes with Timely and Stan Lee, and his first comic strip "Hey Look!" The next two parts examine his work at EC comics, which segues into editing Mad. Act four of his life covers a series of attempts to create his own magazine, failing commercially, and ultimately finding a steady success with Little Annie Fanny in Playboy. It also includes "The Essential Harvey Kurtzman" index. The art in the book is stunning, with many drawings reproduced intact for the first time ever. There are plenty of covers and excerpts from comics and Mad to give you a feel for the timing and composition of of Kurtzman's stories, or just to bring you back to the first time you ever saw any work by Kurtzman. It's a wonderful book, and I'll read it and re-read it for years to come.

Both books brought me closer to understanding the comic creators, filling in the back story just like a secret origin. Just as with the superheroes, while I like to imagine what I'd do in their places, it makes me realize that great comic artists are both human, and super in their own way.

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