"Comic books were our booze." (189)
In 1965, Jules Feiffer published the first serious examination of superhero comic books.
He was in an excellent position to do so. Feiffer had been a child when Superman and Batman made their debuts, and as a young man he had worked in the business. He remained a fan, despite his later success as a writer. And he understood the cultural and historical significance of the genre, and was willing to say so, in public, in print.
Remember, this was 1965. By 2000, many a scholar and graduate student had pontificated on the significance of Captains America, Marvel, and Canuck. Comic books had inspired successful films aimed at adult audiences. Pulitzer Prize winning-novelist Michael Chabon had gleefully praised the genre. Neil Gaiman had written comic books, in addition to his novels.
And Hollywood's Golden Bad Boy, Quentin Tarantino, plagiarized liberally from Feiffer's book during the climax to Kill Bill: Volume 2.
But in 1965, academics refused to take comic books seriously. Except for Feiffer. Consider his comments on Superman:
Previous heroes-- the Shadow, the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger-- were not only more vulnerable; they were fakes. I don't mean to criticize; it's just a statement of fact. The Shadow had to cloud men's minds to be in business. The Green Hornet had to go through the fetishist fol-de-rol of donning costume, floppy hat, black mask, gas gun, menacing automobile, and insect sound effects before he was even ready to go out in the street. The Lone Ranger needed an accoutremental white horse, an Indian, and an establishing cry of Hi-Yo Silver to separate him from all those other masked men running around the West in days of yesteryear.
But Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman. In his case, Clark Kent was the put-on. The fellow with the eyeglasses and the acne and the walk girls laughed at wasn't real, didn't exist, was a sacrificial disguise, an act of discreet martyrdom. Had they but known!...
... Kent existed not for the purpose of the story but for the reader. He is Superman's opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we, the noncriminal element, were really like. His fake identity was our real one. That's why we loved him so. For if that wasn't really, us, if there were no Clark Kents, only lots of glasses and cheap suits which, when removed, revealed all of us in our true identities-- what a hell of an improved world it would have been! (18- 19)
In The Great Comic Book Heroes, Feiffer offers commentary on both the meaning and the history of the genre. He discusses the key players in the Golden Age of Comic Books. He examines the significance of the genre-- uncertainly but always entertainingly. He provides a response to Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocents, a book which roundly condemned comic books in the 1950s. And he acknowledges that, yes, junk has a place in cultural life, especially in the life of children:
Junk is a second-class citizen of the arts, a status of which we and it are constantly aware. There are certain inherent privileges in second-class citizenship.... Junk, like the drunk at the wedding, can get away with doing or saying anything because, by its very appearance, it is already in disgrace. It has no one's respect to lose, no image to endanger. Its values are the least middle class of all the mass media. That's why it is needed so.
Feiffer has been criticized for his take on Wonder Woman, but his sexist view represents how many boys likely regarded the character. At the very least, he avoids both the homophobia and cultural paranoia which characterizes Wertham's view not only of Wonder Woman, but of many aspects of comic books.
Feiffer's thoughts on comic books make this a worthwhile read, and they can be found in the current, slight version of this book. However, they aren't what make the original version of this book, out of print since the early 1970s and likely never to be reprinted, a collector's item. Comic fans seek the original because of the reprinted comics.
When Feiffer wrote the original book, it was necessary to explain that comic collectors existed:
...for surprisingly, there are old comic book fans. A small army of them. Men in their thirties and early forties wearing school ties and tweeds, teaching in universities, writing ad copy, writing for chic magazines, writing novels-- who continue to be addicts, who save old comic books, buy them, trade them, and will, many of them, pay up to fifty dollars for the first issues of Superman or Batman; who publish and mail to each other mimeographed "fanzines"-- strange little publications deifying what is looked back on as "the golden age of comic books." (185)
As the Tulipomaniacal collector's market did not exist at the time, the companies had no qualms about permitting the reprint of old stories in Feiffer's book. After all, it was really the only "respectable" tome on comics around. Consequently, the bulk of the original book consists of stories from Feiffer's collection, reprinted in full, garish color:
Superman #1: a recap of the origin, which had first appeared in Action Comics.
Superman #3: "Superman and the Dam." The 1978 film with Christopher Reeves references this tale.
Whiz Comics: A single page from Captain Marvel's origin. At the time, the Captain was in legal limbo, having been sued out of existence by DC Comics, but not yet revived by that same company. This was the only reprint permitted.
Batman #1: a recap of the origin and the first appearance of the Joker.
Marvel Mystery Comics #1: the Human Torch vs. the Hag.
Flash #1: the origin.
All American #16: the origin of the Green Lantern
All Star #1: The Spectre vs. an arson/insurance racket, probably the great mismatch of the Golden Age.
Flash #5: The Hawkman vs a Middle Eastern conspiracy. This disturbingly timely tale showcases just how casual and commonplace racism was in the 1940s.
Wonder Woman #2: The Amazon vs. Mars and Mammotha. Benito Mussolini appears as a walking cartoon; Hirohito has apparent strings attached to his arms.
Marvel #7: An early SubMariner story. This took place when he was still an angry anti-American, and also features a spectacular example of the industry's lax standards; the Statue of Liberty acquires fleshtone in one close-up.
Captain America #1: Origin story.
Police #1: The origin of Plastic Man.
The Spirit Sunday Section, July 20, 1941: "The Spirit in Damascus." If you want to learn why comic fans hold Will Eisner in such high esteem, look no further than this brief tale.
As a bonus, we also see a single panel of Sheena from Jungle Comics, and the cover of Radio Comics #1-- Feiffer's childhood effort at imitating the genre.
If you have an interest in social history, get hold of this book in any edition. If you love comic books, search for the original version.
When I was 9 or 10, I asked for a copy of this book as a Christmas present. When I opened it on December 25, my mother explained that she had bought the book, only to misplace it somewhere in the house. Fortunately, there was one more copy left at the local book store, and it was not expensive.
I have kept my original copy, though it lost its book jacket years ago. Perhaps somewhere, in what was once my family's house, sits an intact second copy. Somewhere....