It was one of those presents that have impact far beyond the usual Xmas present run. In 1966, I received a copy of Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes, and it forever changed the way I looked at both comic books and popular art. Feiffer's hardcover, a collection of superhero tales from comic books' Golden Age (the 30's - 40's) was unique in its day. There weren't a lot of publishers wanting to focus on this still vaguely disreputable form of entertainment back then: closest you could find was an outfit called Nostalgia Press, which focused on reprinting classic newspaper strips (Terry and the Pirates, Little Nemo in Slumberland), though they would eventually hit the first great line of decidedly non-heroic comic books in the early 70's with a collection devoted to EC Horror Comics of the Fifties.
What made Feiffer's book so fascinating and so endlessly re-readable to me was the way he showed me characters whose exploits preceded my own boyish comic book reading by decades. Placed out of the fifties/sixties context that I knew so well, these four-color figures acquired a new strangeness (abetted, at times, by the much less sophisticated art that passed for acceptable in the infant days of the industry). In addition to the reprint material, Feiffer had also included a forty-page-plus essay: a breezy blend of personal reminiscence and historical review that, for me, was the first time I'd really come to grips with pop culture criticism. To this day, I know vestiges of that essay still linger (probably to my detriment) in my own writing.
Feiffer's book has been out of print for years, though I recently read that Fantagraphics Books is planning a paperback reprint for 2003. (Still have my old copy, though the dust cover has unfortunately bitten what-it-was-meant-to-cover years ago.) In the years since the book first appeared, numerous comic book hero reprints have been published. But with holiday giftgiving approaching, it seemed apt to recommend the pick of the currently available material. I had three base criteria for my list: they needed to be hardbacks to survive the wear-and-tear of decades of revisiting; they needed to be from an era that was as least as strange to a current young reader as the Golden Age was to me; and they needed to be good exemplars of the form.
Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man Volume Two: I've already written about this book, but I couldn't omit it here. Lee and Ditko's hero remains unmatched in his inherent goofiness and self-pitying poignancy. Return to a day when high school boys were still expected to wear ties to school (unless they were an exempt jock like Flash Thompson, of course).
Batman Archives Volume One: The earliest Batman stories are crudely drawn. "Creator" Bob Kane - like Lee above he's frequently given sole credit for a character he developed in collaboration with another (in this case: Bill Finger) - was clearly learning as he went along. There are times when his panels look like something a bored student might've sketched on the outside of his notebook. Finger's scripts remain elementary throughout, but the stories' background, shadow-strewn Gotham City, grows more elaborate. Like watching an old silent horror film (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), you snicker at the dated histrionics but still find yourself remembering an image in the middle of the night.
Blackhawk Archives Volume One: One of the great comic book creations informed by an impending World War II (the other would have to be Simon & Kirby's Captain America), Blackhawk and his merry band of paramilitary upstarts were the creation of a comics shop overseen by Will Eisner (see Spirit entry below) for a then unique title known as Military Comics: war comics without a cape in sight. As rendered by Chuck Guidera and Reed Crandall, the Blackhawks were idealizations of the European resistance - though many readers mis-remember him as American, in actuality, the lead 'Hawk was Polish - and their brutish adversaries and double-dealing femme fatales remain unmatched.
Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Issues #51 - 60: Marvel Comics has been criminally slapdash in its treatment of its legacy. Where rival company DC has been steadily producing consecutive Archive collections for years and keeping 'em in print, the House of Ideas has been much less reliable. Submitted to support my point: this collection, which is only one of two color hardcover volumes devoted to the line's premiere superhero series (the first covers the mag's first ten issues, leaving a gap of three volumes in between). There's a cheap pb black-and-white Essentials reprint series available, but, c'mon, we're talking about mind-bending, life-changing gifts here! At least this set or reprints is a strong 'un: FF creators Lee and Jack "King" Kirby working in peak mid-sixties form, giving us plenty of the impact-packed tableaus that made Kirby a comic fan fave. No one else has yet matched the man in his flair for rock-'em-sock-'em fisticuffs and magnificent, ludicrously over-elaborate s-f trappings.
Silver Age Flash Archives/Silver Age Green Lantern Archives Volumes Two: The world the Marvel boys imagined was a big brawling contrast to the line's Distinguished Competition, home to Superman, Batman and these two guys. The fifties era Flash (John Broome, primary writer; Carmine Infantino, artist) and Green Lantern (Broome again, w./ artist Gil Kane) were more cerebral comics: puzzle tales that involved a smidgeon of dubious science and villains who could only be defeated by the heroes' inventive use of their superpowers. But what really makes these two books so much fun today is the Infantino and Kane art. With their hints of retro sexiness (Kane, in particular), you can't help visualizing the artists sitting in a studio somewhere with an Ultra Lounge set of tunes playing in the radio background. Definitely period; definitely cool.
Plastic Man Archives Volume One: Jack Cole's lunatic creation has recently been the subject of an artsy Art Spiegelman/Chip Kidd hardback appreciation. And as much as I appreciate Spiegelman as an artist and critical historian, I'd still recommend this basic collection of the character's first adventures any day. Cole was definitely an eccentric comics genius, capable of merging endlessly inventive cartoonery with wonderfully appalling ideas (check that story about the man whose hands escape from him). I don't blame any parent who came into contact with this stuff when it first came out for freaking out: no one else was ever so creatively attuned with the lighthearted grisliness of young boy readers.
Shazam! Archives Volume One or Two: One of the more frustrating aspects of Feiffer's original Golden Age collection was the fact that he was only allowed to reprint one page of Superman's greatest commercial rival, Captain Marvel. Cap had been in limbo for years, thanks to a lawsuit entered by Superman's owners that claimed he was a swipe of Superman. (Well, yeah, but wasn't Batman a swipe of the Shadow?) In one of those ironies that only could only exist in the voracious world of corporate capitalism, DC comics eventually bought the character - only to see Marvel beat them to the publishing punch by creating a new character with the CM moniker. Which is why our hero appears these days under the Shazam! logo. Reading these tales today, you can see why the Kryptonian's owners sweated: as written by Bill Finger and rendered by C.C. Beck, the Big Red Cheese's adventures are light and comically entertaining in a way that the Man of Steel never managed to be. Real kids' stuff - and I mean that in all the best ways.
Spirit Archives Volume Four: And for contrast, we have Will Eisner: who took the dark promise of early Batman and extended it into full B-movie glory. Eisner's masked vigilante, Denny Colt, is dashing and indestructible, but the world around him is futilely violent in a way that comics hadn't previously acknowledged. Produced for a comic book newspaper insert, "The Spirit" could get away with a greater level of ambiguity than more straight-laced comic book heroes; at their best, they create the same kind of mock adult playground that John Huston created in his movie visualization of The Maltese Falcon. Volume Four in the series shows Eisner reaching his stride just before he leaves to join the service (subsequent volumes in the series show the character ghosted 'til his creator returns: the Archives series hasn't reached the second wave of Eisner material yet). It's the place to start.
Superman Archives Volume One: Reading these groundbreaking superhero antics for the first time, I was struck not so much by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's rudimentary storytelling or by the power of the Superman fantasy. What impressed me was how Depression Era Leftie the character could be! Here's Superman taking on slimy arms merchants; there he goes fighting for the rights of mistreated mine workers. A true hero for his times. One of the keys to this squarest of heroes' success is the way that he has periodically shifted to meet his current readership's fantasy needs.
"Comic books," Feiffer asserted in the Afterword to Great Comic Book Heroes, "are junk." While there have been attempts at creating more artful fare, he observed, in the end they've all failed. That statement - true at the time the man wrote his appreciation of Golden Age Junk - has been significantly challenged in the years since 1966 by a variety of artists working outside the superhero genre. But no matter much how some proponents of art comics may seethe about it, Good Imaginative Junk continues to hold its broad-based appeal.
And, y'know, it looks even neater bound between the pages of a good sturdy book.