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Comic Books and Other Necessities of Life

If you don’t agree with the premise embedded in its somewhat whimsical title, than Mark Evanier’s Comic Books And Other Necessities of Life (TwoMorrows Publishing) probably won’t have much to say to you. A collection of pieces from a weekly column entitled “POV” that Evanier wrote for the Comics Buyers Guide between 1994 and 2002 – until a haggle over a one-cent-per-word increase between writer and publisher spurred the writer to take his talents elsewhere (Evanier ironically anticipates this dispute in a column on the dysfunctional cheapness of many comic book fans) – it’s written from both an industry insider and a fannish perspective.

Evanier has had an extensive career in the mainstream comic book field, writing everything from Daffy Duck books to Superman to a series of gritty comics set around the world of Hollywood show biz (one of my favorite unsung comic books); he’s also staked out a sizable chunk for himself as a TV comedy writer. Pay’s no doubt better, but still he keeps returning to them comics. Clearly the guy’s got it bad. . .
Not so bad that he doesn’t look at the worlds of comic book publishing and its satellite fandom with a clear set of eyes, however. Most of the collected “POV” columns focus on one of three areas: ironic tales from the world of comic book collecting, anecdotes and reminiscences about some of the industry’s most prominent and/or colorful figures and reflections on the artistic state of mainstream comic books today. In that last arena, he is fairly conservative, both in focus and interpretation. So when he criticizes comic books going down a darker path than the books of his youth, you know he’s not talking about latest development in Love and Rockets, say, but about the transformation of Silver Age superhero Green Lantern Hal Jordan into a universe-mashing psycho.
I’m willing to accept Evanier’s narrower focus even as I wish he were as willing to hold forth on the merits of R. Crumb is he is on famed duckman Carl Barks. But I can see where he’s coming from when he talks about the misdirection that many mainstream comics have taken over the years. Superhero books, in particular, are at root children’s & adolescent literature: doesn’t mean that adults can’t enjoy ‘em, but that their basic grounding remains in the needs of a young audience. Superman/Clark Kent’s dual identity (as Evanier himself points out in “We Are All Clark Kent”) makes no real sense, for instance, unless you accept it as an aid to help the young reader fantasize. It’s jarring when these characters start pushing the behavioral envelope: like watching a Winnie the Pooh cartoon suddenly burst into Tarantino dialog.
So Mark has a point when he decries the mainstream industry’ herd stampede into making their superhero books indistinguishably noir-ish, for it’s likely that this trend has contributed to the industry’s shrinking starter readership. (That and the shrinking number of real funnybooks.) It’s not just fannish yearning for the days of the “more innocent” stories: it’s awareness that there remains an untapped market for this core type of comic book entertainment.
My favorite columns, though, venture into the ever-entertaining world of comics fans and creators: a world Evanier captures with a storyteller’s assurance. His tales of the Los Angeles Comic Book Club are told with a telling eye for comic detail, especially when he catches young boy rationalization – as practiced by young kids “kyping” comics (a term used by the writer’s California crowd to specifically describe swiping comic books, though back in the day around Vernon, Connecticut, it was used to connote more generic shoplifting) or by putative adults trying to talk around the fact that they’ve been selling unauthorized model kits.

Mark gets ‘em down: the young boy versed at weaseling free art out of comic pros, the penny pinching collector who walks out on a dinner date and stiffs her on the check, the hapless convention volunteer who dreams of becoming a comic book writer but whose sole plot idea consists of variations on Batman-and-Catwoman-Get-It-On-and-Have-A-Kid (shades of TV’s upcoming Birds of Prey!) Choice material, well told.
The third big block of articles is more serious: historical pieces and appreciations of various well-known and unsung comic book artists. Evanier even manages to provide a fresh look at one of the most over-discussed moments in comic book history – the Kefauver committee investigation in the 50’s that led to massive industry self-censorship – by including material about that journalist/fraud Walter Winchell and his feud with Lyle Stuart as well as a clear-eyed analysis of Mad/Tales from the Crypt publisher William Gaines’ disastrous testimony before the Senate committee.
His takes on comic book greats are primarily formed around the connections he’s made with ‘em throughout the course of his career (a potentially limiting approach that isn’t in Evanier’s hands). Many of these are memorial pieces, not surprising since so many of the writer’s influences had their career peaks from the forties through the seventies. He ends the book with a heartfelt eulogy for Roz Kirby, wife of his late mentor Jack Kirby. Jack and Roz spent their lives in the world of comic books – Depression kids whose lives would be forever changed by these garishly colored fantasies.

Reading Mark’s words on this tough-minded woman and her connection to one of comics’ greatest artists, his book’s full title doesn’t seem so ironic, after all. . .

(Reprinted from Pop Culture Gadabout)

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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