Friday, February 6, 2009

Two Musts for, But Not Just For, Comic Book Fans and More, Plus Maybe Another That's Not for "More"

It's confession time. I was a long-time comic book geek and that geek still lives on somewhere inside me. Almost as I early as I could read, I bounced between Spooky Spooktown and Little Lotta Food Land from the Harvey stable. I particularly identified with Little Dot’s single-minded collection of all things “dot.” It should surprise no one.

Before you disparage my Harvey-philia, you should know that had I not torn my Richie Rich Riche$ et al into shreds, they would have been worth a lot of money. The writer of many of these series, Sid Jacobson, recently adapted the much-lauded 9/11 Report into graphic novel form.

I moved on to Archie Comics (a shout out to Jughead) and then to DC superheroes. My favorites in The Legion of Superheroes were Shrinking Violet and Ultra Boy. Her power was super-tininess, while her skills were not unlike Harriet the Spy. He was intriguing because he could do so much in a super way, yet his inability to do more than one thing at a time made him particularly vulnerable. Yes, focus was his downfall.

I read Superman, but also had a fondness for the adventures of Lois Lane. Who would have believed that when I was pricing my collection, these would wind up being some of my most valuable collectibles? It’s because they seemed to be so uncollectibly uncool at the time.

Every week my father would allot me one comic, and yes, that limit was often breached. I have particularly powerful memories of extra comics being snuck home under my shirt. Nowadays I figure most parents would think, “At least they’re reading something” but back, comics still had the tinge of laziness and corruptibility.

The comics I read, however, all fell under the Comics Code Authority, that judgmental tribunal set up to combat the evil influence of comics. They were safe, and attempted to be morally uplifting, despite my father's concerns. But what's the backstory here?

The history of the rise of comic culture in the 1950’s, and the subsequent McCarthy-esque crackdown is all documented in David Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America.

I am thrilled to mention that Hajdu will be speaking at the Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue on Tuesday, February 10th, 7 PM, on this very subject. He’s a professor of journalism at Columbia University and has won raves for this book and his two previous titles, Lush Life, and Positively Fourth Street, which cogently mix pop and cultural history into a brew suitable for narrowcast fans (jazz, then Dylan, now comics) or broad-reading history buffs.

And of course, his documentation of this crisis and resulting crackdown could stand in for just about any controversy in the continuing culture wars. Rap music? Video Games? Family Guy? They all push the same buttons. It should be a great talk.

And for a local angle, check out the story behind a historic comic book burning in Waukesha County on page 295.

Gearing up for this event put me in the mood to read a new book that just came out as a paperback original called Captain Freedom: A Superhero's Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves. This was one of the featured titles at the recently-visited Winter Institute, that continuing education class for booksellers that I attended in Salt Lake City. I wouldn’t have normally picked it up, but you know how moods are—it just seemed right at the time.

Captain Freedom has four fantastic powers--flying, super-natural strength, lightning-fast reflexes, and the uncanny ability to predict the weather. He’s murky about his origins, though he knows he was raised on a kibbutz in Montana. He’s dated a super assassin, and has been nominated for the International Justice Pride. The Comics Code Authority brought him to trial at least once.

Let me be blunt. This book is astutely hilarious, a meditation on fame and celebrity as memoir, from the perspective of one of those very guys I idolized as a child. Robillard’s mind is in hyper-drive, stringing together every kind of pop culture reference, topical aside, and linguistic curve ball, all in perfect super-hero vernacular.

The Christopher Moore and Neal Pollack quotes should lure exactly the right reader, and the McSweeney cred doesn’t hurt either. I didn't even know it at the time, but it's the first acquisition for Carl Lennertz, whose superpower must be to acquire mega-fun books that will save the world from dreary reading.

To-do list for comic fans:

1. Hear David Hajdu talk at Downer Avenue Schwartz on Tuesday, Feb. 10th, 7 PM

2. Pick up a copy of the so smart but so silly Captain Freedom. Try reading a bit on page 122, when CF confronts the international pirates who are bootlegging his movie.

3. Oh, one last thing. You also might also want to check out Holy Sh*t: The World's Weirdest Comic Books. It's a collection of the story behind some particularly outrageous conceptions, including strange sex (the book is not graphic, sorry), Christian moral handbooks, Black power Archie-type adventures, and a manual for careers in the personal service industry featuring Popeye. It's full-color representations of all the jackets with accompanying history and critical analysis. Fascinating, and a real deal at $12.95.

1 comment:

jennifer said...

The measure of civility in our neighborhood is the proximity of your house to the comic book shop, Uncle Sven's, where John has been shopping since college! Encouraged by Michael Chabon essays and interviews, I'm allowing the boys to gorge themselves on comics. After a year or two of browsing while they shop, I've finally picked up a few series to read on my own. I'm totally hooked on comics, with a lot of gaps to fill. Any recommendations?