Saturday, February 28, 2015

Recently Read: Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941

For those curious about the earliest days of superhero comics, when creators had the freedom to go wherever their whims took them and the formulas for the genre hadn't yet been written in stone, Fantagraphics Books has published a handy and hefty sampler of the era.

Shot from the original comics (no computer coloring here), Supermen! covers the spectrum from very obscure (Rex Dexter of Mars, Fero, Planet Detective, Yarko the Great) to seminal early work by Jack Kirby, Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, outsider Fletcher Hanks and more. Greg Sadowski's notes in the back of the book give great historical context; I learned a lot about the various competing and overlapping comics publishers and editors during this primordial period.

Reading Supermen! can actually become depressing because nearly every story contained in the book is more fun, and utilizes more imagination and whimsy, than any superhero comic book on sale today. Inside these pages you'll find pulp-colored dreams, crazy acts of violence (by the heroes!), hallucinogenic imagery, and the promise and fulfillment of illicit, bizarre thrills. As many in The Sex Pistols' audience went on to start their own groups, these stories must have spurred the creative imaginations of hundreds of future creators.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it needs to be on the shelves of anyone who reads any superhero comics, as it contains examples of the original formation of the genre. One small complaint: the credits for the book design, so essential for a finely packaged collection of graphics, is squirreled away in small print on the last page of the book. Not cool, Fantagraphics.

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