Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls And The Creation Of Comic Book Culture by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor (book review).

This is a book about the history of super-heroes in the media. The super-hero is now a mainstay of popular culture on television and the silver screen but some of us older folk recall a time when they were only available on paper. Low paid men with typewriters did the scripts and other chaps with actual pencils drew the characters on paper. Often they did not tell their friends what they did in case they might be spat on. Now top directors vie for the latest super-film. My, how things have changed!


The work is certainly comprehensive covering the history of heroes from the beginnings of comics up to 2013. It examines the origins of super-hero type persons in newspaper strips, the likes of Buck Rogers and The Phantom. There is a doff of the cap to pulp heroes like The Shadow and Doc Savage, Man Of Bronze. Naturally, there is a deal of space devoted to Superman, the first real costumed super-powered super-hero. The Golden Age of the 1940s, the slump of the 1950s, the Silver Age of the 1960s and developments since are all well covered. There are also good quotes from many of the creators and a funny joke about Lee and Kirby on page 115. A perceptive comment is made about how Marvel’s ‘paternal, avuncular, father figures’, Odin, the Ancient One and Professor X, may have contributed to the line’s success with teen-agers. There’s even a section on pop art.

The developments since the 1970s are not all good in my view. It’s nice to have the films but when the big corporations took over something was lost. Comicbook series were produced to tie-in with toy launches and the bottom line was all, meaning that some quality stuff didn’t get time to become popular. Lush production values put up the price and comics became available only in specialist shops, not ordinary newsagents. Sales went down. I think it was better when they looked cheap and were cheap and kids read them. It was a bad day when comics became an investment for city slickers. But times change. At least, the ‘Marvel Essential’ and ‘DC Showcase’ lines mean that the old, cheap stuff is still available cheaply for those who want to read it rather than put it in a glass case.

All the important developments get a mention here and there is a lot of space devoted to the big hitters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman and Batman, including the 1966 television series. The story of the mighty struggle to get that first epic ‘Superman’ film made is interesting. Kirby’s Fourth World doesn’t get much space. Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ is well-covered. This is a commercial book so it features the commercial hits but there’s plenty about minor works, too. Nobody need feel slighted.

I made lots of notes on the text while reading then realised that I was doing a long summary of the book. Not my job! A reviewer’s task is to tell you what kind of product you are getting and give some idea of its merits. With a non-fiction book that might not take many words. The brevity of the appreciation does not reflect on the quality of the book.

Warning! At first glance this looks like a shallow coffee table tome. It has illustrations on every page, often more than one, and well separated paragraphs of text with the first line in a different font. It’s also a weighty volume printed on very nice paper in full colour. Let not this deceive you into thinking it less worthy than denser texts. Here is an informative, well-researched and well-written work history of super-heroes that will furnish you loads of information on the subject. It’s also readable and entertaining. Highly recommended.

Eamonn Murphy

July 2014

(pub: Crown Archetype. 304 page hardback. Price: $40.00 (US), $46.00 (CAN), £30.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-38534-858-4)

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