Tuesday, March 31, 2015

W.B. Origins: The Great Comic Book Heroes

One of my most cherished possessions is a beat-up hardcover book with the spine in questionable shape, the cover and pages battered but not torn with use and overuse. The dustcover reproduced at left is long gone, tattered beyond recognition and finally discarded decades ago.

It is a first edition of The Great Comic Book Heroes, a wonderful collection “compiled, introduced and annotated” by Jules Feiffer, and inscribed, “To Warren — the comic book fiend of 1965, From Dad and Mother, December 25, 1965.”

For the previous year and a half, ever since I found that copy of Amazing Spider-Man #4, I had been feverishly following the adventures of the Marvel Comics universe of characters, and anyone familiar with that universe knows I’d stumbled upon it at just the right time, as the characters found themselves and began to fly.

Feiffer’s book celebrated the heroes of the 1940s, when he was a teenager himself. He turned my age at an even more magical time (at least for the comics), when costumed superheroes were all being introduced for the very first time, and he actually worked as an apprentice for the legendary Will Eisner starting in 1945 at the age of 16.

He writes about each of the heroes in turn, but then the real magic appears: Here are the actual reprinted stories of Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, the original Human Torch (my first encounter), the Flash, the Green Lantern, the Spectre, Hawkman, Wonder Woman, Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Plastic Man, and the Spirit.

It was a wonderful peek at the Golden Age of Comics, and although I had a problem with some of Feiffer’s conclusions (”Comic books, first of all, are junk. There are a few exceptions, but nonjunk comic books don’t as a rule, last very long.” OK, maybe in 1945 …) I loved Feiffer’s descriptions and histories, and I especially loved the reprints. 

Each character was given a full story to give the flavor of his/her adventures, except there was a single page from Captain Marvel’s origin tale. “More can not be printed without unsettling the settlement between Clark Kent and Billy Batson,” a footnote explains. That enticement led to a curiosity that was not really settled until DC Comics started publishing Shazam! a few years later.
It is not reading and rereading those ancient stories that beat up this first edition, however. The oversized book was slightly bigger than 8.5 by 11 inches, which made it perfect for use as a workbench.

I would sit on my bed with a piece of paper pressed against the inside front cover, and I’d write and draw the adventures of Greatman and Brink The Atomic Man and the Fabulous Five and Captain Zap. I wrote hundreds of songs and poems. It was the beginning of a passion that led, in my later years, to Myke Phoenix and The Imaginary Bomb, and who knows what to come.

Sometimes I look at a memento from the far distant past like this and think, “Wow, that was almost 50 years ago now, it doesn’t seem that long.” Oh, but yes it does. The thousands of days that were lived in the meantime transformed that kid into this guy typing on a computer, and we are two remarkably different creatures who happen to share the same frame.

I continue to metamorphize into something new as time goes on. What an incredible life this is.

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