Comic book heroes and history

Well, the bookshelves are starting to fill up. Latest on the list: Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones. When I first picked it up, the colorful book jacket made me think it was a fictionalized account about comic books, the comic book industry, and comic book heroes in the same vein as Michael Chabon‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. However, instead, I was treated to an exploration into the history of the comic book industry, including the publishing industry from which it was born. The book generally follows the careers and lives of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman.

In hopes of evening out the DC-centric book, I also picked up Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish which focuses more on the life of Jack Kirby and, by extension, Stan Lee. To be honest, not as well written, but still an interesting read if you want to learn about how Marvel and some of Marvel’s most famous characters came to be. Next up at some point will probably be The Comic Book Makers, written by Joe Simon, one of Kirby’s early collaborators, a co-creator of Captain America and the first editor-in-chief of the company that would become Marvel, and his son Jim Simon (who has also worked in comics).

There’s so much hype around comic books again lately with the success of movies like Spider-Man and X-Men, but I’ll say this– I wonder how many people realize how profoundly comic books and the comic book industry have affected popular culture? Think about how many movies, television shows, and more are based on characters that were born over forty, fifty, sixty years ago. The stories in those cheap paper books would go on to shape filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but, more importantly and among other things, how generations of people would think about good, evil, and all the shades of gray in between. And within the industry itself, it’s a sometimes inspirational, sometimes tragic story– they were, for the most part, poor children of immigrants, struggling kids from the streets, who received little credit or compensation but, in the end, gave birth to an industry that pervades every corner of our culture and our lives. The overarching theme of the aforementioned books, rightly so, is how these comic book artists and writers came to create such incredible, such magical, such wonderful things, but received so little compensation or credit and in many ways, we continue to do this in the back of our minds as we make fun of geeky comic book collectors and fail to realize how much the comic book industry has influenced business, art, literature, culture and, in general, our consciousness.

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