Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History

by Ron Goulart

Published by Collectors Press

204 pages, 2000

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Comics' Golden Age

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


Collectors Press usually specializes in pop-culture art books devoted to subjects such as vintage collectibles and pinup art. Since 1998, it has also been putting together a select list of illustrated -- and gorgeously designed -- histories of pop publishing. The first such was the Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson volume Pulp Culture: The Art of Fiction Magazines. Science-fiction novelist Frank M. Robinson reprised his role as pop-lit historian for 1999's Science Fiction of the 20th Century: An Illustrated History. The third and latest offering in this series is Ron Goulart's Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History, with title nods to both previous volumes. The science fiction book differed in format from the pulp history, but Goulart's comics volume reproduces exactly Pulp Culture's approach and design down to having exactly the same page count and cover font.

Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History is a misleading title. The book does not focus on the whole history of this stigmatized sector of the publishing world, but solely on its origins and first glorious wave of success from the 1930s to the late 40s, a period often called, as by Goulart, the golden age. A more appropriate title would have been Golden Age Comic Books: An Illustrated History. Because I'd initially believed that this 204-page volume intended to cover a 70-year period, I was expecting superficial coverage of the many genres and periods of comic books. I could not have been more wrong. The specific focus allows Goulart -- author of at least four other books on comics -- to share with the reader his profound expertise in great detail. As for what happens from the 1950s onwards... as Goulart says, "But that's another story."

Although, like its predecessors, Comic Book Culture gives considerable attention to its subject's cover artists, it does so in a context filled with informative anecdotes and knowledgeable essays on the diverse aspects of publishing history as it relates to the book's central theme (in this case, golden-age comic books). The first chapter deals with comic-book antecedents from the late 19th century and the earliest comic-book series, Famous Funnies. Right away, Goulart divulges much arcane information that should fascinate anyone interested in the origins of comics. The tone is set and Goulart continues throughout the book to provide text that manages to be dense with information and yet breezy and delightful.

Following chapters deal with subjects such as the first wave of competition to Famous Funnies, the origins of DC Comics (arguably the most significant publisher in comics history), the emergence and popularity of superheroes (the genre now most associated with comic books), the persistence of humor comics (the genre that started it all), the influence of World War II on comic-book cover art, the proliferation of characters dressed up in the American flag (from the famous Captain America to the forgotten U.S. Jones), and so-called "good girl" art (from helpless victims in hiked-up skirts to voluptuous heroines whose breasts constantly threaten -- or should I say "promise"? -- to burst from their skimpy coverings). Also included are short -- but abundantly illustrated -- profiles of some of the era's most important cover artists, most notably Jack Kirby, Lou Fine and Alex Schomburg.

Comic Book Culture is rich with cover art from the 30s and 40s, including many covers rarely seen since their first publication and several never before reprinted. Often, as Goulart notes, the best thing about an old comic book was the cover. Covers successfully titillated and stimulated the imagination where the stories themselves usually fell short. There were some exceptions, of course. For example, Goulart mentions, correctly, C.C. Beck's graceful Captain Marvel, Bill Everett's intense Sub-Mariner, Jack Cole's outrageous Plastic Man and nearly anything by Jack Kirby. However, the vast majority of golden-age comic-book stories didn't live up to the hype of the cover art. Comic Book Culture celebrates the extravagant promises of those wonderfully outré covers.

The parting photograph -- from 1948 -- shows a young boy completely wrapped up in reading a comic book while standing in front of a newsstand comic-book display twice his height and seven times his width. It pulls at the strings of my comics-loving heart to see so many golden-age comic books -- scarce and fragile objects now requiring no small degree of wealth to obtain -- on sale for a mere dime each, fresh from the printers, before time had worn them out.

Goulart's text is an unromanticized yet loving look at an important era for both publishing and comics. The author is clearly driven by a deep passion but never lets that interfere with his honest appraisals of history, publishers, artists and comic books.

Many of the early comic-book publishers were initially pulp publishers. As the pulps continued to vanish, many of these publishers found yet another publishing medium to conquer: mass-market paperbacks. Now that Collectors Press has released excellent illustrated histories of the gaudy golden ages of pulp fiction magazines and comic books, perhaps readers can look forward to a volume on that next -- and equally gaudy -- phase of popular publishing? | August 2000


Claude Lalumière -- a January Magazine contributing editor -- is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.