The birth of our favorite superheroes didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. In Comic Book History of Comics #2, can Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey pull on the tangled web of the 1930s and ’40s, get it to make sense, and accurately portray fan-loved legends? Is it good?
Comic Book History of Comics #2 (IDW Publishing)
Another blast from the deep past! Remember that pictures were used to communicate in ancient Egypt, but hieroglyphs were more like emoji than comics. The first comic books didn’t happen until newspapers gave their “funnies” sections a chance of their own.
Comics would need original material to survive, though, so along came the rejected-in-many-other-media Superman. A man who could lift a car was a wild and stirring idea to young readers, to the surprise of many, but it still employed tried and true genre tropes, like the secret identity seen in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro stories.
Meanwhile, Jack Kurtzberg was back to the sweatshop at Fox Feature Syndicate, but his moonlighting would necessitate a nom de plume. Three guesses what that was. Kurtzberg and Joe Simon eventually ended up doing Captain America for Timely Comics, where the new “King” met a weird little kid named Stanley Lieber, and the rest is history. Well, if you ignore the part where Lieber may have dimed Kurtzberg out on his extra gigs ….
Is It Good?
Writer Fred Van Lente tries his damnedest to recount all the sinuous turns, poor payouts and maybe backstabs of the early comics industry in soluble, narrative fashion, but this section of the story proves harder to wrangle than the first. A lack of printed dates is important to keep the tale from feeling like a dry text, but doesn’t help when the reader tries to keep in mind what was happening when. Still, there’s a lot of good information here, with certain things you might not have been told before — like the Nazi-sympathizer death threats that Kirby endured, or Stan Lee’s bizarre workday flute-playing.
Penciller Ryan Dunlavey and colorist Adam Guzowski continue trying to liven up the history lesson, but don’t have as much to work with this time. Perhaps to make up for that there are some strangely out-of-place feeling “adult situations,” including a head-scratching homage to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the infamous police plunger incident that took place during his tenure. The addition of Kirby Krackle around the pen of “the King” on a splash page explaining the origin of his style is a nice touch.
Comic Book History of Comics #2 is another comprehensively documented chapter in the strange and sordid story of a beloved medium’s birth. That’s perhaps to the detriment of the narrative, however, as this in-between period is more about page rates and bottom lines, before we get to the sweet Hitler punching. Nevertheless, the commendably fair portrayal of all parties involved, warts and all, should keep amateur historians coming back, as we know things get more interesting in short order.