Deathlok the Demolisher. Cerebrus the Aardvark. Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds. Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth. Grendel. Nexus. American Flagg. The Tick. Concrete. Ka-Zar. Madame Xanadu. Howard the Duck. Grant Morrison’s Invisibles. Frank Miller’s Ronin.
What do these comic book icons—many of them favorites from my childhood and teenage years—have in common? They’re all heroes, for one thing—or maybe anti-heroes, in the case of Deathlok. For another, they are all absent, or very nearly, from Gina Misiroglu’s The Superhero Book, which bills itself as “The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes.” To quote Rick Perry: “Oops.”
I don’t mean to be the requisite uber-nerd in the room (I just can’t help myself, hah hah). I’m just a guy who’s read comics, off and on, for 35 years. But when your book is billed as “The Ultimate Encyclopedia of” anything, and when even a middling fan such as myself can poke holes in it without even trying—well, you’re just asking for trouble. Even leaving aside certain swathes of significant work—manga for example is scarcely touched upon here, maybe because it’s Japanese—this “ultimate encyclopedia” manages to give short shrift to plenty of interesting characters, for instance Kitchen Sink Press’s stable—The Tick, Paul the Samurai, and Man-Eating Cow. (Admittedly, this last might not qualify as a “superhero”.)
The book’s narrow confines focus overwhelmingly on Marvel and DC characters, with a smattering of Image and miscellaneous small-press figures. Even then, the omissions are glaring (many of the characters named at the top of this review are from Marvel and DC).
Another odd quirk is that, even though this is a second edition—the first was published in 2004—many textual references remain uncorrected. In the section on Alan Moore’s Watchmen, we are told that after its initial 12-issue run “it was released as a book, and multiple printings later is still in print in 2004.” Well, yes. And also in 2012. Elsewhere, the Milestone Comics-inspired Static Shock cartoon series is listed as running from “2000-present”; in fact its run ended in 2004. Perhaps these are quibbles, but in a reference book like this one, details matter and proofreading is important.
Despite all of the above, this isn’t a bad book. It’s nicely designed and laid out, and there are plenty of full-color movie stills and comics covers. For a reader who can (ahem) get over what isn’t included, there are plenty of trivia nuggets to be had. For example, the quixotic history of The Blue Beetle, who started as a rival to DC’s Superman before being bought and published by numerous publishers, including Holyoke and Charlton, eventually winding up in the 1980s at DC itself.
Another relatively obscure DC character is Doctor Fate, an occult hero (think Dr Strange or The Spectre) who has been in and out of print in various guises since his debut in 1940. DC also acquired The Freedom Fighters, a patriotic superhero group who also made their first appearance in 1940 and whose original members included Uncle Sam, The Phantom Lady and The Human Bomb. It is when unearthing and discussing such little-known characters that the book is at its most illuminating and useful.
There’s no original research here that I can see—no interviews or previously unnknown primary-source material. Rather, it’s a synthesis of publicly available information and select quotes from other sources, leavened with heaping quantities of its author’s personal tastes and interests.
That said, there’s plenty of information here which may well inspire hours of diversion. Like many of its type, The Superhero Book works less as a cover-to-cover type of read than as the kind of thing you pick up and leaf through from time to time, hoping to unearth a nugget about one or another of your favorite heroes. This is fine, but it’s also discouraging, if your favorite hero happens to be one of the many that receive little-to-no attention in these pages.
Perhaps the most jarring disconnect here is the assumption that TV heroes and comics heroes have enough in common to warrant inclusion in a single volume. They don’t. The aesthetic of an effective comic—the art style, the use of inks and page layouts, the cliffhanger storytelling—is different from film and TV, which generally tie up the loose ends, avoid static imagery, and live or die by the performances of the actors involved. Because of such differences, entries on TV on shows like Heroes and Buffy the Vampire Slayer don’t jibe well with entries on Hawkman, Hellboy and the Human Torch. For a character like Elektra, who featured in outstanding comics written by Frank Miller and Bill Sinkiewicz but who suffered in the mediocre Daredevil and appalling Elektra films, the glowing descriptions of these movies is laughable.
Misiroglu’s listings focus heavily on characters who have appeared in movies over the past ten or 15 years in an apparent ploy to attract the attention of readers more familiar with these characters from movies than from comics. In theory there’s nothing wrong with this; Hollywood is in the midst of a comics-to-movies adaptation renaissance these days, so what’s the problem? In practice, though, the transition from comics discussion to TV and film feels awkward. The book fails to acknowledge, for example, that any contemporary cinematic Captain America is going to be a hugely different critter from a ‘60s Jim Steranko presentation, much less the ‘70s version. Remember “Nomad, the Man Without a Country”? That’s unlikely to become part of a movie experience anytime soon.
There’s also a problem of proportion. Minor titles like DC’s Birds of Prey and Planetary get extensive entries, while groundbreaking work like Steve Gerber’s postmodern, ironic Howard the Duck barely rates a mention. Other properties like The Mask and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers get heftier treatment than you might expect, in part to justify the splashy color movie stills that are used to beef up their entries. Any book of this type is going to be a reflection of the writer’s biases; in this case, those biases are glaring.
The Superhero Book is a useful title for readers curious for background information on the mainstream DC and Marvel comics characters, plus a smattering of smaller publishers’ properties and occasional thumbnail sketches of comics history. It is general in approach, avoiding depth in any area while providing a superficial overview of the most general trends in comics, TV and movies. For some, this will be enough.