Read It, Junior – It’s Good for You!

Pictures ‘n’ Words: This one is about comic books. Do a search on Amazon for recent releases by the novelist Jodi Picoult and you’ll find her new novel Change of Heart is a hardcover bestseller, her last book Nineteen Minutes a paperback bestseller, and Wonder Woman: Love & Murder doing decently in the graphic-novel category. Picoult, an author of emotionally charged character studies, is the last person one might expect to be a comics fan, and yet there she is among a current crop of mainstream authors taking a detour into the world of funnybooks. Bestselling legal-thriller author Brad Meltzer writes Justice League of America for DC, African-American cult novelist Eric Jerome Dickey and crime novelist Charlie Huston write for Marvel. Filmmakers Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, and Reginald Hudlin … actors Seth Green and Rosario Dawson … all people who have better things to do, are coming out as uncloseted comics fans.

I don’t say this in some kind of attempt to legitimize comic books — with rare exceptions, they’re still the same disposable mental cotton-candy they always were — but rather to suggest that even bad superhero comics won’t necessarily turn kids into maladjusted, basement-dwelling mouth-breathers or worse, columnists for hippie socialist alternative newspapers. It’s actually possible to read comics and still make something of oneself.

This was not, however, the prevailing opinion in the 1950s. In the years between the fall of Hitler and the rise of Elvis, America was briefly gripped by a national hysteria over the effects of comic books on the hearts and minds of the country’s youth. David Hajdu, author of the excellent book about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Positively 4th Street (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001), essays this period of nationwide madness in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008).

In the first half of the ’50s, comics were a major industry, with some 800 titles cramming the racks at drugstores and soda shoppes at its zenith. From a comics reader’s perspective it was a Golden Age, with journeyman artists producing some of the best and most influential work in the medium’s history. From anyone else’s perspective, however, the comics were a cavalcade of depravity, tasteless, gory, and catering to the worst parts of the adolescent psyche.

Enter psychologist Fredric Wertham, author of a shoddy but sensationalistic book on the link between comics and juvenile delinquency, and Senator Estes Kefauver, eager to grease his presidential aspirations with televised crusading against society’s ills, and suddenly funnybooks were as much a menace to our children as the godless Commies. Public burnings of comics became a daily occurrence, publishers circled the wagons to create a self-censoring body, and the Golden Age of Comics came to a crashing end, along with the careers of literally hundreds of writers and artists as comics companies folded or were driven out of business.

Even if one bears no love of comic books, Hajdu’s book, drawn from countless interviews and painstaking research, is worth reading for its fascinating glimpse of a peculiar period in our nation’s cultural and political history. We have an obligation to take notice whenever creative expression, even in forms as lowbrow as Tales from the Crypt, comes under fire from people who presume to save us from it. The Ten-Cent Plague is a well-crafted and poignant wake-up call.

Due Recognition: At the same time that David Hajdu reminds us of the villains of comic-book history, comics writer and historian Mark Evanier gives long-overdue props to one of the medium’s true heroes, artist Jack Kirby, in Kirby: King of Comics (Harry N. Abrams, 2008). From the 1940s, when he and partner Joe Simon created Captain America, until his death in 1994, Kirby was the preeminent comics artist of the 20th century.

Evanier, one of Kirby’s assistants during his most fertile period in the ’60s, traces the life and career of the man widely known as “The King of Comics” from his humble beginnings as Jacob Kurtzberg, a tailor’s son from a Brooklyn slum who realized a talent for drawing and spent the rest of his life producing and peddling his art to keep his family fed. Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, Kirby worked in every genre known to comicdom until coming to work as the house artist for Atlas Comics, where he was paired with Stan Lee, who had once been his office boy but was now the editor. Atlas became Marvel Comics, and the Lee-Kirby team created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men and dozens of other heroes that went on to make the company millions.

None of those millions made their way to Kirby, however. As good an artist as he was, he was never a businessman. The more flamboyant Lee got the credit for the work while Kirby continued to eke out a barely adequate living through a per-page rate of pay, and was even forced by Marvel’s lawyers to disavow any claim to creative input. The situation improved a bit when Kirby moved on to Marvel’s competition and created his Fourth World saga for DC, a sweeping and bizarre epic of cosmic gods, interstellar hippies, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen — at least Kirby’s name was used to sell the comics, even if Kirby himself continued to receive sweatshop pay for his vision.

But while Jack Kirby may not have gotten the respect he deserved from his employers, his fans knew better, and Evanier’s book is one for the fans. It’s a coffee-table-sized book, and while the $40 price tag may seem a bit steep, the book’s format is ideal for showcasing the master’s work, including original pencils, a gatefolded poster, and a lot of work never before seen by the reading public. Best of all is Evanier’s prose, which is affectionate but never obsequious, and gives us a vivid picture of Kirby’s passions and prescience, his fierce determination to keep working even as his health and eyesight began to fail him, and his sheer boundless decency. It comes highly recommended to anyone interested in watching the art of comics evolving in the hands of one of its greatest practitioners.

New in Novels: If anyone reading this is a true geek, then I can describe S. M. Peters’ debut novel Whitechapel Gods (Penguin USA, 2008) as evoking an exciting and horrific mix of Alan Moore and early Clive Barker with shades of Grant Morrison and Terry Gilliam and you’ll immediately bum a ride from Mom to go buy it. For those less receptive to name-checking, Peters’ novel is an impressive entry in the recent subgenre of science fiction known as steampunk. Though no less techno-fetishistic than its older cousin cyberpunk, this sort of story concerns itself with imaginative technology of the Victorian era, all gears and levers and shiny brass rivets. Peters’ novel, however, takes all of that and plunges it deep into hell.

At the close of this novel’s 19th century, London’s notorious Whitechapel slum (in our world, home of Jack the Ripper) has been enclosed in an impassive wall and taken over by a pair of all-powerful entities: Mama Engine, whose colossal furnace belches ash into the sky, and Grandfather Clock, a gear-driven Big Brother. A small contingent of humans have formed a resistance movement, but how can mere flesh-and-blood hope to rise against an enemy that lives in every inch of the city and the very air itself?

For a first novel, Peters’ book is beyond impressive. From the first page we’re drawn into incessant nightmare, a psychotic fever-dream of horror and violation that makes us grasp at the faintest glimmers of hope as eagerly as any of the protagonists do. There are definitely shudder-inducing and often nauseating elements here, but as in any good horror tale, you’ll gladly take them as part of the ride.

This article first appeared here at Flagpole.