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PG Tips No. 9:

Paul Gravett's Recommended Reading

In a regular series of PG Tips articles, Paul Gravett reviews books of and about comics from his recommended reading list.


The Classic Era Of American Comics
by Nicky Wright
Prion Books
£17.99
School was out and on his way home young Nicky Wright could see smoke drifting up from his back garden. The family gardener had made a big bonfire and as Nicky drew closer, he could see through the flames his entire treasured collection of comic books, being burnt to a crisp. Hitler and his book-burning Nazis would have been proud of this little suburban funeral pyre. His parents had been stirred into action by Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction Of The Innocent, a psychiatrist’s condemnation of American comics published in Britain in 1955. Proof of its persuasive power is that Nicky’s father was none other than illustrator David Wright, from 1956 the artist of the luscious, moody strip Carol Day for the Daily Mail, which would be dropped by King Features Syndicate for being ‘too adult for American readers’. In even the most artistic of families, it seems that Wertham’s influence was insidious. The doctor might not, however, be so pleased with the longer term results. Rather than putting Nicky off his four-colour fantasies, this childhood trauma had the reverse effect. It converted him into a lifelong collector, who went through another four collections, the second given away by his mother, the third stolen from a girlfriend’s apartment, and who before his death last year completed his lavish paeon to The Classic Era Of American Comics (ISBN 1-85375-336-X). Through 230 pages of vibrant covers, splash pages and selected panels, Wright charts the super-heroes, heroines and other genres, the great creators and the wheelers and dealers behind them, from 1933 to 1955. This is very well-travelled territory, and a few hoary untruths get trotted out again, but his enthusiasm shines through, especially for Captain Marvel and all things Fawcett. Several genres get short-changed; ten pages for westerns is not so unreasonable, but only a single page for romance cannot do it justice. The bibliography is unhelpful, listing only Overstreet, Comic Book Marketplace and Alter Ego. He succumbs at times to ‘list-itis’, spinning out dull lists of titles and dates, but he does drop in some breezy revelations, from the intriguingly macabre Hangman by Bob Fujitani to the story that "copies of Coo Coo Comics were found in King Farouk of Egypt’s bedroom". Above all, though, this is a genuine love-letter to the medium that became one man’s lifetime passion.


Comic Book Culture
by Ron Goulart
Collectors Press, $49.95
Ron Goulart covers similar territory to Wright in Comic Book Culture (ISBN 1-888054-38-7) but offers a less subjective text, with useful facts and figures on the entrepreneurs, circulations, sales and profits of the comic books, from their early days after the turn of the century to the early Fifties, before Wertham. Goulart’s words, as so often in these highly pictorial books, plug the gaps between the eye-popping spreads of over 400 heroic and humorous front covers. Most of these come from the collection of attorney, historian and collector Jon Berk, and Goulart claims that some have never been reproduced since their original appearance. Much as I love looking at them, I longed to see a few choice interior pages, if only to give some flavour of the stories being told behind those glossy covers. Goulart interrupts his chronicle with two ‘Old Masters’ sections, in which he celebrates both big names like Kirby, Fine, Schomburg, and the distinctive L.B. Cole (whose poster-style dazzle derived from his experience designing equally striking liquor labels and cigar bands), and also two revelations, Ramona Patenaude and Gus Ricca. Little is known of their lives, but their work deserves wider acclaim. Patenaude’s Blue Beetle covers for Fox, signed ‘Pat’ are some of the very few Golden Age examples by a woman cartoonist and seethe with pulp-inspired fiends, tortured damsels and muscular rescues. In his covers for Harry ‘A’ Chesler’s Dynamic Comics line, Ricca constantly surprises with his contrasts of scale, decidedly odd visual ideas and macabre undertone. Goulart is particularly good at identifying obscure creators, such as the early Famous Funnies cover artist VEP, alias Victor E Pazmino, and Charles Sultan’s turbulent figurework, that at times approaches Lou Fine’s heights. He also throws in esoteric treats like Chuck Winter’s Kangaroo Man in Choice Comics, Chu Hing’s Green Turtle in Blazing Comics and Dan Gordon’s Hi-Jinx in Teenage Animal Funnies, would you believe? I liked his bullet-point system to give an idea of each comic’s value, from one bullet for under $100, all the way up to five bullets for over $20,000 and beyond. I was less keen on the Lichtenstein-style Pop art enlargements for the chapter breaks, titles and backgrounds - it’s such a graphic design cliché. It could really use an index too, and a sequel please. In fact, Goulart cannily halts just before the post-Golden Age booms in crime, romance and horror, so I look forward to part two.


Wings of Twilight: The Art Of Michael Kaluta
by Mike Kaluta
NBM
$24.95
Kaluta rose to prominence in the early Seventies, most famously on The Shadow for DC, as one of the fresh generation of talent that revitalised comic books. Back then, I used to hunt down Kaluta wherever he appeared, buying comics like House of Mystery for his covers alone. His other major comics series, Starstruck, with Elaine Lee for Epic, was revived and expanded for Dark Horse but sadly left incomplete, so far. For some years now, like Brian Bolland, Kaluta has drawn virtually no comics, concentrating on covers and illustrations. Many of the best of these can be found in Wings Of Twilight (ISBN 1-56163-276-7), surprisingly his first, and hence long overdue, full-colour compendium. Here is a chance to see his comic book covers, from Vampirella, Prince Valiant, Starstruck, Dragonlance, Creepy and more, free of distracting logos, copy and barcodes, with pinsharp reproduction, alongside select preparatory pencil sketches. It is a shame that there is none of his DC or Vertigo work, past or recent, presumably for copyright reasons, but two sections are devoted to his illustrations for the book of Metropolis, based on Fritz Lang’s film classic, and for the 1994 Tolkien calendar, which reveals his particular admiration for Arthur Rackham. Apart from these, his other finished works mainly start from black outlines, which are then filled in with colour, rather than completely painted. Viewing so much of Kaluta’s work in one place confirms other veins of decadent inspiration, from the highly ornamental linework of Aubrey Beardsley and Alphone Mucha to the visionary intensity of Felicien Rops and Austin Osmond Spare. Certain stylistic tropes, however, also tend to recur: his frequent use of symmetrical compositions, burgeoning detail and decoration, and frontal faces, usually gazing out limpid-eyed, unemotional, as if in a trance. At times, he composes with a strange flatness and lack of depth of field, merging foreground figures and any background setting onto the same plane. Then again, at his best, this process also lures you into his pictures, transforming your viewing into a ritual to linger and luxuriate over. Kaluta admits in the closing pages that for him "...doing [comics] right brings great satisfaction, though it does take a great amount of time to accomplish". So until some enlightened patron can fund his return to the medium, the larger, and better-paid, canvas of the single illustration will continue to be a temptation that is hard for him to resist.

Posted: February 25, 2007

The above reviews originally appeared in UK magazine Comics Forum.

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Featured Books

The Classic Era Of American Comics
The Classic Era Of
American Comics

by Nicky Wright

Comic Book Culture
Comic Book Culture
by Ron Goulart

Wings Of Twilight
Wings of Twilight:
The Art Of
Michael Kaluta

by Mike Kaluta