The Secret Origins of "Masters of the Comic Book Universe"
The stereotypical comic book fan can recite lengthy histories of their favorite Marvel or DC Comics characters from memory, but often has little or no knowledge about the people who were instrumental in creating those characters. Recently, the audience for comics has grown well beyond the audience seeking serial fiction starring their favorite superheroes, and more scholars and historians are beginning to treat comics as objects worthy of serious study. Both of these types fans and all the others in between will find plenty of food for thought in Masters of the Comic Book Universe, a new book by Arie Kaplan that provides biographies for eleven comics creators, ranging from the pioneers of the medium to some of today’s most prominent new creators.
Kaplan manages to strike a balance over an impressive number of comic-related dichotomies. He includes both mainstream figures like Stan Lee, Jerry Robinson, and Dwayne McDuffie and the more independent creators like Neil Gaiman, Gilbert Hernandez, and Ho Che Anderson. He also defies the conventional wisdom that comics are a medium created by and for males by including biographies and essays for Trina Robbins and Marjane Satrapi. The book’s selection of creators nicely spans comics’ history, making it a passable survey of how the medium has evolved over time. While Kaplan does not include biographies of any pure comics artists, he does balance between the pure writers (such as Lee and Gaiman) and the creators who do both (such as Hernandez, Satrapi, and Kyle Baker).
However, Kaplan’s most impressive balancing act comes in the biographies themselves, which are extremely easy to read while also being very dense and thorough. In the span of 12 to 20 pages, Kaplan packs in an incredible amount of information about each subject, but remains accessible and readable throughout. Newcomers to comic book history will never be lost in Kaplan’s text, while more serious comic fans or historians will still discover interesting stories and anecdotes, many of which are chronicled for the first time in this book.
Kaplan’s essays include both biographical information and artistic criticism, placing the creators’ works in context with their lives and vice versa. In addition, comic book history and industry trends are explained in just enough depth in each biography to provide color and context when necessary. He has a keen aesthetic sensibility, neatly encapsulating the strengths and contributions that each artist has contributed to both the art and business of comics. Fans can gain a more thorough appreciation of their favorite creators’ works, while Kaplan’s descriptive prose will pique the curiosity for those the reader is unfamiliar with. As an example (even though I fear it will blow any indie comics street cred I may have had), I was never a fan of Gil Hernandez’s Palomar stories until Kaplan’s essay on the magic realism of the stories neatly pinpointed the mental stumbling block I had with them.
Kaplan is also willing to take on more potentially controversial topics, such as Jerry Robinson’s disputation of Bob Kane’s single-creator credit for Batman or the thorny question of credit attributed to Stan Lee and his myriad co-creators. Other bits of conventional wisdom are succinctly punctured, such as the belief that Will Eisner coined the term “graphic novel” or can lay claim to having written the first one. Kaplan never shies away from potential controversies, and always presents both sides of any given issue with fairness and completeness even if such thoroughness ends up portraying his subject in a less positive light.
The only criticisms that may be leveled at the book are sins of omission. There are no biographies of creators who were primarily known as artists, such as Murphy Anderson, Curt Swan, or John Buscema. Despite the inclusion of Art Spiegelman and Trina Robbins, the 70’s underground comix movement seems under-represented, and creators from Europe or Japan are not represented at all. Still, there is only so much that Kaplan could do in the 252 pages the book has, and he openly admits in his introduction that he left out many creators he wanted to include. Kaplan never attempts to claim his book is complete, and openly states his wish for more volumes in this series in the future. Comic book fans of all stripes will be well served if Kaplan’s wish comes true.