The proud and immovable flagstone of my abiding passion for Comics – one which now stretches back thirty-plus years and now possesses a broad, international appreciation – is a primary, fervent love of Superheroes. And, where caped crusaders are concerned, I unabashedly wear my heart on my sleeve: I am firmly, resolutely and unquestionably a “DC Comics Man” through and through. My first comic book featured Superman, followed very swiftly by one featuring Batman and, ever since, those two characters in particular have been a constant, massive presence in my life.
In an interview, writer Alan Moore – one of DC’s foremost stars – once told me that in his youth, Superman was a greater influence on his sense of Right and Wrong than any other conventional authority figure and I wholeheartedly agree with him. The key attraction, I think, of DC’s superheroes is their possession a certain grandeur, a more distinct connection with the heroes of classical and timeless myth, that ultimately set them apart from their equally-famous counterparts at DC’s chief rival, Marvel. I wholeheartedly support the suggestion that Superheroes comprise a modern Mythology or Folklore – stop that derisive snorting at the back, there – and, in this sense, DC are outright pioneers of what was a new Frontier.
For many years now, the book that provided the best overview of DC’s illustrious history and contribution to the Comics medium was “DC Comics: Sixty Years of The World’s Favourite Comic Book Heroes“, published in 1995 and written by the esteemed Comics historian Les Daniels (who also also penned the three excellent, Chip Kidd-designed “Complete History” books on DC’s core superhero triumvirate of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in 1998, 1999 and 2000, respectively). Daniels’ tome – long a vital part of my personal DC library – received an adequate paperback update in 2003, retitled “DC Comics: A Celebration“, but, ultimately falling short of covering the company’s recent accomplishments – the enthralling cinematic revival of Batman (and the long-awaited, flawed one of Superman) as well as the impressively pure screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN, DC’s fulsome embracing of the digital arena, the sheer retro fun of Wednesday Comics, the potent post-9/11 superhero stylings of Ex Machina, the glorious myth-wrangling of FABLES and epic mega-series like Blackest Night, to name but a few – there was undoubtedly scope for a successor to Daniels’ worthy work.
Stepping in to this breach – in quite, quite spectacular style – is renowned German art-house publisher Taschen, who have exquistely crafted a – there’s no other word for it, really – titanic paean to DC in its Diamond anniversary year with “75 YEARS OF DC COMICS: The Art of Modern Mythmaking“, written by ex-DC President Paul Levitz. A veritable leviathan, Taschen’s book frankly makes Daniels’ look like a pamphlet and if this behemoth of a tome thudded on the desk of Daily Planet editor Perry White, he’d doubtless spit out his cigar exclaiming “Great Caesar’s Ghost…!”. Replete with its own sturdy, thick-cardboard carry case emblazoned with the flamboyant dust jacket art (Superman on the front, the atmospheric cover of Detective Comics #31 on the back and headshots of DC’s flagship characters on the edges), the book – let’s call it “75DC” for the sake of brevity – is an oversized (29 x 39.5 cm) 720-page whopper. A picture of Levitz holding the beast effectively underlines its imperious dimensions:
Levitz is the ideal guide to DC, possessing an intimate perspective of the company that no historian can match: he’s lived the company. Over the course of a thirty-eight year career, beginning in the early 1970’s as a teenage assistant to editor Joe Orlando to his retirement in 2009 as President and Publisher, Levitz is a true DC Man, knowing the company from the ground up to the very top and during a period of vast and profound changes in the industry. In my interview with him, he acknowledged there was only so much his 32, 000-word text could achieve – he estimated he could only devote merely quarter of a word for each of the estimated 40, 000 comics that DC has published since 1935 and lamented that he could not devote as much text as he’d have liked to such areas as DC’s Romance comics line – but he achieves a superb and engrossing overview of DC’s 75-year span, divided into six distinct periods (The Stone, Golden, Silver, Bronze, Dark and Modern Ages) and generating many a fascinating detail. I especially liked this quotation from Jules Ffeifer, underlining the keen influence of Film upon Comics in those early days:
“We were a generation. We thought of ourselves the way the men who began movies must have. We were out to be splendid — somehow. . . . Experiments in the use of angle shots were carried on. Arguments raged: Should angle shots be used for their own sake or for the sake of furthering the story? Everyone went back to study Citizen Kane. Rumors spread that Welles, himself, had read and learned from comic books! What a great business!”
Such historical detail is engrossingly supported by the inclusion of amazing fold-out timelines – adding a further 25, 000 words of text, apparently – which showcase DC’s major milestones, both in their publications and their progressive presence in other mediums (radio, TV, Film et al) and the wider Pop Culture. For any enthusiast of the history and development of mainstream comics, they cumulatively provide an invaluable source of reference.
Visually, this book is filled with wonders – unsurprisingly, as it’s the area where Taschen habitually excel – showcasing no less than two thousand images, all reproduced digitally, all marvellous to behold. In the pre-publicity for this book, Levitz claimed that, no matter how big a DC fan you are, there will be something here that you won’t have seen before. He wasn’t kidding: the Taschen team have done a seriously-impressive job plundering the archives and generating an array of little-seen gems amidst the expected iconic DC imagery, with some dramatically covering double-page spreads (and if you think DC’s “Absolute Edition” format makes their art look breathtaking, wait ’til you see it at this size!).
Of the ones that stood out to me: there’s a fantastic photo of a Superman: The Movie night shoot from July 1977 where you see an in-costume Christopher Reeve hanging from a crane above New York’s 57th Street “in-flight” as crew and assembled DC staffers look up in amazement; pre-coloured pages from The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and The Killing Joke (1989); a Barry Windsor-Smith full-page splash from the still-unpublished An Evening with Superman (1997) and, in a stark reflection of the challenges the comics industry has faced – and overcome – a rather depressing sight from 1956 at the height of anti-comic book hysteria where disgustingly-smug members of Conneticut’s Women’s Auxiliary of The American Legion encouraging children to dump their comics in to a skip filled to the brim with them, shortly to be incinerated. Page after page, moments of illustrious comics history jump out at you and widen the eye.
It’s a magificent read and, ultimately, serves a powerful testament to the stunning achievements DC Comics has made in its 75-year lifespan. Superman, Batman and other DC superheroes are genuine icons, recognised the world over and whom have ploughed a deep furrow in Pop Culture as well conquering all types of media; celebrated books like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman have been utterly crucial in the medium’s ongoing critical acceptance and occasional elevation in to the realms of true literature; their Vertigo line is the by-word for sophisticated, penetrating adult comics and graphic novels. Whatever criticisms are levelled at DC – and there are enough – generations have thrilled to their works and their influence on the comics medium cannot be overestimated.
At [dramatic pause…] £135 – or even the online discounts of circa £85-90 – there’s no getting around the fact that purchase of 75DC inevitably comes with a forthright case of Wallet-based Anorexia. However, as a long-time aficionado of Taschen – both as fan and reviewer – I can certainly attest that you inarguably get what you pay for. One of the things that truly defines Taschen as a publisher is not just their passion for and authority on their subject matter – be it Film, Photography, Erotica or Architecture – but also their innate awareness of the nuanced desires of the collector and this is reflected in their larger books mouth-watering level of quality with regards to their design and packaging. With 75DC, you don’t just have a valuable and highly-authoritative reference resource – undoubtedly the best look yet at a world-famous Comics powerhouse and source of a host of Pop Culture icons – as well as a superb piece of eye candy (you will be habitually drawn back to many of the arresting images within) but also a gorgeous collectible that will quickly assert its status as a Crown Jewel in any Comics fan’s library. It’s the new No.1 – with a DC bullet – and is worth every penny…
75 YEARS OF DC COMICS: THE ART OF MODERN MYTHMAKING is published by TASCHEN and is available now, priced £135.
(CONFESSION OF A LUCKY BASTARD –Okay, so, in the interests of “full disclosure”, I should point out that I wholly avoided 75DC’s significant cost thanks to the rather wonderful generosity of Veronica Weller and Shelley Halperin-Smith at Taschen UK, who responded to my sheer enthusiasm for this title and provided me with a review copy, in return for my securing significant press coverage in the latest issue of Comic Heroes Magazine – a review and interview with author Paul Levitz, out now – as well as preview/review pieces for this website and other promotional efforts, which is only right given that I ended up with a primo library centrepiece absolutely gratis. However, I would have shelled out for it. So thanks very much, ladies – you made this DC fan very happy indeed…!)