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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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07/10/2004 Archived Entry: "Book review: "The Great Comic Book Heroes""

The Great Comic Book Heroes
By Jules Feiffer

Reviewed by Kathryn L. Ramage

Fantagraphics has reprinted this 1965 essay in which Jules Feiffer - novelist, screenwriter, and long-time cartoonist for The Village Voice - looks back on the classic comic books of the 1930s and '40s that inspired his early love of the cartoon art and set him on first steps toward his own career.

Separate chapters are dedicated to the major superheroes of the era: Superman, Superman's clones (particularly Captain Marvel), Batman, the Spirit. Feiffer also looks briefly at the super-patriotic comics published during World War II, recalls his own early jobs in the shlock comic houses, and comments on Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. (That 1954 book that decried the violence and sexual content in comic books; it was Wertham who first publicized the theory that Batman and Robin were a homosexual fantasy - as if it were a bad thing - and his work instigated the Comics Production Code, which cleaned up and, some say, gutted the comic book industry.) Superman is Feiffer's declared favorite, and it shows. I found Feiffer's insights into the appeal of the all-powerful Superman for an essentially powerless child to be one of the most interesting sections of the essay; in particular, his examination of Superman's psyche regarding the choice of alter-ago Clark Kent and Superman/Clark's relationship with Lois Lane was fascinating. I would love to quote this entire passage, but since runs for several pages, I will have to content myself with just a sample:

"It seems that among Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Superman there existed a schizoid and chaste menage a trios. Clark Kent loved but felt abashed with Lois Lane; Superman saved Lois Lane when she was in trouble, found her a pest the rest of the time. Since Superman and Clark Kent were the same person this behavior demands explanation. It can't be that Kent wanted Lois to respect him for himself, since himself was Superman. Then, it appears he wanted Lois to respect him for his fake self, to love him when he acted the coward, to be there when he pretended he needed her."

Feiffer writes from two points of view throughout the essay: as the grown-up, professional cartoonist, and as the comic-book-loving child-that-was. The professional cartoonist notes with great appreciation the "crude and vigorous," drawing styles of Superman's Joe Schuster and Batman's Bob Kane, which created effective images with just a few dashes of ink, as opposed to the slicker art and more polished draftsmanship of later comic-book eras. The child-that-was looks affectionately back at the impression these comics made upon his childhood, recalling the powerful appeal of this type of "junk" (a term that Feiffer argues in favor of with regard to comic books: "I know it's junk, but I like it."), and why it played so crucial a part in his early fantasy life.

I was a little disappointed to find that there is no mention at all of the Marvel Comics of my own childhood - Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk - which were only just beginning at the time this essay was originally published. They are presumably a product of that slicker, post-Code era that Pfeiffer alludes to, and I would have liked to learn how he viewed them when they were the newest comic wave.

According to a foreword by the editor, the essay was originally published with 127 pages of examples of the comics Fieffer discusses. These are gone from this reprint, but single-panel illustrations from comics of the era are scattered throughout the text to illustrate Fieffer's point, or to provide an ironic counterpoint (I was especially amused, for example, by some of the possibly homoerotic images of Batman and Robin, or of Wonder Women facing feminine foes that accompany the Wertham-related section).

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