A serious look at comic books
June 4, 2000
By Franklin Harris
COMIC BOOK CULTURE: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY by Ron Goulart. Portland, Oregon: Collectors Press, 2000; 204 pages; $49.95; hardcover.
The Golden Age of comic books dates roughly from the late 1930s, when the first costumed superheroes appeared, until the late 1940s, when superheroes started taking a back seat to horror, sci-fi, romance and humor comics. During that period, popular artists like Alex Schomburg, who started out illustrating the covers of pulp fiction magazines, and young cartoonists like Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, turned out a stunning array of comic illustrations.
The covers of comic books during the Golden Age were wild, amazing and sometimes complex works of art. There has been nothing quite like them since.
"Comic Book Culture" by Ron Goulart
Luckily, thanks to books like Ron Goulart's "Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History," we can now see much of the best comic-book cover art of the 1940s without having to spend thousands of dollars on fragile back issues.
The book is a follow-up to Collectors Press' 1998 volume, "Pulp Culture: The Art of Fiction Magazines," by Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson, and like that earlier volume, "Comic Book Culture" is a lavishly illustrated feast for fans of pop art.
Goulart, a science fiction and mystery writer as well as a comic-book historian, has assembled more than 400 full-color images, depicting some of the best artwork of the period.
Virtually all of the usual suspects are represented. There are classic "Captain Marvel" covers from C.C. Beck; collaborations from Kirby and Simon, from their most famous creation, Captain America, to the more obscure, like Blue Bolt; and the stunning work of Schomburg, which ranges from illustrations of Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, to covers of all-but-forgotten comics like "Wonder Comics," "America's Best Comics," "Exciting Comics" and "The Fighting Yank."
Other artists featured include L.B. Cole, Gus Ricca, Lou Fine, Joe Shuster and Bob Kane.
Forgotten superheroes like The Black Terror, Doc Strange (not to be confused with the Marvel Comics hero, Doctor Strange) and Pyroman take their place alongside scantily clad heroines like Sheena, Rulah the Jungle Goddess, Phantom Lady, the space pirate Tara and Judy of the Jungle.
Through it all, Goulart serves as an able tour guide.
The only major artist whose work is missing from the collection is Carl Barks, who illustrated Disney comics like "Donald Duck" and created "Uncle Scrooge."
(Goulart does mention Barks, which is some indication that the absence of Barks' work isn't an oversight, but rather is the result of Disney being stingy with the likenesses of its characters.)
While it is undoubtedly an ad man's worst cliché to say so, "Comic Book Culture" is the proverbial perfect gift for any fan of Golden Age comic art.