Sunday, December 21, 2003

Graphic Arts As Literature

A classic 1964 Steve Ditko panel of Spider-Man battling Electro.

Vivid collection honors
influential comic artists

As a baby boomer born in 1955, I was fortunate enough to be in on the beginnings of the rise of two of America's greatest creations in popular culture: rock 'n' roll music and comic books.

Up through my early teens, I remember buying comic books off a rotating wire rack located in the front of a mom-and-pop sundries store that was just a couple of doors away from my grandfather's house on School Street. The store also had one of those great Japanese-made shave ice machines that created finely shaved cones of cool and sweet delight -- a fond memory integral to my purchase and perusal of those 12-cent superhero and cartoon books.

"The Silver Age of Comic Book Art,"
written and designed by Arlen Schumer
(Collectors Press, $29.95 paperback,
$49.95 hardcover)

If there were such a thing as a "comic book geek" then, then I plead guilty. I credit comics for developing both my reading skills and imagination. Now, as a "mature" journalist, I admit I still buy more than my fair share of comic books -- books now produced with such verbal and visual sophistication that I firmly believe we're in another colorful, influential era of the genre.

Another comic book fan who's around my age is Arlen Schumer, a graphic designer and comic book scholar who also put one of my favorite books on television, "Visions from the Twilight Zone." It's basically a book version of the series, with full-page imagery and text font lifted directly from Rod Serling's great B&W sci-fi/fantasy series.

This fine attention to graphic detail is also evident in Schumer's newest book, "The Silver Age of Comic Book Art," covering the years 1956 to 1970. It's been out only a couple of months, and it's already received accolades from critics and fans.

Similar in concept to his earlier book, Schumer has designed his coffee table-size book like a giant comic book, with reproduced art and historical text brought together in a bold and vivid style. A selection of covers, splash panels and enlarged art (complete with the Ben Gay dot printing process) acknowledges the influential work of eight Hall of Fame artists.

Thor, from a 1969 Jack Kirby panel, inked by Vince Colletta.

OF THAT august group, my favorites include Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Jim Steranko and Neal Adams. Ditko helped create two of my fave Marvel Comics characters in Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, the wisecracking web-slinger and the master of black magic. His illustrative imaginings of Strange's interdimensional travel and battles were a precursor to psychedelic rock poster art.

Kirby was justifiably called "The King," a title apt for epic, universal-scale clashes between his heroes and villains. His run during the 1960s of such Marvel titles as "Fantastic Four," "The Hulk," "The Mighty Thor" and "Captain America" is the foundation other superhero comic books afterward were built upon.

The transitional artist Colan's strength was in bringing out a more realistic and human side to his characters, like the Sub-Mariner, Iron Man, Daredevil and a great second run of Dr. Strange.

Both Steranko and Adams distinguished themselves with their own unique styles -- Steranko with his boldly innovative, psychedelic-influenced art on "Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." and Adams for his stints on "The X-Men," "Batman" and the socially conscious "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" series of the early 1970s, utilizing a "unique blend of dynamic anatomy and photographic realism" (as Schumer puts it).

The career work of other artists include those who made their name with DC Comics -- Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Joe Kubert -- all of whom created some memorable issues of "The Flash" (Infantino), "The Atom" (Kane) and "Our Army at War," "Enemy Ace" and "Hawkman" (Kubert).

And if you can afford it (or can suggest it to a potential Christmas gift giver), I highly recommend the hardcover version of "The Silver Age of Comic Book Art" because it includes an additional section of other noteworthy artists like Murphy Anderson, Wally Wood, John Buscema, Nick Cardy and Curt Swan.

"We've got to start acknowledging these guys as great American artists," a passionate Schumer told the New York Times recently. Schumer even goes so far as proposing a night dedicated to these men at the Kennedy Center. "How many of these guys have to die before America honors them?"

If and when that momentous occasion comes to light, Schumer's book is as fine an acknowledgment of these past masters as anyone could muster.

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