Friday, June 16, 2023

Heroes of the Comics by Drew Friedman

I try not to let the best be the enemy of the good. Something can be just fine even if it's clear that it could have been much better if only one aspect was slightly different.

But when it's my own choice that downgrades something to "good," I have to at least point it out.

I read Drew Friedman's 2014 book Heroes of the Comics electronically, on a standard-size tablet.

Don't do that.

This is an oversized book, meant to be read at its real size. Even more so, the point is to be able to see the full-page portraits while you're reading the text on the facing back, glancing back and forth from one to the other. In a digital format, none of that is available.

Friedman has been making books like this for about two decades, starting with Old Jewish Comedians in 2006. The three Comedians books were pretty minimalistic, without much text and only a couple of dozen portraits in each. His books on cartoonists - I've previously read his later book on the underground scene, Maverix and Lunatix - are much larger and expansive.

Heroes has eighty-three full-page portraits of Golden and Silver Age creators and industry professionals, from Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson to Alex Toth, Will Eisner to Marie Severin, Al Feldstein to Lou Fine. If you don't know who any of those people are, this is not a book for you.

They're all presented in mid-career - not as the Young Turks they mostly were when they mostly did the stuff we remember them for, but as middle-aged or on the cusp of retirement. Friedman likes drawing distinctive, damaged faces, of course, so this is not a surprising artistic choice. And they are all identifiable to anyone who knows what they look like in the first place. That depends on the reader and the subject, obviously - there are very few people who have any idea what Max Gaines looked like, while Jack Kirby (our cover boy) is very recognizable.

So this is a book of pictures of mostly white-haired, mostly white, often Jewish guys sitting and smiling at the "camera," as if in a publicity still or heroic portrait, over and over, with a potted biography on the facing page. Even though they all did some great work, and were instrumental in the rise of a major American art form, it all gets pretty samey and potted by the time the book is over. There's only so many times you can say "this guy started out in the Eisner/Iger Studio."

This is an interesting book. I'm glad it exists; I'm glad Friedman has a career making his unique portraits, and that he's been able to catalog so many areas of pop-culture that he cares so much about. But, frankly, it's a little boring. It might be best sitting on a coffee table, so you can pick it up randomly, look at one or two guys, and put it back down.

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