BHOC: THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS

I’ve owned three different copies of THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS Volume 1 over the years. It’s an important milestone book in the development of the hobby, but it’s also more oversized magazine than book, with saddle-stitched binding and a cover that tended to crack down the spine and separate. It fell apart easily. For some time, as a kid, I has the two disconnected covers framed and displayed on my wall–it’s a nice piece of artwork that encapsulates the absolute chaos of the comic book medium and field, in particular the super hero end of the spectrum (which is what Steranko himself seems the most concerned with in this book.)

I don’t entirely recall the circumstances of my first getting a copy of this book, though I’m pretty certain that I picked it up at a relatively short-lived bookstore in Centereach, a place whose Humor section carried not just reprints of newspaper comics and other funny books but also whatever collections of comic book material existed at that point. (There wasn’t much, but what did exist drew me like a moth to a flame, for all that I could seldom afford those more pricey tomes.) I do know that its $4.95 cover price makes me suspect that my grandparents were involved in the purchase–at that point, having five bucks’ worth of disposable income would be unthinkable to me. 

THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS Volume 1 was the first of a projected six-volume set of editions covering the verbal history of the comic book field in its entirety. In actuality, only the first two volumes were ever completed. But they are a treasure trove in that, being a comic book artist and cartoonist himself, Steranko was able to gain firsthand access to a number of the pioneers of the field, and to get their stories first-hand. Many of these illustrious gentlemen are no longer with us, so the fact that at least some record was kept of their memories is invaluable. The occasional error that creeps in due to memory being a flexible thing is understandable given the circumstances.

This first volume starts out at the beginning, with an opening chapter discussing the history of newspaper comic strips with an emphasis on serialized adventure strips, the forerunners of the action-adventure super hero comics to come. Then, Steranko segues into a chapter discussing the Pulp fiction magazines, in particular the hero-centered series such as the Shadow and Doc Savage–the other forerunners of the comic book super hero. Steranko illustrates his chapters with both tons of cover reproductions (unfortunately printed only in black and white) and bits of original art, both from the archives and new pieces that have been drawn specially for the book by noteworthy cartoonists.

From there come the super heroes in earnest. Steranko begins with a chapter on Superman, of course, and I believe that this is probably where I first began to learn the full story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and what had become of them. The cover illustrations in particular fired my imagination–I wanted to read all of these early comic books badly, and assumed that there was no way that would ever happen. (At this point, though, with all of the reprinting that’s taken place over the past two decades, I pretty much can. Progress!) The next chapter delves into the early world of Batman, and gives credit to both Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson for those early stories as well as Bob Kane.

The following two chapters focus on first Captain America and the the rest of the Timely/Marvel line of the 1940s, including the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. As I’ve related before, I didn’t read these chapters, not for months (the same is true for the chapters on the comic strips and the pulp magazines–so much reading about stuff that didn’t directly interest me seemed like homework.) I didn’t like Marvel comics at this point, so I didn’t care where they came from. It wasn’t until one boring day during the summer that I would eventually break down and read the Timely material both in this volume and in the Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer and begin my odyssey into the Marvel Universe. For now, though, I gave them a pass.

The final two chapters in this volume cover the rest of the DC line, in particular the All-American side of the operation, responsible for the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and the Justice Society, and an overview of the kid gang comics of the 1940s as represented by the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos and the Young Allies. These covers fascinated me like few others: it would be a decade-and-a-half later, but ALL-STAR COMICS #17 was the first comic book I ever paid a three-figure price for ($125.00) based on having stared at that cover of the Justice Society miniaturized by the Brain-Wave and about to be crushed for years. The cover to DAREDEVIL #42 also enraptured me, and the actual comic book, once I was able to get my hands on a copy decades later, did in no way disappoint. 

I was already in-the-tank in a big way as a comic book reader, but volumes such as this created a passion in me to learn everything that I could about the history of comics. (I did a book report in fifth grade on this very volume, I can recall, mocked up in the form of a faux-newspaper proclaiming “Comic Book Is Born!”) This interest would drive me to our local library, where my family were regular visitors (both of my parents were regular readers, my father voraciously so) and in whose adult section I could begin to find additional books about old comic books, comic strips and pulp magazines. 

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