I’ve read/skimmed a half dozen for TCJ pieces and they have all let me down. I mean books that are about superheroes in general. There are some good books about the superhero comics industry, a caveat I lob in only to take care of Gerard Jones’s work and a few stray items like the Spurgeon/Raphael biography of Stan. But most books I’ve seen about the industry have been bad, as have been all the books I’ve seen about the superhero genre. You can have Yale University Press, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Costume Institute, Conde Nast, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Chabon wade in together and what they pull into existence is Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, a book dedicated to demonstrating the absence of any link between superheroes and fashion while pretending to illustrate said link. The writing is pompous and trivial at the same time, as if you were listening to an Ohio congressman at a 4th of July picnic in 1856, only instead of speaking about the immortal Union he’s going on about Hot Wheel cars. It’s like these guys feel entitled to be boring about absolutely anything.
Remove all those factors, the dilettantism and flossy self-satisfaction, and replace them with the hands-on experience of a comics industry veteran who prizes his rare copies of Airboy. The book will still suck. I mean books, actually, both of them by a man named Shirrel Rhoades who was Marvel’s publisher during the takeover wars of the 1990s. If anyone could write a decent account of the modern superhero comics industry, or collaborate on one with someone who can manage words, you’d think Mr. Rhoades might be a candidate. But his books suck too. Because his audience is fanboys and not slummers, the books suck in every way, from text to design to their masses of typos. At least Yale Univ Press and the Met have some resources to deploy and an understanding that a book may be a shuck without being an embarrassing shuck. Rhoades’ volumes (they’re called Comic Books: How the Industry Works and A Complete History of American Comic Books) benefit from no such understanding. Mr. Rhoades cut-and-pasted a heap of Internet items and then no one took a look to make sure the books would be anything beyond a pile of misspelled words.
I can’t say how depressing I find this. Superheroes are so low prestige that any book about them gets automatically backhanded by the people who put it together. Yet the books keep coming out, most often from pokey little outfits that commission a cover showing some fellow with a generic outfit (cape, blank chest) and then fill the book with frolicsome grad student essays on the X-Men and Baudelaire. The author bios weigh you down: you think about life at Indiana State University at Bloomington and the fun the poor grad student is having with her mug of mint tea and her whimsies in regard to Smallville and gender theory.
Grad students, comic book executives, a top-grade academic publisher, low-grade academic publishers, low-grade nonacademic publishers, a fellow with a Pulitzer Prize — they all take the subject of superheroes as an occasion to be as slack and dim as possible. Only a star attraction like Batman or Superman breaks thru to receive a level of professional competence, and then it’s always from Les Daniels. You’d think that, just by accident, some of these superhero books would be decent. Not yet.
Update (by Noah): On the theme of bad-books-about-superheroes; my review of Tim Callahan’s Grant Morrison, the Early Years