News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Book Review: Empire of the Superheroes: America’s Comic Book Creators and the Making of a Billion-Dollar Industry by Mark Cotta Vaz

Empire of the Superheroes: Americas Comic Book Creators and the Making of a Billion-Dollar Industry by Mark Cotta Vaz. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021.

reviewed by Charles W. Henebry, Boston University

Ever since the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, American superhero comic books have celebrated individual heroism—the bravery of the stalwart few who challenge the power of gangsters and tyrants. Yet for decades, even as publishers grew fat off the popularity of these heroes, individual creators almost all got a raw deal from the industry: paid by the page with no promise of royalties or pension, cheated out of their intellectual property, ground down by an evil corporate empire with no avenging hero in sight.

This, anyway, is the story told by fans about the travails of Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and other comics luminaries. It has the advantage of moral clarity, mirroring that of the comics themselves. The full story is more complicated. Comic book publishers considerably cleaned up their business practices in the course of rising from the margins of pulp publishing to become the crown jewels of media multinationals. Corporate ownership of characters helped to ensure their continued vitality, as comic-book readers grew up to be comics creators and movie producers. Distribution shifted from newsstands to direct sale stores, and eventually online. Paradoxically, comics became a niche product pitched to an older audience even as they lost their disreputable aura—and even as superheroes came to dominate popular culture. Finally, decades of legal wrangling provided redress to some early comics creators—though by no means all of them.

Such is the saga spun by Mark Cotta Vaz in Empire of the Superheroes, a 400+ page tome from the University of Texas press. Its a big story, even for such a long book, and Vaz covers the court cases in far greater detail than any of the other angles. At the urging of lawyer and comics collector Mark Zaid, Vaz plumbed the depths of the National Archives, reading through depositions and testimony from suits brought by Siegel, Simon, Kirby, and other creators against their former employers, as well the DC vs. Fawcett case regarding Captain Marvels infringement of Supermans copyright. A prolific writer on pop culture—21 titles on topics ranging from King Kong to Batman—Vaz does an impressive job breathing life into stolid legal discourse. Whats more, he supplements archival research by interviewing comics creators, store owners, and collectors, as well as by drawing anecdotes and insights from fanzines, websites, and popular-press books.

In a world where comics scholarship is now plentiful, Vaz might have focused his project more narrowly. He quotes from David Hajdu (Ten Cent Plague, 2008), Gerard Jones (Men of Tomorrow, 2004) and Sean Howe (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, 2012). But he doesnt reference these prior scholars as points of contrast in defining what his book adds to our understanding of the American comic book industry and its fan culture. Perhaps he worried that a book focused solely on the impact of copyright law on comics wouldnt sell. Or perhaps his experience writing on popular culture for non-academic presses biased him in favor of narrative over analysis. Speaking as a reader who already knows the broad outlines of the story of American superhero comics, Id prefer that Vaz had set that well-worn plot aside in favor of a novel thesis claim.

Vaz chose to structure Empire of the Superheroes as a page-turner, ending each chapter on a cliffhanger. This significantly undermines the books value to students and scholars looking for insight into a particular topic, since it spreads subplots over multiple chapters, interspersing them with episodes from other, unrelated stories. For example, the title of Chapter 16, "Resurrection and Renewal" signals that it will discuss the resurgence of superhero comics in the Silver Age, but in fact the chapter begins partway through that narrative, with the "Marvel Age." Only those who turn back to the final pages of the prior chapter,"Crackdown and Crash," will learn how DC triggered the superhero resurgence in the years before The Fantastic Fours debut issue. Even those who read the book cover-to-cover will find the Table of Contents an unreliable guide when trying to flip back to a half-remembered episode. DCs copyright battle with Fawcett over Captain Marvel winds up spread over no fewer than five chapters, two of which bear titles wholly unrelated to the case.

The books scholarly mission is also hindered by its sourcing. Endnote references are scarce in places, sometimes reduced to a single endnote near the end of a long, multipage passage. Readers curious to follow up on a striking claim or interesting detail must search about for a superscript numeral—and may well worry that a reference found two pages later will turn out irrelevant. In addition, Vaz is sometimes remiss in explaining what qualifies his interview subjects as authorities on a given topic. Michael Uslan, introduced to the reader as a fan who as a teenager attended one of the first comics conventions in the mid-1960s (p.2), is later quoted regarding how Bill Finger felt about his treatment by Bob Kane and DC (p.61). Is this account mere fan gossip? We learn much later that Uslan interviewed comics professionals while writing for a fanzine, worked for a time at DC, taught a course in comics history at Indiana University (all p.269), and eventually played a key role in bringing Batman to the big screen in the mid-1980s (p.347). Which aspect of this rich life experience was Uslan drawing on in speaking about Finger? Vaz doesnt say.

Some minor issues point to the need for better editing at university presses. The most glaring is the misspelling of Trina Robbins name as “Trini,” likely an authorial error that should have been caught by the editor. Others were introduced during the layout process, as for example the first endnote to Chapter 10, which reads Ibid.” not in reference to the preceding note listed at the back of the book, but instead to the source quoted in the Chapter 10 epigraph, 300 pages earlier.

Despite these shortcomings, Empire of the Superheroes draws back the curtain to provide an insider perspective on the American superhero comic-book business. The book offers less insight into recent developments, such as the emergence of specialty comic-book stores and the rise of the Independents. Yet anyone interested in the industry’s early decades will appreciate Vaz’s work in the archives, digging through records from legal disputes for insight into that era’s often shady business practices.

 A version of this review should appear in print in IJOCA 23:2.

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