An Arthur Dent waiting to happen (beldar) wrote in trubookreviews,
An Arthur Dent waiting to happen

Maybe this is why Robin said "Holy..." all the time

I recently read the book "Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes" by Chris Knowles, illustrated by Joseph Michael Lisner. If you click through the link, you'll see that the book has a rather clever cover, a parody of "The Last Supper" with superheroes -- a Superman stand-in in the Christ position (not surprising for anyone who has seen productions of "Godspell"). So the reader is intrigued from the get-go. But do the contents inside live up to the cover art?

I advise anyone with an interest in comics and/or popular culture to check out this book at your local library. It's an easy read and shouldn't take too long. But if I were to sum up my feelings on the book in one word, it would be "disappointing."

The writing style seems to presume the vocabulary and attention span of a junior high student. No topic is dwelt upon for too long, and we get a fairly tightly-edited version of every subject. The book tries to be comprehensive -- going into the history of religions and mystical movements through the ages, culminating in the Victorian era and its connections to mass-produced literature, to the pulps, finally to comics. Then it examines various authors, comics characters and comics artists and writers right up to references to the TV show "Heroes." But it was as though Knowles was ordered to keep it to a certain number of pages, and edited accordingly. I frankly want to see the outtakes, and my suspicion, that what was apparently very well researched left many resources and notes on them untouched in the final edition, makes me feel cheated.

Overall, I think he got his facts right. Those who are more studied might find some slip-ups, but Knowles seems shielded from them in part by not going too much in-depth. However, you get the feeling at various points in the book that he is making presumptions and assumptions about what inspired who, and what various comics creators intended. A lack of corroborating quotes and other more scholarly work would have fixed that, but I have a feeling that some of his conclusions may have just been off base.

But what is more telling is what he slights or leaves out altogether. For instance, most of his examination of comic book characters centers on the Big Two comics publishers, Marvel and DC. (And true to fanboy form, he disses Aquaman. He goes into some detail on other major characters -- Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Captain America, even Namor the Sub-Mariner, but not a word about DC's Atlantean until he's listed as just another member of the Justice League and Superfriends).

While the Big Two should take up quite a bit of the discussion, the omission of independents becomes glaring when discussing comics in the 1980s. Are there mythological or secret society underpinnings in "Love and Rockets" or "American Splendor"? What about "Cerebus"? Even if the answer had been "no" that would have been worth mentioning. I think the TMNT movies and cartoons get mentioned, but not the original Eastman and Laird comics. No mention of "Heavy Metal," which revives in comics form much of the spirit of the old pulps that he speaks so well of in the first half of the book.

He makes mention at various points of Doctor Doom, Dr. Strange and Mike Mignola, yet never mentions the combination of the three in the graphic novel in which Strange aids Doom as he relies more on alchemy and magic than his technology to save someone he loves.

Knowles gives only passing mention of Swamp Thing, who, as reimagined by Alan Moore, becomes a sort of Pagan god and fits perfectly into the book's thesis. In fact, the first reference to Swampy is to set up the story of John Constantine. You would think that Swamp Thing was a supporting character in Constantine's book, rather than the other way around.

In fact, while some characters get introduced front-and-center, others such as Gaiman's Sandman get their elaboration only in the context of focusing on their creators.

Upon further reflection today, I realized the Watcher is not mentioned in this book at all. Neither is the Beyonder. Given the subject matter of the book, these omissions are glaring. And all these things I've listed are just what I personally know about. Who knows what data I'm unaware of that was either carelessly edited out or not looked into in the first place?

Simply put, this was a decent effort, and a good topic to delve into in our postmodern society, but it could have been done a LOT better.
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