As a lifelong fan of all things creative and comic bookish, I've always been fascinated by the dark corners of popular culture: the overlooked stories, the uncredited creators who defined generations of entertainment, the characters that become household names while the artists behind them languished in anonymity. And over the last couple months, there've been a few books released that focus on particularly deserving subjects. So this column is dedicated to discussing a trio of these volumes – three books that shine light on forgotten (or under-recognized) figures, and add invaluable perspective for any fan with an interest in understanding the landscape and history of mass media.
The Alluring Art Of Margaret Brundage
(by Stephen D. Korshak and J. David Spurlock, published by Vanguard Productions)
Margaret Brundage is one of the forgotten figures of 20th Century illustration, an artist who painted dozens of bizarre and vivid covers for pulp magazines in the 1930s, who brought a strange fetishistic flair to her beautifully-rendered depictions of exotic fiends and barely-clothed damsels. Her covers for Weird Tales, Oriental Stories, Magic Carpet, and other titles from Farnsworth Wright's Chicago-based publishing house were lurid, lovely, and immediately recognizable. But despite the high quality of her handiwork, she worked largely in anonymity, and as the publishing business shifted from Chicago to New York she moved on to other employment. And as pulps fell from favor and the public's focus shifted to other media, her name and work were forgotten by all but a select few.
So this book is quite an accomplishment: a brilliantly-researched volume tracing the never-before told story of not just a great artist, but a woman who rose to the top of an industry dominated by men, who created some of the most striking illustrations ever seen on the newsstands of mid-century America, and who played a previously-untold role in the Chicago renaissance and the first stirrings of American counterculture. Authors Stephen D. Korshak and J. David Spurlock dig deep to unearth long-lost interviews, and present a complete and well-rounded picture of his woman, her work, and her personal life – profusely illustrated with photos, sketches, and high-quality reproductions of Brundage's indelible imagery. The drama and intrigue of her story could be the basis for a great Hollywood film, the true details of her life every bit as compelling as the demons and damsels in fantastic pictures she composed.
Bazooka Joe And His Gang–60th Anniversary Collection
(by R. Sikoryak and others, published by Abrams ComicArts)
One of the 20th century's most recognizable advertising mascots, Bazooka Joe starred in thousands of comic strips between 1954 and 2012, and was the public face of Bazooka Gum and the Topps company for generations. But the story behind his rise to prominence has never been common knowledge before now, and this book does a phenomenal job of telling the story of commercial artist Wesley Morse, a candy company, and the creation of an American institution. Page upon page are filled with beautifully-photographed Bazooka memorabilia, packages, and comics (including reproductions of over a hundred classic Bazooka strips) – as well as essays that illuminate the rise of an advertising icon, and the incredible career of his creator (before bringing Bazooka Joe into the world, Morse painted portraits for the Ziegfeld Follies, drew acclaimed comic strips, designed ads for national magazines, and designed the logo for legendary NYC nightclub The Copacabana).
This is a heaping helping of history, full of all the stale jokes and childlike wonder that the Bazooka name conjures up for generations of Americans – and in a perfect nostalgic touch, it's even packaged in a wax paper dust cover that emulates the look and feel of classic candy packaging.
Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures Of Jerry Seigel And Joe Shuster–The Creators Of Superman
(by Brad Ricca, published by St. Martin's Press)
In this year of Superman's 75th anniversary, there's been much fuss and hoopla: a new big-screen interpretation of the character, a pair of high-profile comic launches (with a third on the way), a star-studded party at San Diego Comic-Con, and endless merchandising and tie-in products. But through all this, there's been very little attention to the story behind the icon – Superman is an instantly recognizable symbol and one of the most valuable single properties in the world, but he's also a product of depression-era fantasies, and the creation of two young men from Cleveland. Granted, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are hardly forgotten figures; their names are inscribed on the credit page of each and every Superman comic and they're held up as the fathers of the modern superhero, but they're also a case study in the economic conflict between creators and corporations (Siegel and Shuster were destitute in the 70s when the Christopher Reeve 'Superman' film was put into production, and nearly forty years later, their heirs are embroiled in a legal battle with Time-Warner over copyright ownership).
And despite the major beats of Superman's creation being well-known to most comic fans, there have been many details that just haven't been discussed. Comic history isn't always well-documented (it wasn't until the 70s, four decades after the first comics appeared on newsstands, that long-form scholarly works on the field began to appear), and much of the existing documentation comes from oral sources, or recollections of long-ago events. Remember, comics were a disposable medium through the mid-20th century, drawing mostly mainstream scorn and derision, and very few people thought it was worthwhile to compile contemporaneous accounts of their production. On top of all that, Siegel and Shuster were intensely proud and private men, willing to talk about their famous character, but not always to speak candidly about the circumstances surrounding his genesis.
But in this book, Brad Ricca works something little short of a miracle. He creates a complete and well-rounded picture of the creators and the process of creation, builds a complex narrative from a staggering amount of research, and gives far greater insight into the genesis of Superman and the circumstances surrounding those events than any previous account has accomplished. The writing is crisp and easy, the narrative is compelling, and the pages are profusely illustrated with pertinent images (many of which have never been reprinted in other volumes) – it tells an often-repeated story in a whole new way, and sheds fresh light on a vital piece of cultural history.