More dispatches from the month, the week, the day, the hour comics broke into the mainstream. The week that began with the New York Times Magazine article on graphic novels ended, for me, with the arrival of the August 2004 Harper's, which reviews three books about superhero comics (Sean Howe's Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!, Arlen Schumer's The Silver Age of Comic Book Art, and Alex Ross's Mythology) and, more broadly, superheroes themselves.
Wyatt Mason's "Flying Up and Flying Down: The rise and fall of the American superhero" opens with a summary of the superhero's current cultural vogue, touching on all the blockbuster movies, American Express commercials, and highbrow novels that name-check the Inhumans. To that list we can add the various Times features and now Mason's review itself; I mean that literally, as a little Times and Harper's namedropping will no doubt help sell my still-inchoate Moody/Chabon/Lethem superheroes article to some academic journal. Each successive piece adds more momentum, more institutional weight to the drive to create a serious critical and cultural discussion of comics. That alone speaks well of the McGrath and Howe and Mason pieces, whatever other missteps or faults they might contain.
After establishing the superhero's cultural currency - that is, after implicitly justifying his essay and its subjects to Harper's readers - Mason provides a two-page history of the superhero from the Golden to the Silver Ages. This is the sort of not-quite-insider history that was made to elicit quibbles from those in the know. (My most serious objection is that the 1950s Comics Crusade was not nearly as superhero-centric as Mason leads us to believe; indeed, it may have cleared the path for the Silver Age's superhero renaissance by removing the most successful competing genres.) Others will quibble that Mason shouldn't be writing about superheroes in the first place when Deserving Comic X demands recognition. Both objections are beside the point - there's as much to say about superheroes as there is any other genre, and Mason gets right much more than he gets wrong.
A stronger, more pertinent objection would be that Mason's history stops at the Silver Age, but this seems to be a function of the three works he's chosen for review. Schumer's The Silver Age of Comic Book Art is obviously limited to that period, while most of the essays of Atomsmashers and the entire corpus of Ross's work are backward-looking, nostalgia-obsessed. If the essay engenders any regrets, it's that its subjects are all retrospective; I wish he'd chosen at least one book - perhaps even an actual comic? - that surveys the present or looks to the future instead. This is not an indictment of Mason, but of the nostalgic focus that dominates and limits the pop-criticism he explores.
As to his reviews, Mason is neither fawning nor overly critical of the three books. He offers shrewd judgments of both Ross and the Howe collection - this is apparently the month for writers to heap abuse on Brad Meltzer, much as it is the month for Meltzer to earn that abuse - while giving Schumer's coffee-table art book the most unequivocal praise. None of these assessments are definitive; for example, I much preferred the Schumer review written by my colleague Charles Hatfield in the Spring 2004 issue of the International Journal of Comic Art. Nevertheless, Mason provides some cogent remarks, like this assessment of the illustrations of Alex Ross:
... they are bloated orchestrations, like a symphony playing arrangements of Led Zeppelin: kinda cool, but if you're interested at all, you'd probably prefer the original. Reading a Ross comic, one sees the irresistible, breakneck creativity on view in The Silver Age of Comic Book Art gelded, the emotions roiling there tamed.
For all that Mason's review, like his subjects, spends rather too much time looking backwards, it is another welcome bit of attention.