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A Brief History of Superheroes
Brian J. Robb
Robinson, 298 pages

A Brief History of Superheroes
Brian J. Robb
Brian J. Robb is a writer and biographer whose previous books have included a New York Times Best-Selling biography of Leonardo DiCaprio; Screams & Nightmares, the definitive book on horror director Wes Craven; biographies of Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor; and Counterfeit Worlds, a study of the films of Philip K. Dick. He is currently Managing Editor at Titan Magazines, a publisher of film and TV related titles. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Official Star Wars Insider Magazine, and oversees magazines for Lost, Stargate, Smallville, Star Trek and Supernatural, as well as being Managing Editor on Total Sci Fi, an international cult film and television web site.

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A review by Sandra Scholes

Comics have been around for most of us for a rather short time. We remember the look of late nineties comics from DC to Marvel which look more sophisticated with their computer drawn graphics and vibrant colour and amazing special effects that draw us to buy them for our collections. But what about the early comics, does anyone know where it all started at a most basic level? Brian J. Robb is one such person who has researched the movies and TV series that were running at the time the early comics were being created. What is surprising is the first ideas for superheroes were being thought up during the great depression of the 1930s where you would think all creativity would have no place to thrive. Equally surprising is that many creators in what we would consider comic legends such as Superman and Batman come from ordinary backgrounds. They wanted something more from their lives than working in a boring job, day in day out, during one of the worst periods in American history. They thought they had little chance of being able to convince others to see and appreciate their creative vision, but if they could, they might be thankful they chose to take a huge risk.

Robb takes readers through the rough period of the 1930s where it all began to present day and the influences that have come from the past to form new comic book heroes we know of today. Starting with a brief chapter on the origins of the comic book, Robb gives us other chapters on how superheroes such as Superman went from being an alien who looked nothing like we are used to seeing him depicted, to Batman and the earliest versions that led to his being later envisioned as the caped crusader. While the later incarnations of Superman sold in the millions, creators Siegel and Schuster were only paid a small fee for being the creators, writer and artist team behind it. Much later they got a team of pencillers, inkers, colourists and letterers all doing their bit for a flat fee as freelancers. These freelancers wanted a more creative job on top of one they already had, or were made redundant from their previous job and this would be a stop gap. The act of DC to only pay Siegel and Schuster a small fee for their creation would result in many court battles where they wanted to get what they thought they deserved as payment for their idea.

What readers get from this book is the origins of each character, its creator, penciller, inker, colorist and letterer as well as insight into the characters and what they started to look like before their eventual makeovers. In one chapter we learn about the origins of Batman, his creator Bob Kane, artist Bill Finger who worked alongside him, coming up with ideas on how Batman should look like. Though Superman and Batman have their own chapters, other well-known characters from DC and Marvel are discussed later; Wonder Woman, The Avengers, The Hulk, X-Men and Spiderman. From the index at the back there are two main heroes for Robb to go into detail about, or the book would have been a lot more than its 298 pages.

Now without the villains the comic book hero would be redundant so Robb tells us the origins of villains such as The Joker, Clay Face, Doctor Octopus, Magneto and Kingpin. Of equal interest is the Comics Code Authority that sprung up post war in the US. This code brought about by the government questioned the roles these comic book superheroes and heroines played, accusing them of hidden themes within their characters. Female characters were considered too raunchy, Batman and Robin were considered an openly gay couple, and many other characters were thought of as far too anti-authority that they had to be largely edited or omitted altogether. The code threatened the comics industry in the hope that it would go under, instead comics like Superman and Batman continued but with toned down exploits and a series of strange and juvenile secondary characters who would have to make the more popular comics embraced by teens in the 30s a laughing-stock by new readers. The realisation they had to cater to a much younger audience did keep them going, but at such a price that nearly killed the industry.

A Brief History of Superheroes is all a comic enthusiast could want from a book that seems to have most of the useful information on comics, its creators and those who paved the way for other successful comic characters during the 80s, 90s and beyond.

Copyright © 2014 Sandra Scholes

Sandra can't wait for the next season of Under the Dome to come out, but before that she's currently working on reviews for Hellnotes, Albedo One, The British Fantasy Society and Diverse Japan.

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