This past week I finished Matthew J. Costello’s Secret Identity Crisis. As I had discussed in my previous blog entry, this is an insightful look at Cold War politics from the 1960s and into the post-9/11 years and the way that various Marvel titles reflected the political and cultural zeitgeist during this period. The last chapters of the book, the one I read after last writing on the Costello, are particularly intriguing, in that they cover several of Marvel’s superhero titles from 1996 to 2007. These sections include the impact of 9/11 on comics as well as two of the biggest events in the contemporary Marvel Universe, Civil War and the death of Captain America. Costello is to be commended for not letting any passions or jingoism or comic-book sappiness get in the way of his (relatively brief) discussion of 9/11 and the impact that it had on the comics industry. He mentioned a few things, got in and then got out, and really he didn’t spend much time exploring the outpour of the, at times maudlin, response of many comics creators during this time. What he did do, however, was to take a close look at American politics after 9/11 and how that affected Marvel’s storytelling. I particularly enjoyed the last chapter of the book that discussed the significance of the Civil War crossover event (one of my favorites) and the implications of Captain America’s death. Like some, I thought that the way that Marvel chose to bring the Cap back to life was a bit cheesy, and I tire of this “now they’re dead, now they’re not” superhero convention, but the death of Cap was a big deal, and Costello accurately points out the significance and politico-cultural implications of the event. Secret Identity Crisis is definitely a book worth picking up.
Now I’m reading a couple of other works of non-fiction, both histories of America, although each explores the culture from two radically different perspectives. The first is Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. I’ve had this book for a few years, finding a discounted copy at a Dallas-area Half Price Books (a great to find good deals), but I just never got around to reading it. The other month, though, I was listening to the Collected Comics Library podcast, and its host, Chris Marshall, mentioned Jones’s book, how much he liked it, and how he would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of comic books. That was enough for me, and I fished out my copy of the book–buried in boxes still unopened from my recent move–and decided that it would be next one my reading list after Secret Identity Crisis. I’m about a third of the way through the book, and so far I haven’t been disappointed. Jones’s is a history dominated by personalities, not so much a detached overview of the major cultural, economic, and political forces of the time that combined to create the comic book (specifically, its most successful genre, the superhero comic). Figures such as Harry Donnenfeld, Jack Liebowitz, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, and of course Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, dominate the Jones’s historical landscape. And that’s just in the third of the book; other figures will follow. Along the way, the author brings in brief discussions of other characters and players in this drama: gangsters, politicians, creators, and publishers, both idealistic and sleazy, and some with a healthy dose of both. Jones’s focus shifts easily from one major player to another, creating a cohesive narrative that begins coming together more and more as you turn each page. So far I’m really liking this book…and I thank Chris Marshall for goading me into finally reading it.
The other history I’m reading right now is Joseph J. Ellis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. It’s another book I’ve had for awhile, something sitting around and just waiting for me to pick up. The impetus behind me finally reading it stems from a comment my son made earlier this week. At dinner one night, Zachary told us that when he goes to college, he might want to major in political science. My wife and I were impressed by this–although we weren’t sure where this desire originated, other than the current election-year climate, and Mandy and I constantly voicing our utter disgust over Etch-a-Sketch Romney and the ever-increasing disingenuousness of what has become today’s Republican Party–and have begun talking with him about his interests. Like other kids his age, he’ll probably change his mind over a dozen times before actually getting into the college classroom. I did. But for now, we wanted to nurture that interest. One way of doing this was to share with Zach what I was reading, or just finishing up, at the time. Matthew Costello is a political science professor, and I wanted to show him what someone can do with a political science degree, something other than being a stuffy or aloof university professor. Here was someone who stuck his hands deep into popular culture and used his academic acumen to make sense of things. But I also wanted to expose Zach to some the kind of history he would more likely encounter in the classroom, books that discussed the basis for our political system. I immediately thought of Founding Brothers, but not having read it myself, I felt a little iffy about immediately recommending it to my son. That was reason enough for me to plunge into the book, even though I was already in the middle of reading a couple of other works.
While Ellis’s subject matter is light years from that of Costello’s, the two authors do have something in common: both privilege personal histories as a way of getting to their political and cultural moments. Founding Brothers, as Ellis states in his preface, is a series of portraits of big players in America’s early founding: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr (their duel the subject of the first chapter), John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and George Washington. Like Jones, Ellis presents his personal histories in such a way that each successive story adds to a larger, more cohesive narrative about the founding of the country. This style works well with Ellis’s approach, since (and again, as he points out in the Preface) he firmly believes that the success of our political system was contingent not only upon the right mix of timing and chance, but also on the efforts of several individuals who knew each other, who argued with one another, who were passionate about their beliefs, and who were particularly poised to actually move others and get things done. So while Founding Brothers and Men of Tomorrow may be worlds apart, their approaches and intellectual frameworks really aren’t that different.