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Book review – Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books

Posted by on August 11, 2014 – 7:00 am
Drew Friedman’s “Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books"

Drew Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books, Fantagraphics Books Inc.

As you are enjoying the sense-shattering big screen adaptation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, in between the Star-Lord dance moves and the Rocket Raccoon action sequences, did you ever take a moment to reflect on the fact that this sweet pop culture eye candy would never have existed without the work of magazine publisher Martin Goodman? Do you even know who that guy is, let alone have any idea what he looked like? I’m guessing, probably not.

You certainly don’t have to be a comic book historian or even a comic reader to enjoy movies like Guardians, but having some background knowledge of the material makes for an even more rewarding entertainment experience. Drew Friedman’s new book, “Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books,” sings the praises of many of the previously unknown pioneers of modern pop culture, and provides a unique look at these creators with his famous illustrative style.

Friedman is known for his beautifully detailed celebrity caricatures and exaggerated portraits that capture the organic essence of his subjects. Even if you don’t know his name, you have seen his work in everything from Field & Stream and Rolling Stone, to The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly magazines. I’m personally most familiar with his work in MAD Magazine, a gig which he describes as being his dream job since he was a child.

I first heard about Drew’s Heroes of the Comics project during the MAD magazine panel at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con and filed it away under the “Keep an Eye Out for This” folder in my brain. So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the freshly printed Fantagraphics books at the 2014 Con, where Friedman happened to be there, graciously autographing copies of the book for fans. (The book will be officially released in comic shops on Aug. 6, and in bookstores and Amazon on Sept. 7, 2014.)

The introduction of the book has Friedman humbly speaking about his own history, which is equally as interesting as many of the volume’s older subjects. He was practically born in the crib of the comic book industry during its Silver Age, with his father working in the late-fifties and early sixties as a magazine editor in the same office with Stan Lee, for a company called Magazine Management (owned by the aforementioned Martin Goodman), which also oversaw Timely Comics (a brand that would eventually become Marvel Comics.)

Drew Friedman's Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books

Drew Friedman at San Diego Comic-Con 2014

As a youngster Drew got to meet and observe many of the comic creators considered to be legends now, but at the time they were just guys doing a job and trying to provide for their families, hunched over a drawing board or slaving away at ancient typewriters. As a young artist, Drew made the connections he’d use decades later to compile his tome, Heroes of the Comics, which is an invaluable treasure trove of comic book history.

Even the most casual comic fan is familiar with Stan Lee, Bob Kane, and even Jack Kirby, but there were dozens of other trailblazing creators from comic’s heyday that have largely been forgotten, and you would be hard-pressed to find a decent image of them even if you knew of their contributions to pop culture. Friedman goes a long way in rectifying that cultural slight by providing short biographies and his extraordinary portraits of over eighty visionaries from comics’ rich history.

Most of the portraits within Heroes are of the comic creators as older men (although a couple of women are represented.) They are positioned comfortably in their work space or basement office, with most of them proud and smiling as if they are thoughtfully reflecting back on their life’s work.

Even though they often worked in sweatshop like conditions, by and large these artisans loved what they were doing; but in many of Friedman’s magical images we can also see and feel some of the pain in their eyes; a hurt likely fostered by the Great Depression, War, and from watching corporations selfishly reap the benefits of their hard work.

This is a handsome, full color, 9″ x 12″ hardcover volume packed full of incredible art and insight, and in addition to Drew’s wonderful artwork, the brilliantly researched biographical information is also fascinating.

I was amazed to find that many of these people were born in the late 1800s and that most of them have military service as part of their illustrious resumes. These weren’t hoity-toity art students born with silver spoons in their mouths; these were hard-working American mutts that, against nearly impossible odds – using only their imaginations, a lot of blood, sweat and tears (and apparently a huge amount of cigarette smoke) – managed to craft a uniquely American artistic medium that would influence countless generations to come.

I’ve read a dozen or more books on the history of comics, some of them as entertaining as they are informative, and some that are drier than a college calculus book, but Drew Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics is the first one that puts a face on the fathers of the four-color comic book. It’s like finally seeing pictures of famous Uncles you’ve heard stories about your whole life.

Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster by Drew Friedman

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by Drew Friedman, from Heroes of the Comics, Fantagraphics Books Inc.

Friedman’s fellow MAD contributor, Al Jaffee, wrote the Forward section for this book and is also one of the featured creators in it (along with other MAD men, like Dave Berg and Bill Gaines.) Jaffee is probably most famous for his MAD back page fold-ins, but has had a lengthy career that incudes work with the early Atlas and Timely (Marvel) comics of the forties and fifties. And now we know.

Friedman’s genuine affection for these comic book heroes shows in the minute detail of each glorious illustration, and the pastel palette he uses provides the homey warmth of an old photograph that has been painstakingly colorized and brought to new life.

The charming art and brief biographical information on each creator makes this book a must-have for anyone interested in comics’ history, and is a great companion piece to have on your shelf with books like Men of Tomorrow (Gerald Jones), The Ten-Cent Plague (David Hajdu), and Leaping Tall Buildings (Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner.)

Heroes of the Comics ends with a portrait of Dr. Fredric Wertham, who, as you may know, is more of the villain from comics’ golden era. With his misguided book, Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham effectively ruined the careers of many good men and stripped them of their livelihoods by proclaiming that comics were the cause of 1950’s juvenile delinquency. At least now, thanks to Friedman, many of these poor and unrecognized pop culture veterans will finally have a face.