Comic Book Culture:
An Illustrated History

by Ron Goulart
(Collector's Press, 2000)

Pop culture historian Ron Goulart has long been one of the most prolific and respected authors to chronicle the history of American comic book art. With Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History, Goulart has produced an invaluable tome that focuses almost exclusively on the lurid, fantastical and lushly colored comic book cover illustrations of America's early to mid-1900s Golden Age of comics. More than 400 well-chosen examples are presented. The illustrations are accompanied by Goulart's informative text and sidenotes.

As Goulart states in his introduction, "This is a book about pictures." It's also a book about the creators of those pictures. Beautifully designed, well written and filled with eye-popping reproductions, Comic Book Culture is one of the most attractive and comprehensive histories of Golden Age comic-book art and artists that one is ever likely to see.

As one might imagine, the book focuses mainly on superhero and adventure books. However, there's also a healthy and welcomed sampling of humor and "funny animal" titles including rarely seen covers from Hawkshaw the Detective, Barney Google, Famous Funnies, Star Comics, Funny Pages, Funny Picture Stories, Funny Stuff, Giggles, Hi-Jinx, Cookie Comics and Coo-Coo.

As Goulart states, early comic books were mainly (but not exclusively) comprised of reprints from Sunday newspaper "funny pages." This changed in 1937, when a former U.S. cavalry officer and adventure yarn author Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nelson teamed with pulp magazine publisher Harry Donenfeld and created Detective Comics. A new standard for the comic book format was set. Other publishers like Harry "A" Chesler followed suit and new empires built on pulp, india ink and poorly paid artists were born overnight.

Goulart pays special attention to the true heroes of the Golden Age -- the artists. The book revels in covers created a host of well known artists, from crude but prolific drawing machines Alex Schomberg, Dick Briefer and Fred Guardineer to master craftsmen like Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, John Blummer, Will Eisner, C.C. Beck, Bill Everett, Jim Mooney, Jack Binder, Charles Biro, Fred Kida, Bob POwell, Paul Gustavson, Fred Gaardineer, Charles Sultan, Mort Leav, George Tuska, Gill Fox, Ed Cronin, Lou Fine, Reed Crandall, Jerry Robinson, L.B. Cole, Stan Kaye, Jack Cole, John Giunta and the incredible Mac Raboy. These would be the obvious choices for any book on the subject. Admirably, Goulart gives just as much attention to lesser known but no less talented folks like Ray Wilner, Ramona Patenaude, Edd Ashe, Pierce Rice, Louis Cazeneuve, Joe L. Blummer, Harold Lay, John Jordan, Frank Thomas, Al Carreno, Bert Whitman, Elmer Wexler, Charles Sultan, Harry Lucey, Frank Harry and Joe Gallagher. Gus Ricca clearly deserves honors as the hands down champion of bizarre covers, even by lurid 1930s standards, for his unsettling depiction's of maniacs, witches and scaled monsters. In a great chapter on politically incorrect "good girl" art, it becomes clear that Joe Doolin is king.

For Golden age comics fan, the last shot in the book alone might be worth admission. It is not a cover reproduction, but a photograph of a young kid in 1948 standing in front of an outdoor magazine stand called Comic Land, flanked by a big rack that's just filled with comic book titles like Little Lulu, Black Cat, Airboy, Target, Human Torch and hundreds of others.

All told Goulart has given us a wonderful, great looking, carefully crafted book that's book well worth the attention of any fan of the early era of American comic books.

- Rambles
written by Timothy Truman
published 2 August 2003

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