Understanding Superhero Comic Books

A History of Key Elements, Creators, Events and Controversies


In stock

About the Book

This work dissects the origin and growth of superhero comic books, their major influences, and the creators behind them. It demonstrates how Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and many more stand as time capsules of their eras, rising and falling with societal changes, and reflecting an amalgam of influences. The book covers in detail the iconic superhero comic book creators and their unique contributions in their quest for realism, including Julius Schwartz and the science-fiction origins of superheroes; the collaborative design of the Marvel Universe by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko; Jim Starlin’s incorporation of the death of superheroes in comic books; John Byrne and the revitalization of superheroes in the modern age; and Alan Moore’s deconstruction of superheroes.

About the Author(s)

Alex Grand is an internationally established comics historian, founder of the Comic Book Historians, and a regular panelist at Comic Con International: San Diego, Wonder Con, and San Diego ComicFest. He has been featured in comics-based documentaries, television, and radio programs and has appeared or been published in The Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter, The Comics Journal, The Jack Kirby Collector and Alter Ego. He lives in Sacramento, California.

Bibliographic Details

Alex Grand

Foreword by Jim Steranko

Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 358
Bibliographic Info: 50 photos, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2023
pISBN: 978-1-4766-9039-1
eISBN: 978-1-4766-4861-3
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Foreword by Jim Steranko 1
Preface 3
Introduction 5

Part 1—Building Blocks
1. Early Comic Book Origins 21
2. Comic Strips’ Legacy in Modern Storytelling 29
3. Comic Strips That Influenced Superheroes 43
4. From Pulp Fiction to Comic Books 54
5. Classic Hollywood Cinema and the Golden Age of Comic Books 70
6. Classic American Illustrators Intersect with Comic Books 77
7. Macfadden and Houdini, the ­Real-Life Superman and Batman 84

Part 2—The Rise and Fall of Superheroes
8. Superman’s Greatest Strength: Litigation 95
9. Cosmic Rays Create Superpowers 101
10. Golden Age Comic Book Artists Leave Superheroes 107
11. EC Comics versus Fredric Wertham 119

Part 3—Flight of the Superheroes
12. Julius Schwartz’s Silver Age 131
13. The Birth of the Marvel Comics Group 145
14. Golden Age to the Marvel Age 152
15. When Monsters Became Superheroes 161
16. How Lee, Kirby, and Ditko Advanced Superheroes 168
17. The Marvel Method’s Credit Controversy 189
18. Stan Lee Expands Superheroes Beyond Comic Books 208
19. Jack Kirby’s Space Gods 215

Part 4—Modern Superheroes
20. Jim Starlin and the Death of Superheroes 227
21. John Byrne and the Modernization of Superheroes 236
22. Alan Moore and Deconstructing the Superheroes 243
23. The Origin of the Superhero Graphic Novel 253

Part 5—Diversity and Aftermath
24. Women in ­20th-Century Comic Books 263
25. African Americans in ­20th-Century Comic Books 270
26. The Death of the ­20th-Century Comic Book Greats 278

Epilogue 285
Chapter Notes 287
Bibliography 311
Index 331

Book Reviews & Awards

• Gold Award Winner—Literary Titan

• Finalist, literary excellence—PenCraft Book Awards

• Winner—BookFest

• “No one does comic book history like Alex Grand. He is a meticulous researcher and an insightful interviewer. Understanding Super Hero Comic Books is a fascinating study that weaves together the intricate relationships between comic strips, pulp magazines, old movie serials and comic book super heroes. If you’ve ever been intrigued by the colorful characters that populate comic books—and fill our television and movie screens—this book is for you.”—Tom DeFalco, editor-in-chief of Marvel in the late 1980s and early 1990s

• “A complete intensive overview of the superhero comic book industry today with its earlier roots in comic strips.”—Tom Palmer, Silver Age Comic Book inker

• “WOW! Incredible insight, fair profiling, and incredibly informative! Alexander Grand has done it! Finally, an accurate in-depth book that is balanced and fair to both creators and publishers! Mr. Grand takes us on an incredibly informed journey through the history of comic books and its creators as no other book I’ve ever read. Taking us from the very beginning of sequential storytelling to the creation of the comic book, to the comics boom, to the near destruction of comics by Fredric Wertham, to the explosion of Marvel and the Superhero brought to us by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, to the creative wave in the 90’s, to rock bottom and to the rebirth of the comic medium by independent creators. Connecting for us the use of comic books throughout popular culture and all types of media and products. I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and even I was finding myself being more informed with new discoveries than I could have imagined. I found it particularly original in its informative writing about creators of color, women and the comic book illustrator’s plight. Mr. Grand is a wealth of knowledge brought to us in a writing style that keeps you on a fast pace energetic ride. You’ll find yourself wanting to turn the page to find out more and more and more. Controversy, Betrayal, Inspiration, Loss, Success! I couldn’t put it down!”—Guy Dorian Sr., comic book professional, creator and graphic novelist

• “An immersive deep dive into the history and elements of the comic book, from an expert. I was unable to put this down—well-crafted, thoughtful, and meticulously researched, Alex Grand has done a great job.”—Alex Segura, bestselling and acclaimed author of Secret identity, former co-president of Archie Comics and senior vice president at Oni Press

• “This book is important. It’s going to start more arguments than it settles. That’s a good thing. Let’s hash it out. Let’s separate the lies and agendas from the truth and fairness. Thank you, Alex. This is a remarkable work.”—Jim Shooter, former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief, 1978-1987

• “Stories that test a protagonist’s physical and moral strengths let us escape our daily lives while fantasizing about how we might deal with disruptive events ranging from powerful entities in dynamic conflict to emotional cataclysms. Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books gives us insights into the history, people and creative trends of the superhero greenhouse that spawned many of today’s entertainment franchises.”—Carl Potts, former Marvel Comics executive editor, artist and writer

• “An in-depth survey-with-commentary of the superhero genre, its triumphs and tragedies—those of the fictional characters and their flesh-and-blood creators—Understanding Superhero Comic Books explains how and why superheroes have had, for the past twenty years (and, really, for the past eighty years) such an enduring hold on us, and why they continue to do so. Sure, it’s quite possible that optho-neurologist Alex Grand wrote such a minutely researched and detailed book as Understanding in order to induce eyestrain and therefore send you running to his office. But that would just be a byproduct of the many joys contained in this book, Grand’s grand survey of superheroes and the medium from which they sprang.”—Danny Fingeroth, former Marvel editor and writer, author of A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee and Superman On The Couch

• “In Understanding Super Hero Comic Books, Alex Grand offers a thoughtful, well-written analysis of superheroes and their impact on popular culture and history. Whether a comic book superfan or someone new to the genre, readers will find Grand’s insights into the history meaningful and illuminating. This book proves that we really do live in a superhero age!”—Bob Batchelor, author of Stan Lee: A Life and Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel

• “I found [Understanding Superhero Comic Books] to be a fine update of the kinds of general histories we got in the 70s and 80s, incorporating 40 years of subsequent scholarship on topics like Victorian and Platinum Age comics, controversies surrounding the Marvel method, and the evolution of superheroes in the media age. I particularly enjoyed Grand’s chapter connecting themes and tropes from the classic adventure comic strips like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy to subsequent developments in superhero comic books. Anyway, congratulations Alex, and thanks again!”—Rob Salkowitz, writer for Forbes and ICv2

• This impressively researched book boasts more than 1,000 reference endnotes and a 19-page bibliography that reflect a solid grasp of the vast library of American comic books as well as a respect for academic scholarship. … Grand’s narrative, which balances the enthusiasm of a lifelong fan with astute analysis, is accompanied by a wealth of images and reproductions of comic book panels and iconic covers. Combined, these elements make not only a well-written, smart study of superhero history and lore, but also a beautifully crafted, visually appealing volume. …an admirable addition to the scholarship on superheroes and comic books. … A well-researched, engaging history of American superhero comics.”—Kirkus Reviews

• “Very detailed and well-researched… it is enjoyable if you know a lot about this material, and it is enjoyable if you don’t know a lot about the material…an entertaining and informative piece of comic book history”—Brian Cronin, Comic Book Resources

• “A masterful exploration of the pivotal moments and influencers that have sculpted modern superhero comic books… enlightening and a pleasure to read… Grand proves to be a maestro, offering a magnum opus on the history and metamorphosis of superhero comic books.”—Literary Titan

• “Immerses readers in a riveting exploration of the genre’s evolution… The pages of the book come alive… Each chapter unfurls the tapestry of creativity and innovation that has defined the superhero landscape… A treasure trove for newcomers and veterans alike… It offers readers an in-depth look into the evolution of superhero comic books within the United States, crafting a narrative that is as enlightening as it is captivating… Not just a book; it’s a time capsule, an adventure, and a celebration of the creative minds that have shaped our beloved superheroes.”—Associated Press