The Physics of Super Heroes – Spectacular Second Edition

By James Kakalios (Duckworth Overlook)
ISBN: 978-0-71563-911-5

I grew up in the 1960s reading a lot of comics – as well as books, papers, bubble gum cards, magazines, cereal packs and sweet wrappers. With so few other distractions, the printed word – with or without attendant illustrations – held a magic no other medium could match, no matter how much my oversized nostalgia glands tell me I still need Space Patrol, Twizzle or Champion the Wonder Horse in my rapidly decelerating life…

One thing my parents and the nuns at primary school noticed – apart from ink-stained fingers – was that I always seemed to have a fount of scientific snippets at my beck and call. That’s clearly the same experience physics professor and author James Kakalios recalls – except perhaps the nuns and Twizzle parts.

As explained in his Foreword and Preface, Silver Age comicbooks – especially those published by National/DC – were honeycombed with scientific and historical features and anecdotes whilst the stories, mostly written by jobbing pulp science fiction writers like John Broome, Gardner Fox, Alfred Bester, Edmond Hamilton, Otto Binder and others, all emphasised a world of physical rationalism – albeit one loaded with aliens, mutants, monsters and flying guys in capes and perpetually suspended disbelief…

Thus our topic for today is the splendid second edition of his oddly captivating text using extracts from comicbooks to highlight and explain the basic principles of how reality works. Sadly he also tells us where – and exactly why – superpowers and Fights ‘n’ Tights shenanigans are strictly hot air, wishful thinking and pure Balonium…

Working from a genuinely funny script (remember when teachers were allowed to be funny in class?) and utilising forthright and not at all forced comparisons, examples and illustrations, Kakalios translates his copious knowledge of comics continuity to detail everything you – and most importantly your kids – need to know. It begins, following a Foreword by Lawrence M. Krauss and brace of Prefaces (to the First and Second Editions), with Introduction: Secret Origins: How Science Saved Superhero Comic Books recounting the most important facts of all: how comics were created and evolved…

After that it’s a spectacularly engaging tumble through the discipline (each with an appropriate – and suitably summarised – comics event whether your background and major is primarily Science or Costumed Drama) beginning with Section 1 and all you need to understand about Mechanics

Subsection 1. Up, Up and Away: Forces and Motion features Superman, whilst 2. Deconstructing Krypton: Newton’s Law of Gravity moves off-planet to glean the truth about his vaporised home before 3. The Day Gwen Stacy Died: Impulse and Momentum at last explains Spider-Man’s big mistake on that tragic night.

Running up walls and across water gets a thumbs-up in 4. Flash Facts: Friction, Drag and Sound, Ant-Man’s shrinking comes under a microscope in 5. If This Be My Density: Properties of Matter and 6. So He Talks to Fishes. Want to Make Something of It?: Fluid Mechanics considers Aquaman and Sub-Mariner’s surprisingly difficult trick of breathing underwater as well the pressures of the job…

Although he makes it look easy, 7. Can He Swing from a Thread?: Centripetal Acceleration examines the forces in play when Spidey goes web-wandering whilst 8. Can Ant-Man Punch his way Out of a Paper Bag?: Torque and Rotation handles the problems of sustained strength and diminished height as well as how Spidey can jump so far whereas 9. The Human Top Goes Out for a Spin: Angular Momentum reveals why Whirlwind and the Top should be the most powerful bad guys in town…

10. Is Ant-Man Deaf, Dumb and Blind?: Simple Harmonic Motion covers how a host of shrinking super-folk could communicate with the larger world after which 11. Like a Flash of Lightning: Special Relativity wraps up the easy stuff with a round-up of the Scarlet Speedsters top tricks…

Section 2 – Energy – Heat and Light concentrates on scalar physical quantities (look at me showing off!) with 12. The Central City Diet Plan: Conservation of Energy as the sources of Flash’s vivid vitality are divined, whilst Ant-Man and the Atom are thoroughly quizzed on 13. The Case of the Missing Work: The Three Laws of Thermodynamics before Iceman and Storm are drafted in to discuss 14. Mutant Meteorology: Conduction and Convection.

15. How the Monstrous Menace of the Mysterious Melter Makes Dinner Preparation a Breeze: Phase Transitions is a quick briefing on how materials can be made to change states, after which the most visually iconic powers in comics are called up for 16. Electro’s Clinging Way’s: Electrostatics, 17. Superman Schools Spider-Man: Electrical Currents, 18. How Electro becomes Magneto when he Runs: Ampere’s Law, 19. How Magneto becomes Electro when he Runs: Magnetism and Faraday’s Law and 20. Electro and Magneto do the Wave: Electromagnetism and Light

The lesson endeth by bringing us cosmologically up-to-date with Section 3 – Modern Physics and the inevitable team-up of Doctor Doom and Max Planck for 21. Journey into the Microverse: Atomic Physics, whilst Erwin Schrödinger does or does not lend his weight to theories of parallel Earths and time travel in 22. Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Tale!: Quantum Mechanics, before Kitty Pride and the Golden Age Flash go through a helpful phase in 23. Through a Wall Lightly: Tunneling Phenomena.

It only remains to take a look at the stuff we build – and build with – in 24. Sock it to Shellhead: Solid-State Physics and 25. The Costumes are Super, Too: Materials Science to bring this foundation course in physically measurable existence to a satisfactory conclusion…

Nonetheless education never ends and Section 4 – What Have We Learned? brings us what we’ve all really been waiting for in 26. Me Am Bizarro!: Superhero Bloopers. This is where you can find out if the things you think of as the daftest in comics can be compared to what an accredited thinkologist can prove, and I’m personally pleased to find that two of my all-time “yeah, buts…” and “oh, come ons…” have at last been countersigned by an expert. Of course there were a whole bunch more that I missed…

Kakalios winningly wraps up his delicious brain-expanding exercise with the Afterword: Lo, There Shall Be An Ending! but can’t resist giving further opportunities to get smarter and more rounded with Recommended Reading – happily that’s a list of great comics as well as key texts – and, just like hair product commercials there’s even a genuine “science bit” as Key Equations list the fundamental magic formulas you need to conquer the world or pass a test. There’s even a section of Notes, Acknowledgements and an Index to make this seem more like a proper book but they can’t diminish the glee and wonderment one iota…

Filled with penetrating insights and explanations of how this universe really works with illustrations from a pantheon of America’s greatest comics-makers (yes, there is a little bit of maths – but not enough to trouble even a bright 7-year old) this a brilliantly accessible tome no comics-loving kid should be without. Tell them teacher said so.
© 2009 James Kakalios. All rights reserved.

Superman and Philosophy – What Would the Man of Steel Do?

Essays by various, Edited by Mark D. White (Wiley-Blackwell)
ISBN: 978-1-118-01809-5

With the latest Superman movie set for a summer release there’s going to be a lot of ancillary material around, so here’s a comics-adjacent item that celebrates 75 years of the Man of Tomorrow whilst offering an interesting view askew of the merely expected…

Like organised religion, the discipline of Philosophy has had a hard time relating to modern people in the last half century and, just like innumerable vicars in pulpits everywhere, the greatest and most all-consuming preoccupation of the mind of Man has sought fresh ways to make its eternal questions and subjective verities understandable and palatable to us hoi-polloi and thickoes…

Publishers Wiley-Blackwell have certainly succeeded in making their message relevant by repackaging key and core concepts of the never-ending debate. Their intriguing and imaginatively far-ranging Philosophy and Pop Culture Series includes more than 40 enticing titles such as Batman and Philosophy: the Dark Knight of the Soul, Downton Abbey: the Truth is Neither Here Nor There, The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers and Terminator: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am amongst others. These engaging tracts marry the product of millennia of deep thought to easily accessible and seductively shared contexts you and I know like the backs of our hairy hands.

That’s applied phenomenology, that is…

It doesn’t hurt either that all the essays, produced by a legion of very smart people possessing a vast degree of familiarity with both their academic subject and the impossibly convoluted minutiae of the Superman mythology in all its multifarious multimedia formats, keep their arguments and verbal illustrations short, sharp, sweet and joyously funny.

And, by the way, this is a grown-up book so don’t expect any pictures inside…

The immensely engaging and successfully thought-provoking journey begins with

Following ‘Introduction: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane… It’s Philosophy!’ our rocket-ship ride to reason opens with a crash course in Utilitarianism, Deontology and Virtue Ethics.  Part One – The Big Blue Boy Scout: Ethics, Judgment, and Reason investigates the underpinnings and outcomes of doing good by scrutinised the powder-keg of “moral philosophy” (concerned primarily with questioning the best way to live) through the super-vision lenses of ‘Moral Judgment: The Power that Makes Superman Human’ by Mark D. White, ‘Action Comics! Superman and Practical Reason’ by Brian Feltham, ‘Can the Man of Tomorrow be the Journalist of Today?’  by Jason Southworth & Ruth Tallman and ‘Could Superman Have Joined the Third Reich? The Importance and Shortcomings of Moral Upbringing’ by Robert Sharp.

The conundrums continue in Part Two – Truth, Justice and the American Way: What Do They Mean? as Daniel P. Malloy posits ‘Clark Kent is Superman! The Ethics of Secrecy’ after which Christopher Robichaud investigates the true meaning of ‘Superman and Justice’ and Andrew Terjesen asks ‘Is Superman an American Icon?’

Part Three – The Will to Superpower: Nietzsche, the Übermensch, and Existentialism goes a long way to cleaning up the cruelly tarnished reputation of the author of Thus Spake Zarathustra (inexplicably and unnecessarily retitled these days as Thus Spoke…) with ‘Rediscovering Nietzsche’s Übermensch in Superman as a Heroic Ideal’ by Arno Bogaerts, ‘Superman or Last Man: the Ethics of Superpower’ by David Gordon, ‘Superman: From Anti-Christ to Christ-Type’ by Adam Barkman and the tantalising argument ‘Superman Must be Destroyed! Lex Luthor as Existentialist Anti-Hero’ by Sarah K. Donovan & Nicholas Richardson…

We get to the heart of the matter – for comicbook geeks like me anyway – with Part Four – The Ultimate Hero: What Do We Expect from Superman? Using some very specific canonical examples, we sift through ‘Superman’s Revelation: The Problem of Violence in Kingdom Come by David Hatfield, ‘A World Without a Clark Kent?’ by Randall M. Jensen and close the case with ‘The Weight of the World: How Much is Superman Morally Responsible For?’ by Audrey L. Anton.

The review of the Big Picture continues with Part Five – Superman and Humanity: A Match Made on Krypton?, as Leonard Finkelman guesstimates ‘Superman and Man: What a Kryptonian Can Teach Us About Humanity’ whilst Terjesen returns to ask ‘Can the Man of Steel Feel Our Pain? Sympathy and Superman’ and Carsten Fogh Nielsen deliberates on ‘World’s Finest Philosophers: Superman and Batman on Human Nature’ before it all wraps up for now in Part Six – Of Superman and Superminds: Who Is Superman, Anyway? with the deepest levels of Persona examination in ‘“It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane… It’s Clark Kent” Superman and the Problem of Identity’ by Nicholas Michaud, ‘Superman Family Resemblance’ from Dennis Knepp and ‘Why Superman Should Not Be Able to Read Minds’ by Mahesh Ananth.

In proper, rigorous academic manner there are also biographies in Contributors: Trapped in the Philosophy Zone, plenty of notes and attributions and a full Index: From Brainiac’s Files to aid you if your interests are piqued and your enquiring mind wants to know more…

Philosophy doesn’t exist in a vacuum: its primary purpose, whatever substrate espoused (Aesthetics, Epistemology, Ethics, Logic, Metaphysics, Social theory, Politics or any other field concerned with understanding reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind or language), is to promote discourse and debate. The whole point is to get you thinking too…

And this delightfully appealing tome does exactly that…

© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Superman and Philosophy – What Would the Man of Steel Do? is set for publication on May 16th 2013.

Signal: 02 – A Journal of International Political Graphics

Edited by Alec Dunne & Josh MacPhee (PM Press)
ISBN: 978-1-60486-298-0

“A week is a long time in Politics” – Harold Wilson

I’m going to go all traditional here and offer a few on-line dictionary definitions before I head off on one of my own oblique and off-kilter diatribes.

Politics can be reduced to:

  • The art or science of governing – especially of a political entity such as a nation – and the administration and control of its affairs.
  • The activities or affairs engaged in by a government, politician, or political party.
  • The methods or tactics involved in managing a state or government.
  • Intrigue or manoeuvring within a political unit or group in order to gain control or power.
  • The often internally conflicting interrelationships among people in a society

I’d like to add my own codicil which translates as

  • “Getting large groups of people to do what you want by making them believe it’s their own idea; as perpetually practiced by advertisers, teachers in classrooms, rich folk, commercial organisations and special interest groups, trades unions, and organised religions”.

The early years of the 21st century were plagued with horrors and disasters exacerbated by a hideous global proliferation of lying, greedy, venal, demented and just plain stupid bosses and governments. These paragons finally succeeded in elevating politicians of every stripe to that phylum of generally useless tools and pimples on the butt of humanity once only occupied by lawyers and management consultants.

Since then so many apparently entitled and greedy types like bankers, astrologers, wedding planners, doorstep evangelists, CEOs, celebrity gossip columnists, newspaper editors, the shamelessly privileged and all types of psychics have joined their rarefied ranks, and I’m thinking I probably need to either cut down on coffee or refine my critical parameters…

The century before that wasn’t much better either, but it did spawn a global awareness of the sheer symbolic power of pictures to promote debate, action and change. The political image was used over and over again by the underdogs – and to be honest, the more savvy oppressors – in countless intellectual wars as an irresistible Weapon of Mass Deliberation…

When creative passions are aroused there is no more powerful medium of expression or tool of social change than graphic narrative working in seamless conjunction with a trenchant, targeted image. Whether it’s the swingeing satire of reformers such as Hogarth, the prose of Dickens illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne AKA “Phiz”, the publications of Mark Lemon and Henry Mayhew (founders of Punch), the questing explorations of Will Eisner, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi or even the devastatingly deployed propaganda art of every nation on Earth, the incisive, excoriating or simply biting illustration wedded to the well-loaded word is an overwhelming force and Mass Communication’s only renewable resource: cheap, universally accessible and capable of extrapolating terrifying conclusions from the scarcest of supplied data.

Although not strictly a graphic novel, Signal: 02 was selected to begin this Week in Politics season because it embodies and celebrates the earliest and still most effective forms of mass communication; circumventing reason and language – often even literacy itself – by reaching through the eyes right into the heart and the gut of the viewer.

Signal is produced by illustrator, historian and printmaker Alec Dunn and designer/artist Josh MacPhee, co-founder of the Interference Archive and organizer of Celebrate People’s History Poster Series. Their occasional periodical is dedicated to documenting and sharing political graphics, creative projects and cultural artefacts of international resistance and liberation struggles.

Utilising typography and design in the same bold exuberant manner as the British Vorticist Movement’s manifesto Blast (which declared war on traditional art in its landmark edition of 1914) to disseminate and keep alive historic moments of global mass-movements, this edition opens with Judy Seidman’s ‘Malangatana’s Fire’: a comprehensive review of the life and achievements of legendary revolutionary painter and UNESCO Artist for Peace Malangatana Valente Nguenha.

The liberally-illustrated piece celebrates the Mozambiquan painter, poet, musician and intellectual whose life and haunting works spanned his rural upbringing under Portuguese colonial rule through revolution and years of civil war to the current national renaissance and his role as Mozambique’s Cultural Ambassador to the World.

The artist’s stunning, moodily symbolic works carried his people through the liberation, civil war, decades of political turmoil and savage brutality into the peaceful present by exalting the people’s age old roots and symbols…

This is followed by ‘Street Murals in the Portuguese Revolution’ wherein Phil Mailer details the guerrilla art and its factional creators who plastered the walls of the nation in a massive explosion of anonymous popular creativity during and after a military coup toppled the Fascist government which ruled Portugal in April 1974, after which Editors Dunn & MacPhee offer a fascinating typographical treat in ‘Selling Freedom’.

This glorious visual reminiscence reveals a riot of ‘Early Twentieth-Century Anarchist Broadsides’ – letterpress printed, broadsheet advertisements for the venerable (established in 1886 and still going) publication Freedom: A Journal of Anarchist Communism. This entrancing example of the polemical power of the printed word is followed by ‘Cranking It Out Old School Style’ as Lincoln Cushing describes the age of Gestetner printers which first brought the process of mass communication into the hands of the people, long before photocopiers, faxes, computer printers, instant messaging and e-pages of every sort. In the hands of imaginative and determined artists visual miracles were made, from campaigns seeking to end violence against women to populist movements fighting prejudice and social injustice …

The ‘Art of Rebellion’ by Deborah Caplow then explores Oaxacan street art in context, recounting decades of internecine strife in Mexico, after which The Center for International Research on Anarchism: Japan describes the life of seminal printer, propagandist, anti-fascist, anti-militarist Esperanto advocate Taiji Yamaga who published radical periodical The People’s Newspaper and opposed the repressive militarist regime of the expansionist Warlords who were de facto rulers of Japan until the end of WWII. At the end of a turbulent life, the great thinker recreate key moments of his life in an autobiographical comic, and ‘Sketches from Memory’ is undoubtedly the star of this show, focussing a surmising light on ‘The Yamaga Manga and Japanese Anarchism’

By captivatingly relating days and years of domestic intimacy, personal imprisonment, triumph, tragedy and turmoil under appalling political duress, Yamaga turns a spotlight on an aspect of Japanese history carefully glossed over and almost redacted from conventional histories…

‘A Heart of Concrete through Fire and Water’ by Kasper Opstrup Frederiksen explores the history and achievements of the Danish Røde Mor art collective 1968-78 which adopted showbiz techniques and public stunts to change the cultural landscape and mindset. After years of challenging, surreal events, the core of dedicated New Left surrealists in the “Red Mother” art collective gradually became subsumed into the national psyche, as a graphic workshop, a band, a circus and finally a fund to finance political art projects.

So was that a victory or a defeat?

Scholarly, challenging, utterly engrossing and intoxicating, this is a superb treat for everyone whose mind works in pictures and causes…

© 2012 PM Press. Individual copyright retained by respective contributors.

Philosophy – A Discovery in Comics

By Margreet de Heer with Yiri T. Kohl (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-698-3

There’s no use denying it: Annual Gift-Giving Season isn‘t far off and it’s never too early to think of the ideal item for that troublesome family/friend unit. So here’s something that might fit the bill for any argumentative soul fed up with socks, pants and pen-sets…  

It has long been a truism of the creative arts that the most effective, efficient and economical method of instruction and informational training has been the comic strip.

Advertising mavens have for over a century exploited the easy impact of words wedded to evocative pictures, and public information materials frequently use sequential narrative to get hard messages over quickly and simply. Additionally, since World War II, carefully crafted strips have been constantly used as training materials in every aspect of adult life from school careers advice to various branches of military service – utilising the talents of comics giants as varied as Milton Caniff, Will Eisner (who spent decades producing reams of comic manuals for the US army and other government departments), Kurt Schaffenberger and Neil Adams.

These days the educational value and merit of comics is a given. Larry Gonick in particular has been using the strip medium to stuff learning and entertainment in equal amounts into the weary brains of jaded students with such tomes as The Cartoon History of the Universe, The Cartoon History of the United States and The Cartoon Guide to… series (Genetics, Sex, Computers, Non-Communication, Physics, Statistics, the Environment and more).

Japan uses a huge number of manga text books in its schools and universities and has even released government reports and business prospectuses as comic books to get around the public’s apathy towards reading large dreary volumes of public information.

So do we, and so do the Americans.

I’ve even produced one or two myself.

Now the medium has been used to sublimely and elegantly tackle the greatest and most all-consuming preoccupation and creation of the mind of Man…

Margreet de Heer was born in 1972 into a family of theologians and despite some rebellious teen forays to the wild side of life – fascinatingly covered in the ‘Know My Self’ section of this fabulous graphic primer – studied Theology for 9 years at the University of Amsterdam. After graduating in 1999 she decided to become a cartoonist – and did – but also worked at the wonderful comics and cool stuff emporium/cultural icon Lambiek in Amsterdam.

Whilst there she collaborated with industry expert Kees Kousemaker on a history of Dutch comics before becoming a full-time professional in 2005, with commissions in publications as varied as Yes, Zij aan Zij, Viva Mama, Flo’, Jippo, Farfelu and NRC.Next.

In 2007 she began a series of cartoon philosophical reports for the newspaper Trouw, which prompted a perspicacious publisher to commission a complete book on this most ancient of topics. Filosofie in Beeld was released in 2010 and translated into English by NBM this year as Philosophy – a Discovery in Comics.

This gloriously accessible tome, crafted by a gifted writer with a master’s grasp of her subject, opens with the core concept ‘What is Thinking?’ examining the processes of mind through a number of elegantly crafted examples before moving onto ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’

Those paradigms of ‘Self-Awareness’, ‘Logical Thinking’, ‘Language’, ‘Symbols’, ‘Abstract Thinking’ and ‘Humor’ are captivatingly covered before the history and cognitive high points of civilisation are disclosed with ‘The Foundation of Western Philosophy’.

This potted history of ‘Dualism’ relates the life stories, conceptual legacies and achievements of ‘Socrates’ and the ‘Socratic Discourse’, his star pupil ‘Plato’ and the universal man ‘Aristotle’, all winningly balanced with a balancing sidebar autobiography in ‘Know My Self’ plus some cogent observations and a few comparisons with the Eastern philosophy of ‘Unity’

‘Medieval Philosophy’ deals with the influence of the Christian Church on ‘Augustine’ and ‘Thomas Aquinas’, the “Great Thinkers” of early Europe, examining the warring concepts of ‘Free Will’ and ‘Predestination’ and exploring the lives of ‘Erasmus’ and ‘Humanism’, ‘Descartes’ and his maxim ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ and ‘Spinoza’ whose consummate faith-based dictum was ‘Know Thyself’

The charming, beguiling foundation course continues with ‘What is Reality?’ bringing us up to the modern age with ‘And Now’ with another brilliantly clever diversion as de Heer includes the ‘Personal Philosophies’ of families and friends.

Her husband – and this book’s colourist – Yiri bases his outlook on the incredible life of outrageous comedian ‘George Carlin’, her aged friend Gerrit looks to ‘Nietzsche’, mother-in-law Yolanda modelled herself on Cambridge lecturer and intellectual ‘George Steiner’ whilst De Heer’s little brother Maarten prefers to shop around picking up what he needs from thinkers as varied as ‘Aldous Huxley’ to cartoonist ‘Marten Toonder’ as well as bravely putting her money where her mouth is and revealing her own thoughts on Life, the Universe and Everything and asking again ‘What Do You Think?’

This is a truly sharp and witty book – and the first of a trilogy that will also deal with Religion and Science – which splendidly reduces centuries of contentious pondering, violent discussion and high-altitude academic acrimony to an enthralling, utterly accessible experience any smart kid or keen elder would be happy to experience. Clear, concise, appropriately challenging and informatively funny Philosophy – A Discovery in Comics is a wonder of unpretentious, exuberant graphic craft and a timeless book we can all enjoy.

© @2010 Uitgeverij Meinema, Zoetermeer, TheNetherlands. English translation © 2012 Margreet de Heer & Yiri T. Kohl.

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for anybody with a brain or heart… 9/10

Japan Inc. – an introduction to Japanese Economics

By Shōtarō Ishinomori, translated by Betsey Scheiner (University of California Press)
ISBN: 978-0-52006-289-4

It’s often been said, but bears repeating here: “Comics are an integral part of Japanese life”. There’s no appreciable difference to Eastern eyes between sequential pictures and prose, so it makes sense that such a medium should be used to educate and elucidate as well as entertain. After all the US military reached the same conclusion after WWII when they commissioned comics legend Will Eisner to design instruction manuals in strip form, and produce similar instructive material for Services magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, which even the least schooled G.I. could understand…

In late 1986 Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan’s analogue of the Wall Street Journal, commissioned manga star Shōtarō Ishinomori to adapt a serious economic text – Zeminaru Nihon keizai nyūmon published by the newspaper – into a mass market comicbook. Manga Nihon keizai nyūmon sold more than half a million copies in its first year…

Soon after, Securities and Investment companies were using strip brochures to explain the complexities of their latest stock market products and by the mid 1980s benkyō and jitsumu manga (“study comic” and “practical comic”) were an integral part of school and college libraries. Naturally, there were sequels to Manga Nihon keizai nyūmon…

Shōtarō Ishinomori (nee Onodera and Ishimori; January 25th 1938 – January 28th 1998) is officially the World’s most prolific comics artist. After his death the Guinness Book of Records posthumously recorded his 128,000+ pages – often generated at the rate of 200-300 pages a month! – the most ever produced by a single creator.

In 1955, when the boy was simply keen fan of Manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka, the God of Comics took the lad on as his assistant and apprentice, beginning with the iconic Tetsuwan Atomu – or Astro Boy to you and me…

Thereafter, until his death Ishinomori worked ceaselessly in Manga, Anime, Games and Tokusatsu (live action superhero shows such as Kamen Rider – a genre he practically invented) developing groundbreaking series such as Super Sentai, Cyborg 009, Sabu to Ichi Torimono Hikae, Ganbare!! Robokon and countless others.

There is a museum dedicated to his career in Ishinomaki, Miyagi and trains to and from the site are decorated throughout with his myriad cartoon creations.

Following a comprehensive and informative account on the development and growth of comics in Japan by Stanford University’s Peter Duus, this oddly engaging English-language edition reveals the way the Japanese perceived their own economy’s function and global position through the fictionalised lives of a small group of workers at the mythic conglomerate Toyosan Automobile Corporation and its affiliate the Mitsutomo Company.

The cast are idealised concepts of the nation’s business life: Kudo is a good and kind-hearted executive, always seeking to put profit in a social framework that benefits everybody, whilst his colleague and rival Tsugawa is a ruthless, go-getter to whom people are expendable and only the Bottom Line matters. Above them is wise manager Akiyama, with the women’s role exemplified by shy yet passionate Miss Amamiya, whilst young office junior Ueda portrays the verve, exuberance and inexperience of the next generation of Japan’s workers…

The elucidating episodes begin with ‘Trade Friction’ as in 1980 American car workers begin attacking imported Japanese cars. Ever hungry for a fast buck, the US motor industry lays off staff and attempts to force Washington into curtailing Japanese imports…

If the exporting nation is to maintain its growth, it may have to shift production to the USA and leave its own workers and subcontractors out in the cold. Soon there’s panic at Toyosan’s factory and the union is up in arms, but whilst Tsugawa has no problem with that, the ingenious Kudo is working on a plan to diversify and provide new jobs for the ordinary Japanese suffering under the outrageous US tactics…

‘Countering the Rise of the Yen’ sees the disparity in international exchange rates threaten Imahama City as their crucial export trade crumbles. When Tsugawa seizes the opportunity to buy the place cheap and turn it into a Mitsutomo amusement park, once more Kudo interferes, seeking a way to keep all the citizens of the district fully employed whilst delivering a sound lesson on the way to balance family life and duty to the company…

Geo-political affiliations and the ever-shifting balance of power in rogue states comes under scrutiny in ‘Industrial Structure’ when a Middle-Eastern country seeks to revive a secret industrial process and past alliance with Mitsutomo. The shady deals that were struck in the pursuit of guaranteed resources offer huge potential profit but a concomitant risk of disastrous political and financial fall-out if the scheme is exposed. Of course Tsugawa and Kudo and their respective mentors Toda and Akiyama are in the thick of things in a chapter dramatically illustrating how changes in international political climate reshape Japan’s industrial structure…

The nation’s welfare system is tested in ‘Deficit Finance’ as Ueda’s aged grandmother comes to visit and Japan’s social services are scrutinised by Tsugawa and Kudo, who learn the advantages and drawbacks of government-led initiatives whilst both learning some hard-hitting historical lessons about the last (in their case 1965) Recession…

‘A Monetary Revolution’ describes the inexorable global banking de-regulation of the 1970s and 1980s as Tsugawa visits London following the “suicide” of an Italian banker and falls into a hornet’s nest of trouble by involving Mitsutomo in a “Fi-Tech” scheme (covert financial speculation between banks, usually achieved by mutually monkeying with the proposed profit margin) that involves the Vatican’s Mafia-run Financial House… Anybody else positively dizzy with déjà vu…?

When it all comes bubbling to a head it’s only Kudo’s swift thinking and sharp dealing that turns an unmitigated catastrophe into a business triumph, after which the ‘Epilogue’ neatly sums up the subtly effective lessons learned throughout the book and depicts our cast as the look forward to what might lie ahead

Using a stylish soap-opera and captivatingly effective scenario to put a personal face on history – or indeed Global Finance in this case – is a technique the modern film industry has used for decades, with fictionalised accounts of historical figures and events as far-ranging as The King’s Speech to Flight 93 to Shakespeare in Love leading a vital veracity to even the most fanciful proceeding, and it works magnificently here whilst the subplots (sex, political intrigue, bribery, espionage, blackmail, sacrificing family life for the job and, of course, the war between prosperity and personal honour) all work perfectly to put a human frame to what might seem dry and dusty lecturing

Whilst not to everyone’s taste, this book certainly shows how emphatic and powerful a tool comics can be, whilst to my mind it has a far more lasting dramatic appeal than many of its contemporary money-worshipping entertainments such as Dallas, Dynasty or Wall Street

One interesting point about this book is the perceptible subtext and open undercurrent describing a general mistrust of all politicians – shadings that most British scholarly texts are keen and careful to disguise at all costs. US President Ronald Reagan is constantly depicted as either a buffoon or a conniving demon but he gets off lightly compared to Japanese officialdom, from the lowliest local administrator or union rep all the way to the highest statesmen in the land…

Here the words and pictures don’t prevaricate: Business Good, Politicians Bad…

And on that I couldn’t possibly comment…

© 1988 the Regents of the University of California. © 1986 Shōtarō Ishinimori, reprinted by permission of Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Inc.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: the First Jewish Superhero

By Thomas Andrae, Mel Gordon, Jerome Siegel & Joe Shuster (Feral House)
ISBN: 978-1-932595-78-9

The comics industry owes an unpayable debt to two Jewish kids from Cleveland who were in the right place at the right time and were able to translate their enthusiasm and heartfelt affection for beloved influences and delight in a new medium into a brand new genre which took the world by storm.

Writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were a jobbing cartoonist team just breaking into the brand new but ailing comic-book business with strips such as ‘Henri Duval’, ‘Doctor Occult’ and ‘Slam Bradley’ when they rejigged a constantly rejected newspaper strip concept into the greatest sensation of the Age.

Superman captivated depression-era audiences and within a year had become the vanguard of a genre and an industry. In those early days the feature was both whimsical and bombastic, as much a gag strip as an adventure serial, and it was clear the inspired whiz kids were wedded to laughs just as much as any wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies.

Siegel and Shuster were not well-served by their publishers and by 1946 no longer worked for National Periodicals (today’s DC Comics). In fact they were in acrimonious litigation which led to the originators losing all rights to their creation and suffered years of ill-treatment until an artist-led campaign at the time of the 1978 Superman movie shamed the company into a belated reversal and financial package (consisting mostly of having their names returned to the character’s logo and company medical benefits).

Before this however the pair produced an abortive “Last Hurrah”: another unique character based on early influences, but one who sadly did not catch the public’s attention in those post war years when the first super-heroic age was ending. Based broadly on Danny Kaye, Funnyman was a stand-up comedian who dressed as a clown and used comedy gimmicks to battle criminals, super-villains and aliens: first in six issues of his own comic-book and then as a Daily and Sunday newspaper strip.

A complete antithesis to the Man of Steel, Larry Davis was a total insider, no orphan or immigrant, wealthy, successful, accepted and revered by society but who chose to become a ridiculous outsider, fighting for not the common good but because it gave him a thrill nothing else could match. The series was light, beautifully audacious, tremendous fun and sunk like a concrete-filled whoopee cushion.

Here social historians Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon re-examine the strip in the much broader context of Jewish Identity and racial character, (especially as it applies to Jewish-Americans), and make some fascinating observations and postulates. Following an intriguing preface by author, writer, editor and comics historian Danny Fingeroth this book dissects the history and psychology of the Judaic experience in a compelling series of astoundingly illustrated essays gathered under the umbrellas of Gordon’s ‘The Farblondjet Superhero and his Cultural Origins’ and Andrae’s ‘The Jewish Superhero’.

The former (and Farblondjet translates as “mixed up” or “lost”) probes ‘The Mystery of Jewish Humor’, ‘The Construct of Humor in Everyday Jewish Life’, ‘The Old Theories: ‘Laughter-Through-Tears’; ‘A Laughing People’; ‘Outside Observer’ and ‘The Badkhn Theory’ (Badkhn being performers hired to insult, offend and depress guests and celebrants at social gatherings such as weddings or funerals).

‘Characteristics of Modern Jewish Humor’ are subdivided and explored in ‘Aggression’, ‘The Yiddish Language’, ‘Self-Mockery’, ‘Inversion and Skepticism’, ‘Scatology’, ‘Gallows Humor’ and ‘Solipsism and Materialism’ and Gibson’s compelling, contextual  potted-history concludes with ‘American- Jewish Comedy Before 1947’ ( when Funnyman debuted) with ‘Weber and Fields’, ‘On the Boards’, ‘The Borscht Belt’, ‘Cartoons and Jokebooks’ and ‘Hollywood Talkies and Syndicated Radio’.

In ‘The Jewish Superhero’ Andrae examines Siegel and Shuster’s possible influences; everything from German expressionist cinema masterpiece ‘The Golem: How He Came into This World’ to the real-life strongman Sigmund Breitbart, a Polish Jew who astounded the world with his feats in the early 1920s. On his American tour he appeared in Cleveland in October 1923. Siegel, a local resident, would have been nine years old…

‘Funnyman, Jewish Masculinity and the Decline of the Superhero’ then explores the psychology and landscape of the medium through the careers and treatment of Siegel and Shuster in ‘The Birth of Funnyman’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘The Schlemiel and the Tough Jew’, ‘The Decline of the Superhero’ and ‘Comic Book Noir’ before going on to recount the story of the newspaper strips in ‘The Funnyman Comic Strip’ and ‘Reggie Van Twerp’ (a last ditch attempt by the creators to resurrect their comic fortunes) before the inevitable ‘End Game’

So far this book has been a compulsive and hugely informative academic work, but in ‘Funnyman Comic Book Stories’ the resplendent fan fun really begins with a full colour section reproducing a selection of strips from the six issue run. ‘The Kute Knockout!’ (Funnyman #2, March 1948) pits the Hilarious Hero against a streetwalker robot built to seduce and rob Johns whilst ‘The Medieval Mirthquake’ (Funnyman #4, May 1948) propels the Comedy Crusader back to the time of Camelot. From the same issue comes ‘Leapin’ Lena’ as Funnyman tackles a female bandit who can jump like a kangaroo and #5 (July 1948) has him chasing a worrying new crime gimmick in ‘The Peculiar Pacifier’.

Also included are the striking covers of all six issues, the origin of Funnyman from #1, lots of splash pages and a selection of Shuster’s Superman art, but the most welcome benefit for collectors and collectors is a detailed précis of the entire run’s 20 tales.

The same consideration is offered for the newspaper strips. As well as similar synopses for the Sundays (12 adventures spanning October 31st 1948 to the end of October 1949) and the Dailies (another dozen larks beginning October 18th 1948 and ending September 17th 1949) there are 11 pages of full colour Sunday sections and the complete black and white ‘Adventure in Hollywood’ (December 20th to January 12th 1949) to adore and marvel over.

Like Funnyman this book is an odd duck. Whereas I would have loved to see the entire output gathered into one volume, what there is here is completely engrossing: a wonderful appreciation and compelling contextualization of genuine world-altering pioneers. This is a fabulous book with an appeal that ranges far beyond its possibly limited comic-fan audience.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman © 2010 Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon. All rights reserved.

The Best American Comics Criticism

Edited by Ben Schwartz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-148-0

If we want to have our particular objet d’art considered as valid, worthwhile and meaningful as those other peculiarly human non-survival oriented pursuits such as literature, poetry, painting sculpture, music, film and others of that ilk, it’s not enough to simply consume the product. Comics needs to be talked up, kicked about and generally deconstructed by people cleverer than us. It also needs to be done in a manner as interesting and beguiling as the art itself

Unlike me, proper critics need to be at once intensely engaged and incisively dispassionate regarding their subject; able to discuss it in a manner the rest of us can understand, and this magnificent compendium gathers together some of the most telling, pertinent and timeless considerations on sequential narrative of this century.

Naturally not everybody in our quirky community wants to spend money reading about comics rather than the items themselves, so if I can’t convince you to try this fabulous book with the absolutely true statement that “this is an immensely enjoyable read which offers you the chance to see your passion in a new light and will definitely open your eyes to new opportunities to read and collect” then please stop here.

If you’re intrigued and still with me I’ll now briefly run down the fabulous treasures in store if you do acquire this incredibly important and entrancing tome.

Divided into History, Fans, Appraisals, Reviews and Interviews, The Best American Comics Criticism covers every aspect of the industry, business and art-form, paying particular attention to that most under-estimated factor in the development of Comics: the unflinching devotees who turned a pastime into consuming passion – the readers and fans.

Brian Doherty leads off the History section with ‘Comics Tragedy: Is the Superhero Invulnerable?’ (from Reason magazine May 2001), followed by Paul Gravett’s ‘Graphic Novels: Can you Hear the Trucks?’ (Comics International March 2005) and concludes with two of R. Fiore’s Funnybook Roulette columns dealing with the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocity, ‘A Moment of Noise’ and ‘Make Me a Liar’ from Comics Journal #247 and 259 (October 2002 and April 2004 respectively).

The fascinating Fan section features ‘American Boys’, an extract from Gerard Jones’ superb Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the American Comic Book followed by a précis from the landmark judicial ruling overturning the copyright decision against Jerry Siegel, and which awarded some of the profits from the creation of Superman to the writers’ heirs, and ‘Then Let Us Commit Them’ a portion of David Hajdu’s book The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America.

This section concludes with ‘High Standards’ a cartoon examination of the fanboy phenomenon by Seth which was first seen in Wimbledon Green.

Appraisals sees a number of creators discussing other creators and their work with contributions from Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Steve Ditko, Harold Gray, Frank King, George Herriman, James Thurber, John Stanley, Charles Schulz, Will Elder, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner and a dissection of the Masters of American Comics exhibition with contributions from Douglas Wolk, Bob Andelman, Alan Moore, Peter Bagge, Donald Phelps, Ben Schwartz, Jeet Heer, Sarah Boxer, John Updike, Seth, Jonathan Franzen, Daniel Clowes, Ken Parille and Dan Nadel.

The Reviews section opens with Chris Ware’s ‘Töpffer in English’ (from Bookforum, April/May 2008), Rick Moody’s ‘Epileptic: Disorder in the House’ from the New York Times, 23rd January 2005, Robert C. Harvey’s ‘Fun Home: Literary Cartooning in a Graphic World’ (Rants & Raves and Comics Journal – December 2006 and February 2007).

The New York Times of June 1st 2008 provided John Hodgman’s ‘Epics (Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus; Kirby: King of Comics; Age of Bronze; Y: The Last Man)’ whilst the Amazon Customers Review Section was harvested for an anthology of contributions; ‘Was this Review Helpful to You?: Joe Matt’s Spent and the section closes with another visual treat as Nate Gruenwald pictorially examines ‘C. Spinoza’s Pacho Clokey

The final section is Interviews, with David Hajdu tracking from Carl Barks to Marjane Satrapi in ‘Persian Miniatures’(Bookforum, October/November 2004), Darrell Epp’s April 22nd posting on The Two-Handed Man website ‘It Keeps Ending Up Looking Like it was Drawn By Me: An Interview with Chester Brown’ and three Comics Journal interviews conducted by Gary Groth: Will Elder from #254, Yoshihiro Tatsumi in #281 and Kim Deitch in #292 (July 2003, January 2006 and October 2008 respectively).

A transcribed Art Festival event provided a Conversation Between Daniel Clowes and Jonathan Lethem: “I Could Relate Very Closely to Your Isolation” (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, June 12th 2005) whilst The New Art Comics HeroesCon (June 21st 2008) was the forum for Sammy Harkham & Dan Nadel’s closing discussion on the state of the Art.

With a wonderful introduction from Schwartz, loads of pictures, and a copious index and acknowledgements section this scholarly and infectiously accessible tome is just the kind of academic adjunct the comics biz needs, and therefore so do you. Don’t devour this book: pace yourself, dip in, ponder, reflect and, of course, then try out something you haven’t read before…

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Individual contributions are © their respective owners. All rights reserved.