Books — Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers

Writers on Comics, edited by Sean Howe (Pantheon Books, 2004, 226 pages).

You can pay $600 to attend a seminar on comics as literary art at a prestigious university, or you can pay $25 for Sean Howe’s book. Whatever you’d get out of the one is pretty much what you’d get out of the other.

If you’re an experienced comics fan whose very cells are suffused with the history and lore of comics, you will talk to the book—a collection of essays by 17 different writers—nodding fervently or frowning intently, maybe chewing your lip and thinking things like “Ah, yes, I hadn’t considered the philosophical ramifications of Godel’s Theorem on the inner lives of superheroes.”

And if you’re not a well-versed fan, you might feel like you’re in a little over your head, but you’re bound to absorb some expertise and excitement. You’ll at least come away knowing that DC versus Marvel Comics is a big rivalry akin to, say Star Trek versus Star Wars (in that many fans of one claim to despise the other on principle), that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee are huge names in the biz, and that some of today’s acclaimed fiction writers devoured comics as kids.

Geoff Dyer (author of Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It) writes “To put it simply, I liked Michelangelo because the obsessive and extreme torsion of his figures was so obviously derived from that of Jack Kirby.”

Gary Giddins (accomplished writer about jazz and other music) describes how “Classics Illustrated,” a series of comic-book versions of classic literary works, led him to read the real things.

Aimee Bender (whose short fiction appears in GQ, Harper’s, Granta, and other magazines) expostulates on how comics, which she says amount to a form of show-and-tell, can help fiction writers develop their craft.

Lydia Millet (author of My Happy Life) uses comics to muse on what fiction is all about.

And Glen David Gold (author of Carter Beats the Devil) contributes a fine meditation on obsession and collecting (which he relates to, among other things, self-loathing).

Nicely, these guys are not all starting with the same assumptions about this writing assignment. Some take as a given the idea that comics are not just for kids, others question it. Some go off on tangents about their favorites; some delve into history; some analyze the oeuvre and some analyze themselves.

So, yes, newbies will get less out of Atomsmashers than established comics fans will—Tom Piazza’s imagined interview with Bizarro is one big in-joke, and when Myla Goldberg (author of the novel Bee Season) debates the merits of Renee French’s work versus Chris Ware’s, it becomes obvious that people could write doctoral dissertations on these things (and no doubt they have).

Yet these essays (Piazza’s and Goldberg’s included) don’t read like doctoral dissertations. They read like highly intellectual love-letters/memoirs, and what comes through most of all is a feeling of fondness—either for comics in general or for certain comics in particular.

If you too have felt any such fondness, you will know what these guys are talking about even when you don’t.

—Story by Lisa Parsons

2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH