Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution

Greetings loyal readers! All of three of you. This is my first hardcover review for WGTB so enjoy. The book reviewed here is Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution. It was published in 2004 and its author is Ronin Ro. I recently found it at a used bookstore in Toronto, Canada. Lately, I had been itching for something more substantial about our medium and decided to give it a shot.

This book is both interesting and frustrating.

It’s interesting because it will supplement your knowledge of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and growth of comic books as a medium from the Second World War until recent times. It will explain to you why Kirby, Lee and others are so important to comics, and will help you understand how the history of comic fiction developed into clearly demarcated ages, with key players and dominant companies.

It’s frustrating because of how it does this. My biggest issue with the book is that it takes a very ‘macro’ view and is almost completely devoid of dates and context which is immeasurably important for someone with less than a specialist-grade knowledge. The tumultuous history of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is a gripping story. Simple dates would be immeasurably helpful in explaining when the big comics were released, why they were so groundbreaking, and why they're so expensive for collectors today. Okay, maybe this a case of linearly-minded historian nit-picking. But ground-breaking comics occurred at important periods in time in history and there is a connection. Captain America #1 was a World War II story; Fantastic Four #48 was a space-age story; and OMAC #1 was the quintessential future-fearing story from the 1970s. If you don't know the dates of these issues, this book will be a Journey Into Mystery for you.

It also has some peculiar sentences and grammatical and punctuation errors. This, however, I blame on poor editing. Everyone knows that a good writer ALWAYS has a better editor. My blog is evidence of this.

But enough with the negative. If I sound like some mean-spirited critic who is nastily panning this effort, this hostility may stem from a begrudging respect. As I comic fan who understands how complex of a story this is, I can only imagine how difficult this book must have been to write. The tumultuous story of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee began during WWII and carries on to this day, almost two decades after Kirby's passing. And, frankly, I envy Ro. I love my legal studies, but if someone offered me good money to research Bullpen Bulletins and read comics all day? Well, that would be an Amazing Fantasy!

So give this book a read if you want some background on Marvel’s early history and are looking to expand your knowledge on why some books from 1966 or 1971 are worth more than others. You’ll move though it quickly and it will make you appreciate Stan Lee’s creativity and business acumen and Jack Kirby’s artwork and creativity.

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