Tuesday, February 04, 2014

On History: Comic Book Babylon Review

I vaguely recall hearing about Clifford Meth trying to Kickstarter his book, Comic Book Babylon last year. I'll be honest and say my reaction at the time was, "Meh." I've read some of Meth's columns over the years and didn't really see how what amounted to a collection of them would be worth it; nothing wrong with his writing, just that the pieces I had read were either A) very bound to the time he was writing, as he was commenting on current events, or B) off on something of a tangent to my personal interests. But the Kickstarter was successful (coming in at over five times Meth's asking amount!) and a Kindle edition of the book showed up on Amazon in January. For a reasonable cover price, I figured it was worth checking out.

Now, the book is basically a collection of columns and articles that Meth has written over the past decade or so. Nearly all of which have already appeared online. So why am I reviewing it under my "On History" segment? I mean, come on, we're talking about pieces that even fifteen year olds could have read as new. And while it does cover recent events like Dave Cockrum's last years and after-parties from conventions you may well have attended a few years ago, it sits further back than that as well.

See, although Meth was writing about contemporary events, many of the people involved witnessed and/or created chunks of what we now consider comics history. Cockrum is a prime example, having created many of the X-Men that are now famous thanks to a series of successful films. Neal Adams and Harlan Ellison come up repeatedly, Stan Lee shows up for more than a couple cameos, Marie Severin, Joe Kubert... Even more contemporary guys that pop up like Joe Quesada -- who I might remind readers was Marvel's Editor-in-Chief for over a decade, but has still been out of that role for several years now -- are beginning to take on this aura of being part of comics history. So, despite being relatively recent writings to be considered history, the overall work winds up being almost historical in nature.

Think about it. In detailing Cockrum's fight with Marvel to receive some compensation for helping to create such popular characters, don't you have to provide some background on his creating them? Meth's pieces are still written very much in the present and are focused on the then-current situation at hand, but the contexts goes back decades.

So the book sits in this curious middle ground between the contemporary and historic. It's nearly unique in that regard, I think, and makes for both some excellent anecdotes about the late Silver and early Bronze ages of comics, but also provides a snapshot of the industry and fandom from a decade ago. "Oh, geez, people were fighting over that?"

At this point, you might be thinking, "So far, Sean, you've spent this entire 'review' trying to justify why you've posted it under you 'On History' category!"

Well, I think it's worth pointing out what this material is. There are no great revelations in here -- most of it was published in some other form before. But Meth hasn't just thrown together all of his blog posts into a book. He's curated what he's written so there's a surprising cohesiveness to the book. It's not one simple narrative, far from it, but the pieces all tie together thematically. And where one column doesn't slide particularly smoothly into the next on its own, he's added some bridge pieces to keep the book from becoming too halting. Not to mention some way-better-than-I-ever-anticipated illustrations by Michael Netzer.

There is a bit of inside-baseball type of talk from time to time, and Meth never sugar-coats his words. Even those directed at himself. He clearly shows some preferential biases -- he's quite upfront about his long friendships with Cockrum and Ellison for example -- but he also seems to be fair all around. I'm generally skeptical about the veracity of comic creator anecdotes, but I feel less so with Meth than I think I normally would. Maybe it's how he's willing to show himself in less-than-flattering lights sometimes, or that he freely admits when his memory might be off. Regardless, the book feels authentic despite it being largely anecdotal.

I actually bought my copy for $3.99, a couple days before the price dropped by 75%, but I have to say that I'm not miffed. I find it's worth what I paid for it, and certainly worth the 99¢ that it is right now! You could track down all of Meth's columns and articles online for free, but I definitely think getting the best of them collected in one place is a better option!

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