On History: The Great Comic Book Artists

By | Tuesday, December 22, 2015 1 comment
Ron Goulart's The Great Comic Book Artists from 1986 is probably the first book of straight-up comic book history that I ever got. Sort of. As you might surmise from the title, it's actually a series of profiles of comic book artists. Each of the 60 artists has a one-page write-up opposite a sample page of their art.

I was probably initially attracted to it by the John Byrne cover. He was working Fantastic Four at the time, and I had been loving it since I discovered the book a couple years earlier. But what I recall striking me after I started reading it was the number of creators I hadn't heard of. There were a lot of guys I recognized: Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster, John Buscema, Neal Adams... basically a lot of big names in the superhero genre. (I was barely a teenager at the time; that was all I knew.) There were some other names that I was kind of passingly familiar with: Harvey Kurtzman, C.C. Beck, Alex Toth, Jack Davis... but these were guys whose style was so distinctive that it was easy to spot.

But then there were a bunch of guys I'd never heard of. Matt Baker, Reed Crandall, Lou Fine, Fred Guardineer, Mac Raboy... Mostly guys from the '30s and '40s. As I had no real concept of comics' history at that point -- the entirety of my knowledge of comics history was basically: 1938, Superman; 1939, Batman; 1941, Captain America; 1961, Fantastic Four -- the book proved very insightful. Even though each artist got only a single page, that was far more than I was aware of at the time. I daresay that, for some of those creators, it was the most that had ever been published about them up until that point.

I was, however, sadly disappointed with the art. The selections were interesting and not always what you might think would be obvious choices. The Shuster sample was a Mr. Mystic page, for example, not Superman. But the reproduction quality left a lot to be desired. The pages were all printed in black and white, but a good number of them were just taken directly from published comics. The colors all became grey tones, and the bad color registration got reprinted. Several pages wound up looking so muddied as to be almost unreadable. The Neal Adams, Alex Schomburg, and Berni Wrightson samples look especially terrible. I could understand in the cases of some of the older art not being available, but even the then-recent images from Walt Simonson and Bill Sienkiewicz from only a year or two earlier were taken from the published books.

Goulart was probably the first comics historian of any sort that I read, and from that perspective, I appreciate that he helped usher me into thinking about comics as more than the end product. But I've found that much of what he writes (at least with regards to comics) to be pretty superficial, and rarely gets to any real depth. But, as I said, he was the first historian that I really read and his overviews still came as welcome beacons for the mostly empty comics knowledge-base I had at the time. So while I don't exactly rush out of my way to pick up his latest book, his books are worth a look if you can't tell a Charles Biro page from a Jack Cole one.
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Mine was: Hero Illustrated Special Edition: 100 Most Important Comic of All Time! It came in in 1994.

I do not recall if there were any credits for who wrote it, but I do know Mark Evanier wrote an introduction that was loaded with early comic history information.

I had been buying comics since 1986 but really had very little knowledge of comic book history. In there were a whole bunch of first appearances of major super heroes and genre defining books.