Publisher Quirk Books’ new DC Comics: The 75th Anniversary Poster Book offers two different reading experiences, to potentially two different audiences.
Firstly and foremost, it’s exactly what its title indicates, a “poster book.” It’s 14 inches high, 11 wide and, as the cover says in font nearly as bit as the title, it “includes 100 ready-to-frame covers,” the edges perforated to easily tear the over-sized reproductions of the covers out to sticky-tape to your dorm room or frame and hang in your library (or the room you keep all your long boxes in; whatever).
As a comics critic and blogger as well as a comics reader, I suppose I’m a little bit more engaged with DC Comics covers than some potential consumers of this book, but even still, I was somewhat surprised by how many images from the book I was already quite familiar with, either from reading the books, reading about the books, or just seeing a blogger posting a funny image of a gorilla cover or Batman doing something goofy in order to make fun of it.
It does speak to the original power of many of the images included, and the pervasiveness of their influence—either because of the overall quality of the image itself, and/or to the association with the contents of the story lurking under it. Think Superman lifting a car over his head while that guy in the lower left-hand corner freaks out, or Batman flexing like a body builder while jumping in front of a lightning bolt, or The Joker with a camera, instructing the reader to “smile,” or Superman crying and cradling the body of Supergirl while the rest of the DC Universe assembles in the background like wallpaper.
The images are arranged chronologically, from 1935’s New Fun #1, a contender for the crown of “first comic book” (depending on how we want to define “comic book”) to 2008’s Batman #679, one of Alex Ross’ covers from the “Batman R.I.P.” storyline. Flipped through page by page, they offer something of a visual history, suggesting various talents and trends.
But on the back of each, we find the cover date and cover artist, a paragraph or so worth of commentary from Robert Schnakenberg, a pull-quote relevant to the cover in some way, and smaller, reproductions of two other covers related to the one on the opposite page (For example, on the back of the Action Comics #1 cover, we find H.G. Peter doing a Wonder Woman version of Superman’s car-toting pose from 1946 and Drew Struzan’s homage from the cover of 2003’s Action Comics #800).
These offer a history of DC Comics, which, due to the publisher’s longevity and the way it absorbed so many Golden and Silver Age publishers to retroactively assume ownership of characters, concepts and content, is also a history of American comic book publishing in general.
Obviously, the specifics of events at other publishing houses aren’t detailed, but they are evident in the way that they are reflected in DC Comics that responded to them. Marvel’s 1960s superhero revolution is briefly prefigured by Jack Kirby’s Challengers of The Unknown, and the Silver Age recreations of The Flash, Green Lantern and company. Archie Comics’ successful teenage comics can be seen echoed in Leave It To Binky. And so on.
Then we get to the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and here’s covers of Swamp Thing and Sandman, launching mainstream American “adult” comics and the graphic novel movement. Here’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, and the dawn of the superhero crossover and line-wide event. Here’s the cover of Ronin, V For Vendetta, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
While almost every trend from the thirties to the nineties is covered, it’s not exactly a complete history of comics—DC didn’t really have a coherent or obvious response to, say, the 1980s black and white indie comics movement, or what would become known as art comix in the ‘90s or ‘00s. There’s no real autobio or comics journalism here. Manga goes unacknowledged (despite the company running an imprint), and, likewise, their attempts at the catering material directly for the book market (the Minx books, The Joker ogn), and there’s nothing from their webcomic thing, Zuda (although I suppose whether or not webcomics have “covers” in the sense that this book is interested in covering is debatable).
But the dawn of the superhero, crime, war, horror, humor, romance, the return of superheroes in the ‘60s, science fiction, “relevant” superheroes, grim and gritty superheroes, meta-fictional superheroes, Vertigo—it’s all in here.
The book contains work from (deep breath) Joe Shuster, Creig Flessel, Bob Kane, Sheldon Moldoff, H.G. Peter, Jim Mooney, Curt Swan, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert, Mike Sekowsky, Ramona Fradon, John Romita, Neal Adams, Steve Ditko, Bob Oksner, Berni Wrightson, Nick Cardy, C.C. Beck, Marshall Rogers, Jim Starlin, George Perez, Frank Miller, Steve Bissette, John Byrne, Dave McKean, Brian Bolland, Dan Jurgens, Glen Fabry, Alex Ross, Darwyn Cooke, Adam Hughes, Jim Lee, James Jean, Tim Sale, Paul Pope, Frank Qutiely and several others, their covers blown-up to coffee table art book, check-out-the-elegance-of-the-line-work-on-that-tiny-hand-in-the-corner size.
Any way you look at it, that’s a who’s who of comics artists, and most of these guys could have books of this size or bigger devoted solely to their work—in fact, many of them do. There’s plenty of room to argue over who was included, who wasn’t, and whether the image or images (in Swan’s case, for example, there’s probably around a dozen images included) are the best examples of their work or a particular trend or time in DC Comics history. But that’s undoubtedly a list of contributors that includes most of the greatest mainstream comics artists in comics history and present, and a pretty great starting point for appreciating comics art and comics history.
But that room to argue is probably the most appealing aspect of the book. By making selections, it omits so many contenders, and the fact remains that there are probably enough great covers owned by this particular company to fill 100 books of 100 great covers each. The 75th Anniversary Poster Book is a primer, not a compendium. For newcomers, it’s a guidebook, for fans, it’s a reminder—the American comic book is a huge, fantastic place full of so much great art you can spend a lifetime seeking out, consuming and enjoying it. And that’s just a tip of the big, beautiful iceberg that is comics.