Monday, October 22, 2012

Between Books - Was Superman a Spy?

Cover of Was Superman a Spy showng a spy with a cape using a telescope.
Was Superman A Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! recounts anecdotes from the history of popular comic book titles.  Author Brian Cronin organizes his book into sections on DC, Marvel and other comic book companies.  Within the sections are chapters on popular comic book superheroes such as Batman, Spider-Man and publishers such as Disney.  Typically Cronin’s stories follow the origin of key titles and miscellaneous incidents from publishing history.  Additionally there are a number of photos and comic art to visually support the tales.
The big question is why should a Disney fan care about this book?  First, with Marvel now being a Disney property, after the writing of this book, the history of Marvel will be of interest to general Disney enthusiasts.  The print history of two characters found in The Avengers, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk both receive their own full chapters.  But for me the Marvel history that I found the most interesting is the role of Stan Lee within the company.  Cronin makes it clear that some Marvel colleagues resented Lee while fans celebrated him.  Some, including prominent collaborators like Jack Kirby, saw Lee in the limelight as their own contributions were marginalized.  Additionally, Lee’s somewhat faulty memory often led to their contributions being ignored by Lee himself.  The Marvel Method, outlined by Cronin, developed by Lee also created antagonism.  While Lee served as Marvel’s primary writer he could not give full attention to the numerous books he helmed.  So instead of pre-writing stories he and the artist would discuss the general story concept.  The artist would draw the story they discussed and then Lee would provide the script and narrative to the completed images.  Lee would at times take the story in a different direction then the artists envisioned, leading to conflict between Lee and others.  In many ways this method paints Lee as an almost Walt Disney figure, coordinating the efforts of many talented people much like Disney did with his animators and Imagineers. 
Second, Cronin provides an entire chapter about Disney comics.  Though I have not read any of these in depth, I did find the chapter highly interesting.  I did not realize that Scrooge McDuck originated in print and not in an animated short or feature.  I think most savvy Disney fans would be interested in reading of a storyline suggested by Walt Disney himself around a suicidal Mickey Mouse.  Additionally, I enjoyed reading about Disney’s conflicts with Marvel, pre-Disney ownership, over the character Howard the Duck and similarities to Donald Duck.  I found the concession of forcing Howard to always wear pants highly amusing.
Finally, Disney is sprinkled throughout the book.  The Batman chapter makes references to the use of the Batman theme song to train Dolphins at Epcot.  And there is a discussion about how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs impacted the budget of the Fleischer Brothers Studio’s Superman shorts.  Yes, the impacts of Disney properties are spread throughout this book. 
A friend loaned me Was Superman a Spy? because of the Disney chapter.  I found the book easy to read, but broken into episodes which at times left the reader wanting to know more about these titles.  Of course, some of these titles have had entire books written about them. I would recommend this book to those who want to dip their toes into comic history but not make a deep dive into any one title.  But it is far from the definitive work on any of the topics included.      

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