History Repeats Itself

Leaping Tall Buildings is a book with a straightforward yet tricky mission: to chronicle the origins of American comics. Without a doubt, it is a stunning package. Befitting its subject matter, the book is beautifully designed and contains an insightful mix of comic reproductions and photos. Even the paper and ink smell good. A big thumbs up to the production crew and photographer, Seth Kushner.

The book’s editorial content, however, is hit or miss. The text by Christopher Irving is chipper, but not as sharp as we’d like it to be (we groaned when he called Carmine Infantino the “head cheese of National Comics,” for example). And honestly, there wasn’t much contextual information that was new to us. Maybe we’re too old and grizzled, but we’re not interested in rehashing the history of American comic books one more time in such a pedestrian manner.

We also question Irving’s editorial decisions. The author interviews Peter Bagge instead of Daniel Clowes? He talks to Kim Deitch but not Robert Crumb? Miller but not Moore? Xaime but not Beto? At times the content seems a bit scattershot. In addition, the book doesn’t adequately acknowledge the pioneering contributions of women. Only eight women are interviewed here. No mention of Marie Severin, Ramona Fradon, Trina Robbins, Dori Seda, Lynda Barry, or Alison Bechdel. Jenette Kahn’s name pops up briefly, but nothing substantial about Karen Berger or even Carol Kalish (not a creator, but important in her own way). Instead we get an interview with Becky Cloonan. Becky Cloonan, for goodness sake! She’s a tremendously talented lady and we love her to pieces, but she has yet to leap a single tall building. Not one.

Two more complaints: 1) there’s far too much jibber-jabber about historically irrelevant corporate decisions like all the various Daredevil and Spider-Man reboots. That stuff is clearly not important in the long run. And 2) the author continually misuses the term “graphic novel” throughout the book. Is Harvey Pekar’s Our Cancer Year a graphic novel? How about Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud? Nope. No matter what Irving says, neither of them are graphic novels. One is a memoir and the other is a textbook.

Despite all of our complaints (and believe us, there are a few more things we could harp on), Leaping Tall Buildings does one thing very, very well. It lets the creators speak their mind. And guess what? Many of them have sharp insights concerning the medium, the industry, and their own personal contributions. For example, Paul Pope calls Jack Kirby “the language of comics” in the same way that a guitar riff can define the blues. And Michael Kupperman says the link between literature and comics is flawed because, “Comics have their own strengths, and to try to make them the same as other art forms weakens them.”

And finally, commenting on the future of comics—whether they will remain a dead-wood media or make the leap exclusively into the digital world—artist Michel Fiffe says, “The only thing that will save comics are the ideas and content, not the specific formats, not the specific brushes you used, not the revisionist update of old lame characters, not the screenwriters from Hollywood.” Right on. In our opinion, comics don’t need to be saved. But we understand what Fiffe is talking about. The history of comic books is a rich and varied story. There’s no reason to believe it will end anytime soon.

[Leaping Tall Buildings / By Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner / First Printing: May 2012 / ISBN: 9781576875919]

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