Silver Age: The Second Generation of Comic Book Artists
Written by Daniel Herman
Published by Hermes Press; $49.99 USD
I received a rather odd book in the mail on Friday and have wrestled with my feelings about it throughout the weekend. Silver Age: The Second Generation of Comic Book Artists is an oversized art book priced at $49.99.
When I saw the title and the Gil Kane art reproduced on the cover, I got pretty excited. The comics art of the Silver Age is ripe for exploration, and it would be great if it was in a 214 page oversized hardcover like this. There are some terrific examples of comic art reproduced from the original art, with an eye to recreating as closely as possible the experience of seeing actual original comic art right on the page. White-Out, tape and pencil lines are much in evidence, reflecting the actual look of original comic art instead of its more refined, printed look.
Unfortunately, most readers who buy Silver Age will be expecting a volume focusing on the era so prominently noted in the title. It is, after all, a 214 page oversized artbook purportedly about the artists of the Silver Age. The truth, unfortunately, is that much less space is devoted to the topic at hand than you might expect.
Herman starts with earliest strips of the 1890s and exhaustively covers the original comic strips and the history of comics seemingly without end; the first 93 pages of this 214 page book turn out not to be about the Silver Age at all, but cover the Golden Age, World War II, pre-SA ECs and other topics that are certainly of interest but way outside the remit of the book. The first three chapters should have occupied a paragraph or two at best, in order to fulfill the promise of the title and dig right in to the vast landscape of worthwhile Silver Age art. But that just doesn't happen.
Marvel Comics -- without question the most influential and important company of the era -- gets about 30 pages, with Steve Ditko meriting discussion on only about two of those pages. Unbelievably, most of the examples of Ditko's art are presented much smaller than originally published, while many lesser and less-influential artists are given entire pages or even double-page spreads on which to show off their unremarkable artwork. Was there a single more significant character-and-artist relationship in the Silver Age than Ditko and Spider-Man? I'd argue no, but Herman barely acknowledges the impact of this key element of the era. Jack Kirby fares slightly better, with some of his Fantastic Four artwork even reproduced close to full-size. But thanks to The Jack Kirby Collector, literally hundreds of pages of Kirby's original art are already available to readers and historians. It seems to me a great opportunity to present Ditko's most historic original art was lost here due to the bizarre authorial choices Herman makes.
Much of the information about the artists here is about the lives and circumstances and careers more than an actual discussion of their art, although there is some of that. Silver Age notables like Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith and John Romita Sr. are barely mentioned, or completely ignored. And while I am sympathetic to the idea that Jack Kirby contributed the lion's share of the ideas of the Marvel Comics of the Silver Age, Herman's prose at times goes too far in this direction, giving writer/editor Stan Lee what seems like the short shrift.
Publishers like Dell and Tower seem to be given a disproportionate amount of ink -- yes, artists like Wallace Wood and Alex Toth deserve coverage. But when, say, Neal Adams's X-Men run or Barry Windsor-Smith's mid-1960s pre-Conan efforts are minimized or not even mentioned, it just seems to present an unbalanced view of what was going on in the era. Steranko is mentioned as having been influenced by Krigstein and Kirby and then dismissed out of hand. Adams, Windsor-Smith and Steranko were all important parts of the late Silver Age, but you'd never know it if you went by this book. We do get a lot of pedestrian Dr. Solar art from an artist that even Herman concedes in the text was unremarkable. We do get a Bill Everett Sub-Mariner page that Herman notes was published after the Silver Age. Why? I'm guessing because the page is probably in Herman's collection of original art. I'm guessing many of the strange choices in this book can be traced back to this assumption.
After losing nearly half the book's pages to the pre-SA history of comics, after giving Dell and Tower and other tangential publishers such disproportionate coverage, though, the final chapter really is a kick in the head to anyone looking for insight into the art of the Silver Age of comics.
The entire last chapter of the book is entirely about Gil Kane's HIS NAME IS...SAVAGE!
Now, SAVAGE! was a great book, of historical interest to be sure. Fantagraphics even reprinted it in a nice magazine-sized edition in the 1980s that is still easily available and well worth investigating for fans of crime, adventure and espionage comics or the work of Kane himself. I have recommended SAVAGE! myself as a terrific example of the art of one of the five most influential corporate comics artists ever. But when you've already lost nearly half your book discussing comics entirely outside the scope of the book (the pre-SA chapters from pages 1-93), the emphasis on a mostly-forgotten (undeservedly so, yes), evolutionary dead-end is more than a little odd.
Silver Age, then, is a weird book, one that reveals its true nature as a vanity press project in the worst possible manner. A better title might have been "Daniel Herman's Art Collection." As a title it would probably generate fewer sales, but it's a much more accurate one than Silver Age: The Second Generation of Comic Book Artists. Readers who buy it based on that title will not come away with the implied insight into the era, and sadly other publishers may now shy away from the topic because of the existence of this somewhat deceptive tome.
Incredibly, the very last line of the book contains the supreme irony. Ham-handedly transitioning from the long chapter about Gil Kane's SAVAGE into the book's closing paragraph (yes, there is NO summarizing final chapter) Herman mentions how Neal Adams' influence set the stage for changes in the 1970s, and closes with the killer phrase: "But that's another story."
Given that the book is supposed to be about the Silver Age and its artists, and so much of it just isn't, and so much more ignores the truly important and influential artists and events of the era, a look at the Silver Age might indeed be another story; certainly this disappointing volume barely scratches the surface. Grade: 2.5/5
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