Subtitled ‘The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes’ the book aims to trace ‘the esoteric roots of many a comic book story’. So far, so geeky.
I never really read comics growing up – I was already in a devoted relationship with books of which there were a great many to get through, and I kind of liked the pictures my own head made up for me. Later, I began to develop an inkling of the sort of stories and worlds I’d been missing out on, but I’ve never quite got round to backfilling the gap. The media frenzy of films and shows, particularly over the past decade or so, has gone a long way to addressing this oversight so while I can’t make any really legitimate claim to avid fandom (certainly not in the true sense) I do have a reasonable familiarity and appreciation of the main, popularised iterations. A book combining this with magical motifs is a pretty compelling proposition.
Some general notes worthy of consideration. The book is written by an American author and much of the focus is on the US trends and influences however, as the US drove much of the comic culture discussed in the book, this is perfectly reasonable and suitable attention is given to wider considerations where appropriate. The second is that it was published in 2007, right around the time the current superhero media frenzy was just picking up pace and in fact provides some fascinating insights into why now, perhaps more than ever, we continue to be mesmerised by super-powered action and adventure (and not because of psychic mind control, I should add).
The book is absolutely crammed with information: histories, philosophies, mythologies, psychologies, economics, politics, factors and forces relating to both the fictional and real world characters, organisations and events that have shaped the comic book phenomenon since inception. Clearly a devotee of both aspects, Knowles covers each segment with enthusiasm and insight and it is as much an examination of the evolution of this particular type of storytelling as it is the specific subject matter. The style is clear, concise and eminently readable.
My sole reservation is that in taking on such a comprehensive scope, the various sections were a little light on detail or analysis, particularly on the occult side. All of the usual suspects make an appearance (Fortune, Crowley, Parsons, Blavatsky) with succinct and accurate summary information, but I felt a bit like the significance and influence aspect never really got explored, or at least not to a sufficient depth for my liking.
That being said, it was an interesting read, particularly as someone who’s only really seen the film and TV incarnations and interpretations of superhero symbolism and lore and I’d actually be genuinely interested to read an updated volume examining the recent frenzy, increasingly diverse cultural influences (particularly anime and manga) and of course the extent to which occult trends and developments continue (or not) to inspire this genre of storyteller.
A good solid read for anyone with even a passing interest in superhero-occult fusion.