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Strip down memory lane

The Comic Book, By Paul Sassienie, Ebury Press #163;19.99. 0 09 178730 0.

Geoff Fox on a passionate account of comic books and their heroes The Comic Book is not a nostalgia trip for ageing aficionados of the old story-comics, The Magnet, The Wizard, The Champion and the rest. Roy of the Rovers gets only two-and-a-half lines, with Wilson, Rockfist Rogan, and the Wolf of Kabul nowhere. Even the egregious Fat Owl of the Remove is confined within a single paragraph which merely notes his appearance in the strips of The Knockout in the 40s.

By "comic book", Paul Sassienie means narratives told largely through pictures. He begins with an extremely rapid history of the form, from cave paintings to Flash Gordon in seven pages by way of the Egyptians, medieval stained glass, Bayeux, Cruikshank, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday and Comic Cuts. The Dandy and The Beano are mentioned subsequently, though rather briefly; The Eagle is given a little more space. Many of the riches of the Victorian period and long-running papers for younger children (such as Puck and Tiny Tots) of the first half of this century are merely listed in the "Index of Comic Titles and their Publishers" which occupies 140 of the 336 pages.

Sassienie's passion is for American comic books. About half of the 300 colour pictures, splendidly reproduced and meticulously referenced, feature Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and their Superhero kin, who flourished long before someone created Sylvester Stallone. Their conceptions, their soaring sales, their falls from grace and their carefully orchestrated resurrections, are recorded but not examined.

For this is more a work of bibliography than of criticism. There is little or no speculation about the part played by comic books and their heroes in western culture. There are only general comments about the quality of the art work; no reports of research about who reads these comics (and why) in terms of age or gender. There is no discussion of the sexiness (or exploitation) of the Super-heroines, even though the frontispiece pictures "Red Sonja, she-devil with a sword", breasts bursting from shallow cups, leather booted and gauntleted, dagger strapped to thigh, bestride a severed serpent and flanked by a snarling Oriental and a rampant unicorn.

What the book does provide is an account of what fans call The Golden Age,The Silver Age, The post-Golden Age (and so on) of comic books in the States and, in brief, the parallel periods in Britain. (There is virtually no reference to the massive graphic books industry in Japan and France.) The account is condensed, so that Sergeant Bilko rubs shoulders with, say, Superboy; the relentless names and dates make for difficult reading for the uninitiated. There are occasional digressions to note, but not assess, such attacks as Wertham's The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) - the first anxious suggestion that Batman's relationship with Robin was homosexual.

There is serious money in collecting comics and there are authoritative chapters about investment and on grading and assessing comics for condition. Shorter miscellaneous sections reflect the author's joy in his hobby - a Trivia Quiz, a guide to identification of Beano and Dandy Annuals, a Glossary of Terms and the like.

This is a book for the already committed, who may cherish snippets of information and share in a celebration. As the author says, "The comic's medium is the most collaborative on earth, a grand conspiracy of creativity. God, I love it". If you share his view, you'll love his book.

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