Too Many Words: 15 fantastic books to help you learn about comics

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May 12, 2016

The comic book industry has been entertaining readers for nearly a century now, but the history of the art form, and the men and women behind it, was criminally unrecognized for most of that time. Fortunately, as comic books and graphic novels have become more mainstream and made their way into classrooms across the world, there have been an increasing number of authors and critics who have wanted to write about comic books and the people who make them.

Now, as part of Blastr’s Book Month, we’re spotlighting some of the best books celebrating comics. Some are history books, others are biographies on influential creators, dissections of iconic characters or thoughts on the inner workings of our favorite four-color fantasies. Read on to find 15 books that will have you appreciating comic books in a whole new way, and stay tuned to Blastr’s Book Month all month long for more.

 

THE TEN CENT PLAGUE: THE GREAT COMIC-BOOK SCARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA

(By David Hajdu. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

The Ten Cent Plague provides a fascinating examination of a time in history when comic books were blamed for juvenile delinquency and the target of a nationwide moral outrage that the medium has never fully recovered from. David Hajdu recounts the state of the industry in the post-WWII years, when comic book publishers testified before Congress, the birth of the insanely strict censorship of the Comics Code Authority, the creation of MAD Magazine and more. An engaging read for comic fans and American history buffs alike.

 

SUPERHEROES! CAPES, COWLS, AND THE CREATION OF COMIC BOOK CULTURE

(By Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor. Crown Archetype, 2013)

While this book may be a companion to PBS’s documentary series Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, it still stands on its own as an impressive all-encompassing look at the superhero genre. Clocking in at just over 300 pages, Superheroes! Stretches from turn-of-the-century pulp to the recent Hollywood super-boom and is bursting with bold, full-color images on nearly every page. Dozens of new interviews with creators, performers and filmmakers done specifically for the book add a little extra goodness that won’t be found in the documentary. This is like a superhero museum in a book.

 

OUTSIDE THE BOX: INTERVIEWS WITH CONTEMPORARY CARTOONISTS

(By Hillary L. Chute. University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Outside the Box is a compilation of compelling interviews with a dozen of the most well-respected cartoonists working in comics and graphic novels today. Conducted by the book’s refreshingly knowledgeable author over the course of several years, the interviews with such masters as Scott McCloud, Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco, and Alison Bechdel cover a range of topics as they discuss their craft, their entry into comics, their artistic philosophies and much more. An exclusive chat between Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware is the cherry on top of this glimpse inside the minds of the artists on the bleeding edge of the comic book medium.

 

WAS SUPERMAN A SPY? AND OTHER COMIC BOOK URBAN LEGENDS REVEALED

 (By Brian Cronin. Plume, 2009)

Brian Cronin has specialized in the collection discussion of comic book ephemera for quite some time now with his blog Comics Should Be Good over at Comic Book Resources, and with this book, he brings all of that knowledge to print. Covering a wide range of topics from Marvel, DC, and many smaller publishers, touching on strange story decisions, behind-the-scenes shakeups, and all sorts of other tales you didn’t realize you needed to know about, Was Superman a Spy? is packed with information that will educate and entertain newbies and hardcore fans alike.

 

MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY

(By Sean Howe. HarperCollins, 2012)

It’s hard to imagine a time when Marvel was the underdog, but that’s the history that former Entertainment Weekly editor Sean Howe writes about in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Rather than telling histories of characters, however, Howe pulls back the curtain and takes a historian’s eye to the men and women behind the books, showing the triumphs and failures of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the rest of the writers and artists that populated the House of Ideas throughout the decades. Drawing on well over a hundred interviews with the people who lived it, this is the story of how a second-string funny book company became an American touchstone.

 

JACK COLE AND PLASTIC MAN: FORMS STRETCHED TO THEIR LIMITS

(By Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd. Chronicle Books, 2001)

Jack Cole was one of the most enigmatic and groundbreaking cartoonists of the early days of the comic book industry, producing edgy crime books, illustrating for Playboy, and most famously creating the superhero known as Plastic Man. This book is part biography, part artistic analysis, and part reprinting of Cole’s groundbreaking and experimental work, all visually blended into one package by designer Chip Kidd. Art Spiegelman (the cartoonist behind Maus) provides a snappy and insightful account of the artist’s career and tragic end in this one-of-a-kind biography on an under-appreciated master.

 

PANEL ONE: COMIC BOOK SCRIPTS BY TOP WRITERS

(Edited by Nat Gertler. About Comics, 2002)

It can be difficult to know how to begin writing a comic book, because there’s no industry standard for what a comic book script should look like. That’s where Panel One comes in. Nat Gertler has put together a collection of scripts that run the gamut of formats, all from some of the best writers in the business, including Neil Gaiman, Kurt Busiek, Jeff Smith, Marv Wolfman, and more! Each script is introduced by either Gertler or the writers themselves, providing context and insight to the entries in this invaluable resource to future writers, and fascinating peek at a rarely-seen part of the process for fans.

 

DO ANYTHING VOLUME ONE: JACK KIRBY RIPPED MY FLESH

(By Warren Ellis. Avatar Press, 2010)

Warren Ellis is the iconoclastic comic book writer behind Planetary, The Authority, Nextwave, and much more, and in 2009 he brought his abrasive style to Bleeding Cool for a series of outrageous columns, which have been cleaned up and reprinted in this volume. In his essays, Ellis tells readers that he has the disembodied robotic head of legendary comic book creator Jack Kirby sitting on his desk, and invites readers along as he discusses topics on the medium and history of comics with — and is harassed by — the head. Despite — and perhaps because of— the bizarre and frequently hilarious conceit, the resulting wisdom, commentary and artistic revelations are pointed enough that it will have you coming back for multiple readings.

 

75 YEARS OF DC COMICS: THE ART OF MODERN MYTHMAKING

(By Paul Levitz. Taschen Press, 2010)

Having spent the better part of four decades at DC Comics as an editor, writer, publisher and president, it’s hard to think of someone better suited to writing a book on the history of the company than Paul Levitz. Weighing in at over 700 pages, and a foot-and-a-half tall when stood up, this tome is more densely-packed with information than Braniac’s hard drives, and contains over 2000 images to boot. This is all a DC — or any comic book fan — could ever want from a comics history book.

 

MAN OF TWO WORLDS: MY LIFE IN SCIENCE FICTION AND COMICS

(By Julius Schwartz and Brian M. Thomsen. Harper, 2000)

With as much of an impact as Julius Schwartz made outside of comics, reducing his autography to “a book about comics” almost feels like a bit of a disservice. An early champion of science fiction, Schwartz helped kickstart sci-fi fandom through publications and conventions, represented authors like Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, and then went on to be one of the most influential editors in comics at DC as he shepherded the titles that would launch the Silver Age. Schwartz’s decades-long career shaped the stories of countless characters and the careers of as many creators, and it’s all recounted here, in frank and entertaining detail.

 

WORDS FOR PICTURES: THE ART AND BUSINESS OF WRITING COMICS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS

(By Brian Michael Bendis. Watson-Guptill, 2014)

Brian Michael Bendis, the superstar writer behind Powers, Ultimate Spider-Man and New Avengers — to name but a few — takes readers on a deep dive into every aspect of writing for comic books in Words for Pictures. With step-by-step guides, theories on process, how-to’s for pitching and the business of writing, tips from other professionals, and activities to help get your creative juices flowing in the right direction, Words for Pictures is sure to be the first step on many a future writer’s journey.

 

BILL THE BOY WONDER: THE SECRET CO-CREATOR OF BATMAN

(By Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton. Charlesbridge, 2012)

The comic book industry sadly has a long history of not giving creators proper credit and compensation through bad contracts and corporate manipulation, and there’s no sadder story than that of Bill Finger. Co-creator of Batman, Finger was denied accreditation by fellow co-creator Bob Kane, and his story is finally being told in this illustrated book about his life. Ownership and recognition are battles that are constantly being fought in the comic book industry, and the only way to change that is through awareness. Educate yourself on Bill Finger’s story in this easy-to-read illustrated book and help the creator of a legend get the recognition he deserves.

 

DO THE GODS WEAR CAPES? SPIRITUALITY, FANTASY, AND SUPERHEROES

(By Ben Saunders. Bloomsbury, 2011)

There’s no shortage of books about superheroes and their mythological significance, but this one stands out from the rest. Written by Ben Saunders, who runs the Comics and Cartoon Studies program at the University of Oregon, Do the Gods Wear Capes? makes an enthralling case for superheroes as spiritual entities, and has the sharp analysis of text and pop culture to back it up. With chapters focusing on Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Iron Man, this is a great way to see your favorite heroes in a new light.

 

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN

(By Jill Lepore. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Harvard history professor Jill Lepore places Wonder Woman and her creator in the context of women’s rights movement in this book, which is just as much an exploration of feminism of the time as it is a history of the character. The events surrounding her creation, the women who inspired her and her cast, the early bondage motifs, and the character’s roots in feminist utopian fiction are all explored, all while providing a biographical look at Wonder Woman’s (and the polygraph’s) kinky creator, William Marston. An illuminating analysis of 20th Century feminism and the birth of one of its most enduring icons.

 

COMICS & SEQUENTIAL ART

(By Will Eisner. Poorhouse Press, 1985)

If you only read one book on this list, make it this one. The genius cartoonist behind The Spirit — and the guy they named the Eisner Awards after — gives his theories, advice and methods on comic book storytelling in this indispensable book. Anyone with an interest in the technical aspects of how comic books work to tell a story, or just anyone who wants to get more out of their comic books will get even more than they bargained for in Comics & Sequential Art. Eisner refined these thoughts both from essays originally printed in The Spirit, as well as his lectures from his time teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and in the process created one of the pillars of comic book analysis and criticism.