Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers!
Rob Levy
10/26/2004 10:23:55 AM

Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers!
Edited by Sean Howe
Pantheon Books

The premise behind Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers is pretty simple: Editor Sean Howe has taken a diverse group of popular writers and charged them with the daunting task of discussing their memories and deviant tales about reading and collecting comics.

Comic books have always been associated with nerdiness and social deviance. However as Howe and his writers inform us, comic books do much more. They mirror the popular culture of their times, provide an escape for the lost and lonely, and most of all, they offer an escape to better places where the average guy or gal can have superpowers or fight evildoers at every turn.

Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers gloriously regales us with seventeen essays about the experience of comics and how they shape our popular culture. It also takes us on a ride through the imaginations of today’s most interesting writers, offering us glimpses as to what they were like and how they got to where they are today as creative spirits.

Throughout Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers, beneath the nostalgia, collecting, fanaticism and tales of adolescence gone by, two common threads emerge; the battle between the DC and Marvel universes and the genius of Jack Kirby.

The ongoing rivalry between the two largest comics publishers, Marvel and DC, comes up repeatedly in these essays because these two comic houses have helped define American popular culture. As these writers point out the differences between their titles, their readers and their respective philosophies are huge. Another point that these writers skillfully weave into their essays is the fundamental dichotomy between the two entities has been a rupture point for comic book fans for decades.

Another absolute certainty that is brought up several times (most passionately by Jonathan Letham) is that Jack Kirby was a genius. Even today he is regaled throughout the comics industry. Many fans and pros alike believe a zealous Stan Lee robbed Kirby of his due. Others think that he was a sort of quiet mad genius, the Yang to the loud and active Yin of Stan Lee. Debates aside, these authors namedrop Kirby repeatedly, not to be cool, but to be precise.

Letham’s treatise is an in-depth study in the role of relationships and creative interests. With great care and affable prose, Letham recounts his comic book childhood memories of himself and his friend Karl, using those memories as a backdrop to provide us a course study in the career of Jack Kirby and his subsequent battle with Stan Lee. By the end of Letham’s composition, we feel like we have grown up in Brooklyn, frantically cross-examined, re-reading each classic Kirby comic and struggling with the vulnerability of childhood friendship. As with his books (Fortress Of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn), Letham has brought his childhood to life and transferred it onto us with extreme gusto and bravado.

Gary Giddins is famous for writing about jazz. However, his essay on the lineage of Classics Illustrated is terrific. Howe obviously selected him for inclusion because of his passion about this title. Giddin’s exuberant and engrossing piece, part memoir part history, is the perfect example of how fond nostalgia can shed new critical light on comics in American popular culture.

Everyone who has ever been a rapid collector can feel the agony of Carter Beats The Devil author Glen David Gold as he painstakingly outlines his passion for original comic art (mostly classic Marvel titles) in such a way that by the time he has summarized his passion for the medium we feel as though we, too are experts. Gold then tortures us by offering us the tantalizing tale of want that occurred when he stumbled across a vacant old shop filled with comic art. As the story progresses, we feel Gold’s inner suffering as each attempt to contact the owner ends in futility. We root for him as he searches, dodges and weaves through frustration after frustration in pursuit of his passion.

Tintin has been a childhood staple in Europe for over seventy years. For the most part, the comic has garnered very little mainstream attention here in the States. Recently, the comics have been collected into graphic novels and sold in comic stores and bookshops nation wide much to the joy of fans like Luc Sante. His paean of love for Tintin, entitled “The Clear Line” outlines the cultural, social and ideological stigmas that dog the ageless child detective. Sante’s contribution is both informative and entertaining.

Brad Meltzer is a lucky guy. He has managed to establish himself as both a popular novelist (The Zero Game) and a comic book writer (Green Arrow). He is one of those lucky chaps that have a great career being a big little. His contribution, about his fixation with Terra of the Teen Titans, is by far the most touching and personal in the book. Meltzer manages to combine the thrill of discovering a new comic hero with the adolescent awkwardness of puberty. Very few writers have captured the essence of the geek experience like Meltzer.

Myra Goldberg’s essay on Renee French and Chris Ware is refreshing. French is a weird chick who creates dementedly gorgeous comics. Chris Ware is a comic artist on the make. Besides creating the hugely popular Acme Novelty series, Ware has published Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid On Earth. He currently contributes a weekly comic strip for Chicago’s independent weekly, The Reader. Goldberg smartly compares and contrasts their work without deleting the importance that French and Ware bring to the medium.

The eleven other tales within Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers are not only recollections about the art of comics, tortured youth and lost innocence, but also valuable stories about what drives us, as people to indulge in this compulsively unique popular art form.

This collection of essays is a quirky, thrilling, and compulsively readable celebration of the unique alchemy of words and drawings that forms the language of comic books. It is a book that will delight the seasoned comics reader and invite everyone else into a whole new world.

Read NT's interview with Sean Howe.


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