Faster than a speeding book review
Dr. Peter Coogan, in his new study Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, makes the very important case that the American superhero comic book is an artistic genre with its own guidelines, set archetypes and genre specific storytelling. This thesis lays down some groundbreaking guidelines for viewing one of popular culture’s most “trivial” academic pursuits. This sets the stage for new thinking about comics. One of Dr. Coogan’s important points is that even when there is a radical change in the storytelling that change can not remain radical and entertaining forever because of the conventions that the genre most remain true to. Though this idea comes from Thomas Schatz’s work, Hollywood Genres, and for Schatz was to be originally a reference only to film, it is easily interchangeable with superhero comic books because of the formulaic undertones of this type of entertainment. Before making this point Dr. Coogan takes the reader through a slip dash tour of nineteenth and early twentieth century dime store fiction that led to the creation of the first superhero, Superman. It is this section of historical cataloging that is both useful and tedious in Dr. Coogan’s monograph. For many of us who are scholars of comics, dime novels are an alien landscape. Dr. Coogan’s brief and informative prose drives this section and easily readable. But it leaves question after question about these dime novel creations that unfamiliar readers may not be able to answer. Dr. Coogan likely utilized the large dime novel collection at the Bowling Green State University library, giving him the opportunity many of us do not have, to immerse himself directly dime store fiction. Those as unfamiliar with the early history of comic books as I was of dime novels, may be confused by Dr. Coogan’s references. For example, readers who do not know some of the history of DC Comics and the appearance of early characters like the Crimson Avenger, Sandman (the one not created by Neil Gaiman) and the original Red Tornado, may miss some of Coogan’s points. There are several minor editing errors that writers like myself will find grating but this is to be expected and could be due to the size of Monkey Brain Books. Despite this problem, those who believe in comics as fare for serious study are grateful to Dr. Coogan for publishing the definite monograph on superhero comics.
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