In the less than eight decades since Superman’s debut in 1938, comic book superheroes have become an indispensable part of American society and the nation’s dominant mythology. They represent America’s hopes, dreams, fears, and needs. As a form of popular literature, superhero narratives have closely mirrored trends and events in the nation. Today, we are reviewing “Super History”, a book that takes American history from 1938 to 2010 through the lens of comic books, revealing the spandex-clad guardians to be not only fictional characters but barometers of the place and time in which they reside.
Written by Jeffrey K. Johnson, a World War II historian for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu who also wrote a book on American Advertising in Poland (an odd jump in topics from that book to this one), “Super History” is one of my favorite comic-related books that I have reviewed from McFarland Publishing so far. With the perfect balance of images to text, and easily accessible text at that for readers of any level, this book is a whirlwind tour of America and it’s relation to the world and current events with sequential art being the narrative that moves it.
Comics have always been a mirror of the real world, and “Super History” spells it out in bite-sized portions with informative explanations that not only discuss socio-political topics, but also how the comic industry itself changed and modernized with what America wanted. When I say bite-sized, I mean that, as each chapter is broken up into very tiny sub-chapters that could be a page or two long, breaking the book up in a pleasant way that reminds me of panels in a comic book, a very fitting parallel to the subject matter.
I would say just about every fan of comics grasps the basic historical aspects of their reading material, and “Super History” is a concise examination of the repeated rise and fall of comics, it’s evolution, and how the world has evolved with it. While the book is not as detailed as “War, Politics and Superheroes”, I found it loaded with info and historical tidbits that whet my appetite to dive deeper into the past. Growing up in the ’80’s and ’90’s, the section on that era was one of my favorites, since it was a time of growth and maturity in comics, and essentially the end of innocence for the genre as a whole. Reaganomics, Frank Miller, The Cold War, and The X-men, to name a few, changed the way people looked at the world in more ways than one, and this book details how each one seamlessly played into our fictional and real worlds.
You can order Super-history: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present from Amazon.com for $40. Like most of the books from this publisher, it’s meant for use as a textbook for college-level students. However, this book is still fine for non-students and I give it a high recommendation to read. It’s an easy read and one that opens up the readers to delve further into the past to see how art can truly shape the world, and how sometimes reality begins to mirror fiction. Pick it up today and get a good look at how America and sequential art has evolved from it’s conception to modern times.