Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: 'Comic Book Fever: A Celebration of Comics 1976-1986'

It may be hard to fathom in an age when adults literally get violently angry about reading bad reviews of the latest big-screen superhero explosion fest, but there was a time when comic books were lighthearted, fun, and almost exclusively intended for children. They could thrill to Superman’s escapades and laugh at Casper’s antics without the requisite shovelful of “darkness” and “grit.” The Dark Knight might hawk Hostess snack cakes in full-page ads and Spider-Man might team up with SNL’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Comics could also be just as complex and artfully illustrated as they are today, but they were still generally aimed at kids.

George Khoury— and his guest writers, such as Mary Skrenes and Roger Stern— celebrate and eulogize the era in which comics transitioned from child to adult-child fare in his new book Comic Book Fever, presenting a series of topical articles focused on the decade between 1976 and 1986. It begins with Captain America’s goofy bicentennial patriotism, the last gasp of Harvey comics and Archie’s wholesome frolics, moves through a more thoughtful period in which Marvel and the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets) introduced progressive ideals into superhero adventures, and ends with the inevitable “maturing” of the form with Alan Moore on the left and Frank Miller on the right and buckets of blood and aimless cynicism splattered everywhere in between.

Khoury only really criticizes the dark turn comics took in his final pages, but his writing about the industry’s more carefree, youth-oriented days is so celebratory that he makes his preference clear throughout Comic Book Fever. There are certainly few “serious” studies of comics that would make room to laud such wacky side roads as Jack Davis’s “Streetball” ads for Spalding, Rock & Roll comics, toy-based comics (Masters of the Universe, Rom, GI Joe, Strawberry Shortcake...), Colorforms, and Dynamite Magazine. Those of us who don’t take comic reading so deathly serious will relish binging on this nostalgia feast. There’s also fascinating drama in many of these stories, such as the troubled creations of the iconic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic and Marvel’s KISS series.

Khoury also emphasizes the fun side of the medium in his presentation. Every page of Comic Book Fever overflows with images of comics pages and covers, advertisements, and memorabilia: toys, place mats, pencil cases, lunchboxes, records, greeting cards, and so on. I remember being a kid ogling all this stuff at my local Heroes World, a comics shop chain that Khoury lovingly profiles in his book. I have much fonder memories of thumbing through issues of Star Wars there than I do of seeing Batgirl getting shot through the spine in The Killing Joke. There are innumerable online forums for those who prefer the latter. Comic Book Fever, however, is for kids like me.
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