© 2004-2007 About Comics
By Kurt Busiek
Read this book.
There. That’s it. That’s all you really need to know, all that this introduction needs to accomplish. Buy the book. Read the book. It’s good. You’ll like it.
The job of an introduction, after all, is pretty specific. It’s there to sell the book, to tip undecided browsers into making the choice to buy the book, often by offering a familiar or respected name – which, for this book, for better or worse, means me. The publisher, Nat Gertler, thinks that if you’ve read and enjoyed some of the comics I’ve written over the years – Marvels, Astro City, JLA/Avengers, Thunderbolts, Arrowsmith, whatever – then you’re a good bet to enjoy this one. I love this book, I’ve loved it for years, so I’m happy to do whatever I can to get more people reading it. If sticking my name on the cover will do that, then good, fine, we’ll take it.
There are other things an introduction can do, of course. It can serve as a kind of overture, establishing a context for the work to follow. It can provide some history on the creation of the work, the life of the author, something along those lines. It can offer an analysis, an informed look at the work that’ll let you appreciate it more.
The thing is, I think the book stands on its own just fine. I don’t think it needs an overture, and whatever context you bring to it will probably serve you just fine. I can’t tell you much about the creation of the book or the life of the author – I’ve only met him once (in the course of this edition being published), and don’t know much about him beyond what was in the P.R. bio I found in a review copy of the book I bought years ago, and what little else was added by the "About the Author” sections of the other novels of his I’ve read – Midge & Decker; The Grace of Shortstops; I, JFK. And while I can offer a few thoughts about the book – more in the nature of how it affected me, and my outlook on writing and the superhero genre – they’re not really the sort of thing you should read before you read the book. I think you should come to the book fresh, taking it on its own merits, before you listen to some windbag like me gas on about it, distorting your own honest impressions of it.
But you probably expect more from an introduction that just this. And Nat certainly expects more. So I’ll keep going – but do me (and yourself) a favor. If you haven’t read the book yet, stop reading this. Read the book, and come back to this later, if you feel like it. I’ll still be here. But treat the rest of this intro as afterword, as a rather one-sided conversation to have after you know the characters, the story, after you’ve experienced David Brinkley’s very human superhuman adventure. When the book is something to contemplate, rather than anticipate. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you.
Go on, go ahead. Read. I’ll wait.
Okay, back? Here we go again. Just be warned – I’m taking you at your word.
I first encountered Superfolks in 1977, when it first came out. It was in a smallish bookstore on Meriam Street in Lexington, Massachusetts, when I was sixteen years old. I’d been reading comic books steadily for a couple of years (in reversal of the usual pattern, I got hooked on comics right at the age most kids start to give them up), and had only recently formed the ambition to become a professional comics writer, though I had no idea how to go about it.
I don’t remember seeing Superfolks in the New Fiction section – rather, it was shelved with a group of oddities, including some movie tie-in books, a cartoon collection or two, and The Playboy Book of Historical Costume (or some such title), a book I recall as notable for its devotion to finding excuses to show pictures of well-developed young women in nipple-revealing clothing — which at sixteen, I’ll admit, I found a very admirable goal.
What attracted me to Superfolks was the cover. And not because it was a good cover.
It was, frankly, an awful cover – badly-drawn, badly-lettered, with a logo swiped from the Superman books and a multi-panel comics scene that looked swiped from comics art, seeming to embody the worst, kitchiest aspects of superhero comics, as if the designer saw only the surface aspects of superheroes and was actively trying to present a condescending, cliché-ridden view of the genre. I was defensive about reading comics at my age, and the cover made me bristle, immediately hostile to the book. (I’m told, however, that the cover to the British edition was much better – still a nostalgia piece hearkening back to the Silver Age of comics, but better presented – which may explain why more British comics pros seem to have been influenced by the book than Americans.)
Still, it was clearly a book about superheroes, about comics, and they were few and far between in those days, and off-putting as the cover was, even the lure of breast-baring peasant blouses could only keep me away from it for so long. So at some point I picked it up, flipped past the cover.
I wish I could say I was immediately captivated by the prose, but I wasn’t – the mention of the “Batcar” on the first page (what, he doesn’t know it’s the Batmobile?!) got my hackles raised, and the jokey tone of it (what, he thinks superheroes are supposed to be funny?!) made me dig my heels in. Another snobby, sneering look at superheroes, huh? I was sure it was going to be awful. So no, it wasn’t the prose that got me. What kept me coming back to the book was the sex scenes.
What can I say? I was sixteen – and a young, awkward, confused sixteen at that. I ran into Chapter 15 in my browsing, and it wasn’t so much the sex, it was that it was a superhero having sex, that it was about the sort of stuff teenagers wonder and joke about but that they don’t, wouldn’t, can’t show you in the comics. Now this was something intriguing. Who cares about the Batcar? I wanted to read this whole thing!
It took me what felt like months, but was probably no more than a week, to work up the courage to buy a copy, all the time fearing that alarms would go off, and some blaring electrical voice would announce, “Warning! Warning! Teenager trying to buy book with explicit sex in it! He says it’s because it’s superheroes, but he lies! He lies!”
And then, of course, I had to bring it into the house, past my mom. Strangely, no alarms went off then, either.
Then I got to read it. And over the next batch of years, re-reading it every now and then, I discovered four things, in succession:
1. This is the best Superman parody I’ve ever read. The origin, with Archie and Edith and Cronkite. The goofy stuff, like how his X-Ray vision always punishes him, if he uses it to look at naked women. Stretch O’Toole. Peter Pan. Captain and Mary Mantra. And Demoniac. It’s all spot-on, it’s all funny. It was clearly written by a guy who knows and likes these characters, who knows the foibles of the superhero genre, and embraces them in all their absurdity. Naturally, I wouldn’t have put it that way the first time I read it. I just thought it was a stitch, superhero stuff, sex scenes and all. Hell, it’d be worth reading just for the Giant Fuckmeter on the Planet Uranus, and that was just one bit. Even the It’s A Good Day to Die Cab Company would have been enough to start loaning it out.
2. This is one of the best Superman stories I’ve ever read. This took a little longer to notice. Getting past all the comedy bits, the parody names and all, and noticing that underneath it, there’s a damn solid plot, a story that — if it actually was a Superman story, instead of being about the unnamed Superman-like hero — would be well-remembered by fans for its clever ideas, its emotional power and its scope. Parts of it would wind up chilling instead of funny if played straight, but that’s not a bad thing in a superhero adventure. And it takes in everything — Superman’s home life, his work life, his feelings of duty, his love for his adopted planet, good villains, space adventure and an agonizing choice. Taken as an adventure, it’s one hell of an adventure.
The one thing I didn’t like about it (and here I’m obviously not trusting you to have read it, because I’m dancing around any specific mention of the key details of the plot — go, go, if you haven’t read it yet, start now!) was Brinkley’s choice at the end. Why would he settle for that? He’s Superman, after all — or a reasonable facsimile. Surely he can find a solution, surely he can beat the dilemma, find a way to triumph and have everything…!
And that leads me to…
3. This is one of the best superhero stories I’ve ever read. Forget the parody, forget that it’s a Superman-type story. Underneath it all, at the roots of the story, was an idea I’d never considered. All this reading I’d done, reading comics, reading books about comics, hammered home the same idea: Superhero stories are adolescent power fantasies. They’re all about the powerless kid — be he the young Bruce Wayne, the disdained Clark Kent, the nebbishy Peter Parker — transforming into a man of power, of respect, who can make things happen, who can shake the world. Transforming back and forth as fast as a teenager’s voice cracks. The appeal of the form is all about the reader identifying with that helpless kid, and thus living vicariously through the powerful hero figure. And sure, that makes sense. I can see that.
But. Here was somebody doing something else with it. David Brinkley is not an adolescent. He’s not an adolescent identification figure at all. He’s an adult, a man with career concerns, with family concerns, a man who wants to relax and listen to the damn ball game, but has to wash the dishes, think about the mortgage and worry about how his strength is fading, how he isn’t what he used to be. A man who used to be that adolescent power-fantasy, but who slipped into being … something else. Something less. Here, the superhero isn’t a metaphor for power, but a metaphor for power slipping away. This man’s a grownup — aging, fading — and the story is all about that.
And the ending? All of a sudden, I liked it. It was perfect, and it shouldn’t be any other way. A man’s gotta choose, and Brinkley makes the only choice he really can, and it makes him human and honest and loving and rich. And you’re still going to have to read the book to find out what I’m talking about.
That’s three. The fourth one was simpler.
4. This is one hell of a novel. All that superhero stuff that works so well, whether as parody or as adventure or as metaphor? It’s great, but it’s just the context, the pieces Mayer uses to tell the real story. Which is all that human stuff about struggling with life and with decay and with humanity and truth and the trade-offs of life. What it shows us, the issues it grapples with, the decisions Brinkley has to make — it’s a human, involving story, and would be even without all the superhero flash that it plays out through. Sure, there’d have to be something to replace it, and it might as well be superheroes because it works so well — but underneath the superhuman, there’s a very human heart.
And that’s just the big picture, those four things — my journey from surface reading to the heart of the story. Along the way, there’s plenty else, whether it’s the tossed-off gags, the unlikely combinations (Superman villains and Kennedy assassination conspiracy? Peter Pan giving flight lessons?), the walk-on characters (ah, Max Givenchy, tailor to the heroes) and more. For a while, I was finding new things every time I read the book, little gems of recognition as I discovered that I’d lived a few more years, knew a bunch more things, and Mayer had apparently stuck them in the book, too, while I wasn’t looking.
Younger readers — by which I don’t mean kids, but simply readers younger than me — may not get all the references. Maybe you don’t know who Bella Abzug was, or Norma Jean Baker. But that’s part of the fun, knowing that there’s more here than immediately meets the eye. There are references I never would have gotten — I loaned the book to a longtime Mets fan, and he was in hysterics over the opening of chapter 24, something that sailed completely over my head. Ask a longtime Mets fan, he’ll tell you.
And I’m still discovering things. That bit in chapter 8, about Jack Kennedy. Like the book says, you could look it up — it’s a reference to a Superman story from Superman #1, in 1939, which I hadn’t read until relatively recently.
Little things. Little jokes, side references. They don’t get in the way of the meat of the novel, but they add texture, a feeling of depth and an odd surreality, whether you catch them all or not.
And all of this — the whole process of discovery, of finding new levels in the novel — wound up opening creative doors for me, making me a better writer.
I spent the first eight years or so of my career as a comics writer trying to write well-crafted superhero stories, doing my best to keep the plots engaging, the action thrilling, the character mechanics effective and involving — but I knew there was something missing, some spark that just wasn’t there yet. As it turned out, it was a chance encounter with a different book — The Fiction Editor, by Thomas McCormack, but that’s another story — that made me realize where I was going wrong, and how to look at writing and at storytelling in a different way, one that would give me that spark I was missing. But it was Superfolks that gave me a direction to go in, new territory to explore.
I started writing stories about people, not heroes — using the adventures as a context to address life and the kind of conflicts and issues we all deal with, even if we can’t fly to Venus. Some of the people I wrote about were heroes, some were affected by the heroes — but they were all people first. The idea that superhero stories could be more than they traditionally were — that was an idea Superfolks had taught me, and I wanted to see if I could do it too.
The result was a short story here and there, a slightly different approach to the mainstream stuff I’d been doing — and then Marvels, a breakthrough hit for both me as writer and for artist Alex Ross, that looked at superheroes through the eyes of the man on the street. And that led to Astro City, which took as its main focus the idea that the superhero story could be about more than the adventure, more than the power fantasy. Those projects have been the foundation of my success as a writer, so in a very real way, I owe Robert Mayer my career.
I wasn’t trying to re-do Superfolks — it had already been done, and done well. I just wanted to explore what it implied — that there was so much else to do with the genre. So while there’s a nod here and there, including the fact that Samaritan, the best-known hero in Astro City, has blue hair just like the hero of Superfolks — mostly what I wanted to do was find other human stories to tell, using superhero genre conventions as the context, using the power of metaphor to illuminate the humanity within.
It seems to be working out okay so far.
And naturally, anything that makes you a better writer expands your horizons, and the skills and ambitions that developed out of Astro City led to other projects, other ambitions — and with luck, that’ll keep me developing, finding new things to do, for the rest of my career.
I’m not the only one, either. While Superfolks didn’t find the audience it should have, back in 1977, it did catch some people, and it caught them hard. Find the people who did new and different things with superhero stories, and odds are you’ll find that they’ve read and been affected by this book. Ask Mark Waid about it, and watch him smile at the thought of it. Ask Neil Gaiman, watch his eyes light up with enthusiasm as he talks about what an impact it had. Ask Grant Morrison. Look at the work of Alan Moore, possibly the most significant creator the field currently has of superhero stories that break with formula and expectation and inspire others to do the same (and co-creator, with Dave Gibbons, who drew the cover of this edition of Superfolks, of the watershed deconstructionist superhero epic Watchmen), and you’ll see this book’s influence throughout — from the epigraph that opens Superfolks and Watchmen being the same, from Kid Miracleman to Ozymandias’s pervasive and complex commercial empire to Mr. Myxyzptlk’s motivations and revelations in the finale of The Last Superman Story, and more.
The fingerprints of Robert Mayer and Superfolks are all over the superhero genre. More people should know that, and appreciate the contribution he unknowingly made — and for that matter, speaking as a working writer, it’d be nice if he got a few bucks from it, too. Hopefully, this new edition will help accomplish that.
When I was asked to provide an excerpt from this introduction to be used in promoting the book, I wasn’t done with it yet. Heck, I hadn’t started it yet. What I wrote was this: This is the holy grail. The book that changed everything for the action boys. Nobody knew, then. Everybody should know, now… And I meant every word.
For years now, I’ve been buying copies of this book wherever I found them, cleaning out used bookstores in the New York area, and then in the Pacific Northwest. There was always someone else who needed to read it, someone who should have a copy — not just as a loaner, but as a book to keep and savor over the years, a book to make them look at what we do and how we do it differently.
Now it’s available again, so I can tell them to go out and buy their own copy. And a new generation of creators and readers can discover it for themselves (along with the folks in the old generation who missed out). And all I can say is … welcome.
Whether you’ve heard about this book for years and finally have a copy, or whether you picked it up on a whim because it looked interesting. Or if you recognized my name and figured you’d give it a try if that Busiek guy liked it, I don’t care. Welcome to what used to be a secret clubhouse. Wander around, take it all in, it’s yours for the exploring. Mind the sex scenes. And enjoy.
And hey — at least we got a good cover on it this time!