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Excerpt: 'The Great Comic Book Heroes'

'The Great Comic Book Heroes'

Comic books, World War II, the Depression, and I all got going at roughly the same time. I was eight. Detective Comics was on the stands, Hitler was in Spain, and the middle class (by whose employment record we gauge depressions) was, after short gains, again out of work. I mention these items in tandem, not only to give color to the period, but as a sly historic survey to those in our own time who, of the items cited, only know of comic books.

Eight was a bad age for me. Only a year earlier I had won a gold medal in the John Wanamaker Art Contest for a crayon drawing on oak tag paper of Tom Mix jailing an outlaw. So at seven I was a winner — and didn't know how to handle it. Not that triumph isn't at any age hard to handle, but the younger you are the more of a shock it is to learn that it simply doesn't change anything. Grownups still wielded all the power, still could not be talked back to, still were always right however many times they contradicted themselves. By eight I had become a politician of the grownup, indexing his mysterious ways and hiding underground my lust for getting even until I was old enough, big enough, and important enough to make a bid for it. That bid was to come by way of a career. (I knew I'd never grow big enough to beat up everybody: my hope was to. somehow, get to own everything and fire everybody.) The career I chose, the only one that seemed to fit the skills I was then sure of — a mild reading ability mixed with a mild drawing ability — was comics.

So I came to the field with more serious intent than my opiate-minded contemporaries. While they, in those pre-super days, were eating up Cosmo, Phantom of Disguise: Speed Saunders, and Bart Regan, Spy, I was counting how many frames there were to a page, how many pages there were to a story — learning how to form, for my own use, phrases like: @X4*?/; marking for future reference which comic book hero was swiped from which radio hero: Buck Marshall from Tom Mix: the Crimson Avenger from the Green Hornet...

There were, at the time, striking similarities between radio and comic books. The heroes were the same (often with the same names. Don Winslow, Mandrake, Tom Mix); the villains were the same: Oriental spies, primordial monsters, cattle rustlers — but the experience was different. As an apprentice pro I found comic books the more tangible outlet for fantasy. One could put something down on paper — hard-lined panels and balloons, done the way the big boys did it. Far more satisfying than the radio serial game: that of making up programs at night in bed, getting the voices right, the footsteps and door slams right, the rumbling organ background right — and doing it all in soft enough undertones so as to escape being caught by that grownup reading Lanny Budd in the next room who at any moment might give his spirit-shattering cry "for the last time stop talking to yourself and go to sleep!" Radio was too damn public.

Excerpted from The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer. Copyright © 2003 by Jules Feiffer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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