From grin to grimace

dc-comicsBrandon T Snider
DC Comics: the Ultimate Character Guide
Dorling Kindersley 2012 (2011)

They say the world of comics nerdism is divided between fans of Marvel Comics and aficionados of DC Comics. (OK, I may have made that up, but I’m pretty sure it’s what ‘they’ say.) Me, I was as a kid brought up mostly on a diet of Batman, Superman and the Justice League and tended to stick to what I knew, not that I had anything against Spiderman, Hulk or the Fantastic Four. But I also read Classics Illustrated, and the cartoons in the papers, so I guess I was not too particular. My first experience of superheroes was cycling to comic stalls in Hong Kong, where the stallholder mostly turned a blind eye on my freebie reading so long as I bought a copy now and again.

But then time moves on. Come the 70s a rather camp Batman (exaggerated by the popular TV series) had morphed into a sombre Dark Knight; his toothpaste smile having gone from grin to grimace was a change I very much approved; similar things were happening to other stalwarts in the DC universe — convoluted backstories, new origins, even grown-up boy wonders. And now as a long-time absentee from comics I just don’t know where anything stands. Maybe this Dorling Kindersley publication would elucidate?

As this is aimed towards youngish readers it’s best not to expect too much. Each hero, villain or grouping merits one page, with full colour portraits dominating (as is to be expected) and caption labels detailing superpowers, costume trivia and suchlike. Every page includes a Summary of the character or group history, with such Vital Statistics as real name, occupation, height, weights, home base, allies and foes. Their strengths and occasional weakness are noted in side bars headed Powers. The approach reminds me most of those game cards that kids have always collected — all that’s missing is a strength rating to help square one off against another.

dccomicsThe primary draw of comics is their visual appearance of course, so that  illustrations are what make this most attractive. The list of contributing artists acknowledged at the end must number a couple of hundred at least, which is impressive, but for me the range of styles and the atmosphere created by the artwork was variable, resulting in uneven presentation and impact. But here am I judging this as an adult when the target audience — though no less critical — may well have different criteria to base their assessment on.

Has this tempted me to revive my enthusiasm for superhero comics after such a long absence? The answer, sadly, is no: there is so much else of greater subtlety, of nuance, in literature and certain graphic novels than the basic Good versus Evil tropes — with some allowance for angst, doubt, shifting loyalties — that this particular genre specialises in. And there’s only so much beefcake and pneumatic-chested females that I can take. But that doesn’t stop me retaining a residual affection for them.

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