Monday, May 7, 2012

Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent?: To repel sharks, of course

Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent? and Other Amazing Comic Book Trivia
By Brian Cronin
Published by Plume Books

The title of this book is somewhat misleading, making it seem as if it's a detail-obsessed explanation of real-world reasons for superhero comics nonsense, the kind of tiresome nerdiness that has tainted comics fandom for decades. However, it's actually a much more enjoyable collection of lists, similar in format to the AV Club's Inventory book. Brian Cronin, the leader of the Comics Should Be Good blog, replicates that site's style here, offering a multitude of lists of trivia, with categories like "Fifteen Alliterative Comic Book Names Created by Stan Lee", "Eight Weird Transformations Superman Underwent Due to Red Kryptonite", and "Three Unusual Ways that a Creator Has Broken into Comics". The lists are divided up into intuitive categories, including comic book characters, creators, storylines, and movies and TV shows related to comics. Cronin's "Isn't this weird?" writing style, which works well for short blog pieces, does suffer a bit when being stretched to book length, but the lists are pretty much all interesting and informative, full of the kind of off-the-wall oddness that has populated comics history from the beginning. Luckily, to keep things from getting too repetitive, Cronin's lists are broken up with rankings of things like "The Top Twenty-five DC Comic Book Characters" or "The Five Most Iconic Panels In Marvel Comics History" as voted on by the readers of Comic Book Resources, as well as a number of lists contributed by various comics creators.

These guest lists are probably the highlight of the book, with popular writers and artists offering insight into their work by talking about creators that inspired them (Frazier Irving's "Three Awesome and Unusual Uses of Color by an Artist" and Skottie Young's "Four Artists with Bizarrely Unique Styles" are especially interesting), or noting less-known aspects of comics history (Fred Van Lente talks about pre-Eisner graphic novels, and Kieron Gillen lists some goofy British comics characters). There are some bits of humor, like Peter David's "Top Six Characters Known for Sitting Around" or Zeb Wells' "Five Best Stories Featuring Peter David's Very Badass Gray Hulk". And then there are the really informative pieces that make one want to seek out the work being discussed, like Jason Aaron's "Five Comic Book Depictions of the Vietnam War" or Dave Gibbons' "Six Great Silver Age Comic Book Covers". The quality of these forgives the few clunkers, like Geoff Johns' list of great Green Lantern covers that includes two comics that he wrote and Mark Millar celebrating the hilarity of childhood sexual abuse in an infamous Spider-Man story.

Overall, this is a pretty fun book for the comics fan, a good source of quick reads for the bathroom or coffee table. If there's any complaint, it's that the book is too focused on the mainstream, superhero segment of comics, although this is probably a side effect of approaching things from the standpoint of famous characters and storylines. The guest lists do get in a few mentions of subjects like Love and Rockets or Harvey Pekar, and the "Comics and Culture" section goes into some more historical subjects like newspaper comic strips and educational comics produced by the military, but as so often happens with the discussion of comics, the emphasis is pretty solidly on guys in brightly colored tights. Of course, that just means Cronin can address more non-superhero material in another volume, which would almost certainly be as interesting and compulsively readable as this one.