The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes began as something of a lark, and ended as a labor of love.
In early 1969, I was working as a writer/editor for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, writing entries for an encyclopedia that the company intended to market overseas. One afternoon, as a humorous way of relieving the office tedium, one of the other writers composed a short biography of Clark Kent written in the same stuffy, pedantic style that characterized the biographies of real people in the encyclopedia we were working on. "KENT, CLARK," it began. "United States journalist who is secretly Superman...."
As the bogus entry made its way around the room, the editorial office exploded with laughter. People laughed because, by using a serious, pseudoscholarly style in connection with subject matter generally regarded as frivolous, the author had successfully satirized the pomposity of our encyclopedia.
But I saw the Clark Kent entry in a different light. Already keenly interested in popular culture, I saw it as treating the comic book mythos as other, more "respectable" bodies of mythlc literature have traditionally been treated, as a serious intellectual subject. I also saw that entry as a means of escape from my deadly dull job at the Britannica. "Hey! This is a terrific idea," I exclaimed aloud in the midst of the merriment. "Somebody should do a whole book of these."
That idea seemed so ridiculous eight years ago that everyone started laughing all over again, but I was already out of the room, down the corridor, slamming that Clark Kent article onto the office copy machine, beginning to dream up the thousands of other articles I would write to go along with it.
I should say here and now that I was neither a comic book fan nor a comic book collector. I had not so much as glanced sideways at a comic book since the wise old age of fourteen, when, in what seemed at the time a decision born of maturity and sound judgment, I had sold my entire collection to a junk lady on Third Avenue for a penny a magazine.
Nevertheless, that night in 1969, using the Xeroxed Clark Kent article as my inspiration and the classic comic book stories reprinted in Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes as source material, I hammered out a half dozen sample entries and a two-page proposal for a one-volume encyclopedia of the comics. The following afternoon, I showed it all to an acquaintance in publishing, and within four hours he had called me on the telephone to say that his people loved the idea and that we had ourselves a deal.
Only then, after the commitment to write the book had actually been made, did I even begin to ponder the problem of how I was going to gain access to the many old comics that would be necessary to my research. Fortunately for me, the major comic book publishers were all willing to give me access to their extensive files of back issues. Later, a network of fans and collectors would help me acquire the various issues published by companies now defunct.
So it is that, one morning in March 1969, I walked into the offices of National Periodical Publications, Inc., publishers of DC Comics, and was introduced to Gerda Gattel, National's librarian, now retired. Her ring of keys jangling, Mrs. Gattel led me down a carpeted executive corridor to the locked door of the DC Comics Library. She knew that I intended to write a serious reference guide to the literature of the great comic book heroes, and she was proud that her precious library was at last to be used for serious research, rather than merely by client businessmen seeking out action pictures of super-heroes to laminate onto T-shirts and beach blankets.
As she swung open the library door and flicked on the light, I remember that I gasped a little. The library was only a medium-sized room, but its walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with neatly bound volumes of back-issue comic books, thousands upon thousands of them, two copies each of every single comic book National Periodicals has ever published. I had never imagined there would be so many.
Mrs. Gattel noticed my surprise, and her eyes twinkled with the slightly mischievous pleasure of a fabulously wealthy connoisseur showing an astounded visitor through the exquisitely stocked wine cellar. "You said you wanted to study all the heroes," she smiled benignly, taking in the entire room with a sweeping gesture of her arm. "We have dozens of them. Where would you like to begin?"
I began with Batman and Wonder Woman, whose exploits are chronicled in Volumes 1 and 2 of this encyclopedia, and then I went on to Superman, transported, despite my adulthood and education, into a tantalizingly garish world of magic and enchantment which I thought I had left behind forever at age fourteen.
Few fictional characters of any kind have enjoyed the kind of hold over their reader that the great comic book heroes have exerted for nearly four decades. Their adventures are read by millions of young people in every state of the United States and in dozens of foreign countries. And Superman is the king and father of them all. No other character in the history of comic books has been published continuously for so long a period. More people have thrilled to the exploits of Superman than have ever heard of Hamlet or seen a play by Shakespeare. He is the most famous hero in American fiction.
Yet the adventures of Superman, and the vast popular literature of which they are a part, are already all but lost to us. Destroyed on a massive scale during the paper drives of the 1940s-"Save your scrap to beat the Jap!" admonished one of the popular patriotic slogans appearing in the margins of many comics-and hysterically assailed during the 1950s as a root cause of juvenile delinquency, comic books have been almost universally derided as trash by adults and cherished only by their children.
In the entire world, not one library, university, or public or private institution of any kind has taken the trouble to acquire and preserve a complete set of Superman's adventures for posterity. Nowhere in the world is there a single research facility where the complete adventures of even one major comic book hero have been safely preserved and made available for study. Reasonable people may debate the value of the comics as art or literature, but no one can deny that they constitute the most widely read body of children's literature in the history of the world. Perhaps one day, there will be sufficient serious interest in the comics to warrant their widespread distribution on microfilm to libraries and universities, but as of this writing that day seems along way I off.
The writing of this volume required that Janet Lincoln and I have access to a complete file of Superman's adventures. Such a file is available in only one place, the corporate library at National Periodical Publications, Inc., and it has been preserved there, along with complete files of the adventures of National's other comic book characters, partially through the foresight of the company's management, but mainly through the efforts of one determined woman.
At the time this project began, Gerda Gattel had been the guardian of the DC Comics archives for twelve years, and involved in comics for more than twenty. During the long years when the comics were regarded as garbage even by most of their creators, when comic books and comic book artwork were routinely destroyed and discarded by their publishers to eliminate the expense of storing them, she fought, and agitated, and cajoled to be allowed to maintain a real library at National, to be provided with bookshelves and storage space, and to be permitted to take occasional time off from her full-time job as the company proofreader in order to keep and maintain the library on her own.
Janet Lincoln and I spent seven full years working on The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes. In that time, we examined more than 10,000 comic book stories and filled approximately 20,000 5" x 8" index cards with detailed notes on what we had read.
As the years passed, my original one-volume project expanded to encompass eight volumes, consuming in the process thirty-one reams of typing paper and producing, in the end, a completed typewritten manuscript of more than two million words. As the project grew in scope, my original publisher lost interest and eventually withdrew, and I am deeply grateful that Warner Books, Inc., has taken an interest in what, from a publishing standpoint, can only be regarded as a difficult and costly project.
The Great Superman Book, which you hold in your hands, is the third volume of the eight-volume "labor of love" that I spoke of in my opening sentence. Other encyclopedias dealing with literary material, such as encyclopedias of Greek mythology or English literature, are able to refer their readers to the literature itself, but, with the exception of the occasional Superman stories reprinted in hardcover volumes, or the Superman comics still surviving in valuable private collections-a copy of Action Comics No.1, for example, the first comic book in which Superman ever appeared, currently brings a price of upwards of $4,000 on the collectors' market-the stories referred to in this volume are not available for examination. For that reason, the material dealt with in this book has been covered in excruciating detail, retaining generous portions of the original dialogue and textual narrative and employing a style designed to present the material clearly while evoking what Jules Feiffer has termed the "florid pre-literacy" of the comics.
As you browse through the pages of this volume, renewing your acquaintance with such classic archetypes of comicdom as Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Perry White-and perhaps meeting for the first time such intriguing lesser lights as Adonis, "a loathsome being intent on robbery and pillage...whose face is born of hideous nightmare"-I hope you too find yourself transported into that world of magic and enchantment I spoke of earlier. And whether you're a serious student of sociology or popular culture-or just a stone Supermaniac with the smell of four-color ink in your nostrils and bits of cheap pulp paper floating like flotsam in your blood-I hope you have a real good time there.
New York City, 1977