Superheroes!: The History of a Pop-Culture Phenomenon from Ant-Man to Zorro by Brian R. Solomon is a mouthful of a title, but it’s a lighthearted and fun distillation of comic book superheroes from the early days of pulp adventure heroes and newspaper comic strips through the most recent phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, and in Superheroes’ 300 pages, Solomon gives readers a crash-course on what the author believes are the most pertinent and important references and historical notes that led to the evolution of a genre we see crowding the movie theater landscape today. Naturally, Solomon starts with the pulp heroes and comic strip characters, like The Shadow or Lee Falk’s The Phantom, that would go on to inspire publishers who would ultimately become powerhouses DC and Marvel.
But there’s more to Superheroes’ than just a history lesson. In the first half of the book, Solomon plots readers along on a timeline, taking them on a journey through newspaper strips, dime novels, and early radio dramas to the earliest incarnations of superheroes in comic books, which then translated to movie serials, TV shows, and, eventually, blockbuster motion pictures. In each era, Solomon hits on highlights both of characters and creations, musing on what new ideas each creation brought to the table, as well as audience reception and how each may have impacted the landscape. There’s a wealth of history here, and while Solomon doesn’t highlight every single creation, Superheroes’ covers arguably the most important touchstones in an effort to show progress, evolution, and the development and refinement of what we know as the modern-day superhero.
Peppered throughout the book, there are mini chapters that deliver fast facts about characters and superhero teams that most people may have at least heard of. For hardcore comic fans, these mini chapters that cover Batman, Superman, Spawn, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, etc. are nothing new, but they may remind fans of why these characters are so beloved.
In the latter parts of the book, Solomon branches out to cover the juicy, factoid-laden satellites around his timeline. He goes into lesser-known characters or works inspired by the big two publishers, as well as international creations, supervillains, and at least one chapter focusing on many of the well-known creators who lend their talents to change the face of comic books, and superheroes, forever. While these chapters are great resources for readers who know little to nothing about the origins behind their favorite characters, for well-read or longtime fans, there isn’t much depth to the creator bios, making that chapter feel more like a lengthy shout-out than a distillation of creators’ impacts. It’s the biggest weakness in an otherwise comprehensive distillation of where our superheroes came from.
Personally, I loved the focus on international heroes near the end of the book, as it both honed in on the global impact of superheroes, as well as used this focus to bring superheroes even further back in time. While modern-day superheroes come imbued with powers from radioactive fallout, chemical spills, environmental catastrophes and more, their ethos and what makes them tick is something very human, and it’s something that has been around for a long time. Like the heroes of ancient mythology, their feats (or “labors” if you will) speak to the very human need to inspire and see goodness in the world around us, no matter the era nor the technology or fears plaguing each generation. Solomon hits this idea home, taking the “pop-culture phenomenon” of superheroes and connecting it to timeless ideas that have been and will be with us for centuries.
Editor’s Note: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group provided TBU with a copy of Superheroes!: The History of a Pop-Culture Phenomenon from Ant-Man to Zorro for review purposes. You can find this comic and help support TBU in the process by purchasing this book through Amazon.