Friday, March 16, 2012

Books that could have been better

Both were quickly dispensed with, so even though I realized early on that they weren't especially good, I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time.

On Conan Doyle, by Michael Dirda, does have the benefit of being well written. The book's major problem is how little of it is truly "about" Arthur Conan Doyle. The book tangentially discusses works by other writers Conan Doyle appreciated; this goes on much longer than seems reasonable for such a short book. A large chunk of the text is about people who enjoy Conan Doyle (the author among them) and where this takes them: into collecting (in various oft-redundant forms) his works; or in joining that select group, the Baker Street Irregulars. Dirda talks at length about meetings of the Irregulars and his own involvement with the group, finally providing for us the complete text of an essay he wrote for the organization's journal. By this time we've strayed far afield from writing "about" Conan Doyle. Though it's a slim volume, I skimmed when I felt the author filling space with things that weren't, in my mind, needed.

Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon, is an attempt to provide a chronology of comic books' presence on the American landscape, using Lee as the figure through which much of this development might be viewed, but the book isn't terribly satisfying and seems amateurish. I enjoyed the long historical view of how comics arrived and how they were perceived, both inside and outside the industry, and there's some fun anecdotal material that's a pleasure for those of us who came of age during "the Marvel Age of Comics"; however, when Lee absents himself from the writing of comics around 1970, the narrative loses track of how to proceed. The story lurches forward and back confusingly, circling around the same bracket of years again and again. Lee remains the focus even when he's clearly flailing (and failing) in various ventures. There's an arbitrariness to the book's structure—"A chapter break might look good here" appears to be a driving force in its construction—that suggests the writers couldn't find a coherent way to break up the material. Subjects are revisited, and actual lines are reproduced, sometimes more than once. The issue of "what did Lee actually do" threatens to swamp the entire project: To wit, did Lee come up with the ideas for the seminal Marvel characters? How much was contributed by artists Kirby and Ditko? How much control did Lee even have over the plots of the comics? Who wrote the dialogue? (Jack Kirby somewhat unbelievably says at one point that he wrote issues of the Fantastic Four.) The authors do take their time with this issue, since it goes to the question of Lee's credibility, and there's some excellent material both in that discussion and in the connected discussion of a creator's rights, but it's a book within a book, derailing what had seemed to be the book's project. The material about Lee that follows is interesting if you care about Stan Lee, but not so useful at saying something coherent about comic books.

No comments: