Looking at the etymology of the word encyclopedia one reads “[Med. Lat. encyclopaedia, general education course <Gk.enkuklopaideia< enkuklios paideia, general education.]” I know, sounds boring, and far too ambiguous to be of great value. Historically, encyclopedias bring images of dusty, boring volumes of information occasionally plucked for school reports and confirmation of factual odds and ends. To be honest, in the information age, they seem to be relics of a bygone era. I suppose when the ubiquitous and, by total accident, hilarious pop-culture footnote Encyclopedia Britannica commercials stopped airing, it was a tip off that the age of the encyclopedia was dead: “Remember me? I’m the kid who had a report due on space.” Not anymore…
With websites like Bartlby.com and Wikipedia.com, despite the new “general education” source’s precarious nature, the new generation of students turns to the web for fast facts. Despite being a bibliophile I can’t say I blame them. It’s quick, easy, and certainly less cumbersome. However, I also believe there still exists valuable and enjoyable, analog forms of encyclopedic information. With comics, a predominantly paper medium, the encyclopedia as educational source still has purpose and seems wholly appropriate as a storage house of comics history. I mean, this how we know and remember our fondest comics experiences: Holding them, caring for them as objects, turning the pages, pouring over the words and illustrations. The magic of comics is the combination of the internal and tactile experiences they give us.
The physical pages of encyclopedias that cover comics extend that experience. This is important for not only those familiar with comics, but even more so to those that are new to the medium. Encyclopedias that successfully make this extension include the wonderful illustrations that give comics their uniqueness and personality, and they become more than just a storage house of history, they become art books as well.
In this month’s column I will review some of the most informative comics encyclopedias published. I have picked the following volumes because of the essential comics knowledge they contain and because, simply put, they are beautiful to just page through: Just like the first time you picked up an issue of X-Men, or Avengers, or Spider-Man, or Batman, or Superman, or Fantastic Four, or Iron Man, or Wonder Woman, or… well… you get the point. There’s something for everyone and a lot to learn.
Comics: Between the Panels is published by the independent publisher Dark Horse Comics. This fact sets the tone and material in the encyclopedia. It is a non-traditional education in comics that relies less on the history books and more on those that made the history.
In the preface, co-author Steve Duin sets up the encyclopedia’s approach and philosophy. “The ‘real’ history of comics had yet to be written… The best anecdotes were too often poured out in the bars after the convention rooms had closed… Let’s tell it like it is – or was… Go back to the beginning and strip the business down to its creative essentials. Take no prisoners. Pull no punches. Lend an ear to all the originals before they leave the planet.”
And this is exactly what Duin and Richardson do. And they do it wonderfully. Comics: Between the Panels, is just that. It is an anecdotal, almost oral history of comics told through an encyclopedic format. Sure, it’s listed in alphabetical order, but that’s a loose template to organize the vast information collected within. Duin writes, “We’ve used the alphabet as a crutch to get us moving on our way. But don’t go looking for everything in its proper place… The history of comics is far too complex to be told in a linear fashion.” The encyclopedia uses “breakout boxes” to create parallel narratives and enhance topics on the page. While many of the entries rely on quotes to tell the story, the quotes that didn’t make formal entries pepper the book, ranging from topics on fandom to financial issues to legal issues.
Its irreverence towards tradition is also apparent in the blatant use of the personal opinions of the authors. They have no reserve about “breakout pages” with titles like Our Top Ten Comic Book Covers, or Our Top Ten Greatest Artists. Objectivity? It’s the comics, and as we all know, comics fans have an opinion on everything.
The book was ten years in the making. This is reflected in the painstaking research and interview process that Duin and Richardson went through. But it is also apparent in the illustrations. Comics: Between the Panels contains many photos of those entrenched in the comics world, but the real beauty is the clarity and choice of the covers, pages, and other illustrations that make up the 9th art.
Comics: Between the Panels is a must for those that always wondered what went on behind those pulpy pages that we love to pour over. It is a vicarious experience that gives the reader the sense that they were there, in that bar, after the convention wrapped, and listening in on all the stories. Stories that are as compelling as those that appeared on the page.
Next in our series is Comic Book Encyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to Characters, Graphic Novels, Writers, and Artists in the Comic Book Universe, by the sage comics historian Ron Goulart. Goulart is a comics writer that has also given comics fans such revered histories as: Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History, The Adventurous Decade: Comic Strips In The Thirties, Cheap Thrills , The Great Comic Book Artists, and The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips.
Once again Goulart gives comics lovers, and those wanting to see what the medium is all about, a book that is at once enlightening as well as beautiful. From the moment you open the encyclopedia color explodes off the pages. The layout and design is striking and adventurous. Without being crass, the book’s designers have filled most of the white space available on each page to create a text that is well informed on the subject matter it covers.
Comic Book Encyclopedia is a book that has equal intent to educate those that are new to comics and those that have been fans for years. The book’s editor, Josh Behar, writes in his enthusiastic Letter from the Editor, “There are millions of individual comics and thousands of graphic novels lying around, and if you’re interested in the subject – like how things got started, who the players are, and what to read – how would you possibly know where to begin? Comic Book Encyclopedia makes that easier, with quick-reference time line, fun, encyclopedic entries on everything from Archie to Zorro, and an index to boot, so that anything you want can be found.”
Despite the cheerleader hoorah of Behar, the book does do all of these things well, which makes it perfect for those new to the medium. While Comics: Between the Panels is the perfect book for the knowledgeable comics fan, dare I say, comics snobs, Goulart’s encyclopedia is accessible to all. The timeline mentioned above is carefully chosen and avoids the esoteric completely. The timeline is wrapped on the inside cover with a maze of information that begins with, “1922. Ahead of its time, Comic Monthly hits the newsstands, offering reprints of a different popular newspaper strip – such as Barney and Google and Polly and Her Pals – in each monthly issue. A black-and-white, it sells for ten cents and survives for twelve issues, and ends with, “2004. DC starts a Focus line, featuring titles that take place outside the regular universe.”
Of particular interest are the splash pages that introduce each letter section. Sometimes double paged, sometimes single, but all the time clever in choice and composition. For instance, “J” is introduced by a double splash page of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library creation, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. It is a detail of Ware’s meticulous and fantastical style, and one can spend minutes just looking it over.
Tim Pilcher and Brad Brook’s Essential Guide to World Comics doesn’t carry the word encyclopedia on its cover or end-pages but for all intents and purposes it is. It is also however, not for the faint of heart or newcomer to the medium. With that being said, it is perhaps, in this author’s opinion, the most important work discussed here today. The international comics scene in America, let’s face it my friends, is pretty much non-existent. This is a bad thing. There are wonderful comics being made all over the world. And the special character of comics is, to some extent, the language barrier can be overcome. To sit and look at comics from Belgium and Japan is a visual experience that can be only summed up with the word: orgiastic. World Comics as a reference text follows this analogy further as it is far from boring and completely exotic in its selections.
Dave Gibbons, famed illustrator and writer, begins the book’s forward with, “As the world seems to shrink, the variety it holds seems to expand in equal measure.” World Comics‘s chapters break down into a regional bazaar of the bizarre: United Superheroes of America; Brit Lit; Manga Mania and Anime Angst; Crouching Artists, Hidden Comics; The Ninth Art; Continental Comics; South of the Border; Down Under Wonders; and Ashrams, Apartheid & Arabian Tales.
The introduction opens, “In other countries and cultures they’re called manga, manhua, manhwa, bande dessinee or BD, komiks, bilderstreifen or bildergeschichter, historietas, benzi desenate, quadrinhos or HQ, torietas, tebeos, fotonovela or fumetti. In the USA and UK they’re known as comic books and they are the most prevalent, important yet misunderstood art form in the world.” A wonderful and bold statement that simultaneously sets up the diversity and importance of the medium as well as the dire urgency the authors feel to expand the awareness of comics. This book is essential for those that seek more from what comics are capable of and where they are headed.
If you are currently a casual reader, are new to comics, have an insatiable appetite for all things of the 9th art, you will find something in the encyclopedias presented today. Hopefully, you, the librarian, will see this and add these reference books to your library’s circulation, and hopefully you, yes you, that has stumbled upon this article, will pick up one of these books and discover the stories, the art, and the diversity that makes up what we used to naively call, the funnies.