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'75 Years of DC Comics' -- Book Review

Superman
DC Comics/TASCHEN

The Bottom Line

"75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking" may break your coffee table. So buy a new coffee table. 

Author

Paul Levitz

Taschen, $200

Bigger than a ribboned cathedral bible, heavy as a sperm whale's brain, able to leap from the original 1933 Superman to Ryan Reynolds' 2011 Warner Bros. movie "Green Lantern" in a spectacular 720-page bound, Paul Levitz's new "75 Years of DC Comics" is the best present you could buy a comics buff besides a mint first issue of Action Comics -- and at $200, it's $1,499,800 cheaper.

It’s an action movie of a book about an industry that sprang in large part from film, and returned the favor by making comic-book movies the dominant product of modern Hollywood. DC ex-president Levitz writes a brisk, omniscient history of DC’s iconic superheroes (and other genres), and he was smart to entrust it to Taschen, the highbrow/pop publisher with the some of the highest production values in the art-book biz. You get 2,000-plus splash panels, revealing sketches, historic photos and pages that fold out almost four feet wide, festooned with illustrated timelines. The spreads introducing each epoch – the Golden Age, the Silver Age – are printed on metallic paper so shiny it doubles as a tanning reflector. READ more THR reviews.

Even hard-core nerds may learn a factoid or ten. Both Superman and Batman began as ambiguously sinister figures. Early Bat-Man shot vampires with silver bullets and machine-gunned people from the Batplane (“Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid THIS TIME it’s necessary.”). He lost the gun to become a parent-soothing role model when he acquired Boy Wonder Robin. The first Super-Man was as scary as Leo DiCaprio in Inception – he “could read minds, control others’ thoughts, and ruled as 'a veritable God.'” PHOTOS: See 15 pictures from the book.

Movies and comics were a feedback loop that drove pop culture forward. Clark Kent was inspired by actor Harold Lloyd. The Joker (originally meant to die in his first adventure) was based on Conrad Veidt’s long face and limbs and violently sad smile as The Man Who Laughs. Not content to nick movie traits, Superman soared by making pulp fiction cinematic. Shuster said Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was “one of the first I can remember … who really used the style of the screenwriter.” Long shot, medium shot, close-up, overhead shot. “He would study the techniques of the movie serials, but he never saw a written screenplay.” 

DC presaged so much more of modern culture: Batman’s Detective Comics predecessor character Slam Bradley was a ruthless Jack Bauer forerunner; the Flash was the first forensics cop; Hourman took his Miraclo pill and had power for one hour, like the champions of the world in a Viagra ad. 

There’s just one thing the book doesn’t cover as comprehensively: The titanic battle between DC and Marvel to control Hollywood. Though it covers DC’s early lead in Hollywood -- when it demanded Paramount put up three times the usual $30,000 budget for the 1941 Fleischer Superman cartoons -- it doesn’t offer a clear look at Marvel archrival Stan Lee’s ascendancy in the 21st century with the superior writing and marketing of Spider Man, Iron Man and X-Men, nor a lot on DC’s new plays for big-screen tentpoles after outgrossing Marvel with The Dark Knight.

75 Years of DC Comics doesn’t much get into this. But it shows you -- exhilaratingly -- how superheroes rule our thoughts -- and how Hollywood can use them to read moviegoers' minds.