Fantagraphics recently debuted two books on the same day. Subtitled The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, Supermen! was the one I thought I'd love the most. I was wrong.
Don't get me wrong: Supermen! is an interesting book. All these knockoffs of Superman have a certain creepy charm—like an off-brand children's entertainer—and there is some art, especially by Basil Wolverton and Jack Cole, that is literally decades ahead of its time. But the charm of these characters is suitably thin. Most of the supermen don't have any secret identities, choosing instead to lounge around their headquarters in full costume all the time, and many of them, including Marvelo, Monarch of Magicians, are just so incredibly powerful that they're not interesting. "Guns become spongy!" Marvelo shouts as he bursts into a criminal's den, and the guns are suddenly flaccid. Then he transforms one criminal's legs to rubber and melts another one like a candle, and he's already won. These adventures aren't very complex. There's not much there besides, well, a bunch of Superman rip-offs. It's a diversion; nothing more.
But the other book, Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers, is a real revelation. Boody Rogers was a cartoonist around the same time as the dawn of Superman, but his cartoons were really weird: They almost all had to do with hillbillies living in the wilderness, untouched by society. There were centaur men and amazon women who were so good at baseball that they could destroy an entire professional team on their own. There were weird two-headed devil-men and hicks who couldn't stop hitting themselves in the face with axes. There don't seem to be any morals to Boody Rogers' stories. And in fact they don't seem to follow narrative structure. They're like Robert Crumb crossed with Li'l Abner. And they are amazing. This is the book to get if you think you know anything about comic book history; it will show you something you never would have thought existed.