The Not So Funnies 

Writers recall the comics they love.

Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!

Edited by Sean Howe

Pantheon, 240 pp., $24.95

Me, I grew up strictly a Mad man (well, boy) during that magazine's Cold War heyday in the 1960s. So I didn't know then what made Marvel the comic-book company of choice over its square archrival DC. What made S.H.I.E.L.D. the cooler fighting force over the Justice League of America. What made artist Jack Kirby a god and artist Steve Ditko a lesser god. Or what made Jim Steranko a master at illustrating existential dread.

But now I know because writers as talented as Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Christopher Sorrentino, Andrew Hultkrans, and Geoffrey O'Brien told me so in the first-person essays they've contributed to Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!. But it isn't all memories of superheroes and the boys who loved them. For greater geekdom, see jazz honcho Gary Giddins in his piece titled "Seduced by Classics Illustrated," wherein we learn that an early and very hard-to-find CI such as Mr. Midshipman Easy easily equaled two "tepid" Jimmy Olsens on the trading block.

But the essays aren't all pure geekdom. Luc Sante does a splendid formal analysis of the artwork of Hergé in his "Tintin" series of the '40s and '50s. Myla Goldberg writes perceptively of the disgusting universe envisioned by Renée French and the spooky estrangement captured by Chris Ware (of "Jimmy Corrigan" fame). Greil Marcus fondly recalls the unshining U.S.A. in Steve Darnall and Alex Ross' U.S. Uncle Sam (all two issues of it, from 1997). Lonely Chris Offutt, who grew up the hard way in the mountains of Kentucky, writes about the rocks and comics that kept him company. Aimee Bender's paean to the immediacy of iconic words and pictures is an argument for the plain prose and images of the best fiction. And Tom Piazza interviews "Mr. Mxyzptlk" and "Bizarro" at the ComicCon convention in Jacksonville, Florida, and if those names mean nothing to you, they didn't to me either.

For the best in "wonder, horror, nostalgia, and guilt," however, go straight to the work of James Woodring in his multivolume JIM, works designed, according to John Wray, "to worm their way into the reader's subconscious and pry open hidden airlocks of terror." Wray also maintains that JIM is good for a laugh or two the third or fourth time you read it, which beats Mark Beyer's "Amy and Jordan," a strip about a luckless Manhattan couple living in perpetual fear but a strip so infantile and crudely executed I couldn't read through it once. Pantheon has recently collected Beyer's work and called it (surprise) Amy and Jordan.

Pantheon, stick with the good stuff (Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!; more books by cartoonist Ben Katchor). Comic-book fans, see Spider-Man 2 on the big screen and remember Steve Ditko. Me, I'm pleased to see on the small screen that "Spy vs. Spy" is back, in live-action, in good old black and white, shilling for Mountain Dew.

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