The New Historians: What Is a Comic Book Historian?

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of historian:

A writer or author of a history; esp. one who produces a work of history in the higher sense, as distinguished from the simple annalist or chronicler of events, or from the mere compiler of a historical narrative.

When I decided to finish my book, The Essential Marvel Age Reference, 1961-1976 after working on it for 45 years, I asked myself what perspective it should have. I decided that I should have the perspective of a Comic Book Historian. Even though I have the 5,000 original comics that I wrote about, plus 5,000 more. I have notes from the dozens of interviews I did, and over 3,000 pages of articles and interviews and transcripts I would never use that term.

You see, I had met a lot of SPCBH’s, Self-Proclaimed Comic Book Historians, who gave themselves that title, but are pretenders to the throne. You can give yourself a website with that term in it, or scan a bunch of stories and get it published without any new thoughts or context, and call yourself a CBH.

I think it is rare to make really good friends after age 40 but I did with some great comic book researchers and reporters when I became friends with Nick Caputo, Mike Vassallo, and Ken Quattro. They are truly historians. Ken Quattro, who is a great researcher, would not call himself an expert or historian; he modestly refers to himself as the “Comic Detective,” a perfect term for all of us searching for facts. The SPCBHs come to them all the time wanting their comics, scans and research. Nick, Ken, and Mike are perfect examples of the OED definition.

Mike, Ken and Nick are not just simple chroniclers, or mere compliers, they research and produce comic book history on the highest levels. They are the prime sources for a lot of books out there on Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Gene Colan, and other Marvel and Atlas topics. They have written introductions for the Marvel Masterworks series and articles for Alter Ego, Ditkomania, Robin Snyder’s The Comics!, and Howard the Duck #6. They also have their own blogs where they freely share their views and findings.

So before we accept everyone who claims the distinction, let us stick with the OED definition and look at what 10 qualities makes up a comic book historian:

  1. True historians love this stuff and they have devoted a large amount of time to it. Books take them years to research and write, not just a few months. Historians are often specialized; they don’t pretend to be an expert on everything.
  2. Not only do they HAVE THE COMICS which they collected over years, THEIR COMICS ARE ORGANIZED FOR REFERENCE! They have the originals, with the letter’s columns, notes and advertizing! Real historians, they have thousands of comics but can pull one out in seconds. I mention this because I have met people with stacks of unorganized comics, claiming they have everything, but you never would be able to find anything you were actually looking for.
  3. THEY HAVE ACTUALLY READ, and RE-READ THE COMICS!!! You ask a question and they immediately know which comics you are talking about. So many time I have met “authorities ” who haven’t read the comics of the people they claim they are authorizes on.
  4. They have also spent a lifetime, not just the last year, collecting newspapers, magazine, fanzines, recordings etc. Not just over a year, but over decades. They have sources and references AND THEY USE THEM.
  5. They also have libraries full of books about the comics. And they have read them. Again, a lifetime of collecting means books published over decades. They make no overpowering statement, such as, “Ditko left Marvel over the Green Goblin ” unless there is an original and reliable source for that type of material. And they list their sources.
  6. They spend a lifetime meeting sources and communicating with them. They verify their facts and they have a lot on background, from good people.
  7. True Historians let the facts led them to a conclusion, not the other way around, where their conclusions led them to select certain facts. Often facts lead to speculation, but a true historian labels it as such.
  8. The absence of facts cannot lead to speculation or a conclusion. So many SPCBH’s have agendas and ask you to prove a negative, “How do you know this didn’t happen? ” They are careful not to present facts, they want you to find them.
  9. True historians are fans first. They know how much they DON’T know and accept that not every question will have answers. They also realize that memory is fallible and that oft-told stories can supplant reality. I have found, most often people don’t lie, they just don’t remember the exact details of decades ago. We all a limited by our own perspectives and people take different things, and remember things from the same event.
  10. There are well informed people, some of whom were in the field, who like to think that they are a CBH, but often they were a witness to a select period comic book history. But there are also people like Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella, who were participants, but also are true historians, filling all the qualifications mentioned.

People like Ken, Nick and Mike are the people the self proclaimed CBHs go to get material, scans, comments and quotes and then use it like it was their own all along. There are books out what are virtually all of their material and the get little credit for it.

There are now a bunch of reprint books out featuring work by famous artists that is now out of copyright. Their SPCBH authors give no insight into why these stories were chosen. A true historian would never do that, there would always be context. So why were most of those stories chosen? Because The SPCBH could get them, free, from people like us.

Finally, not all opinions are equally valid. But when Nick posts and identifies an artist, or when Mike places a person at Timely on a certain date, or Ken reveals a hidden fact on Lev Gleason, I believe them, I don’t need a show of hands.

One thought on “The New Historians: What Is a Comic Book Historian?”

  1. Good points. Another major mark of a professional historian is consciously sticking to a specific method of research. Just as science is based on the scientific method, academic-quality history is based on following good historical method. History dissertation candidates are required to lay out what method they are using at the beginning of their thesis, and to justify why they are using it instead of a rival method–for instance, why they are focusing on the economic side of a historical trend rather than a social, political, or cultural aspect. They then apply the method they have selected to a clearly-defined set of data, such as a set of records from a specific archive covering a specific time range. In your book’s case, you are clear about what comics you are covering from what date range, and what criteria you are using to categorize and analyze them.

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