Review: Comic Book Encyclopedia

When I was a kid, encyclopedias were often frustrating for their lack of depth or currency. These days, with the pervasiveness of the internet, the notion of a printed encyclopedia is about as practical as a hand-cranked engine. Nevertheless, Ron Goulart decided to go the throwback route anyway, and compiled his ambitious and admirable, if deeply flawed, Comic Book Encyclopedia.

A visually appealing piece of work, like Frank Cho’s unnecessary Shanna mini-series, there’s three immediate signs of trouble before you even open the book. The boast of “nearly 400 big pages” is laughable when you consider the varied history of comics, but it’s even more so when combined with the raising-the-bar tagline: The ULTIMATE GUIDE to Characters, Graphic Novels, Writers & Artists in the Comic Book Universe! All that in “nearly” 400 pages?

The final problem with the cover is one of representation. Of the eight images presented, three are of Marvel properties – Spider-Man and the X-Men on the front, the Fantastic Four on the back – and not a single one from DC. No Superman, no Batman, no Wonder Woman. But Strangers in Paradise makes the cut?

The questionable choices don’t end there, though, as the insides offer even more puzzlers. Goulart gives a lot of space to long-forgotten Golden Age comics, characters and creators, but proportionately goes a bit overboard, especially in light of the startling omissions and reductions he makes in some places. I’m all for giving props to the old school but how does he justify Siegel and Shuster only getting a cross-reference to Superman, while Bob Kane gets a full page of his own and Bill Finger gets nothing more than a mention therein?

Other notable transgressions include:

Entries for Art Adams and Frank Cho, but no Bill Sienkiewicz?

Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, but no Grant Morrison?

Watchmen only gets cross-referenced to Alan Moore, but Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld gets a full page?

Danger Girl and Machine Man get entries, but not Black Lightning or Moon Knight? (What? Hell yeah, Moon Knight deserves a listing! His first series was one of the original canaries in the Direct Market coal mine. And Black Lightning was DC’s first black superhero to headline his own comic. WTF?)

Graphic Novels get only a page and a half?

Of course, a project like this will never please everyone, but some editorial discretion in forcing a tighter focus could have at least resulted in the first in a multi-volume effort of actual substance. Instead, Goulart delivers little more than a fine overview for the casual comic book fan, and a suitable coffee table book for everyone else. Less Ultimate Guide than Beginner’s Guide, I’d say.

I did find something rather surprising buried in the credits on the jacket’s back cover flap: “Super Hero is a co-owned trademark of Marvel and DC Comics and is used with permission.” Who knew?

For a more comprehensive survey of comic book characters past and present, check out Don Markstein’s impressive TOONOPEDIA: A Vast Repository of Toonological Knowledge that more than lives up to its tagline. Not only does he have entries for Black Lightning and Moon Knight, but it’s free, online and continually updated! An encyclopedia for the 21st century.

Comic Book Encyclopedia, by Ron Goulart (HarperEntertainment, November 2004)

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Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, one-time poet, still opinionated. Reading, writing, running, gaming, soccer, beer.

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