Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Top 2 Jeff Rovin Super Encyclopedias!

 Heh Heh. Boy is that the most awkward title I’ve ever written.
  I thought I’d start the New Year off with something of a first for this blog; a look, not at comics, but books about comics. Jeff Rovin was an editor who wrote a lot of books on pop culture history back in the 80’s and early 90’s, some for kids, some not. However, two he wrote that stand out to me were his “encyclopedias”. First there was an encyclopedia of superheroes, then one for supervillains (There was also one of for monsters, which I may review someday). Let’s look at all them, shall we? All TWO!

 1) The Encyclopedia of Super Heroes:
 As you can tell from the cover, this book tries to go beyond just including comic book heroes and attempts to include science fiction heroes and mythological figures. This is sort of a double-edged sword, because on one hand, while it offers a sense of variety to the book, Rovin’s actual criteria for what constitutes a superhero becomes a bit spotty at times.

  For example, we get an entry for Luke Skywalker, but none for Flash Gordon, even though Adam Strange is also listed (No John Carter though, despite being the grand-daddy of all spacefaring heroes…). Is it because Luke uses the force, which constitutes a kind of superpower? Fair enough, but there are also a lot of entries for gadget-user heroes or non-powered characters like the Lone Ranger.  

 Then again, Mark Hamill also wrote a blurb for the supervillain book, and he would also go on to voice the Joker, so maybe he had something to do with it.
It’s a conspiracy!!!!!11!
  There’s also an over-emphasis on parody superheroes, ranging from characters that were meant to be outright spoofs of the superhero genre (Fatman, Inferior Five), to normal comedy characters who only temporarily gained powers for one-shot parodies, to pornographic characters from underground comix. Some of the entries for characters that debuted in pulps seem to have had most of their biographical information taken from their comic book incarnations, like Conan. The color/cover gallery is also wasted on characters no one cares about like the SPLIT! version of Captain Marvel.

 Also, man does Rovin love him some Skywald and Atlas/Seaboard characters. While I admit that the Atlas books are guilty pleasures of mine (You gotta love a company that folded within a single year and whose stable of heroes was made up of thieves, monsters, rapists and cannibals), I was pretty surprised by the attention they got. That is, until I remembered that Rovin also wrote and edited for Atlas/Seaboard. Maybe he was trying to one-up fellow Atlas-alumni Michael Fleischer, who had a similar ‘encyclopedia’ project going.
 It’s a good book, but has nothing that most fans didn’t already know even back then. I just became aware though that Rovin also did an encyclopedia of action heroes, so perhaps that explains why so many of these entries are padded with joke characters, as well as some of the more glaring omissions (Indiana Jones, James Bond) that could fit just as well under either classification. Check it out though if you want to see a good reference guide that pre-dates the internet.
  2) The Encyclopedia of Super Villains:

  This book really goes out of its way to include characters from every medium imaginable, even more so than the hero volume, and is thus the more enjoyable of the two. We get serial villains, literary villains, pulp villains, horror movie villains, fairy tale villains and even villains who didn’t even exist in context of the work they appeared in! (The imaginary wizard Freston from Don Quixote has an entry. Nice to see a classical reference, but, really?).

 That said, while it is the more in-depth of the two books, it’s also the more flawed. Several one-shot Shadow and Doc Savage foes get entries, but Shiwan Khan and John Sunlight do not. This is especially embarrassing considering that one of the few Shadow villains listed is a character from the Shadow’s notoriously lousy 1960’s comic series. Conan’s Thoth Amon also doesn’t rate an entry despite being used as an arch-foe in the comics which most of Rovin’s knowledge of the character seems to have come from. Batman’s first supervillain, Doctor Death, has an entry, but is falsely stated to have only appeared once in the Golden Age (and in 1940, as opposed to 1939) and then returned in the 80’s. He actually appeared twice in the Golden Age, and those 80’s appearances were Earth-One retellings of the two Golden Age stories. In any case, it’s weird to see Rovin list such an obscure, fairly uninteresting pre-Joker Batman villain, get so many details wrong, but not have entries for the far more interesting (and far more significant) Monk and Hugo Strange. I can understand wanting to overlook the mind-screwing Earth One-Earth Two distinctions, especially since this book came out just after Crisis, but he does it for other characters (the entry on Lex Luthor will make your head spin). Also, somewhere the Joker is crying over how small his entry is.
This guy was apparently a more essential part of the Shadow mythos than Shiwan Khan
 Rovin also lists Bela Lugosi’s character Dr. Mirakle from the 1932 version of Murders in the Rue Morgue, and correctly states that no such character appeared in Poe’s original story. Good work…until he then goes on to say that Jason Robards played Mirakle in the 1971 version of Rue Morgue. Uh, no he didn’t. That version had nothing to do with Poe’s story and was about a disfigured killer named Marot (Herbert Lom) who targets actors starring in a stage version of Rue Morgue. Robards plays the stage manager who *spoiler* it turns out was the man who disfigured Marot. He’s a villain, yes, but can’t really be said to be equivalent to the Lugosi role. Then again, I’ve also seen Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Horror Films make the same mistake. In fact, that book was probably what was used as a reference.
To be fair, both have bitchin' 19th century collars
 Speaking of horror villains, Rovin also has an entry for Freddy Krueger. However, the entry spends such a disproportionate amount of time talking about Krueger’s crimes when he was alive (including details of his childhood that had only been told in novelizations) that the entry reads more like bio for an ordinary serial killer than a supervillain, with the mention of Krueger becoming a ghost seeming like an afterthought. You’d also think it would be worth mentioning that Freddy fought what was basically a superhero team in the third film (especially in context of listing the character as a supervillain), but evidently Rovin didn’t.

  Flaws aside, the book can be illuminating at times. If you ever want proof of how little the Star Wars prequels really contributed to the overall saga, just read the entry on Darth Vader. It was written in 1987, but could just as easily have been written in 2007. Obviously it doesn’t mention any of the details from the prequels that were supposed to (in theory) make Vader more sympathetic (like being a slave as a child etc.), but honestly, if Rovin was to ever update this book, there really wouldn’t be much more to add to this entry. Some origins really are better off left unknown, especially when so many details from unused early drafts (Vader being burned by lava) and novelizations ended up being used anyway.
 Despite the flaws, it’s hard to not love a book that devotes as much space to Super Chicken’s rogues gallery as Superman’s.

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