Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Rough Guide to Superheroes

I have to be up-front about this: I can't stand stories about guys (and gals) in tights and capes with super powers battling super villains in city-destroying battles. I never could identify with anyone in those comics, I never felt there was anything noble in the secret identities of the do-gooders, the peril of the planet was always so artificially ridiculous.

Which isn't to say I don't know the Marvel and DC universe down to every Kirby crosshatch and Ditko posture, that I didn't watch reruns of Batman religiously on TV, that I haven't cringed in anticipation over who would be cast in every movie adaptation of every superhero movie. It's gotten that you almost -- not quite, but almost -- are not able to claim a full cultural literacy if you can't defend your preferred Batman, Superman, or Hulk.

But there are more superheroes than the ones in comics, and some of those I can get behind with just as much fervor as any comic book geek (which I once was, I must also admit). There are superspies with and without class, vampire slayers of many ages who aren't all named Buffy, superchickens and ape-men, bionic men and women, flaming carrots and men of concrete, and a whole pantheon of intergalactic star warriors. The universe has become so think with superheroes and villains that sometimes it's impossible to tell all the players without a score card of some kind. And to the rescue come the good people at Penguin books who publish a whole collection of titles under the moniker of Rough Guides.

Specifically, The Rough Guide to Superheroes.

Originally begun as a series of travel guides aimed at the backpacker set, Rough Guides have since come to include many cultural reference titles that include movies, music, and food. Among them is this overview of the world of heroes (and villains) in popular culture. In the chapter on the origins of Superman in 1931 is an historical overview of how history has shaped superhero stories. The mythology of superheroes is rich -- a life-saving journey as a baby works for both Moses and Superman. In fact the Bible is full of characters with superpowers. And what, exactly, is the difference between Arthur's Excalibur and a Jedi's light sabre? Masked identities cover everyone from Batman to Zorro to the Lone Ranger, and they're all mentioned here as well.

The Rough Guide to Superheroes isn't exhaustive, but in its compact 320 pages it can give any novice a fairly complete picture of the major players, while providing the expert supertracker with a quick reference to their favorites. Separate sections for villains as well as for TV and movie heroes prevents the book from being based entirely on comic books, and a great many literary figures appear as well. It might have been nice to have an index for speedier reference, but part of the joy of book like this is being able to flip it open to any page and learn something new. There's more information per page than many books twice its size.

If there is a downside to this book its that it was published in 2004 and doesn't include all the recent developments in superhero movies and their sequels. And with the publishing industry in peril -- Penguin shuttered its New York office of Rough Guides last month -- its doubtful this book will receive the sort of updates the annual travel guides receive. That said, this is still a great collection of facts, trivia, history, and all-around scorecard for all the player in the superhero universe. And it fits easily in the back pocket of your jeans.

The Rough Guide to Superheroes
edited by Paul Simpson, Helen Rodiss, Michaela Bushell
Penguin Books

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