Let’s say you wake up one day and are suddenly hit with the inspiration to read every Superman comic ever published, take extensive notes and then write detailed entries on each person, place or thing you run across with the ultimate goal of producing an encyclopedia about the Man of Steel. Sounds crazy, right? Awesome but when you really start thinking about the time and energy it would take to do something like that it seems rather daunting. The thing is in this day and age such a thing is possible. You can, through various means, track down every Superman comic out there either in print or in digital form. Some might not be legit but they are there to be found if you know where to look.
It might be crazy but it is also doable.
Now imagine it is the late sixties. No internet, so searching for comics at online shops or on eBay is right out. Digital books? What does that even mean? Fandom is organized but scattered throughout the country. There are ads in the comics and fanzines advertising old books and you can even go to the few conventions that are starting to be organized but that’s your only outlet to find the issues you need to complete such an endeavor.
Where would you go to find the comics you needed to read?
That is the question and the obstacles a man named Michael Fleisher was faced with back in 1969 when he got the idea to write an encyclopedia not just on Superman but on comics in general. At the time Fleisher was working for the Encyclopdia Britanica and one day a co-worker typed up a mock entry for Clark Kent in the dry style that encyclopedias are written in. It was a gag…something to pass the time and amuse the people in the office I assume. For Fleisher it became a source of inspiration. He took a Xeroxed copy of the entry home and used the comics reprinted in Jules Feiffer’s amazing book The Great Comic Book Heroes as source material to write a few sample entries. The next day he showed those samples to a friend in the publishing business and within hours had a publishing deal. Only then did the enormity of what he was about to undertake hit him beginning with the question, “How am I going to gain access to all of the old comics I need to properly write this book?”
The truly amazing thing to me is that at the time Fleisher was not a comic book collector. He had left those behind at the age of 14 when he sold his collection to a junk lady on Third Avenue for a penny a comic. So here’s this guy back in 1969 that gets the idea to write not just a book about comics but an encyclopedia and he hasn’t cracked a comic in twelve years.
I have very few real life heroes. Michael Fleisher is one of them for this very reason.
Over the next nine years three books would come out of Fleisher’s initial idea. The first was The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes Volume One: Batman, which came out in 1976. That same year Collier Books also released The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes Volume Two: Wonder Woman. The idea was to publish volumes for all of the major heroes but sadly the line came to an end in 1978 with The Great Superman Book, a.k.a. The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes Volume Three: Superman.
At the top of this post I described how writing such a book today would be easier than it was in 1969. This begs the question; how did Fleisher pull off this Herculean feat? Well, in March of 1969 armed with stacks of 5″ by 8″ index cards and aided by his research assistant Janet Lincoln Fleisher was led down a carpeted corridor by Gerda Gattel, DC’s Archivist and Librarian. This is the part of the story that always makes me stop for a moment to imagine what it must have been like for Fleisher to step into that room for the first time. Fleisher writes that he gasped a little the first time he was led into the library, which was a medium sized room with floor to ceiling bookshelves full of bound copies of every comic National Periodicals (as DC was known at the time) had ever published. Apparently there were two copies of each comic. The company had been in existence under one name or another since around 1935. That means there were over thirty four years of comics on those shelves.
If I were the type to salivate over comics I would do so every time I think of seeing all of those books.
Fleisher wrote that Gattel noticed his surprised look and remarked with a benign smile, “You said you wanted to study all of the heroes. We have dozens of them. Where would you like to begin?” From Fleisher’s description of that first day of research Mrs. Gattel was very proud that her charges were being used for serious research instead of by business men looking for images to slap on T-shirts and beach blankets.
With that Fleisher and his assistant got to work. For the next five years they read every Superman comic published between 1938 and 1964 and took detailed notes. Their cut off point was World’s Finest #142, which features the first appearance of the Composite Superman. To me that seems random but I wasn’t the one sitting in a small room for 60 months reading comic after comic and taking note after note. In the time between starting the project and the three volumes being published Michael Fleisher became a professional comic book writer. He worked on such titles as House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Shade the Changing Man and others but the two DC characters he is most associated with are the Spectre and Jonah Hex. He would also write for Marvel and Warren Publishing before leaving comics to focus on his academic career. Since 2002, according to Wikipedia, he has served as a freelance anthropological consultant carrying out research assignments for humanitarian organizations in the developing world.
One has to wonder if his time reading thousands of stories about costumed heroes played a part in that. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. In any case I will always have the utmost respect for Mr. Fleisher and the work he did in comic book research at a time when undertaking such an effort was probably looked on as a bit silly.
For the longest time the only way you could find this book was on the secondary market. Prices ranged from expensive to somewhat reasonable and I managed to snag a hardcover back in 2002 in the reasonable range. Thankfully in 2007 DC saw fit to reprint the books into trade paperback sized collections for the bargain price of $19.99 a piece.
And because the cover was awesome.
And because…well, I wanted to.
If you haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy yet I cannot recommend doing so enough. It’s a fun volume and while it does not cover the entire history of Superman it covers his first quarter century. I find this to be a handy resource and about the most fun you will ever have reading an encyclopedia. Sure you can spend hours reading websites like the Superman Homepage or even the Superman Wiki but this book feels differently. Then again I am the weird guy that likes to sit at my desk pouring through a stack of books while on a research quest so maybe I’m a bit weird.
Whatever the case I salute you, Mr. Fleisher. You are one of the men and women that put me on the path of being the amateur Superman scholar I am today. For that I owe you a great debt…one that I don’t know if I can ever repay.