Book Review: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC, by Reed Tucker

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_slugfestThe title says it all: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC. Never have I read a non-fiction book with so many descriptions of conflict and deception. By the final page I felt as though I had done 15 rounds in a boxing ring. Tucker, a Brooklyn (New York) based journalist, has written a detailed history of Marvel and DC’s roles in the volatile comic book industry that he describes as ‘continuously ping-ponging between elation and despair’. The book’s dedication gives a clue to the tone and content that will follow: ‘To the fans who, for decades, have been tirelessly litigating this issue with their voices, keyboards – and occasionally their fists.’ I’m pleased that Tucker used the gender-neutral term ‘fans’ in his dedication, given the frequent assumptions and assertions throughout the book that all comic book fans are male.

If you’re a comic book reader – or even if you’re not – you’re likely aware of the long-standing rivalry between the two giants: Marvel and DC. Tucker’s book chronicles the ups and downs they have both experienced, alongside the shift in how comic books have been perceived over time, and the impact of political, cultural and technological changes on the industry. The ‘iconic trinity’ of DC’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – and other key characters, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man – have survived both on and off the page, and their longevity now seems assured. It’s also interesting to read about characters that sank without a trace (or in some cases never made it to a first issue). They include Brother Power the Geek, The Hawk and the Dove, the Galaxy Green warrior women, Steel and Vixen.

Superman debuted in 1938, with limited powers. Unable to fly, he could however leap one-eighth of a mile. Tucker explains how Superman – and a raft of subsequent action heroes – offered ‘inexpensive escapist entertainment’ to North American readers during the challenging times of the Great Depression and the threat of war.

Not everyone was happy about the rapid growth of comic books, which were thought to be trashy and disreputable. Journalists, psychiatrists and other critics blamed comics and their ‘poisonous effects’ for the rise of the ‘bad behaviour’ of young people. In 1954, a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened a hearing on the evils of comic books. In response, the industry produced a code of conduct outlining core values and standards for details such as titles, depictions of violence and costumes. Not all publishers could adhere to the code and many went out of business.

The early comic book readers were perceived to be either very young children or older people who ‘weren’t too bright’, according to Stan Lee (an influential Marvel identity who eventually worked for DC too). The same was true in New Zealand. Some of us can still remember Bob Jones’s public graffiti belittling a Labour Party opponent: ‘[This prominent Labour party politician] reads comics’ it read; see Bollinger (2017).

Tucker analyses comic book characters, the people who draw and voice them, and the artwork itself. The artwork is traditionally a key point of differentiation between one publisher and another, even though an artist’s creativity may be constrained by prevailing house styles. Tucker describes the initial DC characters as bland and steady do-gooders, compared with Marvel’s three-dimensional superheroes who had real-world problems and anxieties.

Tucker covers marketing strategies, print runs and distribution tactics, the emergence of brand identities, trends to watch (hello, martial arts), price increases, optimal page counts and the catastrophic effects of weather on delivery schedules during winter. He tells of territorial wars, accusations of plagiarism and spies, defections, hiring and firing dramas, poaching, friction and competition. Apparently insults and punches were frequently traded. Writers were seen as disposable, like oranges: ‘You squeeze them until there’s no juice left then you throw them away.’ Certain executives are described variously as a ‘world-class jerk… [with a] foul temperament’, a ‘grouchy and demanding…crusty…curmudgeon’, ‘abusive…notoriously difficult… [with a] volcanic temper’, and a ‘prickly…vindictive…bad-mouthing…prick’. And worse. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some former workers are described as bitter, and there are stories about the lingering ‘bad blood’ and ‘screw you’ attitudes that followed the departure or defection of key personnel.

Despite the intense rivalry, there have been several successful crossover co-productions, with labour divided between Marvel and DC. For one such publication, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century (1976), Marvel provided the penciller and the colourist, and DC offered the skills of a writer, an inker and a letterer.
Comic book tie-ins emerged as early as 1940, when character-themed merchandise included shirts, soap, pencil sets, belts and watches. Later, licensing and cross-promotion strategies brought in staggering revenue streams. The 1989 Batman film is reported to have generated an estimated $US750 million in merchandising sales. Products ranged from action figures and cereals to tortilla chips and satin jackets. Artists and many others associated with Batman soon became ‘filthy rich’.

Tucker acknowledges that the comic book industry was historically dominated almost exclusively by ‘old white guys’. Nevertheless, this book misses opportunities to acknowledge the work carried out by women in the industry. For example, there is only a passing reference to Marie Severin, a pioneering artist and colourist who at one time had the final word on every cover coming out of Marvel. Her contribution was significant as cover art was critical to ensuring an issue’s success.

I found the often male-centric language and tone – and some turns of phrase – off-putting. For example, why describe DC comics as being ‘suddenly as attractive as syphilis’? Why feature a quote reporting that executives ‘squabbled like two old ladies’? One editor apparently ‘went to the bathroom and puked’ when he heard that the next person to lead DC was to be a young woman, Janette Kahn. Kahn, who was well-educated, experienced and clearly the right person for the role, soon proved to be a ‘fresh and energetic…presence’. Her immediate goals were not only to improve the comics but also to treat the writers and artists with more respect.

As well as female industry executives, female characters such as Super Woman and Wonder Woman have played key roles in comic book history. There have also been many other female characters along the way, such as Wonder Girl, Marvel Girl and Elasti-Girl. (Curiously, I note that in the closing acknowledgments Tucker offers both thanks and apologies to his wife.)

Notes accompany each chapter for readers who would like to learn more, with full references linked to key quotes. There’s a fairly comprehensive although not all-inclusive index; some minor characters referenced in the book do not appear in the index. If you’ve ever wondered what DC stands for, Tucker provides both official and unofficial explanations. The range and scope of topics covered is impressive, although tighter editing of some of the verbatim conversations may have made for a better read.

Tucker makes it clear that this is an industry where ‘conflict equals audience engagement’. Indeed, fans are reported as thriving on the conflict that persists to this day between Marvel and DC. Tucker entertains the possibility that there is room for both companies to succeed, although he also notes the risk that DC’s superhero universe may yet suffer ‘a slow, sad descent into irrelevance’. He observes that the industry is heading into new, uncertain directions, having had to remain resilient and resourceful in the face of the decline of print media.

Slugfest would first and foremost appeal to comic-book fans, but may also attract readers interested in the history of publishing, pop culture, superhero movies, and comic book characterisation. It also includes lessons about office politics, divided loyalties, and marketing practices and strategies – if you don’t mind a book where four-letter words, misogynistic comments and put-downs abound. One surprise: the book contains no images other than the cover art and the starburst at the beginning of each chapter.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751568974

Book Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day

cv_youre_never_weird_on_the_internetAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Before Zoella and Alfie, and the multitude of other vloggers, there was Felicia Day, one of the first to make her mark on YouTube. I’m not generally a biography/memoir reader, but Felicia’s had me hooked from the start: it had me wishing I knew her personally and by the end, I felt like I did. Candid and forthcoming, this autobiography made me laugh, (almost) cry, and experience practically every other emotion in between.

Day recounts her life from her early childhood in Alabama and Mississippi, a liberal, hippyish family living in America’s bible belt. With her unconventional upbringing, her mother’s fairly erratic attitude to home-schooling and her utter determination to be the best at what she does, Felicia rises in her teens to double major in violin and math. From there, she makes the move to Los Angeles, following her dream to become an actress. Through it all, she remains self-effacing, a socially awkward young lady who tenaciously strives for her goals – be they maintaining her 4.0 GPA or impressing her various tutors – sometimes to the detriment of her own social life and health.

Like many of us socially-awkward folks, Felicia finds her comfort zone within the internet. And she becomes addicted to the World of Warcraft. This sows the seeds to what becomes her most ambitious project yet – her YouTube series The Guild. Once you have read the amount of effort, the emotional investment, the energy, that was poured into that show, it makes you appreciate it in a whole new light.

But amongst the humour and the determination, there is a darker side to success, for the more popular that Felicia got, the more anxious she became. She writes candidly of her struggles with depression and anxiety, as her determination to not disappoint anybody almost breaks her. It all makes her very easy to identify with – and at times during reading it I wanted to reach out to her, give her a hug and say “it’s gonna be OK”. There is also a section on #GamerGate, and doxxing, that makes one aware of how terrifying the internet can really be.

Overall, through this book, Felicia has taught me that even if you feel awkward and weird, a misfit in society, there is a place for you. That if you have a goal, no matter how over-the-top, ridiculous and impossible it may seem, with determination, a few tears and a hearty dose of encouragement, you can make your mark in the world. Thank you Felicia, now I’m off to make mine.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)
by Felicia Day
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751562460

Book Review: If She Did It, by Jessica Treadway

Available in bookstores nationwide.
As parents, we know we are not supposed to have a favourite child. But come on, you know you do… Even if it changes on an hourly basis. Hannah and Joe have two daughters – one is confident, beautiful, and competent. The other, Dawn, has been the family underdog her whole life, not helped by her lazy eye.. Dawn is bullied (“Ding-Dong Dawn”), does less well at school and has few genuine friends. A mother’s heart can’t help but break a little every time life knocks Dawn back again. So when Dawn brings home a new very handsome, charismatic boyfriend, things are a bit unsettling. What could he possibly want with Ding- Dong Dawn? Things just seem “off”.

Then tragedy strikes. Dawn’s parents are the victims of a brutal home invasion. Joe is killed. Hannah survives but her head injuries are such that she has very little memory of that awful night. Dawn’s new boyfriend is charged with the attack and murder, and is ultimately convicted. Having initially taken her boyfriend’s side in the trial, Dawn returns home to her battered mother three years later, full of daughterly support when the boyfriend wins an appeal against his conviction. Dawn seems reluctant for Hannah to upset herself by trying to remember the events of that night so that she can testify at the appeal. But why? What is Dawn hiding? What does she not want Hannah to remember?

This story is somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster. Reading about Hannah’s pain in watching her awkward daughter grow into an even more awkward, lonely young woman is heart-breaking. Even more wrenching is Hannah’s desperate attempt to believe that Dawn could not possibly have had anything to do with the awful attack, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. I couldn’t put this book down – I found myself, like Hannah, urgently needing answers.

This book will appeal to anyone who enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin or Gone Girl. Although there are no shocking twists or surprises, as there were in those two bestsellers, this book will fill you with the same “what the heck has happened here?” sense of foreboding and dread. This is a riveting yet disturbing read.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

If She Did It
by Jessica Treadway
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751555240

Book Review: Very Good Lives, by JK Rowling

cv_very_good_livesAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

In 2008, JK Rowling, at the height of her fame, was asked to deliver the commencement speech for the graduating class at Harvard University. A daunting prospect for anyone, which Rowling candidly admits gave her ‘weeks of fear and nausea’. She is human after all.

She chose her subject matter based on what she wish she had been told when she graduated at the age of 21, and comes up with two things – the fringe benefits of failure, and the importance of imagination – two subjects she is well qualified to speak on, not because she went to university and learnt these things but because she has actually lived them. At the age of 21 of course, being a Harvard graduate, the concept of failure is laughable. But as all of us older, life experienced souls know, failure can happen to anyone, at any time. As for imagination, the very act of taking time to listen and to learn other people’s stories prods the imagination centre of the brain, as in our empathy, we can experience to some degree what we are being told. JK Rowling’s time in her early twenties working at Amnesty International taught her this.

This little book is the speech she gave to the graduates of Harvard in 2008. It is very inspirational, very personal, beautifully worded and crafted. For the Harvard graduates who heard this speech, time has probably dulled its effect somewhat, although I would like to think that something of it stayed with them. But for us, the reader, this little book of her speech, with simple but powerful illustrations is something we can go back to time and time again for a reread, a kick in the pants, or a quiet space and few minutes to shed a wee tear.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Very Good Lives
by JK Rowling
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9781408706787

Book Review: All I Know Now: Wonderings and Reflections on Growing Up Gracefully, by Carrie Hope Fletcher.


Available on Thursday 28 April from bookstores nationwide.

YouTube star Carrie Hope Fletcher’s book, All I Know Now, is the growing-up guide that she wished she had when she was a teenager. Everyone needs a role model; someone to help guide them down the path to becoming a grown-up, and Carrie has proven herself to be worthy of this role.

Carrie Hope Fletcher is an actress, singer and internet star; her YouTube channel, ItsWayPastMyBedtime, has reached over 560,000 subscribers. She is currently playing Eponine Thenardier in the West End production of Les Miserables, which was her dream as a child. Her videos have become increasingly popular over the past four years, and she has become an ‘honorary big sister’ to the hundreds of thousands of people who follow her. With her great sense of humour, kindness and love of all things tea, cake or Disney, it’s easy to see why so many young people go to her for advice.

All I Know Now serves as both an advice guide and a memoir; Carrie shares stories from her childhood and talks about her early acting career. She describes her favourite moments and most epic fails, in hopes that her readers will learn from them as she has. The book mainly focuses on the questions that Carrie gets asked the most frequently by her viewers: how to deal with broken hearts and being bullied, how to make new friends and cope with stress. It also features a section on ‘Internetiquette’, which is especially useful; Carrie explains how to avoid Internet disputes, and offers tips on how to navigate Twitter. She expresses her annoyance with Excessive Complainers, and lists tips on how to keep calm in stressful situations. The book is, overall, a goldmine of wisdom, funny stories and ideas that will make you stop and think.

All I Know Now is the ultimate guide to surviving the Teen Age; it’s for those who need inspiration, those who want to reach their goals but don’t know how, and those who just need some words of comfort. I highly recommend that you read this book; it’s best read over the space of a long, rainy afternoon (tea and cake optional).

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon (15)

All I Know Now: Wonderings and Reflections on Growing Up Gracefully
by Carrie Hope Fletcher
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751557510

Buy this book at your local bookshop.

Book review: The Abbey by Chris Culver

This book is in bookstores now.

This book started off as an e-book that could be purchased in the US for USD$0.99, and in places like Jamaica for USD$2.99. A bargain in anyone’s book. But much like that other massive e-book hit 50 Shades of Grey, this has been so successful in e-book format that it has now been published in paperback form.

I couldn’t find much about the author, but apparently this is his first published book, and what a jolly good read it is too. It is in the detective/thriller genre, great airplane/holiday read, with no great demands on the intellect. Unlike many of fiction’s hardened, bitter, over-philosophising-internal-analysing detective cops, Detective Ash Rashid really only thinks about his job and gets on with what has to be done. Which is just as well really because if he spent too much time fretting about the human condition, he would probably be dead.

No longer a homicide detective because all that death was getting to him, and now working in the Prosecutor’s Office, he finds himself drawn back to hunting for murderers when the body of his 15 year old niece is discovered. What follows is an absolute whirlwind of more murders, drugs manufacture, corrupt police, Russian crims, biological weapons, and at all times Rashid having to stay several steps ahead of those he is hunting and the various arms of the enforcement agencies. It gets very confusing, I have to say. And by about 2/3 of the way through I confess I had sort of lost my way with the various plot developments and connections to people involved.

In other reviews of this book, mostly American I may add, much has been made of the fact that Rashid is a practising Muslim. He prays regularly during the day, as does his wife and child, and talks fairly often about Islam and how he should be living his life. But really he comes across as just another hard playing fighting cop who needs more than a healthy dose of alcohol to get him through his days and nights.

Is the Muslim thing a gimmick as one review suggests? I don’t see it as a gimmick, as I am sure there are many law enforcement people who see themselves as committed Catholics or Protestants or whatever, also struggling with the requirements of their faith against the ghastliness of their jobs. But I do think that if the author does want to introduce a point of difference from your stock standard crime fighter, he needs to dig a little deeper into the character to make the religion a fundamental part of who Rashid is rather than just another person with conflict over how he wants to live his life with how he actually does.

Nevertheless I found it hard to put this novel down. A great page turner, perfect for a long flight or a lounger by the pool.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Abbey
by Chris Culver
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751549119