The New Historians by Barry Pearl

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of historian: “A writer or author of a history; esp. one who produces a work of history in the higher sense, as distinguished from the simple annalist or chronicler of events, or from the mere compiler of a historical narrative.”

When I decided to finish my book, The Essential Marvel Age Reference, 1961-1976 after working on it for 45 years, I asked myself what perspective it should have. I decided that I should have  the perspective of a Comic Book Historian. Even though I have the 5,000 original comics that I wrote about plus 5,000 more, I have notes from the dozens of interviews I did, and over 3,000 pages of articles and interviews and transcripts but I would never use that term.

You see, I had met a lot of SPCBHs, Self-Proclaimed Comic Book Historians, who gave themselves that title, but are pretenders to the throne. You can give yourself a website with that term in it, or scan a bunch of stories and get it published without any new thoughts or context, and call yourself a CBH.

I think it is rare to make really good friends after age 40 but I did with two great comic book researchers and reporters when I became friends with Nick Caputo, Mike Vassallo, Dan Best and Ken Quattro. They are truly historians. Ken Quattro, who is a great researcher, would not call himself an expert or historian; he modestly refers to himself as the “Comic Detective,” a perfect term for all of us searching for facts.  The SPCBHs come to them all the time wanting their comics, scans and research. Nick, Ken, and Mike are perfect examples of the OED definition.

Mike, Ken and Nick are not just simple chroniclers, or mere compliers, they research and produce comic book history on the highest levels. They are the prime sources for a lot of books out there on Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Gene Colan, and other Marvel and Atlas topics. They have written introductions for the Marvel Masterworks series and articles for Alter Ego, Ditkomania, Robin Snyder’s the Comics, and Howard the Duck #6. They also have their own blogs where they freely share their views and findings.

So before we accept everyone who claims the distinction, let us stick with the OED definition and look at what 10 qualities makes up a comic book historian:
  1. True historians love this stuff and they have devoted a large amount of time to it.  Books take them years to research and write, not just a few months. Historians are often specialized they don’t pretend to be an expert on everything.
  2. Not only do they HAVE THE COMICS which they collected over years, THEIR COMICS ARE ORGANIZED FOR REFERENCE! They have the originals, with the letter’s columns, notes and advertising! Real historians, they have thousands of comic but can pull one out in seconds. I mention this because I have met people with stacks of unorganized comics, claiming they have everything, but you never would be able to find anything you were actually looking for.
  3. THEY HAVE ACTUALLY READ, and RE-READ THE COMICS!!! You ask a question and they immediately know which comics you are talking about. So many time I have met “authorities” who haven’t read the comics of the people they claim they are authorities on.
  4. They have also spent a lifetime, not just the last year, collecting newspapers, magazine, fanzines, recordings etc. Not just over a year, but over decades. They have sources and references AND THEY USE THEM.
  5. They also have libraries full of books about the comics. And they have read them. Again, a lifetime of collecting means books published over decades. They make no overpowering statement, such as, “Ditko left Marvel over the Green Goblin” unless there is an original and reliable source for that type of material. And they list their sources.
  6. They spend a lifetime meeting sources and communicating with them. They verify their facts and they have a lot on background, from good people
  7. True Historians let the facts led them to a conclusion, not the other way around, where their conclusions led them to select certain facts. Often facts lead to speculation, but a true historian labels it as such.
  8. The absences of facts cannot lead to speculation or a conclusion.  So many SPCBH’s have agendas and ask you to prove a negative, “How do you know this didn’t happen?” They are careful not to present facts, they want you to find them.
  9. True historians are fans first.  They know how much they DON'T know and accept that not every question will have answers. They also realize that memory is fallible and that oft-told stories can supplant reality. I have found, most often people don’t lie, they just don’t remember the exact details of decades ago. We all a limited by our own perspectives and people take different things, and remember things from the same event.
  10. There are well informed people, some of whom were in the field, who like to think that they are a CBH, but often they were a witness to a select period comic book history. But there are also people like Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella, who were participants, but also are true historians, filling all the qualifications mentioned.

People like Ken, Nick, Dan, and Mike are the people the self proclaimed CBHs go to get material, scans, comments and quotes and then use it like it was their own all along. There are books out what are virtually all of their material and the get little credit for it.  

There are now a bunch of reprint books out featuring work by famous artists that is now out of copyright. Their SPCBH authors give no insight into why these stories were chosen. A true historian would never do that, there would always be context. So why were most of those stories chosen? Because The SPCBH could get them, free, from people like us.  

Finally, not all opinions are equally valid. But when Nick posts and identifies an artist, or when Mike places a person at Timely on a certain date, or Ken reveals a hidden fact on Lev Gleason, I believe them, I don’t need a show of hands.

---Barry Pearl


Kid said…
I've certainly found that Nick Caputo 'knows his onions' - and is generous in sharing his knowledge with others. Very welcome traits to those interested in the subject of comics.
An excellent piece, especially those 10 Rules. Pretty much exactly the same rules I use myself, to the best of my ability.
Robert Beerbohm said…
I wonder how comics historians would approach this conundrum puzzle:

Conclusions and still unanswered queries contained therein the result of 40+ years of research in to this subject alongside many other puzzles of "popular" myth & legends of the lore we live inside of.

Robert Beerbohm
alxjhnsn said…
I'm waiting for your book Robert!

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