This amazing collection of essays is a terrific tribute to the magical comics of our past, the ones that aren't quite as good when we revisit them, and the rare comics that are actually better. In all respects, we should see more popular culture books like this. After all, it's the association of shared knowledge that makes a thing culturally worthwhile. And these authors, the cream of the literary crop, all really do seem to "get it."
Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers (anyone know the source of the title? Amazing Fantasy #15 . . . sheesh) starts out with a tone-setting essay and introduction by Sean Howe, himself a confessed pop culture junkie and former editor for the Criterion Collection. Howe's essay extols the virtues of that pop culture chimera, the comic book, even as he points out its shortcomings. This pushme-pullyou dichotomy will be the fulcrum on which the best of the essays in the book teeter-totter.
In particular, the Jonathan Lethem essay is a stand-out home run, as he points out that people reading Marvel in the 1970s had pretty much missed the boat. That sense of disillusionment is what sent him backwards into the 1960s to find the true essence of Marvel. That backwards reconstructionist thinking served him in other pop cultural nodes, such as music. He, better than any of them, makes the case for my personal take on what's cool about these comics.
Other standout essays come from Brad Meltzer, writing about how Terra in the Teen Titans broke his heart; Luc Sante and his early obsession with Tin Tin; Steve Erickson and his American Flagg habit; and Greil Marcus' review of the Uncle Sam mini-series. Oh, the hell with it, they are all good. No, really.
I was struck by the recurrent themes that so many of these writers picked up on: personalized senses of loneliness, alienation, and escape, a shared obsession bordering on maniacal, and a total lack of socialization or connection with their peers. They all felt like they were in the dark, the only ones out there who really understood what the comics really were. Forbidden fruits. Most of these writers grew up in the 1970s, pre-Internet, pre-message boards, and completely unconnected except through the paper umbilicus of the monthly letter column in the back of Howard the Duck.
Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers is a fantastic collection, a slick-looking book, and a real treat to read. The authors and essayists who contributed to the book run the gamut from literary highbrows and lowly comic book writers and everyone in between. I'll bet you a million dollars you can't tell which is which.