Leaping Tall Buildings: Portraits of Masters of American Comics

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You may think you know the men and women behind your favorite superheroes, but of course, there’s yet another man behind Clark Kent — his creator. PowerHouse Books’s beautiful new book Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics celebrates one of the essential American art forms with interviews with and portraits of some of the all-time greats of American comics, from Stan Lee to Art Spiegelman, mixing in some newer — but no less phenomenal — faces as well. Click through to see a few elegant, revealing, and whimsical portraits of some of the true giants of American comics that we excerpted from the book, as well as a few choice quotes from their interviews, and if you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to check out the book’s launch event on April 14 at The powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn.

Joe Simon

“Not all of these guys knew how to do comics,” Joe says of the early days of comics. “Bill Eisner was twenty years old. Jack Kirby was 23. At least I had had some years on three different newspapers, and I knew that if you put a pencil down, I knew how it would reproduce. These guys didn’t know.”

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were an unlikely pair: Joe was tall and lanky, while Jack was short and barrelchested; Joe a talker, while Jack was quiet. Their personalities complimented one another, a balancing act of Simon’s business savvy with Kirby’s intensity. Together, they created the language that defined the comic book.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.

Frank Miller

“I just said ‘I don’t give a damn. I’m going to do exactly the comic that I want to do,'” he says a bit later. “I didn’t care whether it succeeded or not, and it succeeded way beyond my expectations.”

To refer to Frank Miller as just a cartoonist or personality would be an understatement: where most artists have one defining period in a long career, Miller has had about three or four, switching styles, and even approaches, in a ballsy and always successful way. Miller has not only redefined comic book genres by combining them in a pastiche-fashion with the hard-boiled world of the Mike Hammers and Sam Spades, but also redefined the general perception of comics through successful film adaptations of key works Sin City and 300.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.

Art Spiegelman

“One thing that’s irritating is that I never thought of [Maus] as a ‘graphic novel’; It wasn’t a phrase in my head…I was trying to make something different, a structured long work with a beginning, middle, and end—not a collection of short stories. It was an outlined work and (to that degree) novelistic. I wanted it to have the density to withstand, even demand, rereading….. I was making a long comic book but I knew I didn’t want it to look like a comic book.”

Spiegelman engineered comics that raised the bar of legitimacy for the form, from the disarming sophistication of Maus to the grab bag of literary comics in RAW. Now, over twenty years later, the term “graphic novel” is inescapably muttered from the lips of librarians, booksellers, and people who still don’t want to admit to reading comic books; the original definition of a novelistic self-contained comics work has been all but lost in the process.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.

Jill Thompson

“It’s nice that there are nice people in my industry. I like to think I’m one of them, and treat anyone who comes up to me as a friend. If you’re nice enough to come up and like my work, how could I ever possibly be anything but gracious?”

Jill Thompson’s distinctive watercolor art blends classic cartooning with a color palette only seen in other worlds of fantastic ghosts and ghouls or monster-hunting dogs and cats. Her work, ranging from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to her own Scary Godmother to Beasts of Burden with Even Dorkin, set her apart from the rest… just as much as her outgoing personality.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.

Paul Pope

“A lot of the types of stories I’m interested in writing take place in an urban microcosm. New York, in that sense is always a stand-in to the world at large. To actually be here and to see with your own eyes, to drink it and breathe it all in, it lends a truth to the stories you want to tell and the pictures you want to make.”

Freaks are a common theme in Pope’s work, from 100% to Batman: Year 100 (both, interestingly enough, set a year apart: 2038 and 2039, respectively), not in a “be one of us” horror movie way, but in a slightly off-kilter from the rest of society way, with that society being a version of New York.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.

Dash Shaw

“When I draw comics, I try to transport myself to a place that’s different from where I am.”

Dash Shaw has all the earmarks of the shy and awkward kid in high school, the one who hung alone in the back of the classroom with his nose in his sketchbook.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.

Irwin Hasen

“New York is in my blood, because I was here for so long of my life. 80 years of working and mixing. That’s all I can say: It’s really, truly my hometown.”

Irwin Hasen is the embodiment of the early 1940s comic book artist, part of the generation that invented an initially disposable comic strip knock-off that became a vital narrative medium: the comic book.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.

Stan Lee

“I was ready to be a media star when I was twelve years old. It just took all this time for the world to discover me.”

Stan Lee is more than just a comic book visionary, the first self-made man of the comic book industry whose chutzpah sometimes eclipses his earlier struggles in the unforgiving comics world of the 1950s, then an industry hanging on by its fingernails as distributors went belly-up and crusading Senators sparked company-wide censorship.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.

Alex Ross

“As a fan, I’ve always thought ‘Can’t we get back to the core simplicity of these things? At the end of the day, comic book publishing is so much smaller than the overall of these characters being timeless versions of themselves. You can’t change what the timeless version is; it just is a certain thing.”

Alex Ross bears the distinction of being perhaps the first painter in comics to openly celebrate the superhero in his work, treating the long underwear set with the same attention as a Norman Rockwell does to everyday Americana. Because of that, Ross is unprecedented in an industry whose finer artists ignored the superhero, primarily for other genres.

From Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics , photographs by Seth Kushner, text and interviews by Christopher Irving, published by powerHouse Books.