Scott Tipton and Chris Ryall, two fans who ended up working in the industry (like so many other comic writers and artists) have teamed up to bring us the non-definitive work on one of America's great contributions to world culture, the comic book.
Intended more as a primer than anything else, Comic Books 101 takes us through an overview of the history of the industry, walks us through the typical artistic comic book production process, and gives us a solid, if occasionally too brief, background on the major characters, authors, and players of the past 60 years. Yes, there are Marvel and DC, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman and Batman, the JLA and the Avengers, Jack Kirby, George Perez, Alan Moore, and a whole bunch of other historical bits.
Tipton and Ryall tend to keep things light and not overly pedantic, not being afraid to share opinions and personal recollections via sidebars or in-text mentions (when discussing the state of DC's hero Green Lantern, they end the chapter by stating things are "in our humble estimation...as it should be."). This chattiness is both the weakness and the strength of the book. On one hand, the personal nature of the essays detracts from a more objective overview of certain subjects and might put off the hardcore fan wanting to know more about the Blackhawks or Nick Fury.* On the other hand, the writing style is perfect for engaging the casual fan or the true neophyte. Throughout Comics 101, the overall tone lets the reader know that these are two guys who truly love comics, and want to share that love with the rest of the world.
A particularly moving moment comes in the profile of a Marvel editor named Mark Gruenwald, responsible for much of Marvel's late 80s-early 90's success: rather than just giving us a capsule review of his importance, Tipton gives us a personal essay about Gruenwald, of how they met, and the importance he had not only within the industry, but in nurturing fans. Tipton's testimonial gives us a brief portrait of a man who knew how important the reader is to the medium, and it results in a meaningful, moving essay.
In addition to providing a safe, undaunting haven for the curious, Ryall and Tipton outdo themselves by providing a list of recommended reading--from graphic novels to deeper histories of comics in general. They break it down by character, company, and creator, and it's possibly the most valuable resource one could have for diving into the morass of comicdom, with its 60-plus year history and ever-changing emphases.
In many ways, this work, while not definitive, is definitely the best starting point I've ever been fortunate to read. The authors make the convoluted world of comics incredibly accessible, and for that, I salute them.
Comic Books 101 is highly recommended.
*Slight Disclaimer--I'm a long-time reader and (very)occasionally correspond with both authors via Tipton's site, and he's covered both the Blackhawks and Nick Fury in much greater depth in his weekly column.