Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Late Great Les Daniels

Comic book historian and novelist Les Daniels passed on 5 November at the age of 68. The cause was a heart attack.

Les Daniels was born on 27 October 1943 in Danbury, Connecticut. He grew up in Redding, Connecticut. He was only nine years old when the course of his career was determined. It was at that age that his mother threw his comic book collection out. He earned his bachelor's degree at Brown University. He received his master degree as well, writing his master's thesis on pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft.

Les Daniels would make his mark as a comic book historian with the book Comix:  A History of the Comic Book in America, published in 1971. It was one of the earliest books on the medium, one which traced comic books from the first appearance of Superman to the moral panic over comic books in the early Fifties to the underground comics of the Sixties. In 1975 Mr. Daniels published Living in Fear: A History of Horror in Mass Media. The book covered nearly 1500 yeas of the genre, from Aeschylus' play Oresteia to horror novels and movies of the Seventies.

In 1978 Les Daniels published his first novel, The Black Castle. It was the first in a series of novels featuring Don Sebastian de Villanueva, a Spanish nobleman turned vampire. Mr. Daniels would write four more novels featuring Don Sebastian: The Silver Skull (1979), Citizen Vampire (1981), Yellow Fog (1986), and No Blood Spilled (1991).

Despite the Don Sebastian novels, it would be for his histories of comic books and comic book characters for which he would become best known. In 1991 he published Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, which covered Marvel Comics from its origins in the late Thirties to the late Eighties. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favourite Comic Book Heroes, published in 1995, chronicled the history of DC Comics from its earliest beginnings. Les Daniels would also write histories of DC Comics' major characters: Superman, the Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steel (1998), The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight Batman (1999), and The Complete History: Wonder Woman (2000).

Les Daniels was not the first comic book historian, but he was arguably the greatest.  Only two other books ever matched Mr. Daniels Comix: A History of the Comic Book in America: Jim Steranko's two volume History of Comics and Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (2004). As to Mr. Daniels' other comic book histories, there were never anything quite like them. No one but Les Daniels ever covered Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman in such detail, and no one but Mr. Daniels ever wrote such detailed histories of the two major comic book companies in the industry. That he was also a successful novelist only makes Les Daniels even more impressive.

Indeed, I must confess I owe a great deal to Les Daniels. It is not simply that he wrote histories of a medium I love, comic books, but that he made chronicling pop culture respectable. Without Les Daniels and a few others as examples I might never have started writing about television, movies, music, comic books, and pulp magazines. To a large degree, A Shroud of Thoughts, then, owes its existence to Mr. Daniels. It's for that reason his passing saddens me more than that of many more famous individuals.

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