Of all the great cultural shifts of recent years, the rise to respectability of American comics may be the strangest. Once, Superman, Batperson and the like were just lowbrow trash for kids, but while some of us were looking in the opposite direction they acquired legendary status and became the cornerstones of Western civilisation. Now every other new film features a superhero, backed up by astounding special effects and a marketing budget that could start a small war.
Excellent timing, then, for British comics author Grant Morrison to produce Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero (Jonathan Cape, £17.99), a hefty and authoritative overview of the genre. Morrison has been steeped in comics since childhood, and stares menacingly out of the back cover as though looking for a white cat to stroke. He takes us from the Golden Age (first appearance of all-powerful beings with underpants outside their tights) through the Silver Age (the creation and development of the Marvel Universe) and the Dark Age (when everything got too gritty for words), to what he calls the Renaissance, the current age of plenty in which it is finally possible for a book like this to be published and taken seriously.
This is not a book without its indulgences — Morrison’s prose style can feel a little like an unmown lawn — but it is detailed and thoughtful and it won’t alienate the agnostic. Shazam! as Captain Marvel once said, for doubtless sensible reasons of his own.