The old cliché "you can't judge a book by its cover" definitely doesn't apply here, because Action! Mystery! Thrills! is all covers. One hundred and seventy six covers, to be precise. One hundred and seventy-six of some of the coolest, funkiest covers from the Golden Age of comics from 1933-1945.
Action! Mystery! Thrills! is the latest art book from Greg Sadowski, who has made his reputation on archival books that present some of the best art of the Golden Age, like his books Four Color Fear and Supermen! Sadowski has been doing a good service to the comic book world, making available images that would normally only be found in the libraries of deep-pocketed collectors. Sadowski is known for the quality of his images, and I saw him write that he did only slight color manipulation on these covers to show how they would have appeared at the time, removing some of the yellowing of the paper that comes with age.
One of the cool things about Action! Mystery! Thrills! is the range of material. This is not a "famous covers" collection; there is no Action Comics #1 or Detective Comics #27. There are quite a few here that I recognize, like Mac Rayboy's Captain Marvel Jr. #4, Plastic Man #1, and Suspense Comics #8 with that beautiful spider cover. But there are far more that are new to me. Some of the covers are incredibly cool, and some are laughable. But they are all worth seeing.
The genres collected range from Funnies on Parade to Hangman Comics to L.B. Cole's surrealistic Patches. Each of the covers shows the design aesthetic of the time when comics were more popular than they have ever been since, and competition on the stands was fierce. The cover had to make a statement about the content, and be dynamic enough to sway some young boy or girl to depart with their dime.
It is interesting to see how some of these aesthetics have been carried over, and some have not. The cover to Young King Cole Detective Stories #1 could easily be a cover to Frank Miller's Sin City. In fact I would be shocked if Miller had never seen that cover. Some of the covers have a really clean, simple design like for Green Lama and Little Lulu, while some feel the need to back every inch of cover space with something exciting going on. It's interesting to see how human the old superheroes were depicted, with realistic anatomy. Modern comics books and especially superheroes are stylized to the extreme, with blown-up muscles and chins.
If I had a reservation about the book, it is that it is limited. Action! Mystery! Thrills! is a cover gallery, and nothing more. In the appendix Sadowski gives two of three sentences of commentary for each cover, but that is it. One tantalizing piece in the book is a few photographs of old newsstands that have the Golden Age comics piled up for sale. It is incredible to see that piece of history, with big stacks of Batman #4 just lying there. I would love to see more pictures like that.
If I were a comic artist working today, I would want a copy of Action! Mystery! Thrills! in my library to study design and style of this period. Even with modern computer colors and effects, there is something dynamic about this old style where artists used limited tools for maximum effect.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack's reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.