ART; 60's Comics: Gloomy, Seedy, and Superior

Published: December 14, 2003

AT 45, Arlen Schumer remains devoted to his childhood superheroes -- the Fantastic Four, the Flash, the Silver Surfer, the Mighty Thor -- and even more so to the artists who drew them. ''Everything I know I learned from comics,'' he says, with a flick of a smile inside a trim beard that looks suspiciously like Green Arrow's.

Mr. Schumer isn't an equal-opportunity comics fan; his particular fetish is for the comic books of the 60's. While Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were appropriating comics images for their art, Mr. Schumer was a boy in Fairlawn, N.J., teaching himself to read by leafing through his big brother's comic books. In the eighth grade he delivered a class presentation on Superman and Captain Marvel. At the Rhode Island School of Design, he did his 1980 graduate thesis on 60's superheroes. His wedding announcement looked like a Superman panel. And since 1986, he and his wife, Sherri Wolfgang, graphic artists operating as the Dynamic Duo Studio, have specialized in quoting the look of comic superheroes for advertising campaigns and in magazine illustrations ranging from Forbes and People to The New York Times Magazine.

Mr. Schumer admits that he has become ''downright evangelical'' in his mission to persuade the world that the 60's comic book should be appreciated not just as fodder for Pop Art or as grist for Hollywood blockbusters, but as an American art form in its own right. He's written and designed a persuasive book, ''The Silver Age of Comic Book Art,'' published by Collectors Press. From the action-packed, full-color montages he vigorously splashes across its glossy pages to his choice of typeface (a font appropriately called Whiz-Bang), Mr. Schumer constructed the book to look like the world's biggest, most lavish comic book of all.

''Much as I'm a comic book freak, I've never really been interested in illustrating whole stories,'' Mr. Schumer says. ''This book, my homage to some of the greats, is probably as close as I'll ever come to an actual comic book.''

Where the average history of the comic book tends to dwell on the characters and stories, Mr. Schumer says, ''I think I'm the first to study these particular artists as an art historian would.'' Bringing the images into intense focus, he highlights the distinctive styles of several artists who worked, often under assembly-line duress, at DC and Marvel Comics in the 60's.