I was bitten by the comic collecting bug very early in my life. From about the age of eight I started saving my comics. At that time Marvel were publishing a 68 page reprint called Fantasy Masterpieces which represented Golden Age (1940s) tales of Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch. I thought it was a great comic and it made me appreciate that there had been comics around long before I was born.
Fantasy Masterpieces had given me (and thousands of other kids) a taste of a sense of history about American comics but there seemed to be nothing similar to educate us further. That was, until I saw The Penguin Book of Comics in my local WH Smith one day in 1971.
The Penguin Book of Comics had in fact first been published in 1967, but it was the updated 1971 version that was my first exposure to it. The outstanding cover by contemporary pop artist Alan Aldridge was what first caught my eye. Aldridge had basically copied characters from various points in comics' history but the composition and colour he'd used for his cover was its strength. Never again, to my knowledge, would the Silver Surfer, Tiger Tim, Tarzan,Weary Willie and Tired Tim and more appear in one illustration.
The book itself, a 272 page softback, featured lots of Aldridge's work inside too, in monochrome, with illustrated chapter numbers and various full page drawings. However the main point of the book of course was its information on the history of comics written by George Perry, then assistant editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. As far as I know, The Penguin Book of Comics was the first book of its type to cover the histories of American and British comics. (I'm sure someone out there will correct me if I'm mistaken.)
I had the book as a Christmas present in 1971, but for weeks before Christmas I'd regularly venture into Smiths and browse through a copy, totally engrossed by the full page images of comics from long ago. Here was a book that treated all comics equally; British weeklies, American comic books, and newspaper strips from both countries, plus the alleged origins of the caricature dating back to cave paintings from 4000 B.C!
In retrospect The Penguin Book of Comics tried to cover too much in its pages. There were also glaring omissions too. Apparently neither DC Comics nor D.C. Thomson would grant permission for artwork to be used in the book. (Although there was some artwork from DC Comics used in the 1967 edition.) Nevertheless, the book was an excellent introduction to the history of comics and really fired me up to learn more. The fact that it treated UK and US strips equally ensured that I always considered them equal too, and thankfully never went down the "our comics are best" alleyway. I was however particularly interested in the chapter on British comics as they seemed to have evolved quite considerably for each generation.
The Penguin Book of Comics was incredibly inspirational for me, cementing my interest in comics at an age (12) when I might have otherwise lost interest in the medium. Copies still turn up on eBay and I would encourage anyone with a curiosity of comics history to buy it.
Since then of course there have been numerous books published on comics' heritage. Some have chosen to focus more thoroughly on one area, such as Paul Gravett's Great British Comics but I think the closest in terms to the Penguin book is the excellent The Essential Guide to World Comics by Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks. Published by Collins and Brown in 2005 this 320 page softback covers the basic histories of comics from Britain, America, Japan, Scandinavia, Europe, and beyond.
With the millions of comics published over the decades, and the thousands of creators involved, the story of comics will never be complete. Happily this means that there will always be new areas for comic history books to cover that we can add to our already creaking bookshelves. More importantly, the legacy of comics will be kept alive for new collectors to discover.