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Tuesday 14 August 2001

Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, by Bradford Wright
(Johns Hopkins, 2001)

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
(Special to Locus Online)

Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America is a stirring read that combines scholarly research with a sweeping historical account. In ten chronological and thematic chapters, it charts the evolution of popular comic books from the medium's birth during the Depression to the present.

Each chapter discusses the overriding paradigm of comic book entertainment of its era. In his introduction, Wright sets out his parameters. He never claims that his book paints a complete picture. Indeed, what book could fully encapsulate 70 years of artistic endeavours, grinding hackwork, commercial enterprise, imaginative dreams, daring experimentation, corporate bullying, exploitation, media misrepresentations, fervent fandom, industry transformations, and evolving subcultures? Instead, Wright explicitly focuses on the interaction between widely distributed commercial comic books (e.g., Marvel and DC, and not "undergrounds" and "alternatives") and perceptions of youth culture by those seeking to control it (lobby groups), understand it (the media), or profit from it (comics publishers). Also excluded from this study are comics that, because they did not change along with the times, offered little or no insight into youth culture and evolving societal attitudes towards it: for example, Disney and Archie comics.

Wright quickly impressed me with his sober—and carefully detailed—version of the much mythologized tale of the first comic books: Dell's 1929 tabloid, The Funnies, and Max Gaines's brainchildren, Funnies on Parade and Famous Funnies. Immediately, it was apparent that Wright was not, as is too often the case with comics histories, out to deify or demonize anyone, or trying to impose an agenda onto his history.

Wright successfully keeps a levelheaded discourse throughout, thus imbuing his text with both dignity and authority. He several times illuminated elements that I had previously found unclear, such as the Gaines episode mentioned above, the story of Fredric Wertham's crusade against comics, and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority. I do have a few caveats, but all except one are fairly minor, and I'll deal with them below as they come up.

The first comics success story is, of course, Superman. In chapter 1, "Superheroes for the Common Man," Wright dwells not on the the saga of Superman's creation and controversial journey into print (for that story, I recommend the Les Daniels and Chip Kidd volume, Superman: The Complete History), but rather, true to his stated intent, he looks at the stories themselves and speculates convincingly on just what it was about Superman that struck such a chord. A child of the Depression, Superman (contrary to what he later became and to the popular perception of his character) fought against the exploiters of the common worker: greedy industrialists, corrupt politicians, and the like. In other words, he was a socialist vigilante with little faith in or patience with the capitalist establishment. Superman was about empowerment in an era when empowerment seemed impossible. And then the Second World War happened.

The second chapter, covering 1939-45, i.e., the war years, deals mostly with the way that comics were used as propaganda in the war effort, and how that enabled comics to broaden its audience and gain, however temporarily, some measure of respectability. Most interestingly, Wright discusses racism in comics (and the racist culture that bred them)—including the depictions of Germans, Japanese, and Blacks—bringing up examples of both racism and antiracism in comics (the latter being found mostly in DC Comics, although Wright points out that, despite the explicit multicultural message in several of DC's stories, all of its heroes were still White).

After the war, as detailed in chapters 3 and 5, comics publishers, freed of wartime paper restrictions, flooded the newsstands with new titles. Research dating from that era, indicated that more than 90% of American children read comics and also a great many adults (including GIs who, thanks to the comics supplied to them by the army, got hooked on them during the war). Nevertheless, the popularity of superheroes waned. Other genres, though, were on the rise: teen humour (Archie), jungle queens (Sheena and her legion of clones), crime (Crime Does Not Pay, etc.), and romance (Young Romance). Comics were reaching out to a wider audience. The cheesecake of the jungle queen stories and the brutal violence of the crime comics, for example, were mostly aimed at an adult audience. The advertising in some comics, as reported by Wright, reflected this changing demographic. However, this was an era when even adult art and entertainment was subject to strict censorship and when the widespread conception that comics were for kids seemed unshakeable. Trouble was on the way.

Most famously and persistently, that trouble came in the form of Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist with a vendetta against comics and author of the notorious anti-comics tirade Seduction of the Innocent. Wright, in chapters 4 and 6, paints a thorough and revealing portrait of comics' arch enemy, along with a vivid and detailed description of the political and legal problems then facing the maligned medium. I don't want to spoil all of Wright's revelations here, but most interesting is that Wertham was a socialist who saw in comics a powerful tool to indoctrinate children in the ways and values of consumerism. Wertham downplayed the politics of his crusade in order to gain popular support. He relied almost exclusively on sensationalist rhetoric, unsubstantiated pronouncements, and misrepresentation (for example, "proving" that comics promoted racist stereotypes by reproducing, out of context, a panel from a Justice Society of America story that condemned racism!) to foster anti-comics hysteria.

Chapter 5, "Reds, Romance, and Renegades," spanning 1947 to 1954, deals with many subjects. One of Wright's most pointed and forceful arguments is found there: his case that romance comics, aimed at girls but written and drawn by men, reinforced male domination and explicitly opposed any kind of sexual or gender emancipation. Comic book portrayal and attitudes towards the Cold War are dissected (a process continued in chapter 7). And Wright provides an expansively laudatory profile of EC Comics—publisher of Mad, Vault of Horror, Weird Science, Tales From the Crypt, etc. (there's also more on EC in chapter 6).

In the introduction, Wright states that his work is not intended as an aesthetic evaluation but as a cultural study. The gushing praise he lavishes on EC Comics is the first instance that he strays from his path. It's fairly jarring, although it is delivered with charming enthusiasm. More problematic is that it implicitly creates the incorrect impression that EC was the sole oasis in a desert of trash and leaves little room for dissenting critical views.

Chapter 7, "Great Power and Great Responsibility," spans 1956—the year DC introduced an updated version of their wartime superhero Flash—to 1967. It opens by describing the declining sales suffered by comics and enumerates the different attempts by publishers to boost sales in an industry now self-regulated by the strict and conservative Comics Code Authority (CCA). The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to recounting the growth and impact of the new style of superhero comics—incorporating soap opera and moral ambiguity—initiated by Marvel Comics. Here we find one of Wright's rare mistakes. "By 1967 ... DC Comics recruited Steve Ditko from Marvel," he states on page 224. By that time, however, Ditko had already left Marvel and had been working at Charlton on their own new-style "action heroes," Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and the Question.

Wright never even hints at the Charlton hero comics, although he does devote, in this same chapter, several pages to their commercially unsuccessful and by now almost totally forgotten Vietnam War comics (e.g., Fightin' Marines). These hero comics were not any more commercially successful than other Charlton comics, but they were, like Tower Comics' T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (also overlooked by Wright), the first examples of titles that would appeal passionately to a core fan audience, while failing to catch on with the mass public, presaging the insular future of the comics industry described in the final chapters (albeit without this observation).

Chapter 8, "Questioning Authority," deals with the 1970s and the numerous difficulties comics, still under the heel of the CCA, had keeping up with changing cultural climes, despite an influx of younger creators themselves reared on comic books. It ends with a brief look at the growing fan culture that would soon come to dominate comics readership.

Chapter 9, "Direct to the Fans," discusses the state of the comics industry since 1980, an era during which comics specialty shops replaced newsstands as the primary retail source of comic books. Here, reflecting the changing landscape, Wright brings up a few not-quite-mainstream titles, most notably Howard Chaykin's American Flagg. He discusses at length the massive popularity and wide influence, in the 1980s, of three comics creators: John Byrne, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore. This chapter, the last before the epilogue, is, sadly, the weakest.

Again, Wright ventures into critical analysis. His take on the politics of Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Batman as a right-wing vigilante) is both shallow and simplistic and should have been left out. However, his deconstruction of John Byrne as an exemplar of Reagan's USA is insightful, intelligent, and impeccably argued. The biggest problem with the chapter lies in an important omission.

Surprisingly absent is any mention of Image Comics, the only company in decades to shake up the Marvel/DC hegemony. Indeed, from the very first, Image became one the industry's top players. Its main character, Spawn, quickly spun into various media tie-ins and adaptations, and a number of its titles frequently appeared (and still appear—though not as much) in the top ten direct-market sellers. Boys and young men were enthusiastically attracted by its unrestrained depictions of impossibly thin, big-breasted women (in porn-star poses) and angry, gun-toting "heroes" with layers and layers of anatomically incorrect bulging muscles. In light of Image's popularity, the equation of brutality with fun, the depiction of women as sexual consumer products, and the aggressive emphasis of style and look over story and narrative found in its comics of the early-to-mid 1990s (recently, the company has been attempting to change its, hmm, image) seem perfect fodder for Wright's historical examination of (as his subtitle goes) "The Transformation of Youth Culture in America." The only Image member to be mentioned at all is Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, and that only in relation to his work on Marvel's The Amazing Spider-Man—despite the fact that two others, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, were instrumental in further popularizing Marvel's X-Men franchise by injecting into it the very elements (described above) that, when exaggerated even further, made Image such a success. The unexplained absence of Image Comics in this chapter is the book's only glaring lacuna, the only one that weakens it at all.

If I've concentrated more on Comic Book Nation's few shortcomings, it's to provide an appendix of sorts to this otherwise impressive book. It's an awesome work of research, compellingly written, and, for the most part, authoritative. My few caveats total fewer than 10 pages worth of material out of 329 pages of text. Wright's book—full of insight, passion, and detailed information—is well worth reading.

Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Montreal Review of Books, Blue Coupe, and Black Gate; his humour in Safarir and TheFunniest ToGo; and his poetry in L'Écrit Primal.  He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his website.

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