Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Review: ‘American Comics: A History’: Comprehensive & Fascinating

American Comics: A History by Jeremy Dauber is perhaps the most accurately named book that I’ve ever read. It covers the history of all genres and eras of comics and provides important context in various time periods. That makes it both compulsively readable and educational.

This is a book every comic fan should read.

More, it’s a also terrific pop-culture history of 20th century America, as trends in the wider world are reflected in the types of comics being produced. Those comics include everything from superheroes to parodies to indies pushing the edge to those wanting a better representation for themselves.

Right from the start, in his introduction, Dauber makes it clear that he’s hoping to spotlight everyone who contributed to comics as we know them. He begins with pointing out an unknown contributor to cartoonist Thomas Nast’s work:

One final point: many of the ‘terse and telling’ captions beneath Nast’s cartoons were actually written by his wife, Sarah, who has remained generally uncredited and unheralded in discussions of his legacy. The history of comics is one of multiple erasures. For decades, creators frequently remain anonymous or subsumed under house names. But beyond that are the lost voices: individuals and groups, both creators and representations, erased and marginalized by intentional culture. And they just don’t deserve to be part of the story: we need them to be.

 

American Comics: A History: Chapter Focus

The book is divided into ten chapters plus an introduction and an epilogue. Each chapter focuses on a specific point in American comics history, in chronological order:

  • Rise and Rise of the Comic Strip
  • Comic Books Explode
  • Who’s Afraid of Comics
  • Censorship to Camp
  • Comics with an X
  • Convergences and Contracts
  • New Worlds
  • Between Spandex and Seattle
  • New Words-Reprise and Variation
  • Endings, Beginnings

The first three chapters, focusing on the beginnings of comics to World War II, were the most fascinating to me possibly because I was unaware of so much of this history.

For instance, there was a newspaper war over the comic strip sections that became a terrific draw to readers. And, from the beginning, creators had to fight to maintain control of their intellectual property. The creator of Hogan’s Alley, featuring the Yellow Kid, one of the most successful strips of the era, had to sue to own it when he went to a different newspaper. (The lawsuit had a mixed result.) I was surprised to learn that Nancy made such an early arrival on the scene and that Gasoline Alley was innovative in its approach to aging characters along with the readers.

But, inevitably with something children consume, there was also pushback from parents, with adults worried the kids would imitate the antics of The Katzenjammer Kids. Dauber never forgets the strips that were influential, even if they only existed for a short time, and especially if they were from marginalized voices. Jackie Ormes’ Torchy Brown is included but so are other comics by Black voices from the same period. Also included are the origins of a strip from Black newspapers called Wee Kids by Morrie Turner. This strip eventually received wider publication and influenced mainstream comics.

Dauber also delves, from the start, into the ever-changing definition of what makes a comic a comic,  offering several options for the first comic book. (The answer depends on whether you count collected editions of strips.)

You can guess the focus of some of the other chapters from their names. “Who’s Afraid of Comics” focuses on the period of EC Comics and the backlash against them, fueled by Frederick Wertham. “Censorship to Camp” talks about the superhero comics, to some extent, and the sanitization of the stories aimed at kids. “Comics With an X” moves into the independent explosion, with comics once again focused on societal and political commentary. Unfortunately, even with how ground-breaking they were, Dauber talks about the people who weren’t let into their in-group, including women and people of color.

All the big touchpoints of comic history are mentioned, such as the Lee/Kirby feud and creator’s rights. Yet this is also a tale of distribution and how comics reached the readers that would appreciate them. That includes newsstands, the direct market, the X-rated/drug paraphernalia shops that carried the X-rated independent comic material, and more recently, the internet.

Much of the latter part of the book is focused on events that happened in my lifetime. This may be why I was less interested in them but it also may be that some of the events and trends are too recent to be as clear as the ones from the distant past.

Still, Dauber manages to touch on every genre as comics expand, which is why the last chapter is called “Endings, Beginnings.” The epilogue hints at a future of comics that will go on:

here’s perhaps what we see: A medium that has waxed and waned in its centrality to American life and consumership. Americans of all ages reading Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy and millions of parents snuggled with their kids over a volume of Raina Telgemeier.

Conclusion:

Dauber loves the medium and it shows. That he did extensive research is clear in the comprehensive footnotes and index that run from pages 450-568 of the book.

This should belong in every comic reader’s bookshelf, not only because it’s chock full of information but because that information is presented in readable form, creating a narration that makes it easy to follow the dizzying number of artists, publishers, and comics that are mentioned.

5 Comments

  1. This sounds really good. I’m going to have to check the library.

    One question: in your block quote, the next to last sentence says in part “erased and marginalized by intentional culture”. Is this a term I’m just not familiar with? I think I get the concept but the term doesn’t quite seem to fit.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    I agree: this sounds like a fascinating book. It’s definitely going on the want-list (he says as he looks over his constantly growing shelf of shame…)

  3. kdu2814

    I might have to get this, maybe for Christmas or the lead up to Heroescon. I still need to get Les Daniels’s Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades and Kurtzman’s From Aargh! to Zap!, two of my favorite books from days spent in the university library.

    No Amazon link to support the Junk Shop? I did see the Bookshop.org in the first paragraph, after I looked for the ‘click here and support’ link.

    1. As it tuned out, I knew too much — gave up midway through. That’s not a flaw in the book though.
      I did find errors that annoyed me though. Luke Cage didn’t start out being called Power Man and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) had no connection besides name with the Betty Kane Bat-Girl. Those aren’t obscure, hard to research details.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.