Only the Broad Brushstrokes: A Review of “The Comic Book History of Comics”
Fred Van Lente (w), Ryan Dunlavey (a)
June 7, 2012
Histories need narratives. As much as we prize objectivity, in presenting the story of “events that happened” the historian needs a storyline to put those events into a context and keep the reader engaged. In The Comic Book History of Comics, writers Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey cover a myriad of subjects, primarily the fight for creators’ rights. But they also discuss how pulps and cartoons influenced comics, The Seduction of the Innocent scandal, the Pop Art appropriation of comics, how the speculator boom decimated comic bookstores, and the question of whether comics can be profitable in the digital era. Unfortunately, this book chooses to do this by highlighting the stories of only a few select creators. Sadly anyone who is not male or white—with one notable exception—is pretty much left out.
Before I deal with any potential accusations of having an ahistorical feminist agenda, I want to talk about what I liked about this book first. And I really did like it. I read it in a day over several hours (it’s fairly dense) and learned a lot from it, particularly about EC’s strange transformation from a company that specialized in Bible adaptations to a horror outlet to becoming the birthplace of MAD magazine. (The comic’s portrayal of EC publisher Bill Gaines—a prankster who fell into running a hugely successful company and then nearly destroyed comics’ reputation with a disastrous New York Senate hearing testimony—may not be completely fair, but I found it a lot of fun.)
Dunlavey seems to have gotten the fun job here. Van Lente presents the historical record in plain, clear language (along with the occasional fun factoid, like how Stan Lee used to annoy other Timely employees through his constant flute-playing), which Dunlavey illustrates, not only with humorous sight gags, but occasionally with imitations of other artists’ styles, like a Kirby-esque splash page, animators portrayed as a row of Max Fleischer-like dogs curled over a drawing easel, or using a vampirish ghoul similar to those who bookended true-crime comics to play in and out the section on that era.
I also liked how Van Lente and Dunlavey were willing to discuss the influence of other mediums on comic books. I already mentioned the well-known influence of pulps on superheroes, but the comic also has a chapter fully devoted to the showdown between Fleischer and Walt Disney during the birth of cartooning, and how that industry influenced and was influenced by the comics industry, from Nemo in Slumberland’s Windsor McCay’s early forays into the medium to Kirby’s experience working at Fleischer to Osamu Tezuka’s Disney-like art style. They also spend a significant amount of time on the history of fandom, from how pulp publisher Hugo Gernsback’s tradition of printing addresses in letters page led to fans communicating with each other, and how that heralded the comics’ letters page and the internet.
Yet the primary conflict of The Comic Book History of Comics is that of businessmen versus creators, not only how the suits have influenced what writers and artists created, but also the creators’ still-ongoing fight for fair compensation. Delving into this part of the history of comics can be like reading up on sausage-making, in that the ethical violations will often make you queasy about the products you consume. Plus, more often than not it’s complicated and super-boring. I remember trying to read about the Marvelman/Miracleman lawsuit years ago and being hopelessly confused. Yet Van Lente and Dunlavey present the lawsuit, as well as other complicated legal muddles, like creator owned versus work-for-hire claims and the financial chicanery that sent Marvel into bankruptcy, in ways that are very clear and even enjoyable. You can’t go wrong with a picture of Sandman’s Morpheus and Spawn yanking on Marvelman’s arms, after all.
Perhaps it’s because the comic covers so much ground so well that it makes its oversights more glaring. The Comic Book History of Comics presents a lot of its history through the biographies of some major creators. Usually that’s a good thing. Jack Kirby, creator of The Fourth World and co-creator of the large majority of the Marvel Universe, is the closest thing this history has to a “main character,” and the book uses touchstones from his biography to talk about everything from the growth of sci-fi pulps, to animation, to the superhero domination of comics, to creators’ rights. Still, while Kirby may be the “star” of the superhero sections, the book also spends a lot of time talking about Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, Superman creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster and their creative battles, and many more.
But their section on the Underground Comix movement is pretty much dominated by R. Crumb and a few publishers, and, in a choice I still find borderline appalling, their discussion of manga is only about Osamu Tezuka. No offense to the man, but 1.) How can you distill what’s become in the West a huge publishing phenomenon to one guy and 2.) make that the guy who probably doesn’t mean much to “otaku” who aren’t over 40-years-old?
Look, Tezuka is important and enormously influential, and on some level I’m glad that a history on comic books decided to cover non-American comics at all (there are also sections of this book that cover European comics), since the two fandom spheres tend to stay very separate, and the bits on the media like art scrolls and paper-dramas that influenced manga are illuminating. Still … only Tezuka? No Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball Z)? No Naoko Tacheuchi (Sailor Moon)? No Rumiko Takahashi, creator of Inyu-Yasha and Ranma ½ and the most best-selling female comic artist of all-time? Not even a namedrop for the big anime animators, like Satoshi Kon or Hayao Miyazaki?
And it’s also sad because Tezuka’s basically the only prominent comics artist of color showcased in this history. Aside from a panel where Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is being taught in a classroom, the book touches on mainly white female creators: there’s Sherry Flenniken, who shows up in a group of three other male creators in the history’s least-essential story about the fight to print Disney parody comics (it’s an interesting illustration of how the laws regarding parody have changed, but not much else), a panel that references Elfquest, co-created by Wendy Pini.
Some may argue that it makes sense the book wouldn’t cover female artists/writers and creators of color, because it’s talking about the broad strokes of history and not the minutiae. After all, a lot of really great white, male creators aren’t mentioned, either. Still, it’s really depressing that Kirby’s wife and unnamed secretaries have appearances in this book and people like Marie Severin and Colleen Doran don’t. Also, one of the historical comic books I read most often as a kid, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics by Les Daniels, was pretty much a very complimentary-of-the-status-quo, and I know they at least talked about the company’s attempts to be more diverse, even if those attempts failed.
I don’t get the sense that Van Lente and Dunlavey are anti-diversity. They clearly lament the crossroads of history where comics had the opportunity to reach a greater variety of people and went in or were forced into a different direction. They acknowledge a few times that comics have a history of racism. And they use “she” as the default pronoun—that was very nice. As a Jewish person, I liked how much they talked about the Jewish influence on comics and how a lot of the early creators were inspired by the persecution they faced. I wish, as a woman, I could also say they were more critical of how often women are shut out. Guys, I saw feminist comics historian Trina Robbins as one of your citations—why didn’t you use more from her?
These oversights deeply frustrate me. This book is three years old at this point, but in the current, nebulous “nerd community” where Gamergaters harass female creators/journalists and the Sad Puppies try to rig the Hugo Awards with the battle cry that women and minorities are hostile invaders when they’ve been a part of the landscape since the beginning, I don’t believe historians can treat this question as a niche issue or a counter-culture history.
I recommend The Comic Book History of Comics, but treat it as a starting point and don’t come away from it thinking you now know the whole story. Pick up other books, perhaps Robbins’ Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013 or a book on manga history, and then continue a lifetime of learning.