Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present promises to be a bit more than it ever could be, while succeeding in being a bit more than one would expect it to be.
The scholar in me immediately raises an eyebrow whenever terms like “global” are tossed around without being defined, and that raised eyebrow was justified in this case. Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present isn’t truly global in that it doesn’t address every country, but it shouldn’t try to be — and readers should not expect it be — when it comes in at about 300 pages. Subject oriented encyclopaedic volumes aren’t always global and they are a heck of a lot longer. That said, Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present is global-ish in that it breaks the all-too-common (and very unfortunate trend) of being at worst American-centric (Murica!) and at best, Western-centric. It recognizes the international origins of the comic book medium right away and surveys the US (Canada gets a shout-out too), parts of Europe, Japan, Korea, and parts of South America. So, although it doesn’t live up to it’s title, it still manages to overview a surprisingly broad spectrum of material while maintaining a relatively short length.* And that, my friends, serves as one of its greatest strengths and weaknesses.
*It recognizes this shortcoming within itself, which is nice but doesn’t entirely justify the shortcomings. That said, I must admit that I’ve done this in my own writing during grad school, because, of course, my professors required hardcopies of my work and, since I’m all about the environment**, there was no way I was going to waste precious paper exploring and critiquing related literature or filling in glaring research omissions. You’re welcome, trees.
**I actually do care about the environment and encourage you to buy the pdfs of books when you can. I know, books feel great in your hands, but having oxygen in your lungs feels pretty okay too.
An expansive book like this is a fantastic addition to comics studies. It covers a great deal and can serve as an excellent jumping off point for further research. But, what it gains in breadth it loses in brevity. There is just wayyyy too much included to do each era, artist, writer, publisher, and movement academic justice in research rigour. Some paragraphs end up reading like a list of facts, and this tendency makes it way too easy to find yourself accidentally glazing over the paragraph without taking in the valuable (albeit brief) information it contains.
There were also a lot of moments when this book left me wanting more. I would read something interesting and become really invested in the book, hoping to find some elaboration, only to be left empty. In one sense, this really hampered my enjoyment of the book—it’s not that I didn’t like reading it, but there were times where I found myself bored due to a lack of interesting depth. In another sense, however, the brevity enabled a breadth that helped me discover aspects of comics I didn’t know about, which will hopefully spur me on to conduct more research on these topics later. A bibliography at the end of each chapter would be helpful in this respect, but alas, we can’t have it all and it really doesn’t take that much effort to turn to the end of the book to find sources, which brings me to my next point: referencing, referencing, referencing.
The relative lack of references found in Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present is really surprising considering its overall historical tone. There were instances where the authors mentioned things like general comics sales trends (see, for example p.87 if you end up buying the book) without providing a footnote to lead readers to the historical records that bear evidence to these important trends. The lack of sourcing for these sorts of things can potentially be justified by claiming that such trends are common knowledge, but it still seems a little irresponsible for an academic-ish book.
There were some other points that included embedded critiques of certain comic book story arcs, or individual issues. These critiques weren’t really new, and they were certainly reasonable, but they weren’t backed up as thoroughly as they could have been. The most frustrating example of poor sourcing for me was an instance where the authors stated Alan Moore’s intentions re.Watchmen without identifying it as conjecture or sourcing it as fact. Their observation that Moore intended Watchmen to be the superhero genre’s epitaph (see p.176 if you pick it up) is perfectly reasonable, and Moore has likely stated as much on numerous occasions, but it is a little lazy and irresponsible to present attributions of author intention as fact without sourcing them! Okay, my rant — likely influenced by my editing academic articles for proper sourcing — is over.
Well, it’s mostly over anyway. A review of a comics history book wouldn’t be complete without focusing on the included images, so here we go. Full colour, large, high quality, and whatever the eye equivalent for “mouthwatering” is (eyewatering just doesn’t seem to work) all serve as apt adjectives. The images are what set this book apart. Just thinking about the hoops the authors must have gone through to get permission to use all of these images gives me a headache — even with the existence of fair-use guidelines, a lot of publishers (scared of having to defend their fair-use of images in costly, and time-consuming legal proceedings) still require the author to get permissions for most images. I should note that the images served as much more than mere eye-candy; I really appreciated the commentary the authors provided about the art, it ensured that both comics authors and artists got some page-time, praise, and criticism. Put simply, the variety and quality of the included images — along with the narrativized comics history and image commentary — engaged both the academic and fan in me.
That said, nothing’s perfect. I was confused by some of the image choices and placements: an image discussed on one page may appear a few pages later or earlier. Having to search for the images referenced in the text is a real pain — I wish they used text wraps and captions that sit right below the image (captions appear in pseudo-margins and are sometimes a bit far removed from the actual image) or something to improve the sometimes confusing layout. I was also disappointed when a particular issue or artist was discussed at length without the image being included, or when an image was shown that was hardly discussed at all — but I’m much more forgiving of these issues due to the aforementioned pain in the butt image permissions can be.
Next to the images, the chapter transitions are definitely one of this book’s strengths, but are mostly accomplished by narrativizing the history of comics. I’m always a bit weary of history explained as a narrative because it rarely happens in such a connected and neatly contained way. But, narratives are the way our culture tells stories, and maybe a little bit of omission and exaggeration is a necessary and beneficial sacrifice for the sake of a more coherent string of facts. On the bright side, this book does not fall into other more well known, and probably more suspect, fan narratives of history.
The way comics history is narrativized and presented makes sense when considering the authors’ goal of presenting a global history. Connections are forged and the importance of parts of comicdom not normally addressed are not overlooked. I would have preferred a thematic division instead of a chronological one (sometimes the switch from focusing on French comics to Japanese ones seemed a bit jarring, especially in the few instances where there was no meaningful transition), but that’s just a personal preference and likely wouldn’t have furthered what the title suggests as the authors’ goal, so no harm, no foul.
The narrativization of comics history inevitably leads to omissions, and the ambitious goal of this book, along with it’s relatively brief length, meant that there were some pretty glaring ones. The authors connected the comics and creators they discussed with real-world social changes and upheavals, which is great, and their focus on underground and alternative comics (along with the attention they paid to feminist creators) was refreshing, but meant that other important aspects of comics history were overlooked. I would have liked to have seen a bit more (and by a bit more, I mean a lot more) on newspaper strips, mainstream European comics, and the influence of mass media (movies, television shows, video games, etc.) on the comic book market.
I’m sure there are other things that other people would have liked to have seen included as well, so I’m not too bent out of shape that this book didn’t meet my every expectation — I somehow doubt that it was written to serve my every need. That said, I would have liked the authors to include a bit more on why they chose to include what they did, but it is what it is, and what is included is valuable.
So, if you’re interested in comics history, want to see some great page scans, want to learn about the often overlooked worlds of undergrounds and alternative comix, or want to read a neat (in both senses of the word) narrativized history that connects underground comix, alternatives, American comics, European comics, manwha, and manga (lots and lots of manga), then Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present — despite its flaws — is certainly a worthwhile read.