The Comic Book History of Comics #1: Fun, Detailed but Limited

The Comic Book History of Comics: Comics For All #1

Fred Van Lente (Writer and Letters), Ryan Dunlavey (Artist), Adam Guzowski (Colours)
December 20, 2017

We all know the term “graphic novel.” Most of us have graphic novels on our bookshelves. But where did this term originate? How did comic strips lead to comic books and then to graphic novels? All this and more is unveiled in the first issue of The Comic Book History of Comics, which deconstructs the genre that has captivated the world for so many decades.

comic book history of comicsThis issue spans more than a century–1831 to 1965–and travels across three countries–Belgium, France, and the U.S.–to uncover the history of the graphic novel. Though the U.S. has been the most prominent producer and consumer of comic books and graphic novels, the creator of graphic novels was from Switzerland. In the early 1800s, Rodolphe Töpffer created satirical comic strips for his friends and family. He was impelled by praise from German father of literature Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to publish around Europe and in the U.S. Töpffer’s work inspired European artists, who, in turn, inspired American artists and writers. And, thus, began the era of comic books.

The term “graphic novel,” however, was birthed by American cartoonist Will Eisner, who would go on to be called the father of the graphic novel. Though he was not the first to use the term in an official capacity, his work was the basis for the graphic novel model that we are used to today.

For those with an interest in comics, this series is a treasure trove of information. I love how succinctly the creators have condensed 100+ years of history into 30 pages. There is also a touch of humour that makes it fun to read, but if you’re looking for a light read, this book is not for you. The Comic Book History of Comics is essentially an illustrated history book, and thus, there is a lot more text than one would expect from a comic book. It is a dense read; just look at the era the comic spans. There are numerous names thrown at you, many of which might be unfamiliar to the casual graphic novel reader, but credit to the writers for keeping the prose as simple as possible. You could essentially go through this book without feeling completely lost. However, keep a computer near you as you might want to search some of the names you come across.

The art is probably where I am most uncertain. I like that the illustrations are quirky, but, at times, it feels almost too whimsical, bordering on caricature. For instance, in the book, Hergé is represented entirely by his most famous character, Tintin. This is a nice touch, especially as Tintin is loved the world over, and the creator and character are often synonymous. However, the same does not quite work for Art Spiegelman. In the book, Spiegelman is sometimes drawn with the mouse head from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, which was about Spiegelman’s father’s life in a concentration camp. To interchange the creator with his creation feels disingenuous in this instance, not to mention that it alienates readers who may not be familiar with so-called indie graphic novels no matter how illustrious they may be. For the most part, however, the art is witty and engaging, adding to the words to create a complete story.

This issue also has a tacked-on HerStory section dedicated to a female comic creator of note. As pleased as I am that women comic writers are being recognised, it is a shame that women are being relegated to a single page at the very end of the book. Could these trailblazing women not have been included in the main narrative? The female cartoonist discussed in this issue is Marie Duval, the creator of the first recurring protagonist. Surely, this contribution to the comic medium should have warranted a spot somewhere in the 30 pages dedicated solely to male writers and artists!

I also felt this issue was a bit limited in its geographical scope. An alternative cover for this volume charts the history of comics in India and the creation of the well-loved Amar Chitra Katha series, but the comic itself fails to explore world comics any further.

For a concise and colourful history of how graphic novels came into being, The Comic Book History of Comics is a great start. This is a series one can definitely be excited about.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir