The Comic Book History of Comics #2
Fred Van Lente (Writer and Letters), Ryan Dunlavey (Artist), Adam Guzowski (Colours)
21 February, 2018
The third issue of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s The Comic Book History of Comics moves away from the US and UK to focus on Japan and the rise of manga, an industry that’s produced some of the world’s biggest-selling comics.
But first, a look at Mexican comics on the alternate cover. Here Dunlavey replicates the photo-realistic art common in Mexican Fotonovelas, inserting writer Van Lente and himself into the cover image. Through their discussions, we learn about the early interest in comics in Mexico and the immense popularity of Fotonovelas.
In the first section, ‘The God of all Comics’, we learn some history behind the creation of the term ‘manga’ and the foreign influences that gave manga the shape and form known today. Charles Wirgman, a British expat in Japan, created The Japan Punch magazine that his Japanese friends adopted for their own comic strips, called ponchi-e. Wirgman is still acknowledged as the father of modern manga.
The ponchi-e strips indirectly influenced Osamu Tezuka, whose love for illustration began as a child and saw him producing manga at the age of nine. Another major influence on Tezuka? Disney animated films. Despite changes in government and the onset of World War II, Tezuka continued to create manga for almost his entire life, thus becoming known as the God of all Comics.
In the second section, ‘Mouse Pirates’, Van Lente and Dunlavey look at Disney influences gone wrong. In the 1970s, the Air Pirates Collective took it upon themselves to bend the rules of copyright in order to share their satirical take on Disney’s beloved characters. Considered misfits of the underground comics scene, the Pirates went to great lengths to realise their ‘vision’; instead they invited, willingly, the ire of Disney and the American justice system, and lost.
The final section of each issue in this series focuses on a woman comic creator from the past. In this book, Rumiko Takahashi, dubbed the ‘princess of Manga’ takes centre stage. Takahashi not only broke into the majority boys club of manga at the age of 20, her creations were so popular that she is still the most successful female comics creator of all time.
I like the way the Osamu Tezuka’s life is presented here. The comic gives him the respect it had previously afforded American creators Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. This is great because it would have been very easy to diminish his importance, much as the series has done with female creators, dedicating only a single page to women in each issue.
I am constantly surprised by how much information this series manages to pack into each release but with each passing instalment, the books have been getting more and more dense. The speech balloons are packed with text and this time around, it sometimes felt like the creators were trying to put in too much detail. By choosing to highlight an industry that originates in another country, the creators also ended up give readers a lot of the country’s history. The historical aspect took up a lot of space and makes the first section seem haphazard at times.
The ‘Mouse Pirates’ section seems hopelessly out of place here and one wonders whether it would not have been more prudent to leave it out altogether to make way for more pages on manga. The Air Pirates Collective seem to have made little significant impact on the world of comics and, considering that the previous issue dealt with copyright and the forthcoming issue will look at comics piracy, why shoehorn this incident into this book? It feels too condensed, in comparison to the first section, but more egregiously, it lacks any context and is not an enjoyable read.
One gets the feeling that this issue was rushed. The very last dialogue box looks like it wasn’t proofread – the word ‘marking’ is used twice in one sentence! Perhaps because there was so much research required in the first section, there was not enough time to do the rest of the book justice? It is a shame because the first two instalments managed to do an all-round great job of presenting information in a comic-friendly way without making mistakes.
However, for me, the most problematic portion of the book was the alternative cover about the history of comics in Mexico. Though presented as a conversation between Van Lente and Dunlavey, there is surprisingly little we actually learn about the subject matter. It is a clever method of presentation and quite amusing but, when you only dedicate one page to an entire country’s comics, to then use a couple of panels on that page for meta-references to the creators is annoying.
I also had a problem with a panel where the creators appear to be mocking a version of an ancient Japanese comic book form. There has been an underlying theme of irreverence throughout this series but this panel crosses into dangerous territory. I have no idea what the creators were thinking here; it was off-putting.
The Comic Book History of Comics has been informative and entertaining but the problems in this issue make one wonder whether the creators have bitten off more than they can chew. They have tried to pack in too much in too small a space and it is no longer working. This book is definitely the poorest entry in the series so far. One can only hope it gets better from here.