The Comic Book History of Comics #4: Capitalism and Piracy

Comic Book History of Comics #4 Cover A. Written by Fred Van Lente, drawn by Ryan Dunlavey, published by IDW Published. 21 March 2018

The Comic Book History of Comics #4

Fred Van Lente (writer and letterer), Ryan Dunlavey (artist), Adam Guzowski (colourist)
IDW Publishing
21 March, 2018

The comics industry, as it stands now, was pretty much established in the 1960s. At the time, comics were hard to come by for readers, who had to scour every single newsstand in their town one day of the week to find the issues of an entire title. That all changed with the advent of direct marketing in the 1980s. Comic book stores cropped up in droves, one-stop shops for all readers’ needs. But easy access created a greater demand for comics and an increase in supply, not quality.

Comic Book History of Comics #4 Cover B. Written by Fred Van Lente, drawn by Ryan Dunlavey, published by IDW Published. 21 March 2018

As the saying goes, the bigger they come, the harder they fall. The comics industry self-combusted and its crawl back to the top opened up a new avenue for readers to access comic books—piracy. How did the capitalism of the ‘80s lead to the booming piracy industry of the 21st century? Issue #4 of IDW Publishing’s Comic Book History of Comics delves into various events that have affected the comic book industry, leading to its constantly precarious state of being, and infers the future of comic books in a world overrun by evolving distribution nodes and piracy.

The issue opens with a variant cover about comics history from around the world. This time, the series travels to Brazil and the see-sawing fortunes of the early comic book industry, mainly due to reprint rights crushing the native industry. These covers been inconsistent in quality, to say the least, but the Brazil cover is well done, much better than the Mexico and Kenya covers on previous installments.

The series ends each issue with the Herstory section, highlighting one female comics creator. This book puts Wendy Pini in the spotlight, charting her comic journey from young reader to celebrated cosplayer and comic book artist to independent creator of America’s greatest fantasy comic series, Elfquest.

Of the four issues released thus far, this book is the most thought-provoking. The paragraphs are succinct, if text-heavy. There is a clear narrative which is not over-crowded by too many characters. It may seem harsh, but this is the first book of the series where I felt like I was reading a comic book and not a historical treatise with pictures in it.

Comic Book History of Comics #4 Page 14. Written by Fred Van Lente, drawn by Ryan Dunlavey, published by IDW Published. 21 March 2018
Love the little inset of Digital Robin Hood.

The art is much more innovative here, probably because the subject matter is less constrained. Whereas the first few issues focused on comics creators and their creations, this issue tackles the comics industry from the readers’ point of view. This change in viewpoint has given artist Ryan Dunlavey more room to draw regular people in his style instead of having to draw caricatures of existing creators and characters. It feels more like a story when one doesn’t have to scour every panel for a comic book reference. Even the biggest comics fan can get tired of hunting for Easter eggs.

It would have been that much better if not for the plethora of typos! One gets the feeling that the production of this series is being rushed. There is clearly a lot of research, writing, art, and colour required to create each issue for a monthly release. It must be a manic task, but it is beginning to tell on the final product. Mistakes have been cropping up in every book since the second issue. Not only that, but the errors are getting worse. This is not a good look.

Comic Book History of Comics #4 Page 7. Written by Fred Van Lente, drawn by Ryan Dunlavey, published by IDW Published. 21 March 2018
A simple graph is an effective story-telling tool here.

The series’ formerly slavish adherence to its format is partially broken here, to its benefit. Unlike in the earlier issues where the main story was divided into two almost equally proportioned sections, this book gives more weightage to the “Any Given Wednesday” section and only four pages to “The End is Here.” This change in formula works to the narrative’s favour. The primary section covers a lot more ground and is more interesting.

The second section looks to the future and how the comics industry can be saved. Unfortunately, it reads more like a ham-fisted plea to readers to spread awareness about the greatness of comics and how important they are for education. The topic should have been presented more organically; instead, the endless exclamation marks littered throughout these few pages look forced and over-eager. Would it not have been better to do away with the second section entirely if there wasn’t any material to add? The creators should have let the primary section serve as the only narrative.

Despite the niggling issues running throughout this comic, it is an excellent read. The first few issues looked over-researched and full to the brim with too much information, but this issue manages to avoid the follies of its predecessors. The subject matter is inherently more exciting, but also much better presented. More than anything else, this comic actually serves as entertainment and not just as a retelling of history. This approach would have done wonders in the first three books; hopefully it will be adopted in coming issues.

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