Thursday, March 14, 2013

Comic Book Nation by Bradford W. Wright

As you would expect from a medium that has survived decades, comic books have changed with time to adapt to changes in culture.  In Comic Book Nation, Bradford W. Wright describes that history from the birth of comics as a new medium in the 1930s through the 1990s. Though the book was published a decade ago, it still provides a good perspective on where comics are. He mentions the advent of electronic publishing at the close of the book. I think it is fair to say that electronic publishing and distribution has not radically changed comics, though there may be potential for that in recent developments in the business of self-publishing comics electronically.

Bradford is an academic historian. Comic Book Nation is intended to be a cultural history of comics. Of course, Bradford can’t help but cover some the same ground that other writers cover, though this book predates many of the more academic or journalistic books on the subject. Some publishers, creators, and titles are just too important and influential not to mention. Even so, he tries to stick to his purpose and show how the times were reflected in comics.

I think it is fair to say that comics, and popular media generally, reflect cultures more than they influence them. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be popular. This reflection isn’t always simplistic, even in comics. Comics writers and artists, like other producers of popular media, tried to address the concerns and interests of their audiences, sometimes realistically, sometimes idealistically, and sometimes with cynicism.

Of course, it was Superman who sparked the immense popularity of superhero comics, and comics generally. That popularity spawned imitators, as it does today. The early Superman, created by Cleveland high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was a reformer. He battled gangsters and crooked politicians. He was a New Dealer. Many comics supported New Deal policies to address the Great Depression.

Superheroes made the transition to World War II with ease. Writers had to address why the costumed crusaders weren’t enlisting or bringing the war to a swift end. They must have succeeded, because superhero titles were very popular, even among American soldiers. Comics were pro-war, and many costumed heroes were battling foreign menaces, especially the Nazis, even before America entered the war.

Superhero titles floundered after the war, but other genres did well. Comics generally supported American policies of intervention in smaller nations and containment of Communism. The medium reflected the post-war hopefulness that there could be peace and international cooperation with America leading as a benevolent superpower.

The post-war years had troubles, too. People feared the misuse and spread of nuclear weapons. The Korean War was a doubtful venture that many felt lacked the clear and good purpose of World War II. This applied to Viet Nam, too, where the additional problems of guerilla warfare challenged notions of heroism.

Comic books faced other challenges. The excesses of crime and horror comics brought about industry-operated censorship. Television competed for the time and money of children.

Much of the latter part of the book shows how the comics industry found a way to survive these problems. The 1960s introduced a resurgence of creativity and superheroes, especially the flawed fantasy men of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics. New models of distribution were introduced in the 1980s. Electronic media has the potential to reinvigorate comics.

Because my adolescence was in the 1980s, I’d like to mention a few things about it. Unlike some comics historians, Bradford spends a fair amount of time on that decade, especially in a book that covers more than 60 years. He provides a pretty good description of how Frank Miller and Alan Moore challenged the superhero model and brought a lot of new interest to it. If anything, Miller and Moore were too influential. A lot of comics are still derivative of their best works.  Imitation of success is common in comics, and too often the imitators do not have the skill or understanding of the masters.

What I’d really like to mention is that Bradford acknowledges John Byrne’s contribution. Byrne was a very popular writer and artist in the 1980s. He did some pretty good stuff, too. He also indulged in excesses that presaged the excesses of the 1990s, but at least he did it with a self-aware wink. Byrne brought fun back to comics. Then as now, I like comics with a good dose of fun.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.