Comic Book Nation
The Transformation of Youth Culture in America
by Bradford W. Wright
John Hopkins University Press
2001; 336 pgs
Anyone wanting to pursue a study of comic books can’t do better than to begin with Comic Book Nation. Bradford W. Wright’s book, published in April of 2001 by Johns Hopkins University Press, provides a solid foundation in the history, analysis and criticism of the principal events, trends and personalities as well as of the companies, creators and characters of the first century of comic books in America. The only caveat to this statement is that Wright focuses almost entirely on the mainstream of comic books that has been typically- although certainly not totally-- devoted to the adolescent market.
More than simply a history of comic books, however, Comic Book Nation works to articulate and demonstrate the role comic books have played in the rise of the consumer culture that has so altered the American way of life. Specifically, how the marketplace insinuated itself into the transfer of tradition that takes place between each current generation (i.e. that of the parents) and the next (i.e. that of their children). Prior to the introduction of a youth market for consumer goods, of which Wright shows that comic books were arguably in the vanguard, the values of each generation were reproduced through parents, schools, and religious institutions.
Comic books managed to get right in between the generations (perhaps initiating what came to be known as the “generation gap”) and present values and versions of reality-- however distorted-- directly to the youth of the 1930’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s, and, although to an ever decreasing extent, to the youth of the 1960's to the present as well. Wright intimates that the commodification of youth culture began with the comic book. It was the recognition of this, however ill-formed and misapprehended, that precipitated the anti-comic hysteria that gripped the nation in the early 1950’s. The anti-comic crusade led by Dr. Fredric Wertham ended comics' dominance of the youth and young adult entertainment market, but in no way had any lasting effect on the rise of a consumer culture in which values are transmitted-- to all, but especially to the young and impressionable-- through commodities marketed by corporations.
Thus, while the youth of today-- as well as, it is important to note, more and more of the adults of today who were, of course, the children of yesterday-- are presented with a myriad of choices in the marketplace out of which to forge their identities-- from television programming (the primary form of which is the commercial), movies, music, video games, books and magazines produced and delivered to them by the established entertainment conglomerates to all the offerings of the internet and world wide web which are, of course, being rapidly colonized by these same established interests-- few today realize or even consider that it was the comic book that pioneered this transformation of American culture that lies at the roots of the “Culture Wars” that currently divide this country (and seem likely to divide the rest of the world as well), in the process rendering obsolete the old political divisions of Left and Right. More than any political policy, it is the struggle over who exactly is in charge of transmitting tradition from one generation to the next, and by extension who gets to decide what constitutes that tradition that is what defines and divides “liberal” and “conservative".
Regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself on it is hard to argue against the statement that it is exactly this ability-- some might say necessity-- to forge one’s own identity in the marketplace and away from the traditional bearers and transmitters -- some might say imposers-- of value (i.e. the institutions of family, education and religion) that distinguishes American culture from all others that have come before it, responsible for both the adulation and the vituperation that American culture is greeted with around the world. Time and again, when American culture begins to make inroads into a foreign land it is feared and denigrated by the old (i.e. the present generation, the bearers of tradition) while it is embraced by the young (i.e. the next generation, the intended recipients of that tradition). It is not difficult to understand why.
Comic Book Nation charts the rise and decline of the comic book industry with a deft hand and observant style that is markedly free of cant and stridency. Wright’s ability to meld a critical understanding of the history and practices of the companies that produced and distributed comic books with an incisive cultural interpretation of the meaning and significance of their contents is admirable and one can only hope that it will be seen by others working in the field as an example worthy of expanding on.
This is a book that will increase the appreciation and understanding of the place of comic books in American culture for anyone-- whether a life long aficionado of comics or a novice initiate-- who reads it. And should anyone be considering teaching a class either entirely on comic books or incorporating a unit on comic books within a course on American popular culture, that person need look no further than Comic Book Nation to have an ideal core text in hand.
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Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, April 8, 2001
COMIC BOOK NATION
The Transformation Of Youth Culture In America
By Bradford W. Wright
Johns Hopkins Univ. 336 pp. $34.95
You need eagle eyes to spot the secret formula (and in comics there's almost always a secret formula) that makes such a winner of Comic Book Nation, Bradford Wright's history of the genre that gets no respect. Wright has slipped in the telltale item at the end of his notes on sources, in the book's very last paragraph. He wrote about comics with "a backing soundtrack of rock-and-roll from the 1950s to the 1990s, often of the trashiest and most nonsensical sort." Whether every researcher and all topics would benefit from this approach I can't say, but it has clearly stood Wright in good stead. Buoyed up by mindless rock, he has produced a book that is trenchant, crisply written and absolutely jargon-free, with plenty of enthusiasm but no idolatry -- and great fun to read.
Comic books originated as one might guess, as a spinoff from newspaper funny pages. After an abortive try by Dell Publishing, in 1933 two salesmen at Eastern Color Printing Company urged their bosses to recycle the Sunday funnies as pulp magazines. Early issues were printed "for manufacturers who could use them as advertising premiums and giveaways." The next step, distributing and selling the books on their own, followed in short order. All that remained was figuring out how to make comic books not just "repackaged comic strips" but "a distinct entertainment medium."
Which sets the stage for a crash landing from the planet Krypton. Under the chapter subheading "The Industry That Superman Built," Wright recounts the legend of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the high-school students who created the Man of Steel. After repeated failures to get their idea into print, they were so downhearted that they sold it, copyright and all, to DC Comics in 1938, for $130. A nervous company executive fretted over the cover of the first "Action Comics" issue, which depicted Superman brandishing a car above his head -- "He felt that nobody would believe it," a colleague recalled, "that it was ridiculous." To which the appropriate response is heh-heh-heh (as laughter used to be spelled out in the comics). "Action Comics" was selling more than half-a-million copies a month by its seventh issue, Superman soon had a monthly title all to himself, and the world was awash in superheroes.
Almost from the start, though, comic books had a bad rap. Like movies a generation earlier, they posed a threat to the old, mainly Protestant values that had made America great -- or at least rich. Adapting a theme from Robert Sklar's Movie-Made America, Wright observes that "comic books had the power to indulge fantasies and create myths for a young audience hungry for empathy and easy explanations. Here was an entertainment industry catering exclusively to the tastes of the young and impressionable, controlled by urban young men with world-views far removed from Victorian middle-class ideals and guided, above all, by the pursuit of quick profits. It was a combination that heralded a cultural and market revolution." He might have added that the sheer pulpiness of comics -- their flimsy, yellowish paper; their spinelessness; their crude, pebbly colors -- has always counted as an additional strike against them.
But the books filled a niche. The instructional readers that were inflicted on kids when I was growing up were so bland and jejune that my friends and I whipped through them as fast as possible and grabbed our comic books for solace.
Meanwhile, the content of commercial comic books was not endearing them to parents, teachers or experts. The most wholesome comics could be accused of frivolity, and the least savory -- horror comics -- were a whole other story. I loved horror comics as a boy, even to the point of hanging around with a kid I could barely stand -- a whining, lying braggart who ended up accidentally killing my dog -- because his parents had allowed him to amass a trunk full of vampire and ghoul titles, which I was forbidden to bring into our house, and his company was the price I paid to read them. Over the years, it's been my position that even the grisliest comic book episodes afforded harmless glimpses into life's abysses, that there were worse ways for kids to satisfy their curiosity about certain extreme forms of human behavior. But I must admit to being taken aback by some of the gruesomeness Wright has unearthed. In a tale from a line of comics called "The Haunt of Fear" (a choice panel from which has been reproduced in the book), a sadistic baseball team plays a late-night game using the body parts of their latest victim, the ball being a severed head and the bat -- well, you get the gory picture.
Wright skillfully recounts the 1950s battle between Congress and the industry over horror and crime comics. It comes as news (to me, anyway) that Fredric Wertham, the shrink who theorized that horror comics caused juvenile delinquency in his book Seduction of the Innocent, was in some ways a liberal, especially in his objections to the racism (anti-Asian in particular) that cropped up in so many comics. But as a rule he saw what he wanted to in comics, and it hardly mattered that his opinions were based on little or no evidence, at least none he bothered to cite. Congress proved a receptive audience, and the comics industry succumbed to pressure by imposing a code of behavior on its characters and plots, much as the movie industry had 20 years earlier.
The '70s and '80s seem to have been the era of Wright's own most fervent reading of comic books. Here the story is of rescuing a stagnant industry by giving superheroes flaws, doubts and hangups -- thus making them more simpatico to their adolescent and young-adult readers -- as well as investing blacks and other minorities with superhuman powers. It's also a story of applying tongue to cheek: A vintage "Incredible Hulk" episode began by asking, "Can a man with green skin and a petulant personality find true happiness in today's status-seeking society?"
Periodically Wright analyzes the history he is laying out, but always with common sense and a lightsome touch. Which makes the reader sit up and take notice when, at the end, Wright calls into question the future of the genre. "Comic books are losing their audience not because they have failed to keep up with changes in American culture," he writes, "but because American culture has finally caught up with them. . . . Is there a place for comic books in an America that has become a comic book parody of itself?"
Holy conundrum! I don't have the answer to that question, but I do know that there should be a place for Comic Book Nation on the bookshelf of anyone who ever read comics for fun as a kid or has taken them seriously as an adult. •
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company