In his introduction to THE COMIC BOOK HISTORY OF COMICS, Tom Spurgeon has an interesting line that echoed in the back of my thoughts as I read Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s book:
“We need different histories. This is a good one.”
I find myself heartily agreeing with part of that statement and struggling a bit with the other.
Van Lente and Dunlavey’s history of mainstream comic publishing is an enjoyable survey on the subject. Van Lente brings the right amount of deserved sarcasm and Dunlavey’s cartoony style just reinforces that sarcasm. Beginning with The Yellow Kid and the introduction of the comic strip, the duo race through a century of hero building at the hands of nefarious and scared men to end on a bit of moralizing about the evils of digital piracy.
It’s sounds schoolish to say it but history can be fun and that’s Van Lente and Dunlavey’s biggest accomplishment for this book. The way that creators have been constantly stabbed in the back by either publishers, their fans, their public and even their own collaborators is pretty depressing even as you consider that most of these creators were writing and drawing stories of heroic characters. The history we have is full of comic books unable to find a sustainable marketplaces, government hearings that handcuff the publishers, creators fearful of reprisals and losing their creations. If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to comic books, none of this is much of a surprise until you put them in one book, with one horrible act stacked on top of another. Van Lente and Dunlavey don’t whitewash anything but they compile and catalog the many and vast sins of comic books.
But amid that seemingly endless list of crimes and atrocities is a celebration of comics. Van Lente and Dunlavey take delight in poking a bit of fun at the ridiculousness of the actions of these men (are any women creators even mentioned in this book?) who ultimately write and draw funny books. That poking, never taking themselves or their subjects too seriously, goes hand in hand with creating the history of comic books as an actual, honest-to-goodness comic book. It’s the Scott McCloud (UNDERSTANDING, REINVENTING, MAKING COMICS) method of using the medium to explore it in ways that straight text can’t. But unlike McCloud, whose informative works can also be a bit dry and technical, Van Lente and Dunlavey apply an entertaining tone to their history.
There’s something slightly subversive that this history of comic books is actually one big comic book. They’re telling us our story in our own language for those of us immersed in this medium. For those coming to this from the outside, they’re showing a bit of the magic that words and pictures can produce together. The Easter eggs and obscure visual references hint at a history that’s actually much deeper and sillier than the history they’re focusing on. It’s so much fun to see Dunlavey presenting so many iconic characters, creators and their styles on the page, incorporating it into his own animated style.
Van Lente and Dunlavey’s focus follows the business of comics but really glosses over the art of comics. Full of facts, THE COMIC BOOK HISTORY OF COMICS only hits on the aesthhetics of the medium when they crossover with the behind-the-scenes happenings. Kirby, obviously an important creator for over 40 years, is described in terms of his relationships to his creative partners more than his artistic contributions and redefining work on superhero comics.
In fact, other than the most household-known names in comics, the creators tend to get the short end of the discussion in this book. Only the most prominent names, the Jack Kirbys, Stan Lees and Alan Moores get mentioned as part of this history. That mostly happens at the intersections of art and commerce, where epochal movements in mainstream comics cross paths with bad decisions or poor relations between the talent and the publishers. As painted by Van Lente and Dunlavey, every memorable comic book story has an unhappy behind-the-scenes story associated with it.
As a story about comic books, Van Lente and Dunlavey construct this fascinating look at the first century of comic books, beginning with the unlimited possibilities of the Yellow Kid and oddly ending on a warning note of digital piracy. For a book that stays to the facts (no matter how skewed or satirically they may be portrayed) for most of its lengths, Van Lente and Dunlavey end on a heavy handed op-ed about the affects of piracy on the medium that they’ve decided to work in. Factual or not, their final editorializing injects their own authorial concerns over a history where they remain mostly as chroniclers and not commenters.
As Tom Spurgeon wrote, we need new histories of comics. We need to understand how this medium that is built on heroes and noble ideas is often as morally fallible as mere mortals will always be. That’s the predominant focus of Van Lente and Dunlavey’s view of a century of comic books. But it’s only part of the story. There’s another whole history about the literary and artistic movements in comics, about the creators and their struggles with the art and not the money, and about the comic books themselves that this book glosses over. If we’re lucky, maybe that will be Van Lente and Dunlavey’s next project.