Review by Allen Rubinstein
Say what you like about comics’ checkered history, most would probably agree it’s as colorful as its product. A business that centers around creative personalities with artistic temperaments will do that. If there’s any consistent theme in the history of the medium, it’s the ongoing struggle between these artists and the companies who pay for, and exploit, their creative output. How well are creators compensated, what conditions will they work under, and most significantly, who will own and profit from the characters and worlds they create?
Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey keep that theme front and center in their inspired graphic novel, The Comic Book History of Comics. To be sure, comics’ history has been covered in far greater detail in any number of prose books, but compiling all the industry’s major incidents, paradigm shifts, scandals, triumphs and embarrassments into comics form, especially with the joy and humor that these two bring to the table, makes this mandatory reading.
They begin at the origins of the American comics business as told through the life stories of its trailblazers – Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (founder of DC Comics), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, William Gaines (the gory EC Comics line), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad Magazine) et. al. In the earliest days the pubic viewed comics as a low, shady enterprise, and many businessmen earned the ignominy. Publishers packed bullpens of artists into aging office buildings, cranking out comics in any corny genre that was blowing in the wind that year – romance, celebrity comics, western, horror, funny animals – and sold them by the millions. Once the thunderous footprint of Superman landed on Earth, costumed heroes hit big, then faded, then hit again. Of course, since then these properties have generated billions for the corporations who control them, while the artists were sucked dry creatively and died penniless (royalties weren’t even discussed until the seventies). Van Lente pulls no punches in exploring these exploitative business practices.
The book cruises on to the disastrous 1954 Senate hearings, which begat an era of self-censorship that drove half the existing comics publishers out of business. It spends quite a bit of time with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko as they invent the world of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. The final third reels off one anecdote after another outlining the subsequent forty years right up to the Manga craze, digital and online comics, and the advent of graphic novels. Circumstances in the industry are changing so fast, they could easily publish an updated edition in the next five years or so.
Bearing in mind the many, many choices Van Lente and Dunlavey had to make on what details to include, they have constructed a fair, incisive and entertaining look at more than a century of the comics biz, and illustrated it with wild, satirical, tongue-in-cheek cartooning. Naturally, in a tight 200 pages, some subjects do not get their due. Chapters on Euro and Japanese comics are so slight, you wish they’d just stuck to North America, the Underground Comix movement is reduced to little more than the work of R. Crumb and female creators are shorted. Recognising this feels almost churlish given how much of value is present in this comprehensive book.
Even well-informed readers will likely find gaps in their knowledge filled in by The Comic Book History of Comics and those new to comics will find a treasure trove of information. Reading this book and McCloud’s Understanding Comics will give any reader a solid foundation to appreciate the comics medium in its entirety.