Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America
Bradford W. Wright
The problem with a title such as Comic Book Nation is that comics geeks--a large portion of the book's potential readership--will pick it up expecting something all-encompassing and be sorely disappointed that the "nation" under discussion excludes vast realms of comicdom. What, no manga? No undergrounds? No Donald Duck?
Get over it, kids. Author Bradford W. Wright, a University of Maryland historian based in Europe, has wisely limited himself to what is already a sprawling subject: the social and literary history of mainstream American action comics between 1938 and the present. Produced chiefly by Marvel, DC, and the now-long-defunct EC comics, this river of pulp included such genres as superhero, crime, sci-fi, horror, war, Western, romance, and jungle comics. These were, for decades, the mass-market comic books that had the greatest impact on American youth culture; these were the comics that fueled everything from bonfires and Senate hearings in the '50s to a wildly inflated collectors' market in the '90s.
The author shows how such comics, despite formulaic plots and bizarre premises, reflected the events and values of their times and how, in turn, the comics informed their readers and provoked public reaction. Superman, we learn, initially stuck up for New Deal values; Captain America slugged Hitler in his debut issue; blond Sheena of the Jungle suppressed uppity Africans; Iron Man was personally conflicted about Vietnam. Meanwhile, in their own struggle to survive, comics publishers alternately competed and conspired, courted adolescents and placated their parents.
When it comes to looking at the comics themselves, Wright focuses almost entirely on their overt literary content, declining to look for hidden meanings and only occasionally referring to artwork or artists. In keeping with this emphasis on content, the text is illustrated with black-and-white reproductions of covers and pages that were, of course, originally printed in color.
Within its scope, Nation is comprehensive and refreshingly free of art-crit babble. Wright's scholarship is trustworthy (he provides 42 pages of footnotes and notes on sources) but never stuffy, and neither his enthusiasm for comics nor his liberal politics are kept secret. As a narrative, however, Nation suffers from its narrow focus. The unfortunate fact is that, despite their ongoing commercial success, mainstream comics as a social phenomenon climaxed 50 years ago. The most interesting characters in Wright's Nation are the two men who personified the mid-century comics controversy: Dr. Frederick Wertham, the anti-comics crusader, and EC's William Gaines, proud publisher of crime and horror mags (and, later, of Mad magazine). Similar conflicts have played out many times since--over rock lyrics, movies, video games--but for Marvel, DC, and their upstart rivals, the story after 1955 has been one of market-driven hackwork, enlivened by a few inspired writers and artists. In an epilogue, Wright warns that action comics might soon succumb to high-tech competition. Ironically, Superman could end not with a bang, but with a whimper.