The New Republic published a review of Jeremy Dauber’s new history book, “American Comics: A History”, which I’m guessing is probably yet another superficial view with too few challenging takes on more modern political infiltrations into the medium. Why, it even begins with a pretty cheap comment:
For those of us who grew up enjoying (and have grown old romanticizing) the bright, resplendent four-color pleasures of comic books, it may be time to admit we’ve been had. It may once have seemed that comics offered intelligent young men and women an escape from the awfulness of middle-American life. But seeing today how thoroughly those serial fantasies have infiltrated every aspect of modern culture, it’s beginning to look as if comics largely reinforced our worst impulses and instincts.
Which only refrains from the bigger picture: how comicdom, much like many recent movies, have become conduits through which to channel left-wing politics, a leaning this very magazine takes too. We’ve certainly been had by the newer products, based on these politically influenced stories. It does note something 2 famous creations have in common:
From their early days, comic books taught kids about a Manichaean universe in which subterranean, irrational, and irredeemably evil forces continually threatened society’s superficial order. The popular, early detective strip Dick Tracy envisions criminals as creatures from the “lower orders,” such as a “tramp” who flagrantly steals rides on trains (and murders the hard-working guard who tries to stop him). Later they develop into genetically twisted, born-bad mutant-freaks such as Mumbles, Pruneface, Flattop, and the Mole—a rogues’ gallery often referred to as “the Grotesques.” Their collective homicidal methods include stabbing, shooting, immolation, and freezing people to death in refrigerator cars or scalding them in steam baths. To stop these evil-mutant types from taking over the world, Dick Tracy and his square-jawed fellow cops meet force with force, firepower with firepower. And they always, always win. As one newspaper editorial replied to complaints about the violence in Dick Tracy: “The sooner a child finds out what kind of world it is, the better he or she is equipped to get along in it.”
What children “learned” from early crime comics was that people with lots of money were at the endless mercy of people without any. From the time The Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939, his enemies were, like Tracy’s, noted for their disfigurements—such as the Joker, Two-Face, and Clayface. And in a typical story, “crime” was something usually committed by people with nothing, against those with too much—often by means of jewel-thievery and house-breaking, or by robbing banks and trains. In The Batman’s first appearance, Commissioner Gordon enlists Bruce Wayne to investigate the murder of “old Lambert … at his mansion”; and “victims” of the next two issues include both the Van Smiths and the Vander Smiths. The Batman routinely hangs men outside high skyscraper windows or pummels them senseless in order to obtain confessions. No Miranda rights for these creeps. They were born bad and deserved everything they got.
At least that’s an accurate comparison. Both Dick Tracy and Batman boasted a number of grotesques for a rogues’ gallery. Plus, in those days of old, most writers and artists had the audacity to acknowledge criminals from poor backgrounds were capable of committing heinous crimes as much as wealthier ones. And the article does note one more thing about evolution of supervillains:
Comic villains disputed the very idea of “civilization” with Tommy-gun bursts of animated nihilism—memorably dramatized by the Joker’s staccato “HA HA HA”s. Or, like Dr. Doom and Dr. Octopus, by devising diabolical scientific machinery for enslaving the world. As comics “evolved” over the next 50 years, these humanoid but deeply inhumane monsters grew only more irrational, sadistic, and destructive, slaughtering wider and wider swathes of humanity, until eventually the likes of Galactus and Thanos were annihilating thousands, millions, and billions of sentient life forms at a time.
That’s actually a problem by modern standards. Both DC and Marvel are guilty of this troubling approach, where you have villains slaughtering whole colonies of helpless souls, and the Joker’s record is just the icing on the cake. It’s been at least 30 years since they stepped on the gas pedal, making Hank Hall from the Hawk & Dove duo an early example of a hero turned into a lethal villain for shock’s sake, in a company wide crossover, no less, another serious issue with how mainstream comics are managed today. Recalling Hank was cast as the antagonist in a JSA story at the time David Goyer and Geoff Johns were writing the book in the early 2000s, I’m disgusted they basically retained an offensive direction at the time, instead of trying to reverse the damage done circa the Armageddon crossover, worsened by Zero Hour a few years later.
Jeremy Dauber’s American Comics: A History is an entertaining, big, and (sometimes too) comprehensive survey of the comics industry, from its inception in early twentieth-century newspapers to the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe megamovie crossover empire. What quickly grows clear is how adroitly a simple format—sequences of narrative panels, dialog bubbles, and a story line that might take many months, years, or even decades to reach a conclusion—thrived in almost every commercial medium that came along, spreading rapidly to magazines, radio, movie serials, television, film, and games. But despite this facility to span media and cultures, most comic books continued to dispense the same nonsense they started with, depicting a universe in which people are defined by the brute exercise of power. Not to mention the unbelievably exaggerated ways their bodies always seem about to burst out of their Spandex.
I wonder if that’s a clue to some political correctness finding its way into the narrative? I doubt the book’ll be that objective regarding the movie machine either, and what if it doesn’t have anything negative to say about the time Joe Quesada destroyed Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s marriage?
It didn’t have to get so ugly. From the beginning, comics offered many bright alternatives to their own superhero nonsense, with a wide range of pleasing and still unusual comics, such as the surreal and anarchic dream-comedies, Little Nemo in Slumberland and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and later the lush, resplendent marvels of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, a series of panel illustrations thrumming with color and vitality that rivaled only Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon as one of the most beautiful Sunday color strips ever produced.
More to the point, the vision seen in modern times didn’t have to get so ugly, with the increased focus on darkness, as per the Batman movies in particular, along with Zack Snyder’s own approach. Odd they should make it sound like Little Nemo and Prince Valiant were brighter than superhero comics were: even the early Superman stories could offer an optimistic approach, and didn’t convey their narratives at the expense of brightness. There were plenty of superhero-themed tales with a sense of humor to boot in the Golden Age, such as the Flash. The magazine says the following about the Superman creators:
Siegel had understood why young boys were so gripped by these colorful characters in their ridiculous costumes emblazoned with thunderbolts, hourglasses, and American flags—they knew what it felt like to be Clark Kent. But they wanted to imagine being somebody a lot better.
Today’s ideologues who’ve virtually hijacked these creations sure don’t give a damn about American flags, or any flags considered admirable, for that matter. Nor do they offer any appreciation for patriotism and selflessness. All they care about is pushing far-left ideologies down our throats. Captain America is one of the biggest victims of this.
Dauber’s previous books concern Jewish comedy and the work of Sholem Aleichem, so it’s understandable why the early comics industry might attract him. From Harry Hershfield’s long-running Abie the Agent, about a Jewish car salesman who promoted the pleasures of assimilation, comics were, like the Hollywood movie industry, disproportionately owned and operated by young Jewish men—from Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Leiber) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) to Bill (Milton) Finger (Bob Kane’s collaborator on the creation of The Batman, who only received posthumous credit in 2015) and, perhaps most notably of all, Will Eisner, the most visually inventive comic writer, artist, and editor of his generation. Eisner may have best summed up the prevalence of Jewish talent in comics when he said: “There were Jews in this medium because it was a crap medium … it was an easy medium to get into.” Whatever the reason, it’s hard to consider the birth of commercial comic books without recognizing its deep debt to immigrant Jewish culture—a history that would eventually inspire Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000).
Ugh, they just had to bring up an ultra-leftist like Chabon, who didn’t do the medium any favors. Yet this does hint why so many leftist ideologues are getting into comicdom today: it’s easy. The wider press virtually overlooks and legitimizes their repellent tactics, no matter how terribly it hurts the corporate owned creations they prey upon.
Strangely, the fact that comics described an imaginary world presided over by violent masked vigilantes didn’t raise many eyebrows. What finally concerned psychologists and sociologists was the medium’s depictions of two cultural taboos that have always seemed especially worrisome to Americans: sex and death. In the 1950s, the great rogue publisher William Gaines caught the brunt of a crusade led by Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose influential 1954 indictment of comics, The Seduction of the Innocent, argued that superhero and horror comics were leading children “into nightmares, into anxieties, into moral confusion. The influence, however great or small, was never a good one.” He was especially concerned that some “comic panels contained hidden pictures of genitalia, which you could see if you squinted.”
But does modern censorship worry these propagandists? There’s plenty of grisly stuff you could find today putting a massive emphasis on death and destruction, yet not enough on, shall we say, heterosexual love? I just don’t see the point here if there’s no concern over the present. They go on to say about the spread of influence:
In fact, iterations of comic formats have spread so widely that it’s difficult to enter any home or bookstore in the world without encountering them. This has resulted in two qualities of comics that have both frustrated their creative development and intensified their production: Dauber describes these as “continuity exhaustion” and “brand expansionism.” And in today’s mega-conglomerate world, it’s hard to have one without the other.
Today, it’s often hard to pick up and read one without being smashed senseless with propaganda upon the forehead. But they don’t get deep into that, do they? Yet such is the result from how these creations wound up in the clutches of said conglomerates, who themselves long became the playgrounds of ideologues to boot.
Today our century-old comic culture is owned and operated by toy manufacturers and hedge fund billionaires—pretty much the same sort of people who own and operate everything else. And now that they know how to sell us all the same old crap we bought before, they will never stop selling it, and we will never stop buying it. The “eternal return” of comic book culture will continue presenting the “birth” and “rebirth” of the same superheroes until it’s impossible to tell one big “issue number one collectible!” from another.
Umm, by any chance, would the dimly-selling Eternals movie suggest otherwise? How about the laughable sales for monthly pamphlets themselves, many selling far below 100,000 copies a month for many series? It’s gotten to the point where ICV2 doesn’t seem to offer any figures without registering for a paid account on their otherwise worthless site. Oh, and no complaints about corporations ruling over these once-appreciated pastimes with an iron grip? In that case, what a disappointment have we here. Right down to how they don’t seem bothered by repeat relaunches of various mainstream series with a numero uno emblazoned on the cover. That’s another tactic that only provides short-range respite from otherwise dismal sales.
For all its strengths, American Comics: A History often feels more like advocacy for the medium than an analysis of it. Many pages are filled with quick synopses and appraisals of notable comics that came along over the last hundred years, along with reflections on how the once-family-owned companies that invented comics were eventually subsumed by megagiants. At times, reading Dauber’s warm, appreciative comments on everything from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to Moebius’s Heavy Metal feels like strolling through Roger Angell’s essays on baseball, where every game in the sun is entangled with the memory of every other game ever played in a sort of eternal blissful childhood of sunny bleachers and savory, dripping hotdogs.
Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere! In that case, what “strengths” are we talking about here, if it turns out the book’s not objective on how the business was managed in the past, ditto the writing and art? I’m sorry, but if this is the book’s approach, any positive aspects must be considered dubious.
But comics are a more duplicitous and all-devouring game than baseball. They have climbed up out of every venue they conquered and oozed into our shopping plazas and schools, infecting our national conversations and body politic, and even emblazoned themselves across the fuselages of death-dispensing tanks and planes. Comics—the commercial, corporate-owned and multi-commodifiable ones—have affected the way Americans, and other nations, think about America to a degree that may be far more destructive than any ideology. They reinforce the idea that power is the greatest thing we can imagine for ourselves; that the “bad guys” are unregenerate serial predators who need to be locked up so deep they won’t ever be seen again; and that the “best” person wins only if they bring the most weaponry to the game.
*Ahem* that’s ignoring how ideology has affected the mainstream books, and how they’ve become watered down in modern times, except when it comes to far-left ideologies. This is why the comics owned commercially, despite their claims to the contrary, aren’t very impacting anymore. But does the book actually acknowledge any of this? There’s a high chance that’s not the case, and the magazine sure isn’t saying anything on their part about what’s gone wrong with modern output. So what’s the use of these reviews when they won’t take an objective stance and do some meaty research of their own?
Originally published here.