Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America

by Bradford Wright

Published by John Hopkins University Press

352 pages, 2001










Four Color Opera

Reviewed by Emru Townsend


Before I get to discussing Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation, I'd like to say a few words about footnotes. Trust me, it's relevant.

I have to wonder: when exactly did footnotes become so despised? At a guess, I'd say it started around the early 1990s, but I didn't really notice it until a few years ago. Another guess, this time at motivation: in an effort to encourage more of the buying public to approach academic books undaunted, more footnotes have been moved to endnotes. The notes themselves are essential, of course; any work of even casual academia needs references for cross-checking and further research. Moving them to the easily ignored back of the book just makes it more accessible for people put off by countless references to university presses and innumerable "Ibids."

But I respectfully submit that footnotes are essential. A quick glance at my bookshelf reveals two books that would be very different if the footnotes had become endnotes instead: Richard Armour's Twisted Tales of Shakespeare , which uses them in the way Groucho Marx would make his brilliant asides; and, coincidentally, The Riverside Shakespeare, which annotates Will's text with explanations of terms and occasional historical commentary.

See, footnotes are amazing. It's hypertext from before computers. You see the superscripted number and you decide if you want more information or not. A flick of the eyes and you get a quick idea of whether or not the note is worth reading. If you do read it, your eyes then jump right back where you left off, maybe stopping to reorient themselves after making a wrong turn at the second paragraph.

But endnotes -- mother of God, endnotes! -- why should I have to use two bookmarks to keep track of the main prose and the notes? Why, when writers already suffer disproportionately from repetitive strain injury, should I risk further problems by flipping pages back and forth, sometimes five times in as many minutes? What have publishers got against us?

Comic Book Nation (I told you I'd get to it; thanks for waiting) suffers from this problem, and it's excruciating. Wright's examination of comics' relationship with popular culture is meticulously researched, yielding plenty of notes with direct references and suggestions for further reading.

More to the point, the notes are genuinely interesting, enhancing an already enjoyable read. That may partly be because most of the references are comic books, featuring examples of things like bondage imagery in Wonder Woman, goofy Communist villains and black characters in Marvel comics. But there are also some little gems, like this observation about Batman's lack of powers vs. Superman's near-omnipotence:

... it may well be worth noting that [Batman creator] Bob Kane -- unlike [Superman creators] Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- was tall, handsome, and comfortable around women. Kane's own apparent self-confidence might explain his conception of a superhero who did not need superhuman powers. Jules Feiffer, a Superman fan, suspected "the Batman school of having healthier egos." Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes, 27.

Granted, I may like that example because I've always preferred the caped crusader to the Man of Steel, but it also sums up what I like about this book: unlike many previous collisions between pop culture and academia, it's quite readable and even fun. (Anyone who's read Arthur Asa Berger's The Comic-Stripped American, which deconstructed the psychological underpinnings of comic strips, knows about the wasted opportunities I'm alluding to.) Wright sets the tone in his introduction, where he professes his love for the sheer fun of comics and his disdain for overly pedantic pop-culture analyses, referring to them as "bewildering and tedious."

What we do get is an admirable balance between the analytical rigor required of a scholastic text and the easygoing demeanor of someone who acknowledges that he's dissecting a medium that favors grown men in tights whaling the tar out of each other. Comic Book Nation is a history of mainstream comic books -- no Love & Rockets here -- from the birth of Superman to the present, detailing how they've mirrored, been perceived by and been shaped by an American society undergoing its own upheavals.

The book's subtitle, The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, reveals Wright's intended slant, but it wavers here and there. It can't be helped. Like its close cousin animation, the comics medium has been stigmatized, labeled as children's entertainment despite its origins (and continuing potential) as popular entertainment for people of all ages. Unfortunately, comics in America were seen as being solely for children, which ultimately led to them being created mainly for children. Though comics grew up as children became increasingly sophisticated (and the West a little less naïve in general), the label has stuck, leaving Wright to discuss comics as youth culture while mentioning their popularity among GIs and their handling of mature -- as in grown-up, not racy -- subject matter.

Comics buffs, of course, are used to this dichotomy and they should already have a fair idea of how comics have evolved over the years. But even those steeped in four-colour lore should take Comic Book Nation out for a spin; Wright weaves the tales of the industry, artists, consumers and commercial and social realities with such ease and detail -- have I mentioned the copious notes? -- that even the most knowledgeable will enjoy reading about familiar subjects. That's no small feat.

For reasons best explored elsewhere, books on comics and animation often contain enough errors and omissions to infuriate the enlightened. Comic Book Nation isn't completely immune; Wright spends considerable time discussing smalltime player Charlton Comics' war comics while completely glossing over their superhero line which, like Roger Corman's movie outfit, paid its workers almost nothing but served as a proving ground for some of the stars of the business. Some of Charlton's characters went on to stardom as well. In particular, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the Question became especially popular when DC acquired the characters in 1983.

And where is Dark Horse Comics which, like its namesake, briefly occupied the number-two position in comics sales, until then the exclusive domain of Marvel and DC? Though considered an alternative comics publisher, in some ways Dark Horse is even more closely tied to youth culture that either of the Big Two. Its titles include adaptations and spinoffs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alien, Predator and a little thing called Star Wars; it's one of the top distributors of manga (Japanese comics) in North America; and it's given us movies like The Mask.

A more significant omission is Image Comics, formed by superstar artists who were unhappy with the economic realities of Marvel's so-called star system. Their noisy exit and Image's subsequent success had a profound effect on the industry in terms of creators' rights. More important, it helped pave the way to louder, busier, more violent comics featuring overly muscled men with small heads and supermodel-proportioned women in questionable outfits -- comics which make up a fairly popular segment of the field today. Early on Wright briefly discusses comics as an extension of the adolescent power fantasy. If nothing else, Image provides an interesting look into how that fantasy has evolved.

The cognoscenti will likely forgive these lapses, as Wright's best work in the book focuses on Frederic Wertham, whose efforts at protecting youth from the evils of comics take up some 50 of the book's 285 pages. Wertham's story is to comics fans what the Hollywood blacklist is to film buffs; it happened around the same time as the McCarthy-led witch-hunts and aficionados know the story of how Wertham's exaggerations and misleading information indirectly led to the Comics Code Authority and an infantilization of comics which gripped the industry for far too long.

Or rather, we thought we knew the story. Wright painstakingly lays out Wertham's background and previous lobbying efforts, painting an interesting picture of the man. A casual reading of comics history would suggest that Wertham was a McCarthyite, a right-wing censor of all that wasn't wholesome and "American" in values. In truth, he was quite left of center when it came to consumer culture; were he alive today (Wertham died in 1981) he would probably be subscribing to, if not writing for, Adbusters and Utne Reader. In many ways, his arguments echo current thinking about consumer culture and the mass media's effect on self-image. (So much so, I was surprised that Wright didn't link Wertham's thoughts to the portrayals of women's bodies in current comics, especially Image's.)

Ultimately, Wertham comes off as much a tragic figure as a villain in Comic Book Nation. His story serves as a cautionary tale about compromising one's message and unintended consequences (the censorious Comics Code Authority wasn't his idea, nor was he particularly fond of it). The reader is free to draw his own conclusions as to Wertham's ethics and motivations, particularly with the multitude of references cited for further study.

Comic Book Nation could use another 30 pages or so to cover a few of the topics given short shrift (Wright largely ignores, among other things, the rise of chattier superhero books like the 1980s Teen Titans and Jim Starlin's Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock; what could have been an interesting look at the complex characterization of X-Men 's Wolverine is reduced to a simplified right-wing ideology), but overall the book easily deserves a spot on any comics fan's shelf. Non-fans can also thumb through Comic Book Nation and get an idea of where comics have been and hopefully gain an understanding of where they can go from here. And, really, anyone considering reading or writing a book analyzing pop culture should look at Wright's approach to see how it should be done.

But don't forget the footnotes. | December 2001


Emru Townsend would pack up and move to comic book nation faster than you can say "Shazam."